Monday, January 31, 2011

Maya Bazar

Jan 9 2011, Sunday, 11:30 AM
Short Film – Maya Bazar, 1 hour by KM Madhusudhanan

The opening frame shows an artist painting his face. For too long.
The subsequent scene shows people in costumes on stage enacting what appears to be a mythological story. The dialogues are not audible but soon you know it does not matter. The theme of the film is not the play but a theatre company.

“This is film on Surabhi, a 120 year old travelling theatre company from Andhra Pradesh. The film also explores the traces of Parsi theatre, silent cinema from the Phalke era and the paintings of Ravi Verma in the design of the theatre company’s sets and costumes.”

While there is enough information available on the net on Surabhi, I shall pen facts that I learnt from the film.

Surabhi is a travelling theatre company that enacts stories from the inexhaustible reservoir of Indian mythology.
All of them belong to one family. These two put together make them unprecedented.
All tricks are their own and have never failed even once.

Although it was common for men to play the roles of women, this troupe had women among them.
In some of their performances the collection was 3-5 rupees, and expense to put up the show was 500 rupees.
Even if there is just one person in the audience, they perform. They have never dismantled the set without performing.
They use cheap make up since they need loads of it to dab on their faces and all over their body.
It is harmful for their skin - it eats into their skin – but they cannot afford other paints/make up as they need a whole lot of it.
Once, a pregnant woman played the role of a pregnant woman on stage. She went into labour on stage and gave birth to a baby girl.

While the subject of the film is a very interesting one, the film itself is slow moving, boring and does not do justice to the people whose story it is attempting to narrate.
Firstly, the film does not develop into a story but presents facts. It is too slow moving. Some of the frames showing people applying make-up last too long.

Most importantly, the film does not talk about the difficulties the troupe faced, how it overcame them, moments when they thought it was almost over, crises, victory stories, awards and recognitions....these omissions make the film rather bland.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Brief History Of Time - Stephen Hawking

Before anything is said about this book, I think one must salute the man, Stephen Hawking, for his brilliance, his sheer interest in work, in spite of his medical condition. If miracles are possible, may the first one revive him!

The first time I attempted to read the book was when I was 19 or so. I found it fascinating but put the book down after the 2nd chapter or 3rd, for some reason.

The second time I attempted it was when I was over 21 I think. By then I had completed 3 years of studying physics as part of my B.Sc. syllabus. I enjoyed the book. I savoured it actually, as I understood (from my own intimacy with physics) exactly what the author was saying. I remember I reached the chapter about particles and antiparticles and I was turned off as there was less and less of ‘relativity’ there onwards and more of ‘quantum mechanics’, a subject I did not like much. You know, it deals with the very small, ‘3 into ten to the power of minus 23’ and all. Both – negative numbers and very small magnitudes – don’t capture your imagination.

Last year, I finally decided I would read this book whole and soul.
I picked up the book with a lot of anticipation; but alas, I had lost touch with physics by then; how memory betrays you!
This time, I had to make an effort to put the concepts into perspective; something that had been so effortless, a few years ago.

The first few chapters are most interesting. Understandable and awe inspiring. But the last few chapters were difficult.

The theory of relativity - All observes should measure the same speed of light no matter how fast they are moving. This simple idea has remarkable consequences…

You can only be more and more thrilled as the one theory leads to another and puts an end to the concept of absolute space and then absolute time!

I began to struggle with the chapter Black Holes Ain’t So Black. In this chapter, Hawking somewhat contradicts the concepts he introduced in the previous chapter. In the chapter on Black holes, he says black holes have infinite gravity and infinite density and therefore nothing, not even light can escape black holes and therefore they are completely black. This made perfect sense. But in the next chapter, he says, black holes actually or apparently emit radiation! And this radiation is emitted not from the black hole itself but from the empty space or region outside the event horizon of a black hole. There are particle-antiparticle pairs one of them falling into the black hole and the other falling away from it. Sounds very hypothetical – one of those adjustments we make to reality in order to justify our own preconception –sounded like that.

And then, in order to avoid singularity at the beginning of the universe, time is measured using imaginary numbers – the stuff I studied in complex mathematics in college –‘ i’ (lower case of the 9th English alphabet) denotes the imaginary number which is the square root of minus one.

The wave particle theory was palatable. Particles can be considered as waves and waves as particles. But in the last few chapters, a string theory is introduced. All matter particles in their elementary form are strings; strings with open ends or closed ends. This again sounded improbable and fictitious. At least difficult to come to terms with.

I love the Theory Of Relativity. Deals with the very large – interplanetary distances, huge astral bodies, 100 times the size of sun, millions of years and all. Very fascinating!
But I don’t like Quantum Mechanics that much. It’s not fascinating, the effects aren’t observable & it’s not easy 2 imagine. It doesn’t capture your imagination.

As I read about the anthropic principle, I realized it was a concept I had conceived years ago without being able to put in clear words.

The anthropic principle can be paraphrased as ‘we see the universe the way it is because we exist’. This addresses speculation about why there is life only on earth? And such others that suggest mystery or divine intervention.

