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

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


"Nitpicking releases your creative juices" - Donald Knuth.

Long ago. I was in primary school, having just got to comfort level with reading story-books in Malayalam. 'Aitihyamala' was a favorite. Among its stories, I found 'Parayipettu Panthirukulam' especially fascinating (in an earlier post here, I have referred to it). It is about the adventures of twelve divinely gifted siblings separated at birth and raised in widely varying social milieus. Two of them were Agnihotri, who grew up to become an eminent Vedic priest and Perunthachan, the master-craftsman.

In one episode of the story, Perunthachan calls at his elder brother Agnihotri's house. He it told to wait because the latter is doing his daily Pujas. Rather than wait idly, the craftsman starts digging a pit in the courtyard; every now and then, Perunthachan would take a break and ask for his brother - and is told "he is now doing the Homam for Ganapati", "he is performing Siva Puja", "he is doing 'Salagrama Pushpanjali" and so on. For each different answer, Perunthachan begins digging a fresh pit. This goes on for a long time. Finally Agnihotri finishes his rituals and comes out to meet Perunthachan - and finds his courtyard riddled with several small pits. Perunthachan remarks: "I did a lot of hard work, but no luck; rather than dig so many, if I had dug just one pit persistently, I would have found water by now!"

One of those days, Pop showed me a historical introduction to Western Art which was being serialized in a leading Malayalam weekly. The author's name looked familiar. "It is none other than ---- uncle" said Pop. I tried reading it and found the activity rewarding - soon Botticelli, Leonardo Michelangelo... became familiar names and so did 'The Last Judgement' and 'Monalisa'. I remember talking, with some pride, to a school friend about those articles. He remarked: "Hey, I too have seen it. All those dirty photos of naked people!"

Once while rereading an article in the series, I noticed the following comparison between Leonardo and Michelangelo: "In terms of sheer talent there is very little to choose between them; but temperamentally they were very different. Leonardo, who tried his hand at almost all possible creative pursuits can be compared to the devoutly polytheistic Agnihotri. Michelangelo, on the other hand, limited his exploration to a few select fields and achieved incomparable depth - reminiscent of Pakkanar, who told his brother that instead to parallelly digging several wells, if one were to focus on just a single one, there was a greater chance of finding water!"

Voila, that was an error! It ought to have been Perunthachan, not Pakkanar (by the way, Pakkanar, a sagely Dalit, was yet another of the twelve legendary siblings). I told Pop about my 'finding'; he said: "Well, why don't you write to ----Uncle?" And that was the first time I ever wrote a letter - on an 'inland' - quoting from 'Aitihyamala' to prove my point. Uncle soon wrote back saying he was very happy I was reading his articles and that the error would be rectified when they would be compiled and published in book-form.

The series on western art mysteriously got terminated after an article on Goya (early 19th century). I had to wait a few more years to know van Gogh, Picasso, Dali and other modern masters.

Uncle passed away in 1992 leaving the series uncollected.

Much later, after the millennium, once, while browsing around at a bookshop in Kerala I saw a smart volume titled 'The Art of Painting...' Those articles had finally been compiled! The publishers, in their introduction, said the volume is a belated tribute to the author who had introduced the people of Kerala to the glorious history of western art. Soon, I found myself hurriedly flipping the pages, searching for the comparison I had spotted; and there it was, 'sahi salaamat': "Leonardo .... can be compared to ... Agnihotri; Michelangelo, on the other hand .... Pakkanar"!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some Thoughts From 'Enu'

Intro: 'Enu' is a fellow blogger - a link to his blog is on the right margin. A software professional by trade, he is a serious solver of Math problems by choice. He often helps me when I come up short in my own amateurish searches in Math. Recently, he shared with me some thoughts on learning new Math stuff, purely as an avocation and since he is not as prolific a blogger as he should be, I record this thoughts here. His observations could be useful to anyone trying to learn anything, seriously. Over to Enu!


Of late I had begun to find problem-solving tending to be an excercise in recalling some old trick or the other learnt in high school or thereabouts. That was not a happy situation, really.

I wondered: When will I use something like a real new trick? I guess the straight answer lies in *learning* something new. I was recently inspired by this website.

( the title is a hat tip to a book by Grothendieck)

This guy has painstakingly put up notes on stuff he's learnt. I dont pretend to understand any of it yet. But, drawing inspiration from him, I have too started writing notes in latex. I am on the verge of finishing up a book "Linear algebra" from which I have been taking notes on weekends( a 5 month long effort). I still have two more chapters to finish up. I even went as far as to write up a definition of a math term I learnt from the book in the great - see ( my first wikipedia contribution)

I found that taking notes helps - because every time I revisit the book( during weekends), I have forgotten most of what I learnt and have to start from scratch, creating a kind of disgust. It also helps me avoid my habit of skipping details and sort of consolidates my understanding. Also of use is documenting answers to excersice problems, so the problems dont seem new every time I look at them.

Of course, this is hard work. It's tough to keep the concentration going; with only few hours in the weekends and some leisure hours snatched here and there, the progress can be really slow (esp , with nobody guiding you through the difficult parts )

I have also had to resist the devil in me that constantly tries to write before thinking.

The notes are still not a complete substitute for memory. Writing notes involves spending lot more time with a single page of a book than you usually do. The longer I spend with the proof or an idea, the tougher it seems for me to forget. Most problems in problems require you to have results at your fingertips and I havent reached that proficiency yet - that perhaps is a luxury of a professional mathematician who spends all time with them :)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Guru And His Portait

The other day, I noticed an icon/portrait behind the cash-counter of a sweet shop - it showed Guru Nanak at prayer. I had seen him, almost always, depicted with his right hand in 'Abhaya Mudra' (blessing) but here, the Master seemed to be lost in meditative contemplation, eyes heavenward, hands folded in supplication. There was also a touch of sadness on his face. I sensed, in the atmosphere of the picture as well as in the figure, a certain similarity with representations of Jesus in the Garden - a very common picture in Christian households of Kerala (an adaptation from renaissance Europe).

The web tells me that except for one portrait of Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Guru), no Guru-portraits were made in their lifetimes - not surprising, since the Gurus mostly lived simple, almost ascetic lives and probably did not care too much for formal portraits - and Sikhism does not encourage idol/icon worship. The earliest known picture of Nanak apparently dates from 1770, more than two centuries after his passing - and neither that portrait, nor a Mughal-style portrait of the Guru done (apparently) in mid-19th century (both visible online) really resemble his modern representations. Indeed both these pictures make him look more like a Sufi mystic than the elderly but robust 'Sardarji' of modern icons. The latter came to be the norm, it appears, due to the highly popular artist Sobha Singh (1901-1986), who has played a major role in 'standardizing' the appearances of the Gurus - somewhat akin to Ravi Varma 'setting' the looks of Hindu Goddesses in the late 19th century Maharashtrian mould.

One can clearly see that Sikh religious art, though not a very ancient tradition, has a rich and eclectic history. Along with earlier indigenous artistic traditions, European religious art too might well have contributed in its development - and the resemblance of the prayerful Guru Nanak to Jesus might not really have been a coincidence.