Are major insect losses imperiling life on Earth? – Livemint

are-major-insect-losses-imperiling-life-on-earth?-–-livemint

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Insect declines are being escalated by humanity as soaring population and advanced technology push us closer to overshooting several critical planetary boundaries

Chances are, the works of the world’s insects touch your lips every day. The coffee or tea you savor, both are pollinated by insects. Apples, oranges, cabbages, cashews, cherries, carrots, broccoli, watermelon, garlic, cinnamon, basil, sunflower seeds, almonds, canola oil — all are insect-pollinated. Honey, dyes, even some vaccines require insects to come to fruition.

Vital to the world’s food web, nested in nutrient cycling, and embedded in industries — the closer we look, the more we see insects as vital to maintaining life’s frameworks. Referring to this fact, famed biologist E.O. Wilson wrote in 1987, “[I]f invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt the human species could last more than a few months.”

Which is why the precipitous decline of insects is raising alarms.

Insect populations are being reduced at varying rates across space and time, but on average, the decline in their abundance is thought to be around 1-2% per year, or 10-20% per decade.

“Think of a landowner with a million-dollar house on a river that’s a little bit wild. And they’re losing 10% to 20% of their land every decade, and it’s horrifying. It means that after even a century, you really don’t have anything left,” David Wagner, an entomologist with the University of Connecticut told Mongabay in an interview. That, he says of this comparison, is the danger we now face.

Wagner has just edited a newly released in-depth feature in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Global Decline of Insects in the Anthropocene, in which 56 researchers present scientific studies, opinions and news on insect declines. The journal offers perspectives on the ecological, taxonomic, geographical and sociological dimensions of insect declines, along with suggestions on how we move forward to study and reverse this drain on global biodiversity.

Insect “death by a thousand cuts”

In a perspective piece that leads off the special issue, Wagner and his co-authors address the likely causes of insect decline. The main stressors to insects, they write, are changes in land use (particularly deforestation), agriculture, climate change, nitrification, pollution and introduced species. However, the importance of each stressor and how they interact still puzzles scientists.

“There are so many good scientists that can’t figure out what the cause is,” Wagner said. He poses the well-known honeybee as an example. “I mean, this thing is worth billions upon billions of dollars and we don’t know why it’s having such a hard time. And I think the reason is, it’s death by a thousand cuts… most of these things are hit by four or five pretty important stressors, and they’re acting synergistically.”

The articles that follow that opening essay zero in on the key causes for some of the biggest known losses:

A study by Wagner and Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, concludes that declines in insect biodiversity and biomass are linked to the intensification of agriculture over the past 50 years.

Research by Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs — both biologists from the University of Pennsylvania who describe themselves as “intense observers of caterpillars, their parasites, and their associates” — focuses on climate change as a stressor. Since the late 1970s, they write, they’ve watched as insect declines came to the dry forests, cloud forests, and rainforests of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Conservation Area, as the region was plagued by rising temperatures, increasingly erratic seasons and inconsistent rainfall.

Another study in the special feature, titled, Insects and recent climate change, argues that climate may be playing even more of a role in declines than land-use change — which is massive around the planet mostly due to agribusiness expansion. The authors base their climate findings on a Northern California butterflies case study, where declines were severe even in areas suffering little habitat loss. Similar losses within well-protected areas have been detected in Germany and Puerto Rico.

Insect declines are emblematic of a larger problem: the earth is in the midst of what some call the “sixth mass extinction.” Birds, amphibians, freshwater mussels, large mammals, all have seen dwindling numbers

Likewise, butterfly populations in Europe face challenges. In the UK, butterfly numbers have declined by around 50% over the past 50 years, with 8% of known resident species considered extinct. In the Netherlands, upwards of 20% of species have been lost and in Belgium 29%. Researchers suggest habitat loss, habitat degradation and chemical pollution as the primary causes. The authors offer conservation solutions and recommend policy changes to conserve butterflies and other insects — but so far political will has been lacking.

Moving from the winged creatures of the day to night fliers, Wagner and colleagues give an overview of the global state of moth declines. Moths are extremely diverse and cosmopolitan. “For every butterfly that Mongabay readers see during the daytime, there are 19 species of moths flying around at night,” Wagner revealed.

Although moth numbers have declined in some areas, such as in parts of Europe and Central America, in other, mostly temperate areas, many moth taxa are increasing in abundance. Another study found that the overall abundance of arthropods in the Arctic has increased in recent years. Researchers attribute these increases in insect abundance to climate change, which scientists say has both its species winners and losers. As warmer temperatures march northward, new suitable habitats open up for insects. The consequences of this range expansion — and the conflicts which may occur with plant and insect species already occupying those ranges — have yet to be analysed.

Insect declines are emblematic of a larger problem: the earth is in the midst of what some call the “sixth mass extinction.” Birds, amphibians, freshwater mussels, large mammals, all have seen dwindling numbers. The question for entomologists, Wagner said, is whether or not the decline of insects is actually occurring faster than for some other groups, especially because insects are often the direct target of destruction by human, due to pesticide and herbicide use.

Sarah Cornell, a scientist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), raises an insect-related question relevant to our time: “There might have been many more mass extinctions. It’s just that we only see extinctions with the things that leave a record… things with skeletons… When people [say], ‘we’re entering the sixth mass extinction.’ Okay, well, how do we know that? We might be entering the 17th?… We might make ourselves extinct before we even reach these hallowed glories of the sixth.”

