By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, March 11, 2018

How The Infinitely Wide Spectrum Of Symmetry Makes It A Universal Phenomenon

Here's my third and concluding essay on the awesome concept of Symmetry.  I thought I had said the last word on the subject, but I was wrong.  Just read on!


Glossary & annotations
(in same order as in text)

Nataraja  --  Alternate name of Lord Siva. the Hindu God, depicted as a vigorous cosmic dancer striking a standard pose in all statues and pictures. 

Raaga/Taala  --  In Indian classical music, established patterns of melody/rhythm.

Aarohana/Avarohana  -  Established order of ascent/descent of notes in a raaga.

Ballet  --  Classical dance of Europe.

Bharatha-naatyam/Odissi/Kathak   --  Classical dance systems of South/South-East/North India.

Scotch reel  --  A traditional dance of Scotland, set to bagpipes music.

Flamenco  --  Dance tradition of Spain, with a bullfight orientation and gypsy colors.

Waltz -- A graceful, swirling type of Western music, ideal for ballroom dancing. 
       (Look for above dance forms in YouTube, for a rich experience)


Sunday Magazine

29 December 1991

The panorama of symmetry

     Turning our view from the visual arts to the performing arts, we find that symmetry still figures as a fundamental criterion, which can be given up only at the cost of excellence.  This truth is most clearly visible in the case of dance, where the impact is mainly visual.  There is a strong resemblance between a well-performed dance and the steady flame of an oil-lamp (especially one exposed to a gentle breeze) or the lively flames of a fuel-wood fire.  

Naturally, in a good dance we observe the same quality of symmetry which we find in flames.  Good choreography obviously calls for a symmetrical vision.  The ancient temple sculpture of India was, among other things, a celebration of the symmetry of dance :  perhaps the most magnificent example of this is the classic pose of Nataraja. 

Music & symmetry

      Symmetry in music concerns the logical flow of its sound.  One may look for it separately in melody, harmony or tempo (incorporating rhythm), or in the balance achieved when integrating these elements.  In Indian classical music there is remarkable symmetry in the 'aarohana' and 'avarohana' of the ragas, and in the meticulous tempo set up by the various taalas.  Given these established patterns of melody and rhythm, the symmetry of Indian classical music is to a large extent pre-determined.  In the West, where no such compulsory patterns restrain the process of composition except in the case of certain forms of dance music, the structure of any arrangement for instrumental or vocal music is normally governed by a far more flexible regime of symmetry.

     A vital source of symmetry in Indian classical music is the 'sruthi' -- a continuous shimmering backdrop which not only anchors the basic tonic at the proper level but also provides a reassuring sound which is part of the music in its own right.  Western music does not normally adopt such an organic device for regulating the pitch or reinforcing the sound ;  but the persistent anchoring efforts in pop music and in instrumental jazz do give rise to a kind of sruthi, whether this is based on any theoretical requirement or not.  There is, by the way, a constant drone similar to sruthi in certain types of Swedish music. 

Dancing to music

     Except perhaps in very unorthