New Blog !!

May 16, 2009

I just want to put in a plug for a new blog that I’ve started and that I will be contributing to, together with other friends. Check out:

Peepul Tree

The blog was created with the intent to deal with issues of culture, politics, energy and environment, art and philosophy.  Hope to see you there !

Mazaar-e-Aftab-e-Mausiqui

February 8, 2009

[Update: I have also posted this piece on a new blog that I intend to contribute to: Peepul Tree]

Among the fondest of my memories of growing up in Baroda are those of attending many a Hindustani Classical Music concert at the Darbar Hall of the Laxmi-Vilas Palace. To have listened to music in that grand setting is to have partaken in the most singular of pleasures the city of Baroda has to offer. Built in 1890 by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III,  the Laxmi-Vilas Palace was – and parts of it continue to be – the home of the erstwhile Gaekwad rulers of Baroda.  The Darbar Hall, much like the eclectic architecture of the encompassing palace (Indo-Saracenic, or Indo-Islamic if you like), is anatomized by both western and oriental elements; in the words of Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, an “east-west jugalbandi of art and architecture”. The grand Venetian mosaic on the facade, the marble and ceramic floors, the enameled ceiling, the ornate wooden balconies, all hang together “curiously, in what appears to be a heterogenous whole”.

The most memorable aspect of concert recitals in the Darbar Hall, is the extraordinary twinning of music and setting that endures in those moments (alas, never long enough!), to the exclusion of all else. Indeed Darbar Hall is grand, but it is in a strange way unimposing. It fulfills its purpose, “to not obtrude upon the eyes of the audience with any awe-inspiring opulence”.

Above all else, the Hall is a fitting venue for an audience such as that of Baroda. Unlike other places, the rasiks in Baroda more than measure up to the setting. I remember a concert in the winter of 2001 when, after singing  a bada khayal in Yaman, Smt. Padma Talwalkar proceeded to take on the formidable Abhogi. No sooner had she uttered the very first few swaras in the aalaap, than a gasp of disapproval emerged from hundreds of people in the Hall. Apparently, Yaman had still not escaped the artist and she had mixed up her swaras. It was amazing to see so many people catch the error at once ! (and humbling on account of my own ignorance!) Quite a welcome contrast from the usual crowds, who seem to find the arrival of a  frenetic tabalchi to sam, the only applaudable aspect of a vocal performance !

Perhaps the brightest weft in the rich tapestry of the musical history of Baroda is Ustad Faiyaz Khan saheb, the doyen of Agra gayaki.  This fact became known to me only in the aftermath of the despicable desecration of his grave (mazaar) in Baroda in the Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002.  Having been invited to be the court musician by Sayajirao in 1912, Khan saheb, although itinerant, remained in Baroda till his death in 1950.

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I had wanted to visit his grave for a long time, and on a recent trip to Baroda decided to look it up. A search on the web yielded very little by way of location or directions. Most of the hits were episodic accounts of the vandalization of his grave (by throwing burning tyres, apparently). There were hardly any images. A friend, through an acquaintance at the Faculty of Performing Arts at M.S. University, found out that the mazaar was located on the road leading from Aradhana Cinema to Bahucharaji Temple in Karelibaug. We were asked to look for a gentleman named Ketan bhai, an auto mechanic whose automobile service station was in the vicinity of the mazaar and who would know its precise location.

On an incredibly warm January afternoon we drove to the area. Luckily for us Ketan bhai was not hard to find, and he led us to the mazaar, that stood right behind his service shop. I have to say that I was a bit anxious when it came time to ask Ketan bhai about the mazaar.  In the context of the troubled history of religious violence in Baroda’s recent past, a sense of mutual suspicion and insecurity permeates the Hindu-Muslim relationship, and I felt a mild pang of fear asking Ketan bhai for the location of the mazaar. The fears were allayed immediately, when Ketan bhai welcomed us with a smile.  He seemed rather surprised that someone was interested in visiting the mazaar. By his account, very few people had visited since 2002. Walking through strewn car parts, abandoned car carcasses, walls with lubrication oil smeared on them, we were led to a clearing behind the shop, where stood a white mausoleum with green grill-walls.

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A few unmarked graves laden with flowers lay in front of Khan saheb’s mazaar. We were told that many of Khan saheb’s relatives were buried beside him. Khan saheb had never married. We walked around the grave for a while, had a peek inside, took a few pictures and paid our respects, and then lingered a little longer, imagining what the day must have been like when they brought this giant to rest here.