Overshooting planetary boundaries

Clearly, the loss of insect abundance — depending on where and how fast it occurs — could have far more dire, unforeseen impacts than the loss of coffee or cashews. The wholesale transformation of global ecosystems, triggering mass insect declines, could be pushing the Earth past what scientists have dubbed as a “planetary boundary.”

The planetary boundaries framework, postulated by a group of international scientists in 2009, attempts to set the environmental limits within which life can safely function, and asks the question: how much human-caused disturbance can the planet take without shifting into a new and/or riskier state?

According to a 2016 analysis, humanity has passed the “safe” planetary boundary threshold for “biotic intactness” a measure of functional and genetic diversity (biodiversity). Biotic intactness has declined across at least 65% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, the authors say, especially in grasslands and biodiversity hotspots.

“The way that people (that’s us…) are using land is changing the capacity of ecosystems to continue doing their normal functions,” said Cornell, an SRC global change researcher who worked on a 2015 update to the planetary boundaries framework. “This pattern of lost biodiversity is undermining our own longer-term well-being.”

Insect declines will very likely get worse before they get better, Wagner warns, as climate change — a critical planetary boundary — worsens rapidly, and as both human population and human consumption skyrocket, resulting in greater land-use change and increasing pollution — two other planetary boundaries.

Importantly, the Global Decline of Insects in the Anthropocene special feature identifies critical gaps in our knowledge. For starters, we have only scratched the surface of identifying and describing the planet’s existing insect biodiversity. Entomologists are working aggressively to advance our understanding via deep learning and computer vision — using a variety of cameras and sensors — and ambitious initiatives such as a plan to inventory and DNA barcode the entire biota of Costa Rica over the next ten years.

You can help save the world’s insects

The new feature doesn’t only sound the insect alarm, it also offers many suggestions about how to conserve and protect these tiny invertebrates. International, national and corporate policymaking needs to happen, and quickly.

In the final piece, researchers layout, “eight simple actions that individuals can take to save insects from global declines.” One action urges people to convert lawns, or any green outside space, into more diverse natural habitats.

A file photo shows a Monarch butterfly flying to Joe Pye weed, in Freeport, Maine. Monarch butterflies are among well known species that best illustrate insect problems and declines. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

A file photo shows a Monarch butterfly flying to Joe Pye weed, in Freeport, Maine. Monarch butterflies are among well known species that best illustrate insect problems and declines. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The paper recommends growing native plants; using fewer herbicides and pesticides; limiting the use of exterior lighting; lessening runoff created when washing vehicles and buildings; working to counter negative perceptions of insects; educating others about insects; and getting involved in local politics, supporting science, and voting.

“I think if we all did it together… it would make a very big difference,” Akito Kawahara, lead author of the eight simple actions paper told Mongabay. “Even just the lawn thing… taking a little tiny piece of your lawn and converting it to a natural habitat… the impact that a small piece of space can have on the grand scale is enormous.” Butterfly gardens and other such spaces also enrich our lives and offer educational opportunities for awakening natural wonder in children.

“These insect papers, the focus on the small things, is a really delightful return to thinking ecologically,” Cornell told Mongabay. “It’s not all about counting stuff. How many insects? How many extinctions? But rather we need to ask, how is this world changing?”

In a world with unchecked insects declines, the answer may be: more than we dare to imagine.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

  • FIRST PUBLISHED

    31.01.2021
    | 08: 00 AM IST

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As a book commemorating Cipla’s 85-year journey nears publication, Cipla chairman Yusuf K Hamied, the grand old man of Indian pharma, talks about a lifelong mission to make drugs affordable and the need for ‘incremental innovation’

Sitting at his home in Marbella in southern Spain, Yusuf K. Hamied, the 84-year-old chairman of Cipla, one of India’s oldest pharmaceutical companies and a global pharma behemoth, recalls the exact moment when he realised the covid-19 pandemic was serious. “I will go back 20 years, when we had a similar situation with HIV and AIDS. We took up the challenge, but that’s not the story. The story is that there is a journalist called Donald McNeil from The New York Times, and Donald wrote about HIV/AIDS in 2001, after which the whole story erupted. Last year, in the month of February, he wrote an article in The New York Times saying that in his estimation, if covid is not controlled, 20 million people will die. And that really shook me up because I have great faith in what Donald McNeil writes,” says Hamied.

His memory is impeccable—it was indeed in February 2020, when most of the world was oblivious to the threat of the coronavirus, that McNeil warned it could become a global health crisis.

Even at 84, Hamied stays compulsively updated about the global healthcare industry. In fact, later during the interview, when I ask what he does “for fun”, he laughs and says most of his time is spent reading medical and scientific journals. “You have to define the word fun. Fun when you are 15 years old is one thing, fun when you are 30 years old is one thing, and fun when you are 85 years old is another thing. Today, I think fun means good health, a peaceful life and taking an interest in whatever you do. Even today, I might spend four-five hours reading on newer drugs, what’s coming out, what’s not coming out, what can we do in terms of incremental innovation?”

The Cipla chairman is not involved in the day-to-day running of the company: At one point, as we are talking about the drugs Cipla has deployed to treat covid-19, such as Cipremi—a generic version of Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, manufactured and marketed under a voluntary non-exclusive licence—he says I must “ask Umang or Samina more about this”, referring to Cipla CEO Umang Vohra and executive vice-chairperson Samina Hamied, his niece. But it’s clear that Cipla and medicine remain at the core of his existence.

