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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Strawberry Time

I first saw strawberries on the telly, long ago - Wimbledon, rain breaks, folks huddling under umbrellas and picking off those lovely little red heart-shaped fruits from bowls of cream,... One also read in papers how pricey they were.

In those days, strawberries were totally alien to the part of Kerala we used to live in; even strawberry-flavored ice-cream was unknown until I migrated to Chennai (Madras in those days) and checked it out - and was hooked.

While in Chennai, I first heard the song 'Old Summer Wine' which goes: "Strawberries, cherries and the Angel's kissing spring..."; and I have loved it ever since. I also heard a very snappy Tamil film number which somewhere said something like : "those *strawberry eyes*!".

And I remember a rainy evening in Trieste, Italy, more than a decade ago. Walking the lonely streets, I ventured into a brightly lit ice-cream bar and asked the attender - out of my phrase book - "fragOla, per favore!". He (he was a huge guy with an appropriately pink face) corrected me: "no fragOla, frAgola!" and scooped out a coneful of absolutely terrific strawberry gelato.

In hindsight, it is almost incredible that although I have been in Pune for several years now and Mahabaleshwar, the home of Indian strawberries, is close by, I *never* tried the whole fruit till the other day (the brief annual strawberry season is on and they are being sold on the streets). Anticlimax: For all the wonderful jam, juice and ice-cream they generate and flavor, whole strawberries tasted quite sour and uninteresting; indeed they look infinitely better than they taste.

Anyways, I bought a big heap and helped our local guardians clean and cut them and mix with an equal measure of sugar and a smattering of some special ingredients and pack them into a big porcelain jar, where they will rest for three weeks.

It's still January, but I am already waiting for Valentine's day (like strawberries, V-day is another thing I came to know about rather late in life) - to hopefully get drunk on some 'fresh winter wine' - by a potentially delicious coincidence, the 3 week 'vinification period' will get over exactly on Feb 14th.

While on V-day, Geoffrey Chaucer allegedly said something like: "Saint Valantine's day .. every bird choose his mate". Well, Valentine's is not only about the birds; it is about the birds and the bees - Sorry!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Some Children's Stories

Once upon a time, in Kerala, there was a very popular Children's Magazine called 'Balarama' (maybe it is still active; it was/is from the 'Manorama' stable of publications). Several of the stories it published affected me very profoundly in my childhood. Let me record the gist of a few from memory; I dedicate this post to those of my generation who felt their 'impact'.

1. Baiju is a curious little boy; one sunny morning, he is at play in his garden when he suddently gets the idea of planting a rose cut. He persistently asks his dad for help. Daddy is resting in the patio - he is diabetic and has been told by the doctor to take rest but Baiju desperately wants his help. Daddy relents, walks over to a neighbor and returns with a rose branch with a blood-red flower still on it. Now is the bother of planting. Daddy fetches a spade and they set to work.

Suddenly, Mummy comes upon the scene and scolds Daddy: "Hey, you, what is this?working in the sun! Shall I go and tell the Doc?". Daddy looks up guiltily at Mummy, suddenly, his face goes ashen and he presses his chest and sinks to the ground. Mummy frantically calls for help...

The next little Baiju remembers people lifting Daddy into a car and a sobbing Mummy getting in too and they driving off. He does not know what is going on but he cries anyways...

Later in the evening, a white van drives up and someone helps Mummy out; she is nearly unconscious and Daddy lies in the van, seemingly fast asleep. A terrible night passes; the next day Baiju is taken to the churchyard where his Daddy is being packed in a big black box and lowered into a pit. Again, nobody tells him what is going on.

That night, Baiju goes up to Mummy who is still sobbing and asks: "Why did they plant Daddy? Will he sprout and there will be many Daddies?". Mummy hugs him tight with a loud wail; he does not know why she is crying so much but he feels strangely sad so he too cries...

2. Appu is a little boy who lives with his mother and maternal grandmother. He sometimes asks them about father. Then his grandmother sometimes weeps but his mother never cries; well, she often says: "I have no tears left".

One day, a letter arrives. His grandmother is terribly upset over it; mother does not say anything for a while but then says: "let me take some rest; got a terrible headache!"

Sometime later, Appu sees his mother say: "The headache is not going away; let me take some medicine!". He watches as she swallows tablet after tablet. Why should she take so many of them, he wonders. Well, maybe she is big so her pain is also big and so she may need many of those little tablets. Having taken the medicine, mother retires to her room.

A little later, Appu goes in and sees his mother sleeping peacefully. He calls her but she does not respond. And why has she turned so cold, like ice-candy?

Grandmother comes in, holds mother's hand, then touches her nose, then screams aloud: "Oh, my poor daughter!". She bursts into hysterical weeping. Appu watches helplessly then he feels bad for grandmother and his tears begin to flow as well...

3. A little girl wanders the streets of an indifferent city, looking for food. As long as she can remember, she has been among some people who used to make her beg for money, give her some scraps to eat and beat her often. Today, she has lost them in a crowd.

She is hungry and her feet are blistered; nobody seems concerned. She knocks at a door and they set a dog on her. She begs at a shop and is slapped...

