'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Khasak - A Serpentine Return

Lets begin with some bits of what Wiki has to say about 'Magical Realism':

1. Magical Realist literature portrays magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment.

2. "MR is what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe."

3. In MR, the author presents the supernatural being as valid as the natural. There is no hierarchy... The ghost of Melquíades in Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or the baby ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved ... are both presented by the narrator as ordinary occurrences; the reader, therefore, accepts the marvelous as normal and common(*).

On to our story: Google with "Khasak Magical Realism" and one is hit by an avalanche of pages. Some merely praise 'Khasakinte Ithihasam' as marking Malayalam's arrival on the stage of MR. Some hint, some others state that the author O.V. Vijayan was 'inspired'by Marquez in general and '100 years of solitude' in particular. Till the end of his days, Vijayan had to face irritating Desi queries on the alleged debt he owed Marquez.

Armed with the Wiki lesson, I spent a whole week reading Khasak from the MR perspective. The conclusion was simple: "There is no Magical Realism whatsoever in Khasak!". Khasak is intensely lyrical; its colors and shades are achingly rich, whether bathed in sunshine or flushed with twilight. And when rugged Chethali looms silhueted in moonlight, its crags shaped like turrets and minarets and the wild eastern wind whistles thru groves of dark palms .... the fantastic, the supernatural never seems too far. But, the Beyond of Khasak always floats as a separate numinous realm just above the mundane. It never invades reality, never intrudes into the everyday (recall the novel's image of "the cloud-laden monsoon sky hanging just over the village, holding back its immense power").

"In the dark interior of the ruined mosque, in the swamps beyond, among the branches of the tamarind tree, in the crudely hewn serpent images, in the empty wastes, they dwell, the gods of Khasak. They offered him no answers; neither did Ravi seek answers from them. ... Like the endless palm forest, like a twilight marking neither sunset nor sunrise, his Sin enveloped him in its overpowering embrace. And the Gods, those sad sentinels, were mute witnesses of his pain..."

And my above conclusion is in no way original. I sought the views of a serious scholar (who shall remain unnamed) on this business of MR and Khasak and this was the gist of what I was told:

"Literary criticism in India has been, since 19th century, almost entirely about finding Western parallels to Desi literary works - the intent being to locate 'native' literatures in a Western framework and make the former more 'acceptable' - a very colonial enterprise.

And post Freedom, once English fell out of vogue a bit, we discovered the much more happening Latin America. As a literary joke goes, once someone was asked who was the most important writer in Malayalam. And the answer was "Marquez". The game hasn't changed in a hundred years (no pun that)."

But despite all that, the word 'numinous' (**)led me on a tangential search and to someone from the West who gave telling expression - in real, rich color - to much that one sees in Khasak. The name is Odilon Redon, French symbolist painter.

The intense, flamy coloring of Redon's pastel masterpieces (any number of them are available online) remind me very strongly of the Khasak twilight. Only Chethali is missing. An expert told me: "Redon's paintings have a certain looseness about them - as compositions, they are not well organized." And indeed, neither is Khasak. The novel has no taut log line but several narrative strands which merge and meld into something like a succession of diaphanous partitions that Ravi passes thru (akin to those passed by the Diving Fowl in his own journey towards a beckoning mystery)....

Now, let me show two specific parallels between Vijayan's works and Redon's.

Late in his life, Vijayan wrote 'Ithihasathinte Ithihasam', a very interesting meditation on the making of Khasak (***). Here, among many typically lyrical passages, he talks of his fear of spiders. Indeed, spiders appear all over Vijayan's writings. In Khasak, he likens them to Kartavirya Arjuna, the 1000 armed and mostly villainous king of mythology; and Appu Kili, the beloved son of the village, is first introduced as a 'spider freak'(****). Vijayan also tells us how, within him, this very personal spider-phobia merged with the "lush and rich fear that suddenly grips a child when he first discovers the immensity of the night sky studded with those huge stars..." and gives the following passage which he eventually excised from the final version of Khasak:

"Stars, huge, some blue, some red, like immense spiders of timeless Terror; their intense gaze pierced his troubled sleep; then, wrapping him in restless dreams, they whirled away into the dark depths...."