He doesn’t give too many interviews but this is a special time: The company turned 85 last year, and a book that traces the Cipla journey, from the pre-independence era to the present day, is being published a week from now. Caring For Life: The Cipla Story Since 1935, written by veteran Mumbai-based journalist Tulsi Vatsal, is a comprehensive and meticulously researched history of the company founded by Hamied’s father, Khwaja Abdul Hamied, in 1935, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for self-reliance and self-sufficiency and a desire to make affordable drugs available to the country’s poorest citizens—core values that continue to define the company, which has a market cap of over 680 billion today.

“People have been saying, why don’t you write an autobiography? I have said no, my autobiography is Cipla,” says Hamied. “If you write a story on Cipla, it is virtually the family’s story. So de facto, this book is like that autobiography, though I certainly believe that no one individual can do very much, it has to be a team effort. Actually, the book is the brainchild of my brother and his daughter Rumana, they felt we should have a book that tells the story of Cipla. It just so happens that so much of my own story is also woven into it.”

Hamied as a child (Photo: Cipla)

Hamied as a child (Photo: Cipla)

Having graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry from Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1957, followed by a PhD in chemistry, again from Cambridge, Hamied returned to India in the early 1960s and started working at Cipla—as general dogsbody, not a leader-in-waiting. “In the beginning, I remember cleaning the floors in the tablet department also. Actually, it took two years for me to even get employment in Cipla, because I was related to a director. The board of directors was very strict. So for one-and-a-half years, I worked almost as a trainee with no salary, with a PhD degree, cleaning the floors. So what I decided was, I would learn the pharma industry backwards. Nobody will know more about the industry than I do, and that’s exactly what I did. I learnt how to make tablets, I learnt how to make injections…I did just about everything,” he recalls.

When his father died in 1972, Cipla was still “a small baby”, says Hamied, with an yearly turnover of 1.6 crore. Between then and the early 2000s, it grew several hundred times as the Indian pharma industry took off and companies like Cipla gained a global reputation as leading manufacturers of generic drugs and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs).

But the one thing that brought Cipla and its chairman global fame, recognition, and even a certain amount of notoriety, was the war on AIDS in the early noughties. In September 2000, Hamied jolted the European Commission on AIDS during a meeting that was to change the course of global history by telling them that he could break the monopoly of the big pharmaceutical companies that had put AIDS drugs beyond the reach of the people who most needed them, and supply AIDS treatment at less than $1 per day. Suddenly, Hamied was a hero in the war on AIDS, and the man who had made big pharma shake in its boots. “The assumption that AIDS drugs were not for the poor—that they could not afford them and therefore that there was no point even thinking about ways to get people treated—was blown out of the water,” wrote Sarah Boseley in The Guardian in a 2003 profile of Hamied, calling him “generic drugs boss”. “Now, in the post-Hamied era, the genie will not go back in the bottle. The big drug companies have been forced to drop their prices for these new and powerful drugs and offer them to a market they had no interest in developing—the impoverished African states where a whole generation of parents, teachers and workers are dying.”

Although Western media labelled him as something of a renegade—almost a Robin Hood figure in global pharma—Hamied seems reluctant to accept that image today. “We did not break any laws. How are we bad boys then? We abide by the laws of the land. If we had broken any laws, we would have been prosecuted,” he says. But did he enjoy, at some level, being the nemesis of Big Pharma? “No. No. What I did enjoy is the pioneering work that Cipla did. What the Cipla team did, it’s not me, saved the lives of all the people, the 8,000 people that were dying in Africa per day because they could not afford treatment…and today, by the grace of God, over 20 million in Africa alone are being treated for AIDS. It’s a big change, it’s a very big change.”

At the start of his decades-long career, was there ever a moment of doubt about whether this was what he wanted to do? After all, he had followed in his father’s footsteps. “No, my father never forced his children over what they should do. It just happened that I was proficient in chemistry. It wasn’t pushed down my throat. I think that a person should do what he’s best at. I mean, I can’t be a journalist like you, for example,” says Hamied. “I am a very poor writer. You can’t be a chemist. So I am a great believer that water finds its own level, that a person should do what they are best at.”

A young Hamied with his father, Cipla founder Khwaja Abdul Hamied

A young Hamied with his father, Cipla founder Khwaja Abdul Hamied

When a firm is over 85 years old and successful by all measures, as Cipla is, some of the biggest challenges are not the quotidian ones of revenue and profits; they are the larger ones of constant innovation, the fear of stagnation, the creation of a legacy, of finding leaders to take the company into the future. And Hamied knows this. “There are two words that define the pharma industry,” he says. “One is the word monopoly, and the other is the word obsolescence. New drugs have to be produced because the older drugs die. It is one of the few industries where you have to keep on innovating and Cipla, in that sense, has been quite an innovator in introducing newer drugs, right up to 2005.”

Although he doesn’t elaborate, he is referring to the Indian Patents (Amendment) Act of 2005, which led from India’s accession to the World Trade Organisation and signing the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)—legislation that reintroduced a product patent regime in India and limited the ability of Indian pharma companies to produce drugs through reverse engineering.

