Sunday, March 4, 2012

Frisell's Trio at the Blue Note, and a walk in the Village: 22.1.2012

Not an afro dizzy act
The music was mellow
The brushes, thrumming, and the bass
An upright plucky fellow.

Ron was the trio's anchor,
He played in many styles.
The fluid walking bass line --
Quintetessentially from Miles.

Bill played many subtle strains
Finding the right note.
Complex airs, soft refrains,
An aural anecdote.

Joey laid down a gentle groove
With his sticks and with his hand;
The mallets on the cymbals
The sound of this jazz band.

The gatemen attempted witty
Better early they said than late.
Though sitting there wasn't pretty
The night was worth the wait.

In this naked city,
A change is gonna come.
A tapped-on fret, a pull off then
Fingers on the drum.

Two Pomerazz martinis
To get into the mood
A platter of fruit and cheese
Was more than enough food.

The melody, chords and rhythm,
Turned towards the blues,
The players virtuoso
And Euterpe the muse.

Was the manchego kiwixotic?
Grape, apple, strawberry,
The baguette somewhat sweetish,
I hit a bleu note with the brie.

The other drink was mouthwash
Should have had it afterwards
When walking round the Village
And playing with no words.

The couple walked around the Square
With a Bleecker view of life;
They walked trying not to be
A Husband and a Wife.

A window held vibrations
With the good Lord's prayer.
A dobro in Umanov's,
Gaiety in the cold night air.

These boots are made for walking
Though they're not of UGGly hide.
These lines were meant for crossing
But thank you for the ride.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

27 February 2002

A memory. Ten years ago to the day, my father was in hospital, AIIMS, one of many occasions (after a seizure I think). We came in post dinner, bringing him and my mother some supplies from home. My father had listened to the 9 o'clock news on the radio, an old habit of his. "A terrible thing has happened", he said to me as I walked into the room. "There was a fire in a railway coach full of kar sewaks. In Gujarat". His ability to decode the phrasing of the AIR news report was still impeccable. As was his reading of the political atmosphere that prevailed in Gujarat. "I only hope there aren't widespread riots". Unfortunately he was all too right in his fears.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A 1987 review of Peter Brook's "Mahabharata"

I have not written about Peter Brook's "Mahabharata", which I saw a month ago at the remodeled Majestic Theater in Brooklyn, spread over three nights (there also was a 9+ hour hour staging). It stopped well short of greatness. Arthur Bonner said it was awful! The reviews, too, were generally mixed. I think it was greatly overrated and tended to become gimmicky. The first two parts moved well (in pace) and were enjoyable. The game of dice itself wasn't very well done, and the emotions involved just did not get conveyed. The third part ("The War") left me disappointed -- there wasn't the vibrancy one expects, especially having been brought up seeing battle scenes in Yakshagana. The Gita itself was reduced to one minute of whispering between two actors, followed by a cringeworthy one minute of Vishwaroopadarshan -- it was terrible because the actor who played Krishna had a rather pompous affectation (somehow RADA did not go well with Krishna here!). The conclusion of the play was, to use a popular Americanism, "wimpy".

The play had its moments though. The theater had been imaginatively modeled, left half stripped down, with a clay stage that had a canal at the back and a pool up front. The best thing about the play was the sets -- the Indian textiles and handicrafts that were used. A lot of the stagecraft was imaginative -- the use of space and the stage, but at times got contrived, especially the pyrotechnics. It (the stagecraft) was fortunately not confined to second-hand renderings of Indian folk theatre and dance drama, but dipped into far-eastern theatre and possibly also African theatre.

A lot has been written about the multi-ethnic cast. Initially the variety of accents was distracting, but I soon found myself enjoying the non-English tones far more than the English ones. Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi and the actress who played Gandhari were excellent. Duryodhana, Karna, Yudhishthira, Bhima and Drona were well acted. Krishna and, to a lesser extent, Vyasa, definitely not.

I haven't seen Carriere's text (the English version), but not much stood out. The only scenes which transcended theatre were the scenes where Pandu is cursed by the dying doe, and when Yudhishthira answers Yama's questions at the lake. The other powerful scenes, such as Kunti's revelation to Karna, come from the epic itself.

On the other hand , the depiction of supremely tragic moments such as when Yudhishthira replies to Drona that Ashwaththhama (and sotto voce "the elephant") is dead, or when Krishna breaks every rule of war, led to audience reactions which indicated that they felt that these were (Ollie North style) "neat ideas". Maybe that is how the US society views war tactics in these Reagan years.