By sunset, she staggers onto the beach. There are many children and their parents and they are all having a good time, playing and munching on various goodies; and they all shoo her away.

Night falls, and the darkness creeps into her heart as well; she steps into the calm sea; the waves gently lap at her feet, as if softly calling her to come in. She says: "At least here, I am welcome" and wades into the deeper waters, farther and farther away from the unkind city...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Our Music, Their Music

This longish post has two main parts and a 'tail-piece'.
Part 1:
Read in some newspaper recently some exponents of Hindustani classical music complaining of not getting sufficient opportunities to perform in the south - especially in Chennai, the Carnatic 'headquarters'. One of the comments - by a noted Vocalist -was something like "there is a lack of awareness of the Hindustani music in Chennai and the south in general".

Mr.Vocalist is plain wrong there. Hindustani music is far better known and appreciated in the south - Chennai included - than Carnatic music is in even *almost south* Pune (not to speak of the north proper). I myself, as much of a southie as anybody, acquired a strong liking for Hindustani music (and actually grew to enjoy it more than Carnatic) while a student in Chennai. And my 'initiators' were some other Southies and not evangelizing immigrants from the North. The music melas of Chennai may not give prominence to Hindustani but then how many Carnatic musicians get to perform at, say, the Sawai Gandharva festival in Pune? So, if at all anybody is playing 'us and them' with music, it is not (just) the Chennaiites (*).

But I do feel the remark at the top does highlight a deeper and wider fact - our classical art forms have generally shown great inertia in (or met with strong resistance while) percolating thru regional boundaries. To give an example: Kerala has produced arguably the richest variety of classical percussion instruments and musical forms *in the world*. But the brilliantly sophisticated percussion-based ensemble art-forms like 'Panchavadyam', 'Tayambaka', 'Panchari', etc.. are seldom heard by non-Mallu Indians (Firangees seem to love them), not even by Tams; again Kathakali is seen only by Mallus and Firangees!

Indeed, apart from some sub-genres of Hindustani music, Bharatanatyam is probably the only classical art form which has something like an all-India reach. It is widely learned in the north (far more than Kathak is in the south, thus sort of offsetting the Carnatic vs. Hindustani imbalance :) - nobody seems to bother about the language in which the 'padams' are written or any such regionalisms). Indeed, this year's Sawai festival in Pune featured a Bharatanatyam performance by Alarmel Valli - not surprisingly, probably the only southie performer here.

(*) Kerala has produced a talented Hindustani vocalist in Ramesh Narayan but I know of nobody from the north (seriously talented or otherwise) who has seriously taken up Carnatic music. Moreover, for over a hundred years, Kerala has had small but strong pockets of Hindustani musicians and their (native) fans - in Calicut and old Cochin for example. Gifted North-bred musicians have even come and settled in Kerala (I could give the name of Sharatchandra Marathe). And as early has early 19th century, at the court of Swati Tirunal, the composer-ruler of Travancore, Hindustani musicians were welcomed - and 'Swati' himself (yes, to the uninitiated, he was a he!) composed a few pieces in Hindustani style.

Part 2:

Yes, it is indeed true that Carnatic music has diffused more slowly and has far less of a following than Hindustani. Folks have thought about this and many explanations have been given. Let me try to dissect a few, from an interested layman's perspective:

1. "The text of Carnatic musical compositions is in regional languages which northern listeners cannot relate to." - I would say, that is totally beside the point. The intelligibility of lyrics is almost a non-issue. Most of the finest Carnatic Kritis are in (archaic) Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit. These languages are almost as unfamiliar to a modern Mallu or Tam as to an average northie. Indeed the Telugu of Tyagaraja, so full of solid sanskrit words and phrases would be almost equidistant from a Mallu and a UP-wallah. And Tyagaraja's work is much better appreciated in Tamil Nadu than in Telugu speaking AP. Moreover, the lyrics of Hindustani bandishes are often in highly non-standard Hindi and even guys like self who know standard Hindi fairly well, need to keep a dictionary handy to understand them. So much for intelligibility.

2. "Carnatic music is overly devotional" - Yes, standard Carnatic kritis are almost purely devotional but then, once lyrics are ignored (as most listeners anyway do, whatever their level of familiarity with the words), this over-religious aspect is 'neutralized'. Moreover, most hard-core Hindustani lovers do not disown those sub-genres in Hindustani (Dhrupad etc) which are purely devotional, lyrics-wise.

3. "Carnatic music leaves less room for improvisation, is too system-bound" - Well, maybe partially right. Hardly any Carnatic vocalist does a pure raga rendition which goes on for more than a few minutes - unlike his Hindustani counterpart, over half of whose performance could be taken up by the 'alaap'. But I am at a loss as to why lack of (scope for) on the spot improvisation should limit the appeal of any genre of music to *listeners* (people flock to live music shows where orchestras perform hit film numbers exacty as they are recorded in the movie) - although practitioners could enjoy more a genre which allows them to freak out with greater freedom.

