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Photo: YouTube
The late Mastanamma shot to fame at the age of 105, after her cooking videos were uploaded to YouTube.

Not long ago I read two interesting obituaries on the same day — one of a 107-year-old YouTube star, the other of a 97-year-old keeper of Cherokee pottery traditions. I thought that seeing them together could teach us all something about human possibility.

At the New York Times, Kai Schulz wrote the obit for the talented chef in India.

“Mastanamma got her big break at age 105.

“After she prepared an especially delicious eggplant curry, her great-grandson suggested that he film her cooking and then post the videos on YouTube.

“No matter that she was more than 100 years old, suffered from cataracts, wore dentures, cooked outside on an open fire, and sometimes roasted chicken inside a steaming watermelon. That was all part of the charm.

” ‘She knew she was famous,’ said Srinath Reddy, who helped start the channel. ‘She loved that.’ … She died at age 107.

“Born in a rural village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Karre Mastanamma married at 11 years old. By the time she was 22, her husband was dead. With no education, she was left to care for their five children. …

“To support her children, Mastanamma worked as a laborer, earning a few dollars a day carrying 200-pound rice sacks on her back. Over the years, she would lose four of her children to disease. For much of her life, she lived in a small hut made of palm leaves in the village of Gudiwada. …

“In 2016, her great-grandson, Karre Laxman, and Reddy, a friend, started filming the videos of her cooking and posting them on Country Foods. Her popularity soared: The channel surpassed 200 million views. Hordes of fans from around the world watched Mastanamma’s pared-down cooking tips on making spicy shrimp powder and ‘delicious cabbage.’ Mastanamma peeled ginger with her thumbs, stored bird eggs in her sari and [barked] out orders to subordinates from a squatted position over simmering pots. …

“Mastanamma claimed to be the world’s oldest YouTuber.  Fans loved her salt-of-the-earth sense of humor. In interviews, she joked about breaking her dentures, having given her husband a 15-cent dowry, and the time a pair of brothers teased her when she was a young woman. After one of the brothers touched her hand and long curly hair, she threw him in a river. …

“Wearing off-kilter aviator sunglasses, Mastanamma waves at the camera from a leather-cushioned car in one clip on Country Foods. ‘Hi, kids!’ she says, before blurting out observations. ‘I lost my teeth, naturally. Before, I was so beautiful. My age is above 100 years! It’s in government records.’ ” More about the 107-year-old YouTube star here.

Back in the USA, Ana Fota writes for the New York Times about a revered Cherokee potter. “Amanda Sequoyah Swimmer was born in North Carolina at a time when Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools, as part of a national effort to assimilate them into mainstream culture.

“But as a child in fourth grade she grew tired of being punished for speaking her native Cherokee and forced to use English, and one day she jumped her school’s courtyard fence and ran away. She never returned.

“Instead she fashioned a life devoted to the preservation of Cherokee culture, keeping its language and pottery traditions alive. She was revered in the mountainous tribal lands of western North Carolina — honored there as a ‘Beloved Woman’ — and renowned as one of her people’s most skilled potters.

“Ms. Swimmer’s work has been shown at the Smithsonian in Washington, the North Carolina State Museum, and at local museums across North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. It was also featured in the 2011 book ‘Cherokee Pottery: From the Hands of Our Elders,’ by M. Anna Fariello. And Ms. Swimmer herself was profiled in a 2000 documentary film, ‘Women of These Hills — Three Cultures of Appalachia.’

“In 2005, as an octogenarian, she was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree by the University of North Carolina, Asheville, for her work in preserving Cherokee heritage and her role in founding the Cherokee Potters’ Guild. …

“Ms. Swimmer died Nov. 24 at her home in the Big Cove community in the federal land trust known as the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. She was 97 and was one of the last fluent speakers of Cherokee. …

“ ‘She was known for her pottery, but she was also known for caring,’ said Richard French, a Big Cove Tribal Council representative. ‘She voted in every tribal election.’ …

“ ‘She had an impact on the whole tribal nation,’ her eldest grandson, Eddie Swimmer, said. ‘Everybody called her grandmother.’ ” More on Amanda Swimmer here.

Photo: Museum of the Cherokee Indian via the New York Times
Ms. Swimmer, a potter, was revered in the tribal lands of western North Carolina.

obit_swimmer

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In India, a man who saw sculptural possibilities in castaways has left behind hundreds of pieces of art in a public rock garden.

Nek Chand, an Indian artist who rose to prominence by quietly building a sprawling kingdom of folk sculptures in northern India that became one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, died on [June 12] in Chandigarh. He was 90. …

“Mr. Chand’s life’s work, known as the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, covers several acres and is populated by rock sculptures and figures of dancing women and animals, many of them fashioned from found objects like the mudguards of motorcycles and broken bangles.

“It stands in contrast to the striking if neglected government buildings conceived by Le Corbusier, who planned Chandigarh — the capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana — in the 1950s.

“For some, the Rock Garden, which has thousands of visitors a day, is an antidote to what, with its stark Modernist buildings, is seen as something of a bureaucrat’s city. …

“Mr. Chand was born Nek Chand Saini on Dec. 15, 1924, in the village of Barian Kalan, which became part of Pakistan after partition. He was newly arrived in the city of Chandigarh just after India’s independence in 1947. He worked for the government as a road inspector, according to the Department of Chandigarh Tourism website. But, [Rupan Deol Bajaj, a retired government functionary] said, he became fascinated by found objects, including weather-beaten rocks.

