Painting the town red, green, yellow and every other colour

It is habba (festival) time in Bengaluru, with our city celebrating Neralu, the festival of trees. I got this opportunity to write about my experiences at Neralu for Citizen Matters. Thank you CM! Here is the link:

I am posting the contents of the article here.


It is that time of the year when some fellow Bengalureans will together paint the town red. Or yellow, purple, orange, pink, violet; name it and you’ll see the colour. Those Bengalureans are our beloved trees, getting into bloom, making namma Bengaluru look vibrant and pretty.

It was a nippy and chirpy Saturday morning, with the White-cheeked Barbets calling tirelessly. Being a ‘true South Indian’, I had to complete my ritual of one cup of strong filter coffee, even at the risk of getting late. I still managed to reach in time for Neralu’s opening activity, Katte Parichaya by Kiran Keswani and team at Doddamavalli Katte. If you thought this city doesn’t wake up early on weekends, you should have been there to see the crowd gathered in front of the Ashwath Katte, intently listening.

_46A2651Kiran and team spoke about Katte and the trees (that sounds a bit like ‘Swami and friends’, doesn’t it?), sharing interesting stories and facts, such as the Hindu divine trinity, paganism, the innumerable uses of the Peepal tree, community space, and even the ‘marriage’ between Peepal and Neem! Tree lovers gushed with pride, pointing to the crowd to crane their necks and have a look at the Mahua tree standing tall next to the Bisilu Maramma shrine. I smiled at the canopy, at the green leaves fluttering against the pleasant blue background.


Business was as usual at the santhe, but this time, with a difference, because the vendors and customers had lent one of their ears to Neralu. The Parichaya was an interactive session, with many experiences exchanged, from Kattes in different parts of the country and ‘somari (lazy) Kattes’ to college Kattes.  It took me back to my school days, when we, siblings, had to gather the fallen twigs of the Arali mara (Peepal) once a year, for one of the rituals at home. For the twig-gathering, we would visit three Kattes nearby, the ones near Dodda Ganesha temple, Bull Temple and Mallikarjuna Swamy temple.

The Neralu team had made these colourful Katte postcards to be posted to friends and family, inviting them to Neralu. What a lovely concept! Kids rushed to write on their cards and post them in the cute little Neralu letter box.

This old lady, frail and beautiful, picked up a card and examined it for a long while. Could she send it to someone? Did she keep it for herself? I’ll probably never know, but I’ll cherish the memory; that she had a Neralu card with her.


I grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out to National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). It was so open, so inviting, and so green. It was indeed festival time! There were maps to guide us to different ‘in-tree-esting’ activities, and friendly volunteers were running around, just like busy ants on trees. I even got my wrist stamped with Neralu.

The first floor had me soaked with information and titbits, as I walked in awe, looking at the selections from a larger exhibition on the lesser-known flora and fauna of the Western Ghats. Sigh, I wish I had at least nine lives to see all of those in person. My family and I walked over to the photo project. Over 40 photographs were on display, each telling a different, lovely, picturesque story about trees. One of the photographs was mine and Rana’s. I quietly danced a little jig! 🙂

My next morning was again a Neralu morning at MN Krishna Rao Park. The Kaleido group ran around the park, announcing “Banniri banniri, natakava nODiri”, inviting everyone to watch their play. The artists clad in red and black entertained the crowd, with witty dialogues and thought-provoking concepts. We didn’t need a laughter club that day to laugh out loud! I felt my eyes going moist when the artist said he moved out of Bendaluru to Neraluru. With my garden city boiling and baking, the name Bendaluru hurt.
pic_article_Neralu_Sugandhi__4_The crowd split into two groups for the tree walks. I joined the one led by Narayan. He made it very interesting, sharing stories from his grandparents, and asking us to name the trees based on what we felt, telling us how to differentiate between the Teak and Kanaka Champa. He took us to the Mast tree and asked, “Which tree is this?” Pat came the answer, “Asoka”. He asked, “Do you think Sita would’ve had any shade under this tree?” Now, that question made sure that nobody from his audience will ever mistake the Mast tree for the Asoka!