I really cannot recall anything remarkable about the music. It was not as engaging as in folk Indian theatre, and id not seem inventive rhythmically or melodically.

No, the play did not have more than "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead".

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ang Li Piano Concert: 16.7.2011 at IIC

  1. Richard Wagner (transcribed by Franz Liszt S.447. Not sure if it was the 1867 version or 1875 version) Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
  2. Lu Wencheng (piano tr. Jiyang Chen): Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake
  3. Alexina Louie: Memories of an Ancient Garden
  4. Franz Schubert: Lieder

    1. (transcribed Franz Liszt) Wohin?
    2. (transcribed Franz Liszt) Der Muller und der Bach
    3. (transcribed Franz Liszt) Gretchen am Spinnrade

  5. Franz Liszt: Consolations No. 2 in E major
  6. Franz Liszt: Les jeux d'eaux `a la Villa d'Este
  7. Franz Liszt: Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
  8. Franz Liszt: Ballade No. 2 in B minor

Friday, May 27, 2011

Kotage Industry?

The Indian Express carried an editorial "The 10,000 hour rule" (Friday, May 27, 2011) about the Indian Institutes of Technology Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) and the throbbing, humming coaching industry in Kota, Rajasthan.

I write this as a person who was once "world-class" (whatever that means) but is now mediocre. That is, I am a computer science graduate from an IIT (26 years ago) and now teach at one (for the last 17 years).

For the IIT system, the enormous mind space that the IITs and the JEE occupy in the consciousness and aspirations of children (and their parents) across the country is good news, for it ensures that the brightest minds aspire to study at these institutions. What we do with these bright minds is a matter currently being hotly debated (but is certainly a matter of great concern to the more thoughtful of my colleagues).

The editorial is correct in stating that there are several heart-warming stories about children from small towns making good on their dreams of getting into an IIT. They have been able to prove themselves at the national level by excelling in an exam that has (so far) avoided being compromised by the worst that ails the country. (I am not however stating that the JEE is a terrific, infallible examination.) Indeed, one of the strengths of the IITs (perhaps due to the entrance test) is that they are remarkably egalitarian, and have been successful in bringing together a very diverse (by almost all social measures) set of students. Further, the institutes are able to treat all their students as equals, and have been instrumental in admitting people who may have had several social disadvantages into an elite, without falling prey to the follies of elitism.

However, this obsession with getting into an IIT comes with a fair share of curses. Some of them have serious social implications which need addressing, but I do not discuss here the despair that afflicts those who do not make the cut in the IIT-JEE.

Let us look instead at what this obsession does to the IITs and the JEE itself. To cater to the large number of aspirants, the examination has become one with Multiple Choice Questions, a format mistakenly called "objective". What such an examination cannot measure is a deep understanding of concepts and how to apply them creatively; nor can it test students on formal proofs and rigorous mathematical/scientific communication. It tends to favour formulaic questions, for which there can be coaching. And this is the real bane of our education systems. Coaching students to "crack an exam" has become a substitute for teaching and learning. It is perhaps worthwhile being reminded that one cannot get coached for creativity, innovation and the generation of knowledge (or even what is described by that abominable phrase "intellectual property"), since these aspects of life do not come with "cheat codes" that can be perfected. And these are precisely the capabilities we expect of the products of our top educational institutions. I'm tempted to guess that the alumni who have made the IITs proud would have gotten in, excelled and gone on to excel in their professions without any coaching.

The Kota phenomenon, where 50,000 students migrate there for two or more years, often with one or both parents, may be sociologically interesting, but is at the expense of the school system. Have the editorial writers of The Indian Express closely looked at what transpires at schools in that city? Moreover, this kind of intense coaching severely distorts the lives of these young people, robbing them of their adolescent years, and of other facets of life. Students who spend 10-12 hours a day, sinking in Rs 200,000-300,000 on tuitions turn out to be not well rounded, not well read, rather sedentary and with poor social skills and graces. They have been brainwashed into a phony notion of their excellence based on a one-time performance in an examination which they have "gamed", not by virtue of their innate abilities and creativity at solving problems. Some years ago, when the issue of caste-based quotas came up, I was not sure whether Quota posed any harder challenges to our pedagogical methods and standards than the Kota phenomenon did.