The reason for cutting out these lines was that "they were too strongly colored". But then, Vijayan recalls wistfully, so was the whole of Khasak. And let me add, so is the typical Redon canvas. And here is Redon's take on spiders, albeit in monochrome.

An ageing Vijayan wrote with great poignancy of Ravi's solitary journey and his final tryst with a fanged apparition.

"Often have I found myself walking with Ravi - soaked to the bone by monsoon shower and smothered by its steady, colorless opacity. The journey brings Fatigue to Ravi and it does the same to me... I now rest my aching bones, stretching my numb feet on to sodden clods of earth and I wait for you and your gift of sleep, oblivion and rebirth. O Vishnu, let me behold you in your benign Serpent form!".

Reader, if you think Vishnu as serpent is non-standard imagery, here are two very standard Redons, 'Green Death' and 'Christ(!) manifest in a serpent'.

Afterthought: IMO, the closest Vijayan got to magical realism was in Gurusagaram, when Kunjunni, during a flight, sees the hanged Naxalite Tapas afloat in the sky just outside his window. But even this is was more a hallucinatory vision (Vijayan does not say that the floating Naxalite had a hard, objective reality)than a proper intrusion of the supernatural. 'Madhuram Gayati' is full of strange things happening but I would categorize it as 'fantasy'. And I have not read the scat-fest of 'Dharmapuranam' which might after all have some proper MR.


(*)In 'Midnight's Children', drops of blood from Adam Aziz's nose harden into rubies and his tears crystallize into diamonds - very naturally.

(**) Let me just mention a phrase encountered online a few days back: "numinous palms". Sadly, indeed scandalously, it was NOT about Khasak!

(***)Some cynics said, it was also a 'Milking of Khasak', with the author trying to exploit the popularity of his masterpiece. But they were dead wrong!

(****)Kili is more of a 'thumbi freak' in the story; but that is another story. And one can't help thinking, "if only Redon had painted dragonflies!"

Sunday, January 03, 2016

A Beast in Steel

Here are two views of the same steel sculpture - neither is a particularly good photograph (I took them) but that is okay. I invite my few Readers to pause and identify the animal depicted and then proceed with the rest of the post.

The sculpture, by Raghav Kaneria, stands in Subhas Park, Kochi. It features prominently in the short doc film 'Poo Viriyunnu, Poo Kozhiyunnu', mentioned in the last post here. K J Sohan, ex-Mayor of Cochin and articulate art-lover, eloquently describes it as a "Marvel, a wonderful creation by a true Master. And its proportions are perfect, flawless!". Well, seeing the above pictures, one might ask, "Did you say, perfect proportions? Er..., of what?"

With some help from certain well-wishers, I carried out a survey, showing just the picture and asking "which animal?". No further info given, no options given, no clues, any answer welcome. And no attempt to analyse the respondents as in a Rorschach test, the intent being just to gather answers.

And here is a summary of the results:


6 people saw a giraffe there.

Some kind of Dinosaur - 4 respondents.

Horse - 5

Dog - 3

Deer - 2

Unicorn - 1

Reindeer - 1

Crane - 1


Even with such a limited number of respondents, the drift is clear. There IS something equine or giraffe-like (despite the none too long neck) about the animal. And a bit doggy too - I peronally think it is more dog than anything else(*). And equally personally, I think crane, unicorn and reindeer are anomalous answers (even dino, despite the number of votes it garnered)!

And now for how it looks side on.

And that indeed is one hell of a bull - muscular, powerful,... whatever. And lest I forget, exactly one person had guessed: "I would say, its a bull!".

Now, was it a deliberate decision by Kaneria to make the front view (and only the front view) of the beast so ambiguous as to make it resemble pretty much anything? Or did he plan to make the front view just barely skeletal and focus on the muscular contour of the animal only in side-view - thus implying that at the core, skeletal level there is a basic blueprint every animal is built on? ...

Whatever, I sign off quoting old pal Vitthal's response to the survey. "It looks somewhat like a giraffe. But I was drawn to look closely and I see only a remarkable work of art - even with the photos u sent met! The species did not seem to matter!"