Despite this setback, “incremental innovation” remains a buzzword with Hamied. He does not believe in reinventing the wheel, but in using existing technologies smartly to deliver the best outcomes to people in an affordable manner. “The pharma industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and we also have to go that route, but what India also requires is what I call appropriate technology, technology that is suited to our country and our needs, and which is summed up in two words: incremental innovation,” says Hamied. He adds: “How do you repurpose drugs? How do you reposition them? I will give you an example—there is a drug called ivermectin, it was used to treat parasite infections, and now it is being used for treating covid. That’s called repurposing and repositioning, and this is the area in which India could take a lead. I am not saying we halt innovation, but we are better off today with incremental innovation rather than concept innovation.”

As we begin to wrap up the interview, with prods from the public relations team to steer the discussion towards the Cipla book, Hamied says: “People ask me about my success stories, but no one asks me about my failures. Would you like to know? It is family planning. I thought, in 1960, that India should take the lead in family planning. And we started producing family planning drugs, but it was a big failure, I won’t hesitate to say it was a big failure. And even today, I hold that what India requires is population control on an urgent, war footing.”

The PR team is getting restive, we are about to sign off, goodbyes have been said, Hamied has turned towards someone in the house in Marbella to confirm that they are going out for lunch, the view outside the window (he turns the laptop screen towards his balcony) has been admired, and we are about to hit “leave” on the Zoom screen.

And then Hamied says, “Ask me one more question.”

  • FIRST PUBLISHED

    29.01.2021
    | 07: 00 AM IST

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Apparently, low-cost lightbulbs will resolve the financial woes of an industry that promised to tackle world hunger

By Bloomberg

LAST UPDATED
27.01.2021  |  06: 22 AM IST

Abu Dhabi’s giant Yas Mall isn’t the most obvious location for embracing nature. The sprawling complex, which houses a 20-screen cinema, leads to a Ferrari-themed amusement park.

At its heart is the Carrefour hypermarket. There’s no natural light or soil, yet floor-to-ceiling shelves offer shoppers herbs and microgreens grown right in the store. The fresh produce is a rare sight in the United Arab Emirates, which is almost all desert and imports 80% of its food. It’s marketed as a healthy way for customers to reduce the carbon emissions that would be generated transporting their groceries. 

More than a decade ago, microbiologist Dickson Despommier floated the idea that nations with little arable land like the UAE could become self-reliant by growing food in skyscrapers with perfectly optimized artificial light and heat. He called it vertical farming and argued that it could reduce world hunger and restore forests depleted by commercialized agriculture. It would also eliminate planet-warming emissions caused by plowing fields, weeding and harvesting, as well as transportation.

In the years since, millions of dollars have poured into companies trying to make Despommier’s idea a reality. Agriculture and forestry account for about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases, while the hunt for new farming land to feed a growing global population has exacerbated deforestation. The prospect of solving both problems has enticed all sorts of investors, from tech entrepreneurs to restaurateurs and industry giants like Walmart Inc.

A record $754 million of venture capital was invested in the industry in the first three quarters of 2020, according to PitchBook data, a 34% increase from the whole of 2019.  It’s drawn particular interest in Singapore and the UAE, whose governments have set goals to increase their national food production. 

But vertical farming will have to get a lot cheaper to deliver on its lofty aspirations. While it frees up arable land and uses 95% less water, creating the ideal conditions for growing plants ends up consuming much more energy than traditional methods. Lights need to run for 12 to 16 hours a day and heating must be used in the winter. Miguel Povedano, chief commercial officer at Majid Al Futtaim Retail, which runs the Carrefour franchise across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, says vertical farms cost 20% to 30% more than traditional ones. 

Investors may not be able to live up to the hype they’ve created around the industry, and see their bubble burst before they have a chance to prove themselves, says Michael Dent, an analyst at IDTechEx. “If people are expecting world changing progress and they don’t see it in the first two or three years — and what they see is high quality salad — there’s a chance they might pull out their investment on the field and move on to the next thing.” 

His analysis shows that most vertical farmers focus on herbs and salad greens because of their rapid and simple crop cycles. Microgreens in particular are popular with consumers concerned with healthy eating, rather than in deprived areas. They’re also more likely to grow herbs like cannabis than higher-calorific squashes or melons, which need more energy and water.

Rather than feeding the world’s poor with high-calorific foods, the microgreens and herbs grown by indoor farms are only going to be an option for the world’s wealthy elite for many years to come. Vertically farmed produce is far more expensive than conventionally farmed goods and even most organic produce, Dent found. For example, New York-based Bowery Farming’s indoor-produced kale mix is almost three times more expensive per pound than Whole Foods Market’s baby kale option, and its cilantro is more than five times more expensive than its Whole Food’s equivalent.

Emerald Technology Ventures investor Gina Domanig says she’s more interested in backing technologies that can reduce energy costs than the farms themselves. She compares indoor farming to desalination technology — the process of removing salt from seawater to provide fresh drinking water to people in water-stressed countries such as Israel.

“When desalination came out, everybody said it’s the holy grail for freshwater,” she says. “But desalination is really energy intensive.” Vertical farming “might be an interesting thing” if there are technologies to make it less energy intensive, she says, but right now “it’s not economic or environmentally sound in all areas.”

One option to cut costs is solar power, which has become the cheapest source of electricity in many parts of the world. In Germany, &ever — formerly called Farmers Cut — has developed a combination of solar power plants and batteries so it pays less for power than it would connecting to the country’s grid, says Chief Executive Officer Henner Schwarz. The cost of storing energy can be as low as 10 or 11 euro cents per kilowatt in Germany. 