I have not conducted a scientific study on this matter, and my information is informal and anecdotal, gleaned from conversations with students. Of the approximately 100 computer science majors at IIT Delhi whom I teach in each batch (all drawn from the top 0.1 percent of JEE aspirants) relatively few are from Kota; moreover, if one considers those who have performed extremely well up till their senior year ("the A grade students"), those from Kota form a negligible number. This is perhaps not very surprising, since a good computer scientist requires abstraction and analytic abilities as well as the capacity to synthesize, and moreover should be able to work with rigorous formalisms and express himself or herself in precise formal language. I am not sure the so-called objective entrance examination for which students have been coached correlates well with these abilities.

May I also remind the editorial writers that the "10,000 hour rule", articulated in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" and to which the title of the editorial alludes, is a necessary condition for genius, not a sufficient one? Indeed, when teaching Logic, I find that this distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions, which was so obvious to my class some years back, is increasingly difficult to convey to this class of hyper-coached supposed geniuses. Perhaps there is a simple explanation --- Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule applies to obsessive practice at something constructive, not "cracking exams".

Friday, April 15, 2011


Let us chat then of thee and me.
Two states. (Not that book, hawked at crossroads)
Two different worlds.
Eigenstates: all of you
And all of me
And all of thee-and-me
In Superposition.
Which leads to that ineluctable question:
Why didn't they teach us about entanglement?
When one cannot be described fully without the other.
Spukhafte Fernwirkung,
Action at a distance.
But how far apart? One foot
Or two continents?

Das Rätsel dieser Welt löst weder Du noch ich,
Jene geheime Schrift liest weder Du noch ich.
Wir wüssten beide gern, was jener Schleier birgt,
Doch wenn der Schleier fällt, bist weder Du noch ich.

Me for you and euphemism.
Specular thoughts from a prism.

Let us go then from this place
Lest we collapse back into our eigenstates
On being measured.
{It will be a good half hour if the Czarina summons me.}
Let us then to the thee-me park.
The Flower Garden of my Hart.
I wonder how you feel today.
Are you just a ray of sunshine in a Hilbert Space?
Schroedinger's ket?
Do we seek coherence or decoherence?
{Can there be a conjugal Hermitian existence?}

I have known this place better than the back of my hand.
I have squelched through its marshes and ponds,
And hidden my cigarettes in the crevices of its walls.
I have seen the mists rising from the tombs,
The ghosts from under the vaults.
I have climbed the bat-smelly stairways
With dog, bottle and pack
To do what the young are wont to.
I have scuffed out scrawled protestations of eternal love.
I have leapt from turret to turret
Without a thought of "Do I dare"
I have traced the trellis work with my fingers
Like a lover would trace her beloved's face.

The tomb sits like a Pharaoh,
Its eastern arm a modest serai,
The more ornate western arm a mosque,
The grave torso cradled an amorphous lump.
Brave the bats and their stench
And we had a vertiginous perch (now off limits).
In front, sits an attendant tomb bejewelled in blue.
The sun beats down in its afternoon glory
Feeding the plants while drying them the same.
The stone walls stall its triumphant path
And shelter mustiness from its glare.
And all the infections that it would suck up,

Let us go then through these tombs
Where dead beats deaden their senses.
Let us O my dove.
Let's do it.
Let's do it again.
How say you?
Ma Muse M'amuse

This is not the time, this is not the place.
But there will be a time and place,
Always, where we can.
Where we dip into and cross the linear demarcation.
Breathless? Breathe in deep,
The art of loving.
ars amandi
Free home delivery.

The dome echoes.
This is not the place.
Not the place.
How long has this been going on?

The fading calendula look like
The ghosts of olden daffodils.
I can hear the birds chirping
Babblers babbling, koels kooh-ing
I can smell the roses over the stench of the water.
But where are the dogs?
(I liked it when this park went to the dogs.)
Sam the collie and Piloo's brace of Irish
(Which looked like his wife).
There was a Rottweiler, you say,
And your Tibetan who got away.

I led you not up the garden path.
But garden paths on which sandals
Took us past a thousand scandals;
The first and the rest, the lesser loves,
Created how much by imagination.
Canoodling couples twisted like helices
A to T, C to G.
The first circle of blooming hell.
The second circle, we did not cross.
Was it timidity, that I took you by the wrist?
Awkwardly, not by arm or hand.
Was I thinking "Do I dare"?
Naa cheyyi patti viduvaka
As we danced through the treacherous traffic.

