Posted on 19-08-2012
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

The 5 Olympics rings of peace represent 5 continents bonding for a single sporting purpose. It was French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, an educationalist and historian, who revived modern Olympic Games in the 19th century. He designed this 5-interlocking rings logo in 1912. Records say the son of Greek God Zeus founded the Olympics in 776 BC. Greek city-states played every four years for nearly 1200 years until Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished the Games as a pagan practice in 393 CE.

Mulling over why France lost the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, de Coubertin attributed defeat not to military skills but to lack of vigor among French soldiers. After all, he reasoned, why did France have as many as 756,285 total casualties compared to 116,696 from the North German Confederation of Prussia? Looking at the education system that German, British, and American children undergo, he concluded that thrust on sports is what made a well-rounded, energetic person. After several attempts he managed to convince 14 nations to restart the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 with 241 athletes.

Let’s look at Olympics statistics today. Among participating countries since 1896 that continue to be the Top Six in medals won are USA (2652 medals, boycotted 1980 Olympics held in Moscow), Germany (1143 medals, did not participate in 1920, 1924, 1948, 1980), Great Britain (780 medals), France (765 medals) and Italy (656 medals, missed 1904 Olympics) and Sweden (612 medals). Entering from 1952 China has already won Seventh position with 517 medals, without participating in 1956 and 1980 Olympics. Hungary is Eighth (482 medals, missed 1920 and 1984 Olympics) and Australia Ninth with 476 medals. Japan, joined in 1912, has the Tenth position with 435 medals but missed the 1948 and 1980 Olympics.

Like de Coubertin, but for evil purposes, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime placed huge importance on body fitness too as a prerequisite for military service, and promoted as “Aryan” racial superiority and physical prowess.  Hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Hitler wanted to ban Blacks and Jews from the Games. When other countries threatened boycott, he relented. As a token, he allowed half-Jew Helene Mayer to participate from Germany. Hitler camouflaged his violent racist policies against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents and the disabled by removing signs like "Jews not wanted" from the city’s tourist attractions. Berlin was "cleaned up" by arresting and sending all gypsies to the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp. Germany built huge infrastructure like a 100,000-seat stadium and gymnasiums, and installed a closed-circuit television system and radio network that reached 41 countries. With $7 million, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl filmed Olympia on the Games to build a false image of a peaceful Germany. In my 20th century events archive is an American journalist recounting Hitler’s riveting opening ceremony speech at Berlin. The dictator’s commanding sway had people of other nations also raise their hands acknowledging “Heil Hitler” by default. This journalist had to clench his hands in his pocket to control them from rising in salutation to Hitler’s compelling Nazi force. Hitler’s misuse of power is a black mark in the history of the Olympics.

China gives high priority to sports too, along with their ideologies of nationalism and communism. Initially mass sports was endorsed to “build healthy citizens” for national defence, but focus soon shifted to creating well-trained athletes for international games.  The 2008 Beijing Olympics emphasized China’s national rise and international credentials, showcasing its political structure, sports stars and an unparalleled extravaganza. Investing heavily to build a dominant Olympics team, China came second in 2012 with 88 medals (38 gold, 27 silver and 23 bronze), proving that sports equals their economic might.

India won two medals immediately on entering the Olympics in 1900 with lone participant, India-born Englishman Norman Pritchard. He later became a star in Hollywood and New York’s Broadway. From 1920 onwards India participated in all the Olympics. The total medal tally to-date is just 26. Hockey did the country proud from 1928 to 1980 winning 11 medals (8 gold,1 silver and 2 bronze). But since the game switched from grass fields to Astroturf, India’s performance plummeted to becoming last this time, losing every single match. The 15 other medals take care of a century of participation by a 1.2 billion nation. In the just concluded London Olympics, India ranks last in medals per capita as compiled by Robert Metzler, reported in According to India’s Sports Minister, India cannot expect to win more medals when the country has a poor Human Development Index (HDI) and low Per Capita Income. But when it comes to cricket, India is the reigning world champion. So obviously the country can perform, but what’s the problem in performing in Olympics?

Even developing countries like Ethiopia, Jamaica, Kenya and Uganda have achieved outstanding Olympics records. In India’s route to globalization, aside from eliminating poverty and reducing infant mortality, sports can play an important visible role to establish country superiority. Our education follows rote learning for the masses, at least sports can develop individual and team ingenuity in the global arena. The country’s schools, public and village playgrounds are full of budding raw talent. But India still lacks basic sports facilities, equipment, coaches and trainers to develop top-notch athletes. What about the problem of corruption? Several athletes have complained about officials fixing match results, bribing players and referees, selecting national teams based on politics and ethnicity. Most sports administration heads are politicians or bureaucrats whose primary interest is not sports. We saw cost overruns, graft investigations and construction delays even when Delhi hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

The Government has just announced a Rs 500-crore National Institute of Sports Sciences with world-class coaching centres. India wants to rope in private foundations like Olympic Gold Quest and Mittal Champions Trust, the corporate sector as well as sportspersons for management of sports. May we hope for some positive action in future?