And A Beast in Bronze:

Another quiz. Try to identify this terrible looking creature:

If Reader, you answered "there is no beast quite like this", you would actually be right! But here is a fuller picture:

And what would THAT be? It is the tortoise forming the pedestal of the nearly 30 foot metal deepastambham (lamp pillar) at the eastern entrance to the Tripunithura temple. Quite an Atlas, this chap, and the strain of bearing all that stuff clearly shows in the grimace (Note: only the bottom of the pillar appears above; and to my knowledge, tortoises form the pedestal of most deepastambhams in most Kerala temples)!

But tortoises do not have teeth. So, whoever cast the above object took quite some licence and no fanged tortoises exist.

But we are not done! Strictly speaking, the "no such beast" answer is correct only in a very narrow sense. It applies only if we consider only extant animals. Some 300 million years back(or thereabouts), there indeed were species of tortoises which had teeth (Wiki)! Some might even have looked close to this - maybe minus the huge canines.

Not all such Atlas Torts react thus to their burden. Here is another - rather stoic - specimen, from the Shasta temple at Thakazhi:

Note: some folks who I showed the fanged Tortoise's face said, "it is Hanuman, perhaps!", "Lion!", "A dragon?"...

Update (Jan 4th 2016):

Prof. Jayaram pointed out to me that perspective can actually do crazy things - make things look like many other things. And he observed, very interestingly, that (especially) the skeletal framework of the hindquarters of most vertebrates look quite similar to one another. So, in hindsight(!), the wild variety of answers to the bull survey can be seen to rise from these two factors - (1) perspective effects due to the odd angle from which the sculpture was photographed and (2) lack of much structural variation among vertebrate posteriors.

Similarly, when viewed from suitable angles, all fanged faces might begin to resemble one another and a tortoise with fangs attached can look like a lion or a dragon or anything.


(*) In a Panchatantra story, some crooks manage to convince a guy that his goat is actually a dog. Here, we have a bull turned into a dog, a bull-dog, if you wish.

Monday, December 28, 2015

"Flowers Bloom... and they Fade"

Just saw this curious aphorism by Kunhunni Master, Mal poet (my free translation):

"Mark every month of the year with an Essay!"

Wonder what made him say that. But here is December...

2015 has been a very eventful year; among other things, it made me a filmmaker of sorts. A very short documentary on the derelict building in Tripunithura that inspired my 'Oottupura' post was put together (thanks Vimal!) and uploaded onto Youtube in July. Titled 'Pazhamayude Naduvodiyunnu', it went mostly unnoticed. And the building has continued to fall apart....


And then came 'Poo Viriyunnu, Poo Kozhiyunnu'. A far more ambitious project, it has been shot and edited by a group of students with my own creative role limited to writing the raw version of the script. 'Poo...' (translation: "Flowers Bloom... and they Fade") will be screened on New Years Day 2016 at Kerala Kalapeetham, Kochi; it documents the 'Sculpture Symposium', a camp of internationally known sculptors held back in 1990, when Kochi was still Cochin. The 'relics' of the symposium are still among us - in Subhas Park, on the Ernakulam waterfront; some sculptures have been damaged/torn apart but most are largely intact and sometimes put to use thus:


Here is a brief passage from 'Gotrayanam', a long poem by Ayyappa Panicker - lines I hope to live up to during what lies ahead of my own journey.

"The greatest wealth Man can acquire is a spot of Love.

And the source thereof is Sorrow.

Remember, there are little Sorrows - wipe them clean with fingertips -

And there are those that count, the big Sorrows - let them pierce into the breast and get stuck there!

Add to them a touch of kindness, the odd verse and a few laughs and Life becomes as livable as can be!"

Note: 'Poo Viriyunnu...' incorporates two other passages from this (now not very well remembered) work.


A fiberglass face cast done by Prof. C S Jayaram and a vision that (to my eyes) is uncannily similar - the severed head of Orpheus drifts by, alongside his forlorn lyre (painted by Odilon Redon):

To emphasize the Grecian angle a bit more, let me include another aspect of the same face-cast and a marble face, salvaged from a 20 century old shipwreck.


A close-up of Bouguerou's sensual take on the Io-Zeus story; it reminds me of the wonderful lines from 'Gita Govinda' on how love-lorn Radha wakes up from a dream and eagerly reaches out to embrace the enveloping pitch darkness mistaking it to be her rain cloud-like lover.