But this "greater freedom" observation in favor of Hindustani music does have a problem. Hindustani musicians, given their greater improvisational opportunities and skills ought to make far better original composers. But if one looks at the orchestral music composers we have had, two of the very best - Ilayaraja and Rahman -have come from a background which merged Carnatic, Western and Southern Folk idioms with very little Hindustani. No Bollywood composer has ever approached their levels of ingenuity and improvisation. The best Hindustani-grounded orchestral composers - Naushad, Jaidev, Madan Mohan, Vasant Desai,... - though brilliant in select genres have not quite had the sweep or inventiveness of the aforementioned southern maestros(**). And 'Shiv-Hari', both fine individual Hindustani exponents, could only create a ripple or two as orchestral composers.

4. "Carnatic music is monopolized by Tamil Brahmins" - Well, some of the major music melas and institutions in Chennai may be dominated by TamBram cliques but that in itself can hardly limit the reach of Carnatic music, at least *among listeners*; to my knowledge, music organizations in Chennai do not caste-screen those who come to attend their programs, even if they *might* have community biases in selecting performers. Another piece of info: Kerala, almost next door to Chennai, has a solid following for Carnatic music and good, well-trained Carnatic musicians come from *all* communities. Mallu Christian Yesudas settled in Chennai and made a big name for himself in the (allegedly TamBram) Carnatic music circle there. And even in Tamil Nadu, there have been highly acclaimed non Brahmin musicians - Palani Subramaniam Pillai, Sheikh Chinna Moulana,.. - although they may be a minority among the elite.

And I have even heard a statement that "it is due to TamBram dominance and machinations that Hindustani musicians are not invited to perform in Chennai". This can only be sheer nonsense. Chennai has a strong north Indian presence and is in fact, almost a cosmopolitan city (although it may be so in a visible way); and the barely 5% TamBram minority there cannot possibly prevent the majority from bringing in the musicians they want.

Let me give a similar - and to self, equally absurd - communal analysis. "Goa has less than 40 percent Christian population. The great majority of the good (and almost all outstanding) Goan footballers are Christian. *So*, there is a Christian lobby at work there preventing the other communities from coming up in football!". And even in music, almost all performers of aforementioned Keralan percussion ensemble forms hail from a few numerically small and exclusive Castes (indeed, the communal localization of these art-forms far outstrips that of Carnatic music) but folks from every community patronize them.

5. "Carnatic music does not have sub-genres like the Ghazal or Thumri which have greater immediate (plebian) appeal". Not entirely true. The musical accompaniment to Bharatanatyam or Mohiniattam (the 'padams' etc..) are songs set to music in a lightened classical way and express a myriad of human emotions not explored in the Kritis. But not many seems interested in these songs as a sub-genre of music apart from their role as play-back to dance forms. They are not yet quite the equivalent of ghazals but can have a similar 'introductory' impact, I guess. Similar could be the effect of semi-classical devotional genres like 'Tevaram' etc. I don't know enough to speculate further on these matters. But I do know that 'Kathakali padams' have been marketed as purely musical works in Kerala.

Now let me put forth a couple of very personal reasons for preferring Hindustani to Carnatic. The former has a much greater variety of instruments which are more pleasing to the non-expert's ear. In immediate appeal, the tabla beats the mridangam (although the latter is said to be far more sophisticated an instrument), the sitar wins against the chitraveena,... and then there is the sarod, the santoor,... It is only in the wind department that Carnatic flute slightly outscores the hefty bansuri in sweetness - while yielding ground on the gravitas front. I would say the Carnatic violin is *not* distinctly more pleasant than the Hindustani sarangi. And I find the Carnatic 'muharshankh' and sometimes, even the ghatam(***), irritating.

Then there are certain parts of a Carnatic performance which I personally find difficult to enjoy - I find 'Taniyavartanam' a bit of a repetitive drag. And I find the 'sa-re-ga' taans in Carnatic less pleasant than the 'aa-aa' of Hindustani. Moreover, I suspect, quality or performers-wise, Carnatic music may be going thru a rather lean patch now. Anyways, that should be enough of personal info!

(**) Hindi film composers SD Burman and Salil Chaudhari have shown far greater range and innovation than Naushad et al. But they are not from a primarily Hindustani background. Indeed their relation to Hindustani is akin to, say, Ilayaraja's to Carnatic. So, the point that could be made is: A deep grounding in Hindustani music has not yielded greater inventiveness in orchestral composition.

(***) - my own dislike of the Ghatam has also a fair bit to do with a particularly obnoxious physicist I used to know having also been some sort of professional Ghatam player!

I can recount a personal experience. A certain hardcore Mumbaikar once responded to my claim that "No Bollywood composer ever was better than Ilayaraja" with "Well, at present (it was in early nineties) Bollywood is going thru a bad time. But in good old days, we certainly have had composers who could easily beat Ilayaraja - SD Burman, RD Burman,.... ". And he went on rattling off names ".... Madan Mohan, C. Ramachandra...".

And I said (for those were argumentative times): "Yes! I was just waiting for 'Ramachandra'. The list would have been incomplete without someone from Maharashtra, eh?"

Anyways, that expression of latent regionalism sort of exemplifies the key issue of 'regional barriers' that I have tried to highlight in this post.