“ ‘I started building this garden as a hobby’ in the 1950s, he said in an interview with Agence France-Presse in December. ‘I had many ideas, I was thinking all the time. I saw beauty and art in what people said was junk.’

“By night he slipped onto a patch of land and artfully arranged rocks and construction waste behind a barricade of empty tar drums.”

The garden was a secret for a long time. When the authorities learned about it, a debate on its future ensued. But, says the Times reporter, “a groundswell of support led to its official opening to the public in 1976.” More here.

Photo: Reuters
Nek Chand, at 76, next to one of his sculptures. He died in June at age 90.

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When the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I wrote a post about it. Several Swedes, including Erik and his mother, had told me about Tranströmer, and I have a couple books of his poems in translation.

An obit by Bruce Weber in yesterday’s New York Times gave me a lot more information about “a body of work known for shrewd metaphors couched in deceptively spare language, crystalline descriptions of natural beauty and explorations of the mysteries of identity and creativity. …

“Though he was not especially well known among American readers, he was widely admired by English-speaking poets, including his friends Robert Bly, who translated many of his poems, and Seamus Heaney, himself a Nobel laureate in 1995.”

It seems Tranströmer also was a trained psychologist, who “worked in state institutions with juvenile offenders, parole violators and the disabled. …

“Mr. Tranströmer’s poetry production slowed after his stroke, but he took refuge in music, playing the piano with just his left hand. As a testament to his prominence in Sweden, several composers there wrote pieces for the left hand specifically for him.

“He was also an amateur entomologist. The Swedish National Museum presented an exhibition of his childhood insect collection, and a Swedish scientist who discovered a new species of beetle named it for him.”

Here is an excerpt from a poem the New York Times printed in the obit:

“I know I must get far away

“straight through the city and then

“further until it is time to go out

“and walk far into the forest.

“Walk in the footprints of the badger.”

More here.

Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Tomas Tranströmer with his wife, Monica, after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011.

 

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Photo: Greenfusefilms.com

Vanessa Gould, the sister of one of Suzanne’s elementary school buddies, is a documentarian. A while back, she made a Peabody-winning film about makers of advanced origami called Between The Folds. More recently, she was given unheard-of access to the New York Times obituary desk.

Her parents just sent an e-mail about the resulting movie and what Vanessa has been up to in general.

“Vanessa recently worked on Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series tackling the challenges of climate change. … Vanessa was a producer on several of the stories and did additional cinematography on others. You can see most of her work in episodes three (“Super Storm Sandy”) and nine (“Chilean Andes”). Episode three, “The Rising Tide” with Chris Hayes, airs tonight, Sunday, April 27, at 10 pm on Showtime. … Here are links: http://www.yearsoflivingdangerously.com and https://www.facebook.com/YearsOfLiving. …

“Soon after making Between The Folds, one of the artists in the film passed away. Vanessa alerted the Times of his death, aware that it was unlikely they would run an obituary. And yet – somewhat amazingly – they did, and she assisted them in the unusual process of putting together an editorial obituary. Only three or four such obituaries are written by the NYT staff each day. The whole story of how these obituaries are selected and written, as well as the social history they tell, became her fascination. Hence OBIT will be her next film. Check out these links: http://www.obitdoc.com, http://www.greenfusefilms.com, and www.vanessagould.com.”

I wonder if OBIT will show to what extent the obituaries of famous people are written before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Come to think of it, do any newspapers let people submit their own obit in advance? I recently read a hilarious one that a small paper accepted from the deceased at the insistence of his grandson. It revealed a guy with a terrific sense of humor — not a bad tribute.

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When I was working at the newspaper in the early ’90s, beginners were often given the task of writing obituaries. Whether the family or the funeral home offered the information, the assignment was mostly a question of putting the obit in AP style and perhaps making a call to get a key detail. You didn’t often get a sense of the writer’s style in an obit.

Margalit Fox of the NY Times may be an exception.

“Dr. Peter Praeger, a heart surgeon who saved a man’s life and as a result wound up owning a gefilte fish company — and who as a result of that wound up starting a successful natural-foods company — died on Sept. 22 in Hackensack, N.J. He was 65. …

“Though the story of Dr. Praeger’s company — born of two rabbinical prognostications, any number of hairpin turns of fate and the transformative realization that man cannot live by gefilte fish alone — reads like something out of Sholem Aleichem, it began, no less, on a Christmas Eve.”

Dr. Praeger helped to save the life of a man on Christmas Eve and over time developed a friendship with the man’s brother-in-law, Rubin Unger, the owner of a struggling gefilte fish company. The family rabbi made a prediction: “Any surgeon smart enough to save his congregant’s life would be smart enough to save his congregant’s brother-in-law’s gefilte fish company.

“Dr. Praeger demurred: he was, after all, a surgeon, not a fish maven. Mr. Ungar persisted. …

“Who, in the end, can fly in the face of rabbinical foreordination?” asks the obit writer.

“ ‘It was like The Godfather,’ Dr. Praeger told the magazine New Jersey Monthly in 2007. ‘They pulled me into it.’ ”

At his death, Dr. Praeger was as well-known for the food company that emerged from the gefilte fish as for his surgical prowess.

More.

Photograph: Gefilte fish, which Dr. Praeger learned to like in time, http://chewonthatblog.com

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