The anthropic principle, in other words states that in a universe that is large or infinite in space and/or in time, the conditions necessary for the development of intelligent life will be met only in certain regions that are limited in space and time.
The intelligent beings in these regions should therefore not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence.

It was common for people, to exclaim (especially when space exploration confirmed that there was no life on Mars, nor on Venus, nor Jupiter) that in this whole universe, life existed only on Earth! that oxygen was found only here! that our planet was at the perfect distance from Sun – any closer would have been too hot for us, and any farther, too cold! And then the right atmospheric pressure, the ozone layer to protect and so on… just how perfectly God had created everything for us!

And once or more, during one those of moments of epiphany, I had understood that “We are only the consequence of many complex incidental/accidental processes and not the purpose of all those”

In other words, we should not be surprised that all the million pieces should have fallen in place just right in our planet because for one instance where everything fell into place, there are a million instances in this universe where things did not fall in place. So our existence in this universe is no matter of bewilderment. It had to be this way by probability or chance.

So when I read about anthropic principle, I beamed with pride, that a concept discovered and expounded by famous scientists should be conceived by me in my childhood, without any guidance from anyone ! : - )

I made note of a few important points as I read.

Guth has remarked, “It is said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But the universe is the ultimate free lunch”

The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe.

We hope to find a complete consistent unified theory that would include all these partial theories as approximations, and that did not need to be adjusted to fit the facts by picking the values of certain arbitrary numbers in the theory. The quest for such a theory is known as ‘the unification of physics’. Einstein spent most of his later years unsuccessfully searching for a unified theory but the time was not ripe.

A completes consistent theory that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics (with its ‘Heisenberg uncertainty’ principle) is what we seek.

The forces that have to be unified are Gravitational force, electromagnetic force, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force.

The main difficulty in finding a theory that unifies gravity with the other forces is that general relativity is a classical theory; that is, it does not incorporate the principle of quantum mechanics.

Einstein objected to the element of unpredictability or randomness that quantum mechanics introduced into science despite the important role he had played in the development of these ideas. He was awarded the Nobel prize for his contribution to quantum theory. But he never accepted that the universe was governed by chance; his feelings were summed up in his famous statement “God does not play dice”.

Classical general relativity by predicting points of infinite density, predicts its own downfall just as classical (non quantum) mechanics predicted its downfall by suggesting that atoms should collapse to infinite density.

Scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe WHAT the universe is to ask the question WHY. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask WHY, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.

It is amusing…As you read about scientists and their experiments and their constants and the adjustments they make to their observations to make them suitable for theories, how subsequent discoveries disprove the established… and the absolutely hypothetical theories they conjure up when faced with obstacles…
When you read in detail, you know not to trust science too much but to watch dispassionately.

This book, needless to say, is a must read – for all those who are comfortable with the basics of physics.

I will have to read this again, but before that I will have to go find my college lecturers, get their notes, and go through them all over again. May be study some equations and even solve a few problems!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Saugandh Ram Ki Khate Hain Hum...

It was the year 1989. Or was it 1990?
20 years is long enough time for clarity to begin dissolving into confusion.
But the mind remembers certain pictures, sounds, smells and tastes of a remote past as if they belonged to a recent yesterday.
I don’t know if it’s an attribute of the mind or the nature of certain events that refuse to dislodge themselves from the grooves of memory.

Among the many pieces of that episode, it is the song that stands out. “Saugandh Ram Ki Khate Hai Hum Mandir Wahin Banayenge”. I do not remember the faces that sang the song. Because I never saw those faces. I was not allowed to.
Standing behind the grill door of the veranda, I had taken a peek at the crowd marching on the street before my house.
I was as tall as the compound wall perhaps but no more.
All I could make out was a throng of red turbans, with red flags above them marching on. About the red turbans and flags, I am not very sure. My mind simply associates the colour red with that episode.

49% Hindus and 51% Muslims. The town of Bharuch in Gujarat was communally sensitive.
There was curfew and we would not go out.

Being from the South, which was very peaceful and calm compared to the disturbed North, all this was new experience to us. We had never witnessed a communal riot and we had never heard of curfews.

Our father explained to us that when there was curfew, no one was allowed to go out to the street. There were policemen everywhere and they carried guns. If they saw someone on the street, they would shoot them. We were thrilled.

That was our first and closest encounter with the Hindu Muslim discord. And it was also the first time I learnt about the Ayodhya Ram Temple dispute.

I don’t remember anything else from that episode.

Those were days when religion mattered to people. There weren’t too many people claiming to be secular or talking about equality. Secularism wasn’t as fashionable as it is these days. I mean, it had none of the prestige value it has acquired today.
There was only one TV channel, Doordarshan and they weren’t aggressively marketing and selling the ideal of secularism.
It was socially acceptable to proclaim that one religion was superior to the other. It was equally acceptable to grimace while talking about another religion.