A dusty green cloth and a few scattered dried roses lay atop the tomb. The mazaar is apparently maintained by the Faiyyaz Khan Trust, although I don’t know anything about them. We were also told that a few distant relatives visit the grave on the anniversary of Khan saheb’s death. And although it wasn’t utterly abandoned, I couldn’t help but feel an enormous incongruity between the image of the handsome man with his deep voice and his regal countenance – the shining Sun in the musical firmament – with what lay in front of me. The fates that death brings !

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I looked once again at the tombstone, but there was nothing I could understand. (If any reader who knows farsi/urdu, could please translate whats written on the tombstone, it would be much appreciated!).

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One has to wonder why anyone would try and desecrate the mazaar of one of the jewels of Hindustani music. Its neglect and dereliction were shame enough on us. In the context of all else that happened in 2002, this was perhaps not the most egregious infraction. Given what happened to Wali Dakhani’s grave, perhaps we ought to be relieved that the mazaar exists at all. It’s likely that the hooligans who perpetrated this profanity must not have been aware of what they were doing, must surely have known nothing of Hindustani music – and how in India there isn’t a more perfect amalgam of the shared identity of Hindus and Muslims. If, on the other hand, they had known these things, then they couldn’t possibly have chosen a more hallowed ground to blaspheme on with their vile act.  We may perhaps forgive that vandalism as the wrath of the impotent ignorant, but more needs to be done to bestow a certain dignity, in life certainly, but even in death, on our national treasures. Surely, this is not too much to ask of ourselves – we, who relish our 9%-a-year GDP growth.

Indeed, the question does arise: why must we take care of our dead? It is after all fair to ask, that in a country like ours why must the dead be so hopeful, when there is barely any room for the alive. I don’t know. But in a way, how we treat the departed and their memory is much less a judgment on them, than it is on us, the living.

On the topic, listen to an old interview of Khan saheb by Shri Vijay Kichlu on this site, and marvel at the sheer grace, the civility, the refinement of thought and the elevated use of language (and not the use of elevated language), and compare them to the voices on TVs in our own times: the shrill incompetent anchors and their sophomoric reporters who so relentlessly oppress us with their cacophony night-after-night, inflict on us their vacuities day-after-day. Could we expect any better? Most of our media cannot find a single writer to write a critical review of any contemporary concert performance. Most reports are amateur rubbish, bloated by their vulgar use of superlatives and emaciated in substance. Were it not for resources like Rajan Parikkar’s site, we would all be so utterly impoverished (I certainly would !)

We left, a little under an hour after we had arrived. Just a few meters from the mazaar, we heard again the clamor of the auto shop – the clanging of rods, little pieces of metal hammered into shape, holes being drilled, metals welded – which would perhaps continue until well after the sun had set. I was reminded of the final ashaar in a ghazal by Kaifi Azmi, “Khaar-o-khas toh uThein” which was written in the aftermath of  religious violence in Ahmedabad in the early 90’s,

Khaar-o-Khas to uTheN, raastaa to chale
maiN agar thak gayaa, qaafilaa to chale

chaaNd, suuraj, buzurgoN ke naqsh-e-qadam
Khair bujhne do unko, havaa to chale

haakim-e-shahar, yah bhii koii shahar hai
masjideN band haiN, maiqadaa to chale

usko mazhab kaho yaa siyasat kaho!
Khudkushii ka hunar tum sikhaa to chale

itnii laasheN maiN kaise uThaa paauNgaa
aap iiNToN kii hurmat bachaa to chale

belche laao, kholo zamiiN ki taheN
maiN kahaaN dafan huuN, kuchh pataa to chale

Directions to the Mazaar from Vadodard Railway Station

Head towards the Kala Ghoda statue and make a right towards Kirti Mandir/ Raopura

Go down Raopura road past SSG hospital and make a left just before Aradhana Cinema towards Karelibaug/Bahucharaji temple

On this road, go past the crematorium and look for a sign in Gujarati on your left that says ‘ Shia Ishna-Ashari Kabristaan’
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[Update: I have also posted this piece on a new blog that I intend to contribute to: Peepul Tree]