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Posted on 12-08-2012
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

“Wow Ma!” appreciation from their children when wearing jeans is a colossal positive stroke for the 35-40-year-old women, especially in low income families. Once the ice is broken, they start enjoying the convenience, cost, smart look and minor intemperance of showing off their figures. This is possible only on parents-in-law’s day out. The husband’s approval is of minor consequence, it’s their children who rule the household roost today.

The cultural difference of being a daughter or daughter-in-law certainly reveals itself when it comes to wearing Western clothes. Even if the sari or salwar-suit dupatta does not cover her head nowadays, a young daughter-in-law cannot stray beyond traditional Indian clothes. When this girl visits her parents’ home she’s indulged like a queen, can wear Western outfits, but her sister-in-law of her same age in that same household cannot do so. This restrictive feeling is perhaps the start of all friction with the in-laws. Older housewives in joint or nuclear families who’ve taken the bold step of wearing jeans and a kurti justify it in economic and productivity terms. “A sari or salwar suit costs about Rs.1200 with time-consuming stitching, including blouse and petticoat, involved. Heavy-duty work in them is cumbersome. Sari maintenance with starching, ironing or dry-cleaning is difficult. Jeans and a top for daily use come within Rs 500, they’re easy to work in and maintain.” When 35+years housewives eulogize Western wear, you can imagine how incredibly the American easy dressing has seeped into Indian culture.

Historically, fashion garments emanated in Western Europe, Americans had no contribution here. Upto the 16th century, Italy dominated art, culture, dressing and luxury amenities, then lost the “la bella figura (beautiful figure)” tradition. From the 17th century, French King Louis XlV introduced fashion in every angle of life, from dress to furniture, luxury accessories to living style. Into this departure of modern fashion entered an Englishman called Charles Frederick Worth in 1846. He started haute couture (high fashion) design in Paris. He presented multiple women’s dress collections, each a one-of-a-kind creation, to please his titled or wealthy customers. Every square inch of a haute couture dress is highly crafted, has outstanding fit, decorative finish, and is influenced by the high fashion style of Queen Marie Antoinette married to King Louis XVI.

France protects the term haute couture by law. To be officially recognized, couture (dress making) houses have to qualify by following rules established by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris since 1945. Transcending from Worth, Parisian haute couture houses that exist today are Chanel and Dior among others. Post the 1960s, young haute couture trained designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier revolutionized the fashion world.

After World War I and 1930s Great Depression, Americans started mass producing easy-wearing, cost-effective, productivity-facilitating garments for daily life convenience. When France was enjoying the lavish La Belle Epoque (beautiful era) style from 1890-1914 with elaborate, sophisticated clothing, the US invented casual dressing. That’s the iconic, rugged, Cowboy-Yankee anti-fashion garment of jeans. Most people don’t know that denim fabric was crafted in Nimes, France, in the 17th century; originally called serge de Nimes. The contemporary term jeans comes from Gênes, the French word for Genoa (Italy) sailors who wore denim workpants. As Americans always respect European culture, de Nimes became synonymous with denim jeans.

Capitalist American culture has proliferated fast food across the world too, from McDonald’s McAloo to Chicken tandoori pizza in India. Hygienic food in air-conditioned atmosphere is affordable to lower income people now. A popular local sandwich-maker in Bangalore sells a minimum Rs.33 sandwich; just opposite, McDonald sells a Rs.25 hamburger. From jeans to McDo, which Indians call McD, these all-American products have broken all class barriers. Rich and poor alike happily absorb the inviting influence of American power. No Communist regime, whether in Lenin or Putin’s Russia or Mao’s China, has been able to invent this globally recognizable culture of affordable dressing and eating for the world’s poor. Nor has Karl Marx’s Das Capital ever given any hint of how to enjoy life once liberated from feudal lords. So is our criticism of US capitalism grounded in reality? Hasn’t the US invented its own brand of socialism, taking care of basic human necessities of inexpensive food and garments? If Karl Marx were living today, how would he recognize America’s McJeans culture, especially as it drives an aspirational “careless fashion” for all classes?

India is bathed in McJeans culture today, neglecting our Father of the Nation’s vision of khadi. No young Indian is trying to emulate Gandhiji’s dressing style, which at that time had served the PR purpose of attracting global attention to his philosophy of non-violence. Without promoting Yankee culture, purely from the historical perspective, I don’t see any ideology, other than McJeans, that’s provided immense value in fulfilling the 2 basic needs of the masses. I’ve never worn a pair of jeans myself, but when I see 6 to 35-year-old Indian men/women with monthly family income of Rs 6000 upto millionaires sporting jeans, I can only admire the global influence of cost-conscious Americans.

Even in a gastronomy connoisseur country like France, when you visit a 5000-populated habitation after 8pm you’ll not get anything to eat. But of course, the yellow neon signage for a hamburger will beckon you unto 11 pm. Driving back from Coorg to Bangalore the other day, we found no hygienic eating joint at odd hours, but soon enough found an American Rs 25 hamburger served in a super ambience.