I had to excuse myself at this point, for I had to run to one of my favourite Neralu activities – Yoga under trees. The instructor, Namrata Sudhindra, was brilliant. She taught us asana after asana, without a break, and I didn’t realize how time flew. It was peaceful under the shade of the trees, and as she promised, I can still feel the energy flowing through me. [Image courtesy: Sudarshan Gadadhar]


One of the vendors at the Katte Santhe

Unless we know about trees, we will never learn to respect or treasure them. We need to celebrate trees and our natural heritage. Neralu is becoming addictive, a habba that we all look forward to. This is the second year in succession that Bengaluru is celebrating trees. Here’s kudos to the team bringing this festival to us. Do catch the rest of the Neralu activities on February 14th.


The art of bark

_MG_5512Look at the bark of a redwood, and you see moss. If you peer beneath the bits and pieces of the moss, you’ll see toads, small insects, a whole host of life that prospers in that miniature environment. A lumberman will look at a forest and see so many board feet of lumber. I see a living city. — Sylvia Earle

Meet the female Ornamental Tree Trunk Spider, one of many such residents of a living city. You can easily miss this little beauty, which can be well camouflaged against the bark it rests on. Interestingly, the “living city” is a bunch of dead cells! The outer bark is the layer protecting the inner tissues and the living parts within a tree.

Hatched eggs on the bark of a tree

Every bark is so different from the other. For example, the rough texture of the Crocodile Bark tree (Saaj or Matti or Sadar) is helping the Monitor Lizard stay put.

I had once gocrocodileBarkne on a survey inside the forest along with a guide who is a Jenu Kuruba tribal and an expert on trees. He told me how the Matti stores water inside and how they would collect it, to quench their thirst in summers! The bark has a characteristic pattern, in case you are still wondering how the tree gets its name. It is a fascinating pattern, one of my favorites and hence, gets to the top of my list of the art of bark.

guggulWhile an entire tree is magnificent, every part of it is even more magical, like the bark, which presents art in its patterns. I observe it as a pastime, or when we are waiting for something else. While waiting for a tiny bird to come back to its tree-home, a bark design caught my eye in Gir forest. Our guide identified it as the Guggul tree. Its gummy resin (gum guggulu) is commonly used during Poojas. They typically use it over hot coal, similar to how we use Sambrani. Wiki says Guggul is over-harvested, to the extent of getting an entry in the IUCN Red List.  While we were in Bidar, we saw Boswellia serrata belonging to the same fragrant family as that of Guggul. I touched the tree and my fingers stuck to each other, because of the fragrant resin (used in Dhoopa).
I continued my queries to our pan-chewing guide.
Which tree is this one, bhaiyya? The texture is quite similar to that of the Crocodile Bark tree, but this one is slimmer 🙂tendu
Oh, this is the Tendu tree. They use the leaves of the Tendu to make beedi. The langurs and the deer feed on the berries which taste very much like the chikoo.” Yummy! I quickly took a couple of images of Tendu, also known as Coromandel Ebony or East Indian Ebony (Diospyros melanoxylon). I uploaded it on our Flickr page with a CC-by-nc-sa license, as usual. An indie game developer found it, when trying to find some reference pics for tree texture! He embedded a cropped and heavily edited version of this image inside a game,  which took part in an online “game jam” organized by the Oculus VR company and IndieCade. Can you spot the Tendu in this video of the game being played: ?
Our Tendu went gaming 🙂 But that wasn’t all. Sasan Gir, Gujarat, had more in store for us. It was a joy to just sit in the forest and listen to the silence. But we were snapped out of our reverie. It was a scream; a teak tree’s scream. The pattern reminded us of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. The expression, the positioning of the eyes, the hands, the mouth – all eerily similar. Was the teak speaking for all other trees ?
teardropOver time, more patterns have caught my eye. While in Bharatpur, it was my turn to scream, “STOP!” The rickshaw driver and guide were stunned, as I ran back to take a picture. Our guide ran behind me, thinking I had seen something rare. Well, I did. I saw a teardrop pattern on the bark of a Babool tree. Or maybe it looks like something else also. I am sure he had teardrops in his eyes, kicking himself for running after me, and trying to figure out whether I had gone nuts 😉
A tree at Lepakshi seemed to yoshow the sign of the horns; Rock and Roll or The Devil’s Horns or maybe just the finger.
There is all this and much more in just a bark. You only need to see. You might see abstract art of the bark or you might see a living city.


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