A Beautiful Failure

February 4, 2009

There are times in lab, when even a failure brings something positive with it: a brilliant insight, a new direction perhaps, or simply a beautiful sight. Here is a picture I took this morning in a microscope, of a device I had fabricated after much pain. What you see in the image – the stripes – are lithographically fabricated gold wires, about 20 micron wide, on a silica substrate. To put it a bit obtusely, these wires connect the business end of the device to the outside world. Much to my dismay, one of the wires seemed to be busted (i.e., the connection between the device I made and the outside world was severed)

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Ordinarily, this would cause me much angst and frustration. Luckily though, I have alternative wires in the arrangement that could still do the job for me. But a closer look at the failure was what ultimately brought a smile. Isn’t this just beautiful ?

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I played quite a bit with the filters on the microscope till I got, what I thought, was a fair enough compensation for a failure !! The gold incense stick flaring out into a myriad subtle hues. Here’s the same image with a different focus of the microscope:

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A Not-So-Fine Fair

January 15, 2009

One of the many pleasures of being in Baroda is being able to visit the annual fair organized by the Fine Arts Faculty of the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU). Like most other public universities of repute in India, MSU too has been in a state of decline for many years now: falling standards, poor infrastructure, and overall neglect. A shining jewel in this otherwise effete crown, is the Faculty of Fine Arts.

The Fine Arts Faculty at Baroda has been home to some of the greatest luminaries of Indian art: N.S. Bendre, Sankho Chaudhuri, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakkar, K.G. Subramanyam, Vivan Sundaram, Rekha Rodwittiya and many many others (among them I should mention one of my favourite artists, the late Nasreen Mohamedi). Over the years, the Faculty has attracted thousands of young artists from far corners of India and indeed the world. The annual fair of the Faculty, then, is an opportunity for students and teachers (some of the finest in India) to showcase their best. Not surprisingly, its an event many Barodians eagerly look forward to each year.

I was, therefore, thrilled to learn that the fair this year happened to be when I was on a brief visit to Baroda. On the whole, it was great to attend the fair after a gap of 10 years. Together with two close friends, one of whom is an alumna of the department from its heyday, we checked out the usual mix of paintings, sculptures, street performances, and crafts including bookmarks, calendars, t-shirts and little trinkets of all kinds. A few paintings and installations that caught my eye:

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It has to be said that on the whole the fair was quite disappointing in terms of the quality of art work. What was on offer was very loud, swinging between the tastelessly showy to the utterly clichéd. There seemed to have been a greater emphasis by students to peddle “craftsy” stuff, presumably in order to boost sales; a dull ordinariness pervaded most of it. Even so, I had to turn away in horror upon encountering little kitsch terracotta Ganeshas, in a form that was more reminiscent of a railway platform than a premier fine arts school. Often, what’s missing reveals more than what’s on offer; very little was imbued with ingenuity, boldness, novelty, a sense of adventure – qualities that, one might expect, typify fledgling artists. Agreed this was a fair and not an exhibition, but as someone who has seen numerous such fairs in the past, this one was eminently forgettable.

Talking of forgetting, the most lamentable aspect was the extraordinary display of collective amnesia regarding the unfortunate events of 2007 at the faculty. This, after all, is the same faculty where in 2007 a bunch of worthless twits (honorifically referred to as right-wing Hindu fanatics, Hindu fascists, BJP/VHP etc. etc.) in collusion with a dunce of an ex-vice-chancellor, roughed-up a hapless arts student for painting “objectionable” pictures, had him arrested, closed down a a silent protest exhibition, which in the words of Ranjit Hoskote,

“celebrate the sensuous and the passionate dimensions of existence – which, in the Hindu world-view, are inseparably twinned with the austere and the contemplative.”

The then-dean of the faculty, Dr. Shivaji Panikker, was suspended (and c0ntinues to be so, I’m told). The issue might be old but the threat to freedom of expression, the threat of censorship never yields. A little remembrance of things past, a little more spine from young artists would not have been remiss.

What lingered with me long after the fair, was its setting: an interesting admixture of dust from the maidan, the light from naked bulbs hanging tenuously from gaunt wires, an unrelenting buzz from a distant DG set (a diesel generator for uninterrupted power supply) and sounds from thousands of people mingling together over works of art. And here comes the redeeming part: where else would one find thousands upon thousands of people of all manner, out on a January evening, sampling Art?