The umpteenth rereading of Khasak has yielded a definition of 'Ecstasy': "Ecstasy happens when one is out on a clear night - with just a hint of fog brought by the wild eastern wind - with a friend under a waxing moon on a desolate hillside, bottle of hooch in hand and watching moonshine glitter in moonshine; and when the moon has set and the eastern skies are yet to turn grey, Ecstasy flowers, causing one to stagger to one's feet, look at the stoned out friend and raise a vigorous Aazaan to the Maker..."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

November Gains...

Note: The title above is a translation of the Malayalam 'Novemberinte Nettam'


At the entrance to the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary is a small garden frequented by butterflies. Stone slabs with pictures and names of butterflies have been kept around the place. One of them:

The name Jezebel caught the eye, as did the Mal equivalent: "Vilasini".

Jezebel is the Anglicized transliteration of the Hebrew אִיזָבֶל ('Izevel/'Izavel), She was a foreign-born queen of Ahab, King of Israel in Old Testament days. In these times of intolerance and discussions on intolerance, it would be interesting to know more about her and how she earned the wrath of God. Wiki:

Jezebel went so far as to require that her (alien) religion should be the national religion of Israel. She organized and maintained guilds of prophets, 450 of god Baal, and 400 of Asherah. She also destroyed such prophets of Israel as she could reach....

Her intolerance met its match in the zeal of Elijah, prophet of the *real* God:

Elijah ordered people to seize the prophets of Baal and Asherah, and they were all slaughtered. The superiority of Elijah and of his God and the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, fired the vengeance of Jezebel. Elijah fled for his life to the wilderness, where he mourned the devotion of Israel to Baal and the lack of worshipers of Israel's God.

Long story short (read Wiki for more salacious details): "For these transgressions against the God and people of Israel, Jezebel met a gruesome death - thrown out of a window by members of her own court retinue, and the flesh of her corpse eaten by stray dogs."

Of course, her false Gods had no power to give the same treatment to Elijah.

Jezebel became associated with false prophets. In some interpretations, her dressing in finery and putting on makeup led to the association of the use of cosmetics with "painted women" or prostitutes.

So just like what happened to Lilith, a fiercely patriarchal society and its vengeful God turned a disobedient and proud woman into the embodiment of Evil.

It is a surprise why a rather moderately colored and innocuous-looking butterfly came to be named after the fiercely regal Jezebel; but Vilasini (which can imply 'graceful seductress') certainly is an interesting, albeit partial, translation. It sure is a lot truer than Desi turned American redneck Dinesh D'Souza saying somewhere that "'Nandini' means 'Holy Cow'"

Equally curiously, Jezebel/'Izavel has nothing much to do with 'Isabella'. The latter is the Latin equivalent of 'Elisabeth'. One notes in passing that to go from the la-sa-ba of Elisabeth to the sa-ba-la of Isabella is quite a bit of phonetic mangling.


The Brahmini ('krishna') kite is not exactly a rare bird. But in the zoo adjoining the Thattekkad butterfly garden, nearly half dozen of these birds have been kept thus; to what end is not clear:

And right next to the kites is a 'Simhavalan' confined to a 10 foot square cage. I would spare my readers a pic thereof.


'Amritavarshini' in Ethiopia:

A promotional video often played these days on the Safari TV channel has visuals of an arid Ethiopian village with a presumably indigenous folk song playing over. The tune is just what one would call 'Amritavarshini ragam'( a nice film example is Ilayaraja's 'thoongatha vizhikal randu'). The correspondence is not really surprising. ... varshini is one of the simple pentatonic melodies (5 notes up the frequency scale and the same 5 notes down) and folk music across the globe favors such melodic patterns over ones with more notes - and more complex permutations among these notes. But this particular raga is associated with rains in Karnatic tradition and it sounds very curious (although by no means incongruous) in a desert setting. And yes, I remember hearing (long back) a set of folk songs from the Sahara desert country of Mali, all set to raga Megh - another pentatonic melody that can create the atmosphere of rains as per the Hindustani tradition.