“The energy issue is the key thing you need to crack,” he says. “We’re not claiming we can do carrots or watermelons any time soon at competitive prices, because it’s just not possible.”

In Abu Dhabi, Carrefour is trying to find a lightbulb supplier who can reduce its power use by as much as 65%, according to Povedano. “The kilowatts consumed in electricity is the major handicap,” he says. “It’s not only what you, as a company, want to do. It’s how you get the customer to substitute imported products for this technology, and the key is that it needs to be really affordable in terms of price.’’

  • FIRST PUBLISHED

    27.01.2021
    | 08: 30 AM IST

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Lower body fitness is essential for ease of movement and stability. Here are three great workouts that will get you ripped

The three large glute muscles that make up our butt, are essential for any athletic activity that you can think of. Whether you’re jumping or climbing or bending, the glutes regulate and balance most movements. If your core muscles are the foundation for your fitness, strong glutes and leg muscles provide the support structure that you can’t do without.

I realised their importance thanks to my love for trekking. When you’re walking up or down steep inclines for up to 6-7 hours a day for days on end, the importance of strong legs really become very apparent. At the end of each day’s walk, while setting up camp, I started to identify specific parts of my body which hurt the most. These were invariably my glutes and my legs, since they had done the bulk of the heavy lifting and balancing through the day. Once I figured out the functional necessity of strengthening these muscles, I began taking lower body workouts very seriously.

My thigh and calf muscles, as they developed over time, started giving better protection to vulnerable joints like the knees and the ankles. Not only did this mean that I would get tired less easily, stronger muscles also meant that I was more confident in my movements, and my balance improved in leaps and bounds.

When it comes to training, I’ve found that people often tend to ignore the all important ‘leg day’. My guess is that this is because lower body gains are less conducive to satisfying one’s vanity, unlike, say, chest or core gains. But then again, even from the perspective of pure vanity, there’s nothing appealing about a flat butt, or weak thighs! Ultimately, your fitness hinges on maximising gains for your entire body, depending on the kind of sport that you’d like to play or the kinds of movements that you’d like to execute. And finally, it’s also true that the stronger your glutes and legs are, the less chance you have of suffering from lower back pain, especially as you grow older.

So, with that, let’s get straight into the exercises. There are three lower body workouts that we have today, one without any equipment, and two with a pair of dumbbells. All three can be done at home.

The first workout, from BullyJuice, is a 30-minute, no-equipment workout which is intense, but easy to execute. The workout includes three types of squat exercises, dynamic moves like lunges, frog hops and bunny hops. I’ve found this to be a great set for beginners.

The second workout, from The Body Coach, is a simple and moderately intense set for which you need a pair of dumbbells. Many of the moves are the same as the ones in the previous workout, but with the added resistance provided by the weights. It takes about 15 minutes to go through the reps, and they include squats, lunges, and a step up routine. Again, this a great workout if you’re just getting into leg training with weights.

The final workout, from Athlean-X, is a more detailed set which targets some specific moves, including those meant for strength like reverse lunges; for hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth)like the Bulgarian split squat; for power, like dumbbell jump squat; for full body movement, like the squat; and also moves for better metabolic health, and a corrective exercise. Again, you don’t need anything more than a pair of dumbbells for this workout.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED

    29.01.2021
    | 10: 00 AM IST

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A new book by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal on the first modern poet of Bengal seeks to reinvigorate interest in the troubled genius who never got his due

“The idea of Ravana elevates and kindles my imagination; he was a grand fellow,” wrote Michael Madhusudan Dutt to his friend Raj Narain Basu in 1861. In the same letter, the poet and dramatist calls himself an “industrious dog” for having finished, in just one and a half years, what the scholar William Radice calls “the only true classic of Bengali literature.”

In his free-verse epic Meghnadbadh Kabya, Dutt upturned the Hindu hierarchy by focusing on a rakshasa—the unfair slaying of Raavan’s son Meghnad by Lakshman—rather than a God. Its genius is something even Rabindranath Tagore, who came three decades after Dutt, grudgingly recognized as something he would never be able to do.

In another letter to his friend Gourdas Basak, Dutt wrote, “In matters literary, old boy, I’m too proud to stand before the world in borrowed clothes.” It’s a line that reveals the polyglot in all his fanciful glory. And it is letters such as these that lend voice to a new book by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal on Dutt. Betrayed By Hope: A play on the life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt is a contemporary look at the life of one of 19th century India’s most tragic literary figures.

Born as the only child of privileged parents, Dutt studied Latin, Greek and English at Kolkata’s Hindu College where he was encouraged by his professors to emulate the Romantics in their pursuit of the Ideal. For him, this also led to rejecting Hinduism and converting to Christianity, which led to his father disowning him. Despite a hard life, often spent in bouts of severe financial difficulty between Kolkata, Madras, London and Paris, his literary output remained constant until 1873. Dutt may have adopted Christ and Western attire but he repeatedly faced racial discrimination. Even in death, the riddle of his identity continued. The Anglican church to which he had converted opposed his funeral and burial.