In the next 15 to 20 years, would our traditional sari, kurti, dupatta, dhoti, khadi, dosa, paubhaji, chole bhatura become rare in India? Will my granddaughter Sreeya at age 22 in 2027 have different choice and price for McJeans in India, better than in her home in London today?

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Posted on 05-08-2012
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Verbal interactions like talk, anger, laughter, lectures were all we had until Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 put the final touch to telephone invention where you don’t see the caller. Suddenly in 1896 Guglielmo Marconi fine-tuned the wireless public radio invention; several scientists had worked on it before him, including JC Bose. This was the birth of another medium where you don’t wait for a response. You speak, and people listen. Of course, means of silent communication had existed earlier like painting, literature and photography invented by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. With silent movies, comics like Charlie Chaplain and Buster Keaton endeared themselves while provocatively passing on powerful messages. Television was the next gigantic invention. Here you too can be an actor just by being a spectator.

After all this came the widespread public use of the Internet since 1991. By itself it’s a flat, passive agent but it can ignite instant, easy global communication for anybody. You can access millions of layers of information, entertainment and do multiple activities here. Micro-blogging site Twitter revealed that 9.66 million tweets were sent within 24 hours for the 2012 London Olympic Games opening ceremony. Realizing this gigantic strength, those who want to convey a global message know they have to use communication techniques to provoke with both language and visuals.

Russia: That’s exactly what Pussy Riot did. Who’s Pussy Riot? A Russian Punk collective of 10 determined women singers formed in September last year. Said Pussy Rioter Serafima to Vice publication, "We realized that this country needs a militant, punk-feminist, street band that will rip through Moscow’s streets and squares, mobilize public energy against the evil crooks of the Putinist junta and enrich the Russian cultural and political opposition.” On 21February 2012 Pussy Riot suddenly took to the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral and performed a mock prayer-song wearing kaleidoscope Punk hairstyle and clothes, begging Virgin Mary to chase Putin out of power. Within 30 seconds they were removed by security guards and thrown into jail, denied bail, their lawyers say they’ve been denied food and sleep. Their trial has started this week. The video footage of this Church episode was put up on the Internet and got them a great deal of support. Tens of thousands of Russians have signed an online petition demanding their release. Amnesty International has taken up the Pussy Riot cause, as have famous musicians like Sting, Peter Gabriel and Anthony Kiedis, among others. As overheard on CNN’s Christian Amanpour TV show, if Pussy Riot was called Feminist Riot, they may not have received this kind of impact. Pussy Rioter Kot said to Vice, "When cops and FSB agents interrogate us and ask, ‘What the hell do these English letters on your banner stand for?’ we usually say something like ‘pussycat rebellion.’ But, of course that’s a brutal lie. In Russia you should never tell the truth to a cop or to any agent of the Putinist regime."

France: If the 1968 Revolution in France had Internet support, imagine the impact that would have had. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, had become active in the women’s liberation movement. In 1971 when abortion was illegal in France, she signed the Manifesto of the 343, a list of famous women who claimed, mostly falsely, to have had an abortion, thereby exposing themselves to criminal prosecution. The women celebrities who signed what was also known as "le manifeste des 343 salopes" or the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts” / Bitches” included film personalities Catherine Deneuve and Delphine Seyrig. France legalized abortion in 1975.

India: An exotic Indian protester is the world’s longest hunger striker. That’s 39-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu called Manipur’s Iron Lady, a poet, civil rights and political activist who’s refused food and water since 2 November 2000 (almost 600 weeks now). She’s under arrest for suicide and force-fed a mixture of liquefied carbohydrates and proteins by a nasal tube three times a day. Her demand is that India’s government repeals the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958 imposed in Manipur to combat a decades-long insurgency. This Act gives police effective immunity from prosecution even after they commit acts of violence like rape, torture and death during custody of innocent civilians. There’s been public outrage when suddenly in 10 July 2004, 32-year-old Manorama was picked up from her home by Assam Rifles soldiers on alleged charges of links with separatist rebels. Then her dead body was found in Imphal with multiple bullet wounds, besides signs of rape and torture. In a highly unusual protest, some 40 women stripped naked and staged an angry demonstration outside the Assam Rifles base to remonstrate her death in custody. Special permits are required for Indians and foreigners to visit Manipur, but alerted by the Internet, there’s been worldwide condemnation of Indian Government for continuing with AFSPA.

Ukraine: An Ukrainian feminist group called Femen also staged a topless protest near London’s Tower Bridge on 2 August 2012. They had ‘No Sharia’ scrawled on their naked chests. They demanded that IOC condemns violence towards women from Islamist countries that apply sharia laws as these governments use the participation of women in Olympic games to hide thousands of victims and dead. Femen said on its Facebook page: “If the IOC keeps flirting with radical Islam, new Olympic disciplines, such as stoning or speed raping will be added to the competition.”

Being static while using the inactive Internet, people have found huge provocation, from visualization to communication, to pass on their messages. If there is juice, provocation and power, the silent passive Internet system will fire up action. This is a total departure of human character, “If you don’t listen to me, I will silently send across my message for the world to judge and respond.”

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