A Vote that went waste:

A few days ago, elections were held to local governing bodies in Kerala. I didn’t vote because (a) my name was not on the rolls and (b) I had never bothered to get myself enrolled. But this story is not about my being apolitical or otherwise but about an election I actually participated in long ago. The trigger: A candidate in some ward of a nearby village scored a clean zero.

As I had written here sometime ago, the school where I studied used to conduct elections on party basis and they were fiercely fought affairs, the main contestants being SFI (left-backed) and KSU (congress affiliated). In our 10th standard batch, there was a three way election – a certain Stanley (a committed SFI chap), Anil (backed by KSU but whose ideology was little more than “I too want a slice of the pie”) and Ramesh (an independent). Stanley had been the leader the previous year.

The day before the election, they each addressed the batch in a soapbox session.

Ramesh the independent went first: “Friends, I am not a politician. I don’t promise strikes and shutting down the school like them; that is not our game, we are here to study. But if elected, I will take up all your academic and other difficulties energetically and interface with the management. Please vote for me”

Stanley: “Comrades, try to see one thing: has there been a single instance where any of your genuine issues was addressed by the management without our raising it vigorously, and if the need arose, shutting down the school?! I am sorry to say this but I pity you Ramesh, for toeing the line of the powers that be! Comrades, I promise to be with you, to fight for you straining every sinew of mine, to ensure that you get the best! I won’t be neutral in any issue concerning you and anybody else. I am one among you, I am totally biased in your favour, I am yours!”

Anil: “I agree with Stanley and not Ramesh, if the need arises, we have to agitate. But since Stanley has had his chance, let me have mine. Please vote for me!”

The votes were cast and the counting began in front of the whole batch. The first vote taken out went to Ramesh and there was a general murmur of surprise. The next vote went to Stanley, then Stanley, again Stanley,….

It was a landslide. Anil picked up some crumbs. Ramesh did not add to his tally.

I came face to face with a somewhat crestfallen Ramesh shortly thereafter. He said: “I had a feeling at least you would vote for me. I know you did not because my sole vote was mine.” I had no answer. I did not admit it then but I sensed that I had wasted my vote. And now, in hindsight, I had missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to really make a difference with a vote. Sorry Ramesh (he is the only one in this note whose name has been accurately retained)!


I sign off with impressions from a clay modeling and sculpture workshop for collegians that I got to watch over the last week:

Sunday, November 01, 2015


It so happened that a link to the song ‘Lilith’ by Greek singer Nena Venetsanou came my way(*). The name of the song sounded vaguely familiar but I first tried listening to it – and got seriously hooked.

Still under the spell of the Venetsanou’s rich, plaintive voice and the song's hauntingly dreamy flow, I went to the Wiki page on Lilith. With surprise, I realized I had been there just a few months back (and my fading memory had retained but the frailest shadow thereof).


Lilith (Hebrew: לִילִית‎ Lîlîṯ) is a Hebrew name for a figure in Jewish mythology, generally thought to be in part derived from a far earlier class of female demons in Mesopotemian religion.

In Jewish folklore, Lilith becomes Adam's first wife, who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam. This contrasts with Eve, who was created from one of Adam's ribs. The legend was greatly developed during the Middle ages - in the 13th century writings of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, Lilith left Adam after she refused to become subservient to him and then would not return to the Garden of Eden after she coupled with the archangel Samael. The resulting Lilith legend is still commonly used as source material in modern Western culture, literature, fantasy, and horror.

So, Lilith is either the original femme fatale or the primordial Feminist icon or both.

Without quoting online sources, let us note that the mid-Eastern Lilith metamorphosed into our own ‘Lalita’. The latter of course, goes by the full name of ‘Lalita Tripurasundari’ and is one of the most benevolent and glorious of the 10 Mahavidya forms of the Divine Mother. Perhaps the most heartfelt paean to her is the Muthiah Bhagavathar krithi ‘Himagiri Tanaye’. Note: the Lilith-Lalita change parallels the Ishtar-Tara story. Of course, a dissenting voice just told me: "this kind of theorizing is like saying Homer wrote the Mahabharata before Indians appropriated it!"