Most people, nay, all people unanimously mistrusted the Muslim community.
I do remember clearly that at a personal level, there was harmony and goodwill between Hindus and Muslims. They were ‘bhai-bhai’ indeed. My best friend at school was Sakeena, a Muslim.
But as a community, the Muslims were perceived as ‘outsiders’.

I remember clearly how, 2 years later, when we were living in Ahmedabad, during that conversation on the terrace, all neighbours living in the apartment building had assured themselves and each other that the Muslims would meet their doom very soon.

There was Mrs Fernandez, Mrs Pai, Geetha, myself, mom. I am not sure if Alka, daughter of Mrs. Fernandez was also there. There were other people too.
Mrs. Fernandez had announced that according to the predictions of Nostradamus, in the year 2000, when all Muslims gathered in Mecca for Haj, ultra-violet rays of the sun would penetrate through the ozone hole in the atmosphere, fall on them and all of them would die. And after that she had said Christianity would be the greatest religion in the world (of course) followed by Hinduism in the second place.

For all the upheaval that was happening around us, we children were simply happy that our school remained closed for weeks and we had vacation all the time.

Very soon, my father was transferred to the South and the Hindu Muslim discord became a distant cry of another world.

My father often said that there were three issues in our country that would never be resolved and would remain forever. The Kashmir problem between India and Pakistan, the Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the Ayodhya Ram Temple dispute between Hindus and Muslims.
I believed him.

So when I learnt that the High court would announce the Ayodhya verdict, I could not believe they had taken a decision at last.
First I thought it had to do with the demolition of the mosque.
But when it turned out that it wasn’t the demolition incident but the bigger and older issue of the ownership of the land that they were going to judge, I was surprised.

When there was talk of closing schools and colleges and a country wide bandh, I thought it was unnecessary.
Does anyone care today about Ram or his temple? Does religion matter to people anymore? How many of them there are who proclaim they don’t have a caste and they don’t have a religion!

A lot more had changed in 20 years than anyone had anticipated.

Apart from reading the tweets of Barkha Dutt and certain others about the high court verdict, I hadn’t really been following this story.

But on the day of the verdict, after I returned from office early, I became curious.

I was almost sure they would favour the Muslims. The majority of us being pseudo secular, the whole political system being minority-appeasing and then with Congress ruling at the centre, it could not have been any other way.

As I sat pondering on that quiet afternoon, waiting to hear the verdict, having nothing else to do, I realized that I had never really thought about the question of Ayodhya seriously.

What was my own opinion on this subject?

All the reading I have been doing on the subject of history had helped me understand that this world is like a canvas. All the deeds of men are like the strokes of a paintbrush on the canvas. Kingdoms, emperors, ordinary people, craftsmen, builders, painters, religious leaders, thinkers, rebels, reformers, all of them hold a paintbrush in their hand and put up a painting on the canvas of time.
As time progresses, there are layers of pictures because each one paints on a picture created by his predecessors.

So, layer upon layer, the picture evolves.
As men come and men go, the painting changes, the picture changes.
Some strokes remain on the canvas undisturbed, some mix with new strokes and acquire a new shape, colour and meaning; some become obscure as fresh strokes fall upon them, some of them are completely obliterated as if they never existed.

One may, upon looking at the picture, feel, for whatever reason that a picture of a previous time was more beautiful, was more just, more correct and may want to revive an old picture.
You may, having been convinced by him or having been beaten by the force of his assertion, permit him to peel away a few layers and revive a picture of the past.
But suppose another raises his voice and asks to revive an old picture 10 layers below, what will you do?
Will you let him peel away 10 layers and restore a picture of a remote past?

Just then,

Someone raises his voice to say the period of Ashoka was golden and should be revived…
No Chandragupta Maurya was better still…
The Gurukulas of the Vedic times provided holistic education… says someone
Yes, the barter system was better…says another
The Gandharva Vivaha was charming…so were the Swayamvaras…
The land between Egypt and the Indus River belongs to Alexander and ought to be unified…
Bhagat Singh was unjustly persecuted and we must seek retribution…
Let’s bring back all the teak of Burma from the palace of the Queen of England…
Let the Romans recapture Istanbul from the Ottoman Turks and call it Constantinople again…
In the dead of a night, one man ran the tip of his pen, impromptu, on a map spread before him and that line became the border between India and Pakistan. Let’s undo it…

How far back can you go in time?
How many layers is it permissible to peel off?

Actually, you cannot peel away even a single layer.
All you can change in the picture is a stroke here and a stroke there when the paint is still fresh.
When the picture is still in its making.

After it is made, it is made.
Beautiful or ugly. Fair or unfair. Just or unjust. Kind or cruel…

You cannot peel away time. You cannot undo.
As far as political correctness goes.

The clock struck 3.
I dashed to my neighbour’s house for I don’t have a television at home.

The verdict was announced.
The land had been divided into parts and one was given to the Hindus. The solution was out of the box. I did not know a court of justice could take such a decision. I thought it was like a debate. They had to be either For or Against. I did not know they could hold a middle ground.