This is the house that Jack built.
This is the room in the house that Jack built.
That is the window, the door, in the room of the
House that Jack built.

No habrá nunca una puerta. Estás adentro
y el alcázar abarca el universo
y no tiene ni anverso ni reverso
ni externo muro ni secreto centro.

A door which has no key
Blocks the stairway to the heavens
A walled up arch.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate
Was not written on the keystone.
Enjoy the view.
Dante saw Beatrice but twice.
And yet, he mused.
Would they have texted each other
As teenagers do,
If they could have?

The fortification has always embraced weeds
With the grave of the Sultan.
The ornamentation is spare.
These were no Moguls.
Parapets cracked by the usury of the days,
Here dwelt the num'rous Afghan tribes of old.
And ruled this land, with murdering arms,
Led it in horrid wars accurs'd.

'किस पथ से जाऊँ?'
अलग-अलग पथ बतलाते सब
But we cross the walled-in pond
{Where did that zig-zag bridge go?}
Archways of sweet-peas cover the slope
Is there hope? Is there hope?
Nannu broche.

Me for you and euphemism
Refracted rays from the prism.

An Indian summer follows Spring
Estoy muy caliente y que estan sudorosas,
Or was it the other way.
And what is that I have under my skin? Or on it?
Or was it you who had it under yours? Or on it?
We are seeking each other.
Would today be the last of this waiting.
We're thirsty for frothy and trite:
मैं तेरा प्यासा प्याला
I have seen the tourists smile,
You think she smiles at me.
Thank you for air conditioning,
Shampoo for hair conditioning.
Half step down to freshen up
Or half step up, to dress down?

There is time for tea
And coffee, or not coffee.
Cold, Thank you.
Tea for two and two for tea.
Shall I play mummy?
{She may think I am a dummy,
Or call your bluff, or some such stuff}
Am I being too sarky?
You can pour too.
One lump or two? None for me
I have no equal.

Why do you gaze at me? Are you thinking
Can one small head carry all that balderdash?
(But past is my fame. My fifteen minutes.)
Or that the boy was right, the belly is jelly
The hair nearly not there.
You go to my head with your eyes.
Or are you perplexed by a callous insistence?
A strange persistence. Resistance.

Two lives, a first, a second.
And if they're crossed, where does the normal lie?
When they collide, if they do,
Will they be two tectonic plates
An upheaval, or will they
Quietly slip into familiar imposition?
Eppur si muove.

I see my father's editor holding court.
{Did she pay him for his last few reviews?}
What was that phrase amour courtois?
Nirvana's partner. No, no. That's not it, of course.
There is talk of Hair, thick (yours) and thin (mine)
And the eternal braid.
{Not Goedel, Escher, Bach,
though I have my Escher map in my car}
The braid that twists back meanings,
Turning words into themselves in a hairy pun.

A remark you made.
Of all the things you are.
Or was that me?
Of what do we talk?
It matters little, for we swirl away
Into our eigenstates, disentangled,
Were you disconcerted or worse, dispirited?
Are we someplace else? Here there and nowhere?
A baby chil's shriek rends the air.
The birds steal March from us.
The thee-me park has lost its magic,
It dies a little with each goodbye.
What do those grey-blue circles cover?
The eternal driver summons
Or was he summoned?
What knows he of the pain
Of finite yearning hearts?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Recollections about Gangubai

[Posted on Facebook, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 at 23:50]

I was perhaps 4 or 5 years old when I was first introduced to Gangubai Hangal's singing. My parents had taken me to listen to her at a concert at the Shankarlal Music Festival. Those days it was held in the grounds of Modern School Barakhamba Road, under a pandal. It was late at night, way past the bedtime of a child, but then I wasn't in school yet, and so was there rolling on the striped dhurries spread on the ground. I can't recall the ragas she sang -- I suppose they may have included Maru Behag and Chandrakauns -- but I couldn't escape the striking impression of a small lady sitting with one hand to her ear being transformed into a powerful roaring lion, a great big voice that brought you face to face with the heart of Hindustani music.