India has traditionally been less fearful of the Female then Israel (“the Jews hated and feared the sexual power of Woman, embodied in the figure of Lilith and demonized it” as an online source put it) but we certainly have retained memories of the original fear of our middle-Eastern forerunners. Indeed, in several Kathakali dramas, Lalita refers to the appearance of an evil demoness as a bewitchingly beautiful woman - Lalitas feature in ‘Kharavadham’, Kirmeeravadham’, …. See here:

Further searching led me to another version of Venetasanou’s song with animated versions of (mostly) some paintings by Frenchman Bougereau and some pre-Raphaelite works:

The visuals rekindled memories of poems learnt and forgotten in a long-lost innocent dream time …. Before I sink further into Lethe, let me capture some images from ‘The fairies’ by William Allingham-


Up the airy mountain Down the rushy glen, We dare not go hunting


Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together; Green jacket, red cap, And white owl's feather. Down along the rocky shore Some make their home, They live on crispy pancakes Of yellow tide-foam; Some in the reeds Of the black mountain-lake, With frogs for their watch-dogs, All night awake.


With a bridge of white mist Columbkill he crosses, …… Or going up with music, On cold starry nights, To sup with the Queen, Of the gay Northern Lights.

Note: As a child, I had memorized a good portion of this poem and would sing it in a tune borrowed from the old Hindi film classic: ‘Aajaa sanam madhur chaandni mein hum…’


And yes, ‘Dream Love’ - we will always have ‘Dream Love’ by Christina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel, a prime mover of the pre-Raphaelite moevemnt.


Young Love lies sleeping In May-time of the year, Among the lilies, Lapped in the tender light:


Soft moss the pillow For O, a softer cheek; Broad leaves cast shadow Upon the heavy eyes: There winds and waters Grow lulled and scarcely speak; There twilight lingers The longest in the skies.

Young Love lies dreaming; But who shall tell the dream? A perfect sunlight On rustling forest tips; Or perfect moonlight Upon a rippling stream; Or perfect silence, Or song of cherished lips.


Young Love lies dreaming Till summer days are gone, Dreaming and drowsing Away to perfect sleep: He sees the beauty Sun hath not looked upon, And tastes the fountain Unutterably deep.

Him perfect music Doth hush unto his rest, And through the pauses The perfect silence calms:


Young Love lies drowsing Away to poppied death; Cool shadows deepen Across the sleeping face......


And here is a 'triptych': A traditional Keralan Hindu 'Nilavilakku' and an equally traditional Keralan Christian ‘Deepastambham’ with entwined serpents at the top (**) flank the Lady herself, as visualized by John Collier.

And I can imagine at least some of my Readers admonishing me: "Lilith? Don't be Sillith!"


(*) Thanks, Malini.

(**) Thanks, Rekesh.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Straying into Theater ...

A month or so back, I happened to pass by the premises where Prof. C.S Jayaram and actor Mr. Kalesh were conducting a theater workshop for a pretty large group of collegians. They roped me in as an assistant and I ended up seeing a lot of action...

The highlight:

"All of you just disperse in this hall, take positions apart from one another, think hard for a couple of minutes and assume the persona of ANY character you could think of and simply act out that character. No interactions among you, each one of you should simply inhabit the character you choose and just be that for the next 10 minutes. The others don't exist, each one of you should be in a world of his/her own."

Within minutes, the participants had settled into their respective self-chosen roles - one became visually challenged, another a beggar, a newspaper vendor, a prof, a toddler, whatever - and they seemed to melt into their roles, oblivious of what others were up to. Then, Jayaram Sir told me to simply walk among them, silently. I did so and within a minute, I could feel myself become a visitor to an art gallery or an installation. One began to gaze at each character with intensity and intent, subjecting each to the kind of scrutiny that would be strictly out of bounds in normal society....

I noticed with some surprise that two of the students had chosen to be hookers. One stood, leaning on to a wall pretty much like a classical salabhanjika. The other paced up and down teasingly, fetchingly. As I walked past the latter, our eyes met and... she gave me the eye.