People’s reactions were so varied.
Many Hindu countrymen must have thought it their right to have custody of the land given to them. Many must have gone further and believed that they should have been given all of the land and not just a part of it.

As for my reaction, I was happy, Hindu as I am; though only yesterday, I did not care much.
Because it took me by surprise. Because it had happened in spite of the pseudo secularists.

But coming from all the contemplation of the afternoon, I saw the verdict not as justice deserved, not as the restoration of our rights, but as a bonus, a mercy and felt grateful for it. (and that is the point of this whole article)

With the Muslim groups wanting to claim all of the land and moving the Supreme Court, it remains to be seen however whether the birthplace of Ram will ever see a temple.

May peace prevail.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Other Song

Jan 8, 3 PM
Short film – The Other Song – 2 hours, by Saba Dewan
Venue : NGMA, Bangalore

The search for a lost song brings her (the film maker) to the twisted narrow alleyways and lanes of Kashi or Varanasi or Benaras, by the vast expanse of the holy Ganges. As she traces the song, she meets men and women of a special community of Varanasi living on the edge between light and shadow – the courtesans, the 'Tawaifs', the prostitutes.

Actually I should not be using the word prostitutes here. For their state is not one of depravity and wretchedness.
But unfortunately, a language of the west proves again and again, its inadequacy, it’s meagerness to capture and express the many nuances of this country, that are to be found only here and nowhere else.

One word that comes close is courtesan.
It is ‘close’ but not adequate yet, for courtesan is a paramour, a prostitute who associates with noblemen or men of wealth.
The women we are talking about here are superior than that.
They possess talent; they are trained in classical music; music is a family heritage among them, bequeathed from generation to generation; they are blessed with a lovely voice, they are self respecting people who choose to consort, not merely with men of wealth but men whom their heart desires.

And that explains why I chose to say ‘living on the edge between light and shadow’ instead of ‘living in shadows’ as one would expect.

As the narrative progresses, it becomes difficult to tell whether the theme central to the documentary is the Thumri music or the Tawaifs of Benaras.

“In 1935, Rasoolan Bai, the well known singer from Varanasi, recorded for the gramophone a thumri that she would never sing again – ‘lagat jobanwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’ (my breasts are wounded, don’t throw flowers at me). A variation of her more famous song – ‘Lagat Karejwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’ (my heart is wounded, don’t throw flowers at me), the 1935 recording, never to be repeated, faded from public memory and eventually got lost.”

Different people have different explanations to offer when asked about the two versions of the song.
‘lagat jobanwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’ and ‘Lagat Karejwa ma chot, phool gendwa na maar’.

Some say both mean the same, some are not sure about the cause of the variation.
When one man hesitates to translate ‘jobanwa’ to breasts, and tells the interviewer “I cannot talk about that to you now...”, I felt that I was far removed from this place and that the man must have been from a different time - there are places still, in this fast changing country, where people are as conservative as that!

Among the many women that the narrator/film maker speaks to, it is Saira whose life experiences the viewer gets to know more closely, and more in detail than the others.

She learned music from a master whose name she takes with fear and respect.
She was invited to perform at functions.
“She was highly respected wherever she went”, says a man. The artists accompanying her (the tabla players, harmonium and others) too refer to her and other singers most respectfully.

The film alternates between the story of the courtesan, the inquiry into the lost song, reminiscences of the women, brief performances of singing by them, and the black and white photographs of these singers in their youth. And then of course, there is the silent Ganges, flowing as if dispassionately.

The women, when they speak of the men they consorted with, speak comfortably, candidly, unabashedly and without a shade of guilt or shame.

Saira talks about the father of her children, now no more; he was a Rajput, an already married man.

Another woman talks about a prince, a ‘kunwar’ who wished to be her lover. She had kept him waiting because her heart had not swayed yet, and the next time he came, he brought muscle men with him, one of whom pointed a dagger at her throat upon which she bravely told him he would not get anything by force.

When Saira sang, every man in the gathering felt she was singing for him alone.

Saira’s daughter working on the sewing machine, with a red embroidered sari spread before her, says shyly, that she doesn’t want to learn singing. Of course she loves the way her mother sings but she is not interested in learning.

The fact of Muslim women singing songs about Krishna and the Gopis is something that registers in your mind. India had a way of assimilating its invaders by means of a ‘cultural synthesis’.

Once when Saira was invited to sing at a function where other famous accomplished artists in the music world were performing, someone made a derogatory comment asking (of Bismillah Khan, I think) why she had been invited to a respectable gathering like that? What did she have to offer? When Saira began singing, he replied to the commenter “this is what she has to offer”.

During freedom struggle, these women tried to remove obscenity from their music following Gandhi’s advocacy. They even threw their musical instruments into the Ganges.
But when they offered their contribution to freedom struggle, they were rejected by Gandhi.

As for the fate of music, when the Muslims came, Indian art forms started dying as the Muslim kings in their courts encouraged their kind of music.
There was some revival attempt too, the details of which I don’t remember.