From then on, till I was out of my teens, we unfailingly heard her sing live whenever she came to Delhi. What was remarkable was that my father, who worked long hours for a most demanding boss, would make time to be there for almost every concert of hers. Over the next few years, thanks to their Kannada connection and some common acquaintances, Smt Vijaya Mulay and her sister Ambike for instance, we got to know Gangubai personally. In the 70s and 80s she stayed with us on more than a few occasions when she visited Delhi. She and her troupe lived a frugal austere life, travel by train "sleeper, not fuss class". And their staying arrangements were simple quite unlike the 5 star splurges lesser artists had begun indulging themselves in. I'd be made to move my things out of my room, and we'd move in a couple of extra beds for her, her daughter Krishna and her family to sleep there. In the daytime, the beds would be put together to make a makeshift stage on which she would practice, and my Miraj-made tanpura would be graced by the most illustrious hands that have handled it.

Once, when I was perhaps 13, I had a friend's guitar in the room, and she and Krishna-ji were immediately curious about its sound. They asked me to play and sing -- about the only song I could manage was Belafonte's "Jamaican Farewell". My modest performance was met with an almost childlike wonder that the notes sounded so much like the raga structure they were familiar with, and Krishna-ji immediately started humming a raga that used the same notes.

Gangubai-ji spoke with my parents in a dialect of Kannada which was not entirely familiar to me, so I'd speak with her in Hindi. But the subtlety and charm of her conversation came out so much more brilliantly in her mother tongue. She had a "nibbling wit", sharp but not biting, and often self-deprecating. After she was invested with the Padma Bhushan in 1971, she narrated how she was advised to wear a "sober-coloured sari" for the investiture ceremony. "Here I was fretting and worrying about what this 'sober' colour was, until someone told me that my sari was `sober' enough. And then when we got to Rashtrapati Bhawan, there was Mrs Saraswathi Giri wearing a yard of Zari, practically to her waist!"

She and Krishna-ji never failed to bring for us the very special Peda from Dharwar that they knew I was particularly fond of. I also had the wonderful experience of visiting them in their Hubli home in 1980, and was treated to her warm hospitality, and a complete tour of her modest house. Apart from introductions to members of the family whom I had only heard of but not met, the experience was special. To me, every nook seemed to carry a unique musical significance, as if a pakad from a raag had lodged itself behind a photo frame, or in the arm of a chair.

Over twenty years later, when she was in Delhi for a SPICMACAY event, she sang through the night, and I was sitting quietly in a corner, bleary-eyed but exhilarated, when Kiran Seth asked me to felicitate her with flowers at the end of the concert. Krishna-ji recognized me (after all the years), and told her mother, who immediately demanded of me whether my parents were there. I told her that my father was not too well, to which she readily countered, "But he is 10 years younger than I am". I promised to bring them over to her guesthouse room the next day. Their conversation was lively. One particular anecdote stood out. She related how in her youth she was at a music festival seated in a row of chairs, and had to pass in front of Kesarbai to go out. As she approached, the grand old lady stretched her leg out, halting the young Gangubai and keeping her in limbo, waiting until she, the reigning doyenne, deigned to lower her leg and let the younger musician pass. And while she stood there, Kesarbai spoke imperiously to her about "that man from your town" (namely Mallikarjun Mansur) "who has the effrontery to say he's of our gharana". The kind of musical tidbit that another exponent of her Kirana gharana, Sheila Dhar, would have brought to life for her readers.

Some years earlier, I'd taken my older son Siddhartha, who was about 6, to listen to her when she was singing at JNU, starting off the SPICMACAY Virasat series that year. After the concert, when I went over to meet her with Siddhartha in tow, she pointed remarked to him, "Kya gin rahe the jab main ga rahi thi? Taal seekh rahe ho kya?" Gangubai always loved to see her audience. She would invariably ask the organizers of a concert to not dim the lights in the hall. Music and the performance was close to worship, an experience to be shared with the audience. And in her small size and self-deprecating humility, there was a fierce pride in her achievements, her place in the constellation. She once famously turned down a plea from a political party to stand for local elections by saying that she had been born on this earth to be praised, not cursed by the commoners.

It's over 5 years since I last heard Gangubai singing in person. After the death of Krishna-ji she was disconsolate, and her own health began to deteriorate. My father's health was also failing, and their telephone conversations became fewer. But the last intimate memory I have is taking my sons to visit her and Krishna-ji at an apartment in the Asian Games village the morning after the Silver Jubilee celebrations of SPICMACAY over which she had presided as the senior-most musician (it was followed by a concert by her). On hearing that Aditya, then 5, too had started learning to sing, she made Siddhartha play the harmonium while Adu had to sing the bhajan that he had learnt. And then showered them with the Dharwar Pedas and a very unusual resin sweet.