A short play was staged to mark the conclusion of the workshop. I was asked to make a shock appearance as a hunter, whose behavior and antics were modeled on Batman's Joker(*). His appearance was a curious mix of hawk-nosed Mephistopheles and the filthy-bearded Kaattaalan of Keralan classic Nalacharitam (someone else thought it was Veerappan squeezed into Shikari Shambhu)

Whatever, the character reminded me of the phrase coined by Comte de Lautremont (Isidore-Lucien Ducasse) and which I first heard from Jayaram Sir himself: "the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!"


Artist Nambuthiri was recently honored at a function held in Tripunithura. A documentary film on him by Shaji Karun was also screened. Though interestingly titled ('Ner(u) Vara', which could mean 'straight line'or 'lines of truth') and incorporating a poignant meditation on a stone Nandi sculpture at Mahabalipuram, the doc was not quite up to the usual Shaji class. Anyways, at the end of it all, as the crowd melted away, the veteran artist paused for a moment to contemplate the vacant hall - and I shot him:


Thanks to Malini, I have just come to know about the so-called Master of Hakendover and his wooden sculpture, "The Repentance of St. Peter":

The Rijksmuseum description of this work, executed around 1400, mentions its distinctly modern appearance, especially the striking composition with diagonal planes and converging cubes (Braque?). But one can also see herein a throbbing mix of drama and trauma that harks back to the famous marble group Laocoon (carved around the time of Christ). It is a matter of detail that Laocoon was not dug up until the 16th century and Hakendover might not have known of it. Whatever, I don't recall ever seeing a work quite like this.


Let me close this post with another picture that marks the ongoing dalliance with theater:


(*) for example, as he snares a peacock, the hunter would sing raucously:

"Vaayo Mayilannaa! Thaayo.... Mayilennaa!!"

(hard to translate but approximately, "Come away, dear bro Peacock, be generous to me ..... with your rich Oil!")

The hunter about to wring oil out of his putative brother, the peacock, is actually in pretty good company. For example, in a TV ad for some spice/masala, veteran actor Mamukkoya tells a bemused-looking rooster with great warmth: "Anne njammalu fry aakkaan puggaa. Anakku beshmonnoollaalo?!" (translation: "We gonna fry you nicely; you fine with it, right?". In a more literary instance, Old Santiago tells the marlin pulling him deeper into the sea (I am retranslating a Mal translation): "You are like my brother, noble fish, and I got plenty respect and love for you. And by sundown, I am gonna fix you for good!".

Come to think of it, killing has, at a very primal level, a fratricidal element. The primordial murder was brother killing brother whether it is Cain vs. Abel or Indra vs. Vritra. And the same theme reaches its highest pitch in the Arjuna - Karna showdown. Fraternal love and murderous rage appear poles of a horseshoe magnet... indeed, they are closer, maybe even the same thing.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Bernoulli, Drums and Tails

Bernoulli in Kochi(?)

The autumn of 1912. The big ocean liner ‘Olympic’ was cruising in the high seas when the much smaller ship ‘Hawke’ approached fast along a parallel trajectory. The two ships were a few hundred meters apart when something shocking happened: ‘Hawke’ suddenly veered from her path and seemingly drawn by an irresistible force, went straight at ‘Olympic’ and despite the best efforts of her crew to steer her away, rammed the liner. The damage to the ‘Olympic’ was severe. An enquiry held the captain of ‘Olympic’ responsible for the accident…. But the true reason lay in the real and very powerful attraction that can occur between ships at sea. It is but a fairly simple instance of the Bernoulli’s principle, an important basic result from fluid and gas dynamics….

Examples of Bernoulli-driven phenomena abound. Indeed, a fairly moderate water current of 1 meter/ sec can exert a potentially fatal pull of 30 kilogram weight on a man. A train running at a mere 50 km/hour can pull someone standing by the track with a force of 8 kilogram weight. But despite all the evidence, most people don’t seem to know nearly enough about this principle. So….

That was a slightly edited sample from Yakov Perelman’s ‘Physics for Entertainment’ (Malayalam version).

There is a lot of debate online and elsewhere about last week’s Fort Kochi boat collision that took 10 lives. But I saw no one pondering/approaching experts with this question: Did (a lack of proper awareness of) Bernoulli play a major role in this disaster? Was it all about the poor shape of the ferry that sank and the negligence of the crew?