The narrative has its moments of humour and laughter too.

In what seems to be Saira’s elder sister’s home, the sister when asked who was more famous among the two states confidently that she was more famous and once she stopped performing, her sister Saira became famous.

One particular frame shows a woman, singing a love song to the accompaniment of the harmonium and tabla. When the azan at the mosque begins, she stops at once. She changes her posture, closes her eyes and chants hymns. Soon as the prayer is over, she resumes her love song with a wink in her eye and a naughty smile as if the two of them, religion and her playful singing did not conflict with one another in any way.

One of the women had stopped singing for some reason. After this she had a strange illness for which no cure was found even after consultation with many. Once she visited a Bengali doctor at his clinic. Upon receiving a patient, he asked the neighbourhood folks to turn off the blaring loudspeakers that were playing music. When she asked the doctor not to stop the music, the doctor asked her “do you sing?” she said “I used to sing, not now” to which the doctor tells her “start singing, you have no illness, once you start singing, you will be well”.

It is a very well made film in that it makes the viewer leave behind judgment and look at ‘prostitution’ with an eye of sympathy.
Though courtesans, these people had a culture, they too occupied a position in the social order, they lived by principles. It was not business, it wasn’t flesh trade, but a way of living.

Most important, the film shows how ‘Traditional prostitution’ in Indian society was very different from ‘prostitution’ the world over. It wasn’t purely commercial, it wasn’t just for money. It was much more nuanced.
The character of ‘Vasanthasena’, a courtesan was crafted by Shudraka in his Sanskrit drama Mritchhakatika. Amrapali, the royal courtesan of Vaishali is known to have served Buddha and later to have converted to Budhhism.

The film helps you empathize with these women.
When the narrative reaches the point where the upper caste people boycott these singers as part of an initiative to cleanse the city, the viewer’s sympathies are with the Tawaifs and not with the moralists.

The frames that show the juxtaposition of the vast expanse of the Ganges by the Benares ghats produce a strange effect.

The only hitch in the film was the tone of the narrator which indicated that she was not a nuanced person.

The last lap of the film shows a white woman clad in a sari and blouse entering Saira’s house and toucing her feet.
Saira had stopped singing but upon the insistence of the foreigner woman, she starts singing again. The white woman is her pupil, attempting to revive what was lost or helping to sustain whatever remains of a very old tradition – the thumri music.
Both of them talk about how they approached the ‘radio’ and they were humiliated.
Thanks to the efforts of her white pupil, Saira went abroad and performed in Italy.

We left the auditorium smiling, laughing as the last scene showed a Saira in pants and T shirt and wearing sunglasses, a complete change of image from her usual sari and red coloured stains of beetle leaves in mouth.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

National Gallery of Modern Arts (NGMA), Bangalore

I don’t know if I should thank my serendipity or ‘The Hindu’ for this discovery.

It was in ‘The Hindu’, that I read, a few months ago, about this painting exhibition that was going on in the city. I usually don’t go to painting exhibitions (I can’t make much of that modern abstract art stuff) but this one caught my attention because these were portraits of British India by the British. And I had just finished reading a 1000 page book on world history.

My journey to the place took me through some beautiful, scenic areas of the city.
I rode in a bus up to Mysore bank. After that I got into an auto.
What a change of scene it was, as the auto took a right after Mysore bank and entered palace road. A clean, wide road it was, with sparse traffic and grave looking buildings of important government offices flanking the road.

As the auto took a right, lo!, we were looking at the Vidhana Soudha. There was a lot of greenery and it suddenly felt cool. I stopped at Mount Carmel college since that was the landmark given me by the reception at NGMA when I had phoned.

To my surprise and disappointment, no one knew where NGMA was or what it was though it was within a hundred meters of that place.
I phoned again and I was told they were right next to Devdas petrol bunk. It turned out that I had left it behind, so I walked back. I must say I was relieved to find the place at last, after the many calls (including a call to Just Dial) and enquiries I had to make at various places, the details of which I have omitted here.

It was a garden shaded by trees, a hundred years old, with boughs swaying over charming white buildings, one of which had an architecture that belonged to another era.
A flagged driveway, neatly swept, but strewn here and there with fallen leaves from a web of branches above, led the visitors to the reception first and then the main building whose porch was supported by 2 rows of white columns. Separating the two buildings is a pool of water, containing the reflections of the white edifice, the trees around and its hanging boughs.
There are a few modern sculptures placed in the garden. A fountain in front of the colonnaded building murmurs in an otherwise calm and unruffled place.
Such a beautiful place!
All I had to do, to fall in love with the place, was to step into it.

This is the reception.

And this is the gallery that houses all the art work.

The exhibition hall was on the first floor that I reached after a short narrow passage and then a stairway at the back of the building.
All along my way I noticed that there were sculptures and paintings in the many halls.

Behind the reception are the cafeteria and the theatre where films are screened.