A European by education but a Bengali in his heart, Dutt battled a lifelong crisis of identity. When he finally found his métier in his mother tongue, he experimented with a variety of forms, including Petrarchan sonnets. He was a true polyglot with a command over Bangla, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian, Tamil, Telugu, Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian and English. But his genius was perpetually mired with a certain tendency to self-destruct. Perhaps the greatest revealing moment is that when he finally does achieve the literary recognition and success he so craved with Meghnadbadh Kabya in 1861, he decides to leave for London to become India’s first barrister. Given his luck, he succeeded in becoming only the third.

It is these complexities that drew Gokhale and Lal, who have more than fifteen books each to their credit. Betrayed By Hope is their third book together. The pair spoke to me about their fascination with Dutt’s life, his tragic legacy and why his works need to be translated to more languages. Edited excerpts:

Betrayed By Hope: By Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, HarperCollins India, 136 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.” data-img=”https://foxandhenhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/echo/Book_Cover_1611920789025.jpg”></img>
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                                            Betrayed By Hope: By Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, HarperCollins India, 136 pages,  <span>₹</span>399.<br />
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<p><strong>‘Betrayed By Hope’ is a culmination of more than 15 years of engagement. Tell me how both of you got drawn to the subject.</strong></p>
<p>Namita Gokhale: In 2004, I reviewed two books on Michael by the Bangladeshi scholar Ghulam Murshid: a biography <em>Lured By Hope</em> and another book based on his letters, <em>The Heart of a Rebel Poet</em>. Something about the structure of the letters naturally formed a five-act play. But it didn’t quite come together till Malashri and I got talking.</p>
<p>Malashri Lal: I wrote a review of William Radice’s translation of <em>Meghnadbadh Kabya</em> in 2011. It had an introductory essay in which Radice outlined how underappreciated he was in his time. There was always a rebel figure fascination with Michael Madhusudan Dutt but other than <em>Meghnadbadh Kabya</em> people really don’t know much about the man.</p>
<p><strong>Why did you choose to go with the structure of a play based on his letters? Was the narrator, a young Bangladeshi research scholar, meant to be a stand-in for the two of you?</strong></p>
<p>ML: I find the epistolary mode very fascinating because authors don’t write that with an audience in mind. There is an honesty and self-reflection that comes out of such letters. We introduced the narrator because we needed someone to intervene, comment and analyse. It had to have a structure that was dialogic.</p>
<p>NG: I was drawn to the letters because it’s Dutt speaking so it’s not us being presumptuous. About the ambivalent narrator, I think she gives the book its edge because she provides perspective. Otherwise, how do you handle such a vast canvas?</p>
<p><strong>One of your early titles was ‘Byron in Calcutta’. Michael’s persona also reminds me of Mozart and Shelley—in the way they tried to balance prodigious outputs with social needs. What other artists did you find to be similar in temperament?</strong></p>
<p>ML: In Michael’s letters, there are references to Milton and Shakespeare. Milton, quite obviously, because he too was going against the grain of established religion. He created the magnificent character of Satan in <em>Paradise Lost</em>. Michael borrowed a lot from Milton from the point of view of poetic structure. Also Shakespeare because of the ability with which they both created convincing characters quite unrelated to themselves.</p>
<p><strong>Both of you have engaged with feminist texts through your careers. At one point, as your narrator points out, Dutt “moves out of the arena of the male gaze”. Do you believe he had a genuine shift or was it part of his larger goal to take a subversive approach to Hindu epics? In his personal life, he wasn’t known to be very sympathetic to women.</strong></p>
<p>NG: As a novelist, I have no bias or beliefs. I look at people as they are. I have been amused and observant about Michael but it is not in me to be judgmental about his life choices. I’ve always been drawn by his tragic failure. I don’t know whether he had secret sympathy with the women in his texts or if he was being textbook subversive.</p>
<p>ML: It’s difficult to say whether he had feminist sympathies or not but we must remember that he was living at a time when the social reform movement in Bengal was at its height. Things like the Widows’ Remarriage act etc in which reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar had an important role to play. Michael was drawn to these social changes. He wrote journalistic and socially oriented pieces. Two very strong ones in particular, <em>Ekei Ki Bole Sabhyata</em> (1860) and <em>Buro Shaliker Ghare Ron</em> (1860), were criticisms of conservative society. It’s important to note that in <em>Meghnadbadh Kabya</em>, he created the character of Meghnad’s wife, Promila. Later he wrote women-oriented plays such as <em>Sermista</em> (1859) and <em>Krishnakumari</em> (1860). He also did a whole series called <em>Virangana Kabya</em> (1861), focused on women who are brave but not given their due.</p>
<p>It’s true that his marriage with his first wife was not legally annulled. He left his second partner Henrietta in Versailles when he returned to Kolkata but he’s written in his letters that he did that because he believed his children would have a better education in Europe.</p>
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Malashri Lal

Do you have misgivings about the fact that Dutt’s tumultuous life precedes all discussions of his work?

ML: This book was written not at an academic level alone but with deep emotional sympathy. We hope that is visible in the final act. Letters can take you only so far but the final act is in his voice (Who am I? Am I but the accumulation of my failures and my regrets?). It is a biographical approach but what was important was a postcolonial approach and that’s where the Bangladeshi PhD scholar’s perspective takes us.

Michael was shaken by the words of the Anglo-Indian educationist JED Bethune who told him that he might “employ his time to better advantage than writing English poetry”. It was Bethune who suggested he write in Bangla. And Michael had to actually teach himself Bangla in a literary way. He developed a post-colonial identity. That is the real story of Michael. A return to his mother tongue.