Drums that Sing and Drums that Talk

S K Pottekkat’s short novel ‘Kabeena’ was where I first heard about the African ‘Drum Telegraph’ – use of drums to relay messages over very long distances. But the best description (known to me) of this unique technology is again due to old Yakov P (who also tells us that using drums for communication was not a uniquely African innovation; it was known to Polynesians and Central Americans):

In 1915, British archaeologist Hazelden was visiting the town of Ibada deep inside Nigeria. Throughout the day, he could hear drum beats from far and near keep up a persistent background noise. One morning, he saw some local Africans clustered in a heated and animated discussion. On enquiring, he was told: “A message arrived just now: Big ship carrying white people sank, many died”. Hazeldon did not take what he heard seriously but three days later, he was stunned to receive a cable on the sinking of the ‘Lusitania’. The Africans had heard the news right; and they had got it relayed down an immense chain of drummers stretching all the way to Cairo in Egypt from Ibada; moreover, the drummers belonged to different tribes who often spoke mutually unintelligible languages - and some of these tribes were even engaged in war with one another!

My reason for quoting Perelman on drums is as follows:

In the last post here, I put up a visual of an idakka player sculpture from Hampi and speculated a bit about the historical evolution of this much-loved Keralan drum. A few days back, I encountered, with some surprise, in a DK volume on musical instruments, the Japanese drum ‘tsuzumi’: “a small waisted drum; the player grips with one hand the cords that join the wide heads and squeezes or releases the cords to vary the note” (very like the Idakka, but smaller).

And right next to the tsuzumi was the picture of another cord-adjusted drum, this time from Africa: “The Kalengo from Nigeria is renowned for its ability to ‘talk’; the cords enable the drummer to raise and lower the note and the drum produces the sounds of a typically tonal African language (in tonal languages, the pitch at which it is uttered determines the meaning of a word)”.

And searching Wiki, one found the article: ‘Talking Drum’.

John F Carrington, in his 1949 book The Talking Drums of Africa explained how African drummers were able to communicate complex messages over vast distances. Using low tones referred to as male and higher female tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses, which can travel upwards of 4–5 miles. This process may take eight times longer than communicating a normal sentence but was effective for telling neighboring villages of possible attacks or ceremonies. He found that to each short word which was beaten on the drums was added an extra phrase, which would be redundant in speech but provided context to the core drum signal. For example, the message "Come back home" might be translated by the drummers as: "Make your feet come back the way they went, make your legs come back the way they went, plant your feet and your legs below, in the village which belongs to us"(**)

So, one could sum up: with adjustable drumheads, our idakka sings while its African cousin talks(***).

A Tale of Tails

Thanks to someone I have often mentioned here, I have known Sukumar Ray’s nonsense masterpiece ‘Abol Tabol’ for a very long time. Although my Bengali is too ill-equipped to enjoy Sukumar’s richly idiomatic and idiosyncratic verse, I have come to know one of his most distinguished creations fairly well - Sri. Hunkomukho Hyangla, he of the eternally grumpy disposition and blessed with a remarkable pair of identical tails. And just the other day, (thanks to Prof. C.S.Jayaram) I encountered the contemporary Italian artist Tullio Pericoli and a rather curious drawing of his showing a beaked Humpty-Dumpty like figure perched atop a big 'A'. Although curious affinities to Bosch, Bruegel and some other medieval surrealish (not surrealist, since surrealism, as a movement, is only about a century old) Masters were felt, I was most struck by the pair of tails the figure possesses. Here are both Herr Hunko and the unnamed Tullio apparition, placed side by side.


(*) Wikipedia has quite a bit to say about the Olympic-Hawke collision but never mentions Bernoulli.

(**) In a vague sense, all that stuff reminds me of the curious language of ‘Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius’, a language with only impersonal verbs and no nouns and that expresses “Moon rose over the river” as “Upward behind the on-streaming, it mooned”

(***) Perelman also shows us the picture of a (curiously black-skinned) Fijian (Polynesian) 'drum communicator' in action. His instrument is a big object carved out of a log and it does not seem to have frequency adjusting cords and stuff. Perhaps this drum achieves tonal variations when struck at different spots - like the 'musical pillars' seen in several South Indian stone temples.