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.

How wrong can one be, Noam, when one reads only the manufactured consent of the lal salaam?

[Posted on Facebook, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 at 15:15]

Here I reproduce the texts of two letters written by various people who are called intellectuals, most likely at the instance of one of the signatories. I know a lot of my friends seem to think very highly of these guys, but they are quite fallible, opinionated, and often speak of things that are best passed over in silence.

First, an open letter:

To Our Friends in Bengal.

News travels to us that events in West Bengal have overtaken the optimism that some of us have experienced during trips to the state. We are concerned about the rancour that has divided the public space, created what appear to be unbridgeable gaps between people who share similar values. It is this that distresses us. We hear from people on both sides of this chasm, and we are trying to make some sense of the events and the dynamics. Obviously, our distance prevents us from saying anything definitive.

We continue to trust that the people of Bengal will not allow their differences on some issues to tear apart the important experiments undertaken in the State (land reforms, local self-government).

We send our fullest solidarity to the peasants who have been forcibly dispossessed. We understand that the government has promised not to build a chemical hub in the area around Nandigram. We understand that those who had been dispossessed by the violence are now being allowed back to their homes, without recrimination. We understand that there is now talk of reconciliation. This is what we favour.

The balance of forces in the world is such that it would be impetuous to split the Left. We are faced with a world power that has demolished one state (Iraq) and is now threatening another (Iran). This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist.

Noam Chomsky, author, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy; Tariq Ali, author, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope and editor, New Left Review; Howard Zinn, author, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress; Susan George, author, Another World is Possible if, and Fellow, Transnational Institute; Victoria Brittain, co-author, Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back, former editor, Guardian; Walden Bello, author, Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmaking of the American Empire, and Chair, Akbayan, the fastest growing party in the Philippines; Mahmood Mamdani, author, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War and the Roots of Terror; Akeel Bilgrami, author, Politics and the Moral Psychology of Identity; Richard Falk, author, The Costs of War: International Law, the UN and World Order After Iraq; Jean Bricmont, author, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War; Michael Albert, author, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, and editor, ZNET; Stephen Shalom, author, Imperial Alibis: Rationalizing US Intervention After the Cold War; Charles Derber, author, People Before Profit: The New Globalization in an Age of Terror, Big Money and Economic Crisis; Vijay Prashad, author, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World.

And then, when this letter raised the hackles of several people in India including Mahashweta Devi and others, for almost every statement therein was contestable if not downright false, there followed the second letter:

We are taken aback by a widespread reaction to a statement we made with the best of intentions, imploring a restoration of unity among the left forces in India – a reaction that seems to assume that such an appeal to overcome divisions among the left could only amount to supporting a very specific section of the CPM in West Bengal. Our statement did not lend support to the CPM’s actions in Nandigram or its recent economic policies in West Bengal, nor was that our intention. On the contrary, we asserted, in solidarity with its Left critics both inside and outside the party, that we found them tragically wrong. Our hope was that Left critics would view their task as one of putting pressure on the CPM in West Bengal to correct and improve its policies and its habits of governance, rather than dismiss it wholesale as an unredeemable party. We felt that we could hope for such a thing, of such a return to the laudable traditions of a party that once brought extensive land reforms to the state of West Bengal and that had kept communal tensions in abeyance for decades in that state. This, rather than any exculpation of its various recent policies and actions, is what we intended by our hopes for ‘unity’ among the left forces.

We realize now that it is perhaps not possible to expect the Left critics of the CPM to overcome the deep disappointment, indeed hostility, they have come to feel towards it, unless the CPM itself takes some initiative against that sense of disappointment. We hope that the CPM in West Bengal will show the largeness of mind to take such an initiative by restoring the morale as well as the welfare of the dispossessed people of Nandigram through the humane governance of their region, so that the left forces can then unite and focus on the more fundamental issues that confront the Left as a whole, in particular focus on the task of providing with just and imaginative measures an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism that has caused so much suffering to the poor and working people in India.


Michael Albert, Tariq Ali, Akeel Bilgrami, Victoria Brittain, Noam Chomsky, Charles Derber, Stephen Shalom

On Authenticity

[Posted on Facebook Sunday, 02 November 2008 at 21:52]

The Hindu's Literary Review Section today carried a shortened version of Amitava Kumar's article in the Boston Review on Adiga's (Aravind, not the Kannada poet Gopalakrishna Adiga) "The White Tiger". Amitava Kumar, who confesses to the religion of realism, is exercised by a lack of authenticity in Adiga's novel . Not having read it --- which I won't until the hype about the book dies down --- I cannot state my verdict on this matter. Some of Amitava Kumar's problems with Adiga's novel arise from finding something, or rather several things, at variance with one's "lived experience" (horrid phrase). Something that the consciousness of continuity deems counterfeit. Es klinkt nicht.

How many of us can easily accept Wendy O'Flaherty's dating of the Ramayana after the Mahabharata and both after the Buddha? And why, while I sympathize and identify with Martha Nussbaum's positions, do I find her descriptions of the contemporary Indian politics to be not quite right? However, we may not always have Popperian grounds for ruling something inauthentic: Memory, lived experience and consciousness can be fickle, unreliable and devious, and much of what we perceive to be the truth may be coloured by our emotions, or how we would like the truth to be.

Apart from circumscribing the ambit of the writer, the quest for authenticity can be treacherous. Painstaking attempts at verisimilitude may betray not only an anxiety about authenticity but also the author. In "The Namesake", Jhumpa Lahiri has Gogol's mother remembering boarding a Jumbo Jet in Calcutta circa 1968-69, though the Jumbos (747's) were commercially introduced only in 1970. What tastes authentic to Dionysus may not seem right to Apollo's palate.

Some years ago, I was with my father at the funeral of Kanu Kesavan, a woman of formidable capability whose dry, matter-of-fact humour perfectly complemented the sheer exhuberance and flamboyance of her husband, the legendary B. S. Kesavan. Her sons, Sudhakar and Mukul, had arranged for a priest from an Iyengar sect to conduct the rites in accordance with the tradition that they felt Kesavan's family would have observed. The vadyar (priest) went about the rituals in a business-like manner, with curt instructions to the sons punctuating a staccato intonation of the Vedic hymns: place a hand here, pour a drop of ghee there, ... In the midst of it all, his cell phone rang, the ringtone being a Vedic chant. Without breaking off from the rites, and almost in the same sing-song tone, he informed the caller in Tamil that he was conducting "a function".

During the funerary rites, Mukul, a historian and author, came up to my father to ascertain whether the rituals were being conducted in an authentic way. My father, who had no great regard for rituals, nodded as if in assent. When he recovered what little voice Parkinson's permitted him, he whispered to me, "If Kesavan had been here, he would have pulled this priest up by the scruff of his neck, and boxed his ears for mispronouncing every other word." Now that would have been truly authentic.