It seems to me that there is a great deal of attraction for the power of his writing and some amount of disdain almost for the kind of life that he led. He need not have died a pauper. He inherited a good legacy, he need not have put his family through the grueling conditions that he did. My fascination with Michael is this duality: the brilliance of his writing on one hand and then one is completely exasperated by his private life.

NG: He did have a strong instinct towards self-destruction.

A writer is also a persona, a construct that is shown to the public. Tagore was a very distinct persona. He used to wear those long coats, that beard… everything in life came together to say “great man, great writer”. In Michael, here was a man who was just so caught up in his own despair that he was unable to project anything. He was never very likable except to his closest friends, though towards the end the Bangla literary community did love him and accept him. There were 1,000 people for his funeral drawn from the literati of the city. What he represented meant something to them. But as time passed, he became more the emblem of the dissolute.

His genius needs to be appreciated beyond Bengal. It is our hope that this play will be performed widely. There need to be more translations of Michael’s works.

Namita Gokhale

Namita Gokhale

William Radice assertively says that Dutt has given Bangla its only true classic, a fact that Tagore recognized. Do you believe one has been celebrated at the cost of the other?

ML: When we are talking about the legacy of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Tagore is bound to come up. Tagore’s initial response to Michael was not very favourable but he changed his mind later. He gave him credit for being an experimenter. Some of this is an attribute of the kind of Bangla they were using. Michael’s Bangla is rather archaic when we look at it now. It is not accessible. Whereas, Tagore one can read with easy fluency even now.

Besides, there’s the aspect of their personalities. Michael was a known contrarian. Tagore was an institution builder with family and friends and an artistic community in Santiniketan.

I was surprised he did not translate his work himself, as Tagore did.

NG: He did not have the publishing apparatus. He had to push his friends to buy copies of his work even in Bengali. There was no room for translations. Besides, in terms of personality, I don’t think he had the patience to sit and translate either!

Do you believe that he saw something of himself in his magnum opus, in the tragedy of the slaying of Raavan’s son Meghnad?

NG: For me, he is certainly a shadow self there. That Promethean impulse was always there in him, like when he said, “I shall come out like a tremendous comet.”

ML: I see Michael in the moods of Meghnadbadh Kabya in the sense that Michael had a very inquiring mind. This is a mind that is constantly looking into notions of justice and injustice, of good and evil. He was not ready to accept the given counters of those moral categories. It is with that questioning that he wrote his magnum opus.

Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.

@aninditaghose

  • LAST UPDATED

    31.01.2021
    | 08: 26 AM IST

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The family memoir looks at the evolution of Indian theatre and art from the 1940s-90s through the lens of Alkazi-Padamsee family ties

“English theatre in Bombay was born on my grandmother’s horseshoe-shaped dining table in 1943. Literally. A group of young college students, among them my father, Ebrahim Alkazi, listened wide-eyed as my uncle, Sultan Padamsee, spoke of how they intended to form their own group, simply called the Theatre Group.” This is how Feisal Alkazi starts his book Enter Stage Right, published by Speaking Tiger. The memoir looks at the evolution of Indian theatre and art from the 1940s to the 1990s through the lens of Alkazi-Padamsee family ties. Alkazi has likened writing this book to opening an old cupboard filled with memories, with some familiar and easy to recount, while others, hidden at the back, reveal secrets he never knew.

The roots of Enter Stage Right were sown at a Diwali party hosted by author Paro Anand in 2018, when Renuka Chatterjee of Speaking Tiger suggested he write a family memoir. “I was gobsmacked by the idea,” he reminisces. But his wife felt it was a great idea, for Alkazi was always full of anecdotes about his family. And when he actually sat down to write the initial chapters, he was surprised at just how effortlessly the story was coming together.

“In 2019, when I had written a fair bit, I felt I needed to make a trip to Mumbai to spend time with my cousins. One of them, Ayesha Sayani, gave me open access to the long video interviews she had done with my mother, Roshen, aunt Candy, uncle Alyque (Padamsee) and family friends like Gerson da Cunha,” he says.

Ebrahim and Roshen on their wedding day, October 1946. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives

Ebrahim and Roshen on their wedding day, October 1946. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives

Alkazi finished the book in early 2020 but the pandemic delayed publication. In August, when his father—the doyen of Indian theatre, Ebrahim Alkazi—died, he added an epilogue. “Everyone in my family was a raconteur. One got to hear so many stories. Even if some of them took place before I was born, one tended to believe you had lived through them all,” says Alkazi. “And not much has been written about Bombay theatre between the 1940s and 1980s—decades which were crucial to the development of Indian theatre. While my father’s days at the National School of Drama (NSD) are well-known, not many know of how he got there, and of the Padamsees’ influence on him.”

One of the most significant figures in this context is Sultan, or Bobby, Padamsee, one of Ebrahim Alkazi’s closest friends, to whom the author dedicates the first few chapters of the book. In fact, it was while Padamsee’s infamous production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome was embroiled in controversy, for being too “salacious”, that his younger sister, Roshen, met Ebrahim. The two married years later, bringing together the Alkazi and Padamsee families.

'Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee family memoir' By Feisal Alkazi, published by Speaking Tiger

‘Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi/Padamsee family memoir’ By Feisal Alkazi, published by Speaking Tiger

Bobby is seen as pivotal to the evolution of English theatre in India. He had been at Christ Church College, Oxford, for just six months when World War II broke out and he had to return to India, which was in the midst of its quest for independence. In search of his own identity, Bobby turned to painting, poetry and theatre. “It was April 1942, and Bobby was nineteen years old. In the next three and a half years he lived the most intensely creative period possible for an artist. He wrote more than a hundred poems…he turned out artworks in watercolours, oils and crayons, and his biggest achievement was founding the Theatre Group, bringing a new meaning to theatre, by making it an integral part of our contemporary lives,” writes Alkazi.

That period was a watershed one for Indian theatre, with new sensibilities being ushered in for a new audience. Marathi theatre had just celebrated its centenary, and continued in its vibrant tradition. The early years of the 1940s also saw the establishment of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) in both Calcutta and Bombay, with plays imbued with nationalistic fervour, dealing with issues such as the Bengal famine.This was about the time Prithviraj Kapoor’s travelling theatre company was presenting plays on social themes such as the need for communal harmony. And in 1943, Unity Theatre, headed by Utpal Dutt, was formed, moving from Shakespearean dramas in English to the plight of coal miners.

Alyque Padamsee in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives

Alyque Padamsee in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’. Photo: courtesy Alkazi Theatre Archives

Alkazi alludes to all these movements in his book, offering context to the genesis of the Theatre Group founded by Bobby Padamsee, who wanted to bring part of the New York ‘Group Theatre’ movement of the 1930s to Mumbai—to give a voice to playwrights and actors who were shut out of commercial theatre. He managed to do this, with a group of theatre lovers like Ebrahim, until his death on 9 January 1946.

In the subsequent chapters, Alkazi goes on to talk about his father’s visit to England, soon after Bobby’s death, where he frequented places like Dartington Hall (which focused on the arts, social justice and sustainability) and interacted with personalities in the theatre and arts such as American theatre critic Harold Clurman and Michael Chekhov, a noted follower of the Stanislavski method. This would have a far-reaching impact on his own productions as he took theatre out of the proscenium. The book also sheds light on the rift in the Theatre Group in 1952, when Ebrahim broke away, set up his own theatre company and moved to Delhi to head the NSD in 1962.

The aspects that really touch a chord in Enter Stage Right, though, are the stories of the strong women in Alkazi’s life—whether it was his maternal grandmother, Kulsumbai, mother Roshen, or aunt Pearl Padamsee. Each of these women stands out for her courage in breaking the rules. Kulsumbai, after whom the family home in Mumbai, Kulsum Terrace, is named, grew up in a village in Saurashtra.

“Even though she didn’t know English, she undertook a long journey to England for her children’s education. The boys were put in one school and the girls in the other, and she stayed in the middle in a village touching Sherwood forest for some time before coming back to India,” says Alkazi.

Later, when the world was on the cusp of World War II, and ships were getting torpedoed, she journeyed to England to bring Bobby back home from Oxford. “She was a very gutsy woman, someone who wanted to make sure that her children’s stories would be different from hers. Her sisters were not like her and were happy to live a circumscribed life,” says Alkazi.

His mother, Roshen, too learnt to live life on her own terms. He terms her work on costumes for her brother’s and husband’s productions—from the age of 17 to 77—and on costume history, as formidable. Working with her in the back rooms of museums in Russia and Turkey was an enriching experience. Alkazi writes of the time she packed her bags and moved with her two children to Chennai to learn Bharatanatyam under the tutelage of Balasaraswati. “After her separation with my father (in 1963), my mother embarked on an independent career in the arts. She was a published poet, an art critic and a historian—as much a renaissance person as my father,” he says.

The book has an entire chapter dedicated to Pearl Padamsee, who was married to his uncle Alyque, though they later separated. He describes her as a person with a vibrant personality, “tiny in height but gigantic in talent”, someone who nurtured an entire generation of artists. A deeply caring person, she would regale Alkazi with stories and songs, send letters packed with news, becoming more than an aunt to them—a close friend. “Both my mother and Pearl were married to formidable figures, and yet they held their own ground. A lot of my work as a gender activist comes from my mother’s life, the choices she made and the readiness to take in the consequences head on,” he says.

Through the book, one sees Alkazi growing up in a vibrant environment, filled with art, theatre and literature. He writes about evenings in the 1950swhen his parents would host the likes of dance choreographer Merce Cunningham and musician John Cage at their home in Vithal Court, Mumbai. Or breakfasts with poet-playwright Nissim Ezekiel, and watching M.F. Husain and members of the Progressive Artists’ Group at work. The house doubled up as his father’s workspace, with the children completely involved in all his activities. “It was always such an adda, and we grew up around the art and theatre community. My friends, Ram Rahman or Malati Khanna, were children of artists. Every house was a studio, and we took it all in,” he says.

People often describe his childhood as “unusual”, but it was the only way of life Alkazi knew. And he imbibed his family’s priorities, of buying a Tyeb Mehta painting or prioritising spending on a book or a concert. In fact, the book seems to close on the end of an era of intense creativity, with a new discourse marking the beginning of an independent India, and the figures that shaped this period of optimism.

It is only apt that Enter Stage Right concludes at the very same table at Kulsum Terrace it started with. “My father was the last survivor of those who had gathered at the horseshoe-shaped dining table seventy-seven years earlier to establish the Theatre Group,” writes Alkazi. “With his going an age has ended forever.”

  • FIRST PUBLISHED

    31.01.2021
    | 09: 30 AM IST

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