The earlier cafeteria was not much.
But last week, I saw that the menu looked so much better!
Sabodana vada, Vada pav, Samosa … looked so familiar.
And soon, I learnt that this was Anju’s café, the same lady who owns the Rangashankara café. Her son was taking care of this. That’s why it had seemed familiar!
Anju had told me that she had opened a shop at Alliance Francaise but the one at NGMA was news to me.

A chat with uncle informed me that it was somewhat unusual to do business here. This place was almost unknown. Most of the events happen only during the weekend. So business during weekdays was not much and unpredictable too. But nevertheless, the café has to be open all the time and someone has to be here.
Most of them in the restaurant business would not venture here.

But then, he said, there are other benefits of being here. You get to watch films, see paintings in the gallery…

It’s always hopeful to meet people who see beyond money.

I also learnt from uncle that Devdas petrol bunk got its name from a very famous criminal lawyer who lived in the vicinity.

In the courtyard of the café is this grand old tree around which is built a neat platform, for those who prefer intimacy with the soil.
The courtyard itself is laid with neat stone slabs. Every detail about this place is art in itself.

This is the auditorium/theatre. I first entered it a few months ago to watch 5 short films on environment by British Council and National Geographic. The films were followed by a discussion on environment. Some well known cyclists of the city had told us of their story - when and how they started cycling, what options are available to aspiring cyclists, the benefits, hazards of commuting in air conditioned cars (chemicals like flame repellants, fabric softeners etc), the futility of the metro rail project, the last mile problem, the advantages of city buses, and all...

A walk towards the car park will give you a glimpse of some more garden beyond the gallery which can actually be seen from inside the gallery. I peeked into it and saw some interesting and varied flora on a plush surface.

The car parkis spacious. Although meant for a utilitarian purpose, the expansive branches of the huge trees around sheltering the space give it such aesthetic feel.

Entrée to NGMA is free. Since it is a government undertaking, most of the offerings – exhibitions, film screening – are for free or a nominal fee. I met a girl here last week who told me the NGMA in Bombay wasn’t this good and I read that the one in Delhi isn’t this good either. That gives me another reason to fall in love with Bangalore all over again!

I secretly wish it wouldn’t be found out so I can have this place all for myself.
Selfishness apart, I hope all the art lovers find this charming place and others begin to take interest in art.

Friday, January 07, 2011

A Protest Of Romance

Other worldly, imaginative, creative, dreamy, faraway, lost…that’s a typical Cancer.
So what, if I am a cusp between Cancer and Leo? I have all the above Cancer traits.
And I have the Leo traits as well.
A combination of fire and water then?
Fog. Mist. Dew. Haze. Cloud.
Yes. That’s who I am. A Romantic.

Sitting on a couch, eating my meal, walking in a park, ambling on the terrace, in a team meeting at work, travelling by bus, or whatever else I might be doing…
But lost in thought all the time. As if in a trance. Somewhat intoxicated.
Living in this world but not quite living here. Somewhat other worldly. Dreaming of a beautiful life. And why not? This world itself is a dream. Between the dream and a dream within a dream, who can tell which is more real?

Thinking and feeling.
And sometimes, Being.

Looking back with nostalgia.
Recreating the past in my mind, erasing a stroke there and dabbing some paint here, perfecting it. Dwelling; not on what was, but what should have been.

Finding music beyond noise.
Fragrance amidst stench.
Savouring sorrow.
Churning melancholy until philosophy gathers in a white lump.
Glaring at gloom until it burns under the fire of my gaze and from that fire is born a beautiful poignancy.
Poetry by the mountains and tears by the Ganges.

Refusing to be fooled by a coincidental arrangement of atoms that this whole world pretends to be and seeing the metaphysics in all of it.

In summary, protesting against the commonplace of life.

That defines my life.
And that defines me.

Keeping the charm alive, keeping the magic alive. Keeping hope alive.

The miasma of banality is always trying to close in. You have to emanate a mist of romance to thwart it. Otherwise, before long, you will end up becoming a coincidental arrangement of atoms. And nothing more.

One can find inspiration in the most banal of people, places, events and incidents, if one has the eyes to look beyond the gross, if one has the imagination to think beyond the obvious.

Everything I write here, in this space, is inspired. By the most commonplace of events.

An evening walk under a cloudy sky was not unusual.
But it inspired poetry in me.
So did the hurtful coldness of a friend.

Bollywood masala movies are most commonplace.
One of them showed me the wonderful possibility of living extraordinary lives, many of them, in a single lifetime, simply by stepping into the shoes of anyone you liked on screen and it made me appreciate why movie making is the greatest gift bestowed upon mankind.

A wailing aunt who never tires of her sob story is a nuisance.
She inspired me to attempt humour for the first time!

That ride in an auto-rickshaw at ten in the night through familiar roads was quotidian.
And there I saw, a girl of 16, myself, who had once walked those roads 10 years ago, and looking at the girl poignantly, I smiled at all those vicissitudes of destiny that were yet to disillusion that girl of free will.

A meeting over a cup of coffee, with a friend embittered by life was commonplace too.
However, it made me lament wilting flowers and made me observe how life strives to prove unworthy of all the hope and trust people have in it and how it hunts down, among all, those who have believed in it the most. I prayed that I may never tire of life.