Indie: The new Mainstream?

January 7, 2009

Jonathan Mahler in an article on Andrew Bird for the New York Times, sums up the whole indie music vs. mainstream music distinction (with the changing music industry as a backdrop) quite well:

Bird’s trajectory, his gradual climb to success, is unusual for a business in which careers tend to be made on the back of a big break. But his increasing popularity may also say something broader about the shifting dynamics of the industry. The rock-music business has long been dominated by major labels following a simple formula: They saw what bands were selling and looked for others that sounded just like them. And because these same labels held what often seemed like exclusive access to the key retailers and influential radio stations, it was difficult for independent record companies and more inventive, esoteric artists to find traction in the general public. But with the precipitous drop in record sales, the major labels have lost much of their leverage, and with it, their ability to determine what records will become popular. “Andrew is worried that if he goes too mainstream, he’s going to offend his hard-core fans,” says Steve Martin, one of Bird’s publicists. “I told him that mainstream no longer exists.”

The above reinforces three (related) points. First and foremost, the term “indie” refers to the label/record-company and not necessarily to the type of music. Therefore, and secondly, I scout for indie music not because of some urge to be non-conformist (as a friend alleged), but simply because its my best bet for finding something different and discovering new sounds and new artists. These days, bands/artists that release their music with lesser-known labels seem more likely to make music which is unusual, interesting and different….but not necessarily so! And finally, the matter of “Indie becomes the new mainstream”:  For the audiences this is welcome. It means that a few record companies don’t, in principle, determine what kind of music the public is going to be hammered by.  For the artist, it means there is no short-cut to stardom, and the road ahead will be, to paraphrase Bird, trying to win one person at a time. It also means an even playing field for record labels and artists.

Btw, Andrew Bird is certainly one of my favourite musicians, not the least for using words like “formaldehyde” (in Fake Palindromes). For a chemist, that is just …. well, music to the ears !🙂 This statement by Mahler about Bird’s lyric writing is also, I feel, accurate:

He is more interested in how the words in his lyrics sound, in the mood they create and sense they relate, than in their literal meaning.

Can’t wait for “Noble Beast” !!

The following was first written as a comment on this blog. A particular piece dealt with an interview of Mahatma Gandhi’s grand-daughter, Ms. Usha Gokani. Ms. Gokani happened to be dining at the Trident/Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai, a scene of the terror attacks, on 26 November 2008. Ms. Gokani managed to escape unhurt. She had the following to say in an interview with an Indian daily:

The fact that I chose to dine at the India Jones restaurant at the Oberoi Hotel that fateful night of 26/11, and the manner in which I escaped death by a whisker, reinforces my belief that there is a driving force that governs the entire universe. While the staff at Oberoi’s ushered us into safety through the service entrance, I kept praying to Santoshi ma. It is her grace that I could make it out alive that night.

My comments (slightly modified) appeared as follows:

Your post reminds me of two anecdotes:

The first deals with George Orwell. In 1937, while fighting for the Republicans against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was shot in the neck and nearly died. The episode is described vividly in “Wounded by a Fascist Sniper” and also in Homage to Catalonia. Later friends would often tell him how “lucky” he was to have stayed alive. Orwell wrote that he found this a a rather curious definition of good luck. Rightly so, it would have been far nicer to not have been shot in the first place !!

The whole Santoshi ma (SM) rubbish is just the same! Either Ms. Gokani hasn’t been paying ALL her dues to SM, or SM has just been a bit sloppy at work lately. Either way, its clear that the expectations for good luck are pathetically low! (alas! only to the benefit of SM)

It also seems from the whole episode that in this case the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. In 1934, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that the Bihar earthquake of that year was providential retribution for India’s failure to eradicate untouchability. This ridiculous remark led to a spirited rebuttal from Rabindranath Tagore (well chronicled in the book, “Mahatma and the Poet”; a review can be found here), who argued that an earthquake was caused only by physical forces. Gandhi, however, remained unconvinced. As great as the Mahatma truly was, in this matter he was certainly out of his mind ! (Surely, by his own logic, Britain deserved a few earthquakes of her own!)

To attribute a divine provenance to overwhelmingly good fortune (or tragedy) remains an enduring symbol of our credulity and stupidity; even the greatest seemed to have erred on this count.

For a comprehensive, unequivocal and succinct answer, click here