Shifting from one house to another was commonplace.
This time, I experienced homecoming and in the event, I understood the necessity of every soul to come home to one’s culture after all the wanderings and ramblings.

A pair of oxen led by a mendicant collecting alms is a sight most people don’t even give a second glance.
I found myself overwhelmed as I thought of the greatness of the Hindu religion that teaches us to hold everything from mountains to rivers to animals in religious sanctity.

That violent outburst of a friend in a marketplace in Calcutta was ugly.
What came of it was a piece of writing illustrating the saying ‘life is a grindstone; whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on what you are made of’.

This blog itself was inspired by a conversation with a stranger over dinner.

Three years ago, when I started this blog, I did not choose the title after careful contemplation; I thought for a minute, I wasn’t sure; I said, ok, I’ll call it Narcissist. That’s it.
Sure, I love myself. More now than ever before.
But ‘Narcissist’ for a blog title? As if it represents me better than all else? Nah. There’s so much more to me.

So here I am, after a lot of dilly dallying, giving this space a name that best represents me and my journey so far.
A Protest of Romance. Against the Commonplace of Life.

If ever I write an autobiography, that is what it is going to be called: A Protest of Romance. Against the Commonplace of Life.
If ever I write an autobiography…

Until then...

Fog. Mist. Dew. Haze. Cloud.
Of romance.
Dispelling the miasma of banality that this life strives to be.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Discovery Of India - Jawaharlal Nehru

‘There are no facts; only perspectives’, said someone as I enquired of my bookworm friends of Select Bookshop about the ‘most authentic’ historical works.

True. There are only perspectives.

One can look at the story of man from many different angles and each angle will give a different story.

The history I learnt in school was all about empires, kingdoms, dynasties, kings, wars and palace intrigues.
And then there is the story of the common men and women, of their everyday life, of their occupations, of their beliefs…that we are not very familiar with

Yet another book I have, but not read, is a unique perspective: the story of man’s relationship with soil through ages, their interacted with each other and the consequences of man’s treatment of soil…

And even when the angle is the same, two different people looking at it, would see two different things depending on where they come from.

“If you plunder from West to East, you become Alexander The great; if you do the same thing from East to West, you become Genghiz Khan, the barbarian”…

Facts or perspectives, history is charming.

Surely, this one, ‘The Discovery of India’ is a perspective. Actually, it is more than that. It is a judgment.

Sooner or later I had to read this book.
First, it was charming history. And then it was the perspective of a man who received my country in a state of wet clay and moulded the delicate thing into a shape of his fancy, whether or not I like it.

It becomes important for each one of us to know that man, who decided our collective destiny, through his views, opinions, ideas and thoughts.

It is a very well written book. His chronological account of India’s long story of glory, wrapped in his own views and opinions, is interesting and gripping. The narrative – nostalgic at times, instilling pride all the time, replete with quotes of noted people all over the world about India, her people and her heritage, testifying to her high stature – make this a delectable piece of work.

The big thick volume is not formidable as I had feared.

Nehru states that history is not the story of kings, empires and palace intrigues as presented most of the time, but the story of common men and women. He even runs down kings and princes at times.
However, his own narrative does not exclude kings, kingdom, wars and invasions. No account of history can.
He does, though, give an account of the common man’s story, of trade between India and different countries, of the state in which people lived in different periods, of their creative work, of their religion, of the changing structure of society and other dimensions to history, wherever possible.

The book is not merely an account of history but an analytical study of history too as it contains very deep analyses spanning sociological and psychological dimensions of the many dynamics. The analyses are not microscopic but panoramic describing the character and nature of societies & peoples and the various changes that came over them over hundreds of thousands of years.

With every page I flipped, I learnt something important and interesting.

While this is a classic that I would recommend to everyone, many things can be said in it’s criticism.

Nehru is judgmental and his prejudice is obvious in many places.

Nehru was not religious and did not think much of religion and this he makes obvious in his writing, where he openly expresses his disinterest/disinclination towards religion and metaphysics. His choice of words when discussing religion, such as priest-craft, dogma, ritual, ceremony etc. show his contempt and disdain for religion.

He professes faith in 'analytical and scientific' approaches to the problems of life versus religious and traditional approaches.
This perceived mutual exclusivity between science and religion, I find quite immature. It’s the trait of a common man and not a statesman and that too, supposedly a scholar.

Having read Nehru’s views, I cannot help comparing them with those of Tagore and hence appreciating Tagore’s superior sensibility and thoughtfulness.

Even when Tagore condemns the evil practices prevalent in the Hindu society, he takes care not to malign religion itself.
He carefully distinguishes religion from the distortions of it as a result of it’s incorrect understanding and application by people in their lives.
He observes that decay and degeneration are a natural phase of evolution of every civilization, of every society and that a decaying branch does not imply a defective tree.
His works are full of detailed discussions and debates among his characters that represent different schools of thought - traditional, revolutionary and reactionary. And through these discussions, he takes up several questions related to religion, society, reformation and gives each viewpoint an equal chance. One argument at a time, without being rhetorical, he shows how religion is separate from its interpretation and application by people.
He peels the layers of dust one by one and helps the reader see the core and understand it for what it is. He then lets them form their opinion based on what they have seen.

Nehru seems to lack that insight, that thoughtfulness, that maturity and that sensitivity when he categorically slights religion, religious leaders, their doctrines and most of all, the Brahmins. His generalizations show an absence of balance in his approach.
A statesman of international acclaim ought to have been more responsible and not loose with his pen.

He gives some concessions here and there; speaking of the period of Ramayana and the Mahabharata, he says there was no idol worship nor worship of anthropomorphic forms, but only worship of elements and mantras and meditation. Of all the schools of thought, he says, Advaitha or monism is more agreeable to him than the others.
But on the whole, he derides religion and looks down upon the religious sentiments of people.

Most of those who resent religion usually revere spiritualism. But Nehru seems irreverential of spirituality too, which is obvious from his scornful remarks such as ‘sitting in a corner and contemplating instead of solving the problems of the surroundings’, ‘worrying about after life instead of addressing the concerns of this life’ etc.
Solving existential problems according to him, it seems, is what people ought to do versus chasing religion and god.

Nehru disapprovingly says that in old ancient India that there was much individualism and focus on individual goals, progress & betterment and nothing was said about the role of man in society, his responsibility towards society etc.
Elsewhere in the book, he seems to be contradicting himself. “…The caste system, the autonomous village community and the joint family…In all these three, it is the group that counts; the individual has a secondary place…”

My thought – perhaps because of the stable robust social structures like the caste system, the autonomous village community and the joint family, that would take care of the stable functioning of the society, men did not have to worry about keeping the society functioning and were free to focus on individual goals like self realization.

Another instance of his judgment… an appalling one!
He was disturbed by the temple carvings at Srirangam or Madurai – observe his choice of words again - “decadent carvings”, he says.
“The Indo Mughal art was in marked contrast with the decadent, over elaborate and heavily ornamented temples of the North and South………. Inspired architects and builders put up with loving hands the Taj Mahal at Agra.”
Of the fact that those hands were cut off – 20000 of them, there is no mention whatsoever!

“ education was well known in India from the most ancient times. That education was traditional; not very good or profitable but it was available to poor students without any payment, except some personal service to the teacher…”
This allusion to Gurukulas and Gurudakshina also shows his judgment and insufficient understanding of our past.

He is pro Muslim.
There is repeated emphasis on the idea that the decay of the Indian civilization/society began before the invasion of Mongols, Arabs, Turks and Mughals. I doubt this.

Without any of the vehemence that he has shown in other places for violence and aggression, he relates the plundering and pillaging of Somnath by Ghazni Mohammed. He says Islam never invaded India and tries hard to prove it – by explaining how a Ghazni or a Ghori Mohammed recruited Indian soldiers into his army and attacked an Islamic kingdom in western Asia, and other such examples.

Of the ‘convert to Islam or die’, of the women who were abducted from the streets to become part of harems not only by Muslim kings but by their many nobles, of the burning and razing down of entire towns, of their savageness, there is no account!

“The chivalry of India was dust before the war skill of Chengiz Khan…”, he says instead of eulogizing Indian chivalry in warfare.

Although the books claims to be a ‘discovery of India‘, South India is almost completely excluded. There are references to the South here and there but nothing much. As if it were not a part of India…
South has so much history and culture. I don’t know why he did not think it necessary or important to write about it.

The chapter ‘Life's Philosophy’ – where he expresses more faith in one philosophy than another, where he makes observations about several important people and schools of thought – Marx, Lenin, Communism, school of ethics, philosophy, religion, their adequacies and inadequacies – this chapter should have had examples. Without examples, without substantiation, the generalizations are difficult to comprehend and lack the power to convince.

His resentment towards the British rule too seems prejudiced – his dislike for the British is strong, perpetual and unwavering. He gives them no concessions whatsoever.
He resents everything that the British were and did.
I clearly remember reading Gopal Krishna Gokhale or another’s work where it is mentioned that people welcomed British rule after a prolonged period of savageness during Muslim rule - there is no mention of that anywhere in Nehru’s work.

He compares the viceroy to Hitler and portrays the British as complete villains throughout, which I think is not fair.

There’s just half a page on Tilak and Gokhale.

A little more than one third of the book is about Gandhi and Congress, fortunately the last third of the book. When the narrative reaches the British occupation of India and the struggle, then onwards it becomes less interesting and somewhat repetitive in the underlying lamentation.

As you read this book, of the past glory, of our ancient richness, of the vitality of our civilization, a tidal wave of pride rises in your mind.
But it also crashes at the realization of how little of that glory and richness is left in the society, life and thought of India today.

Read this book, surely. It is most interesting.
But remember, ‘there are no facts; only perspectives’, and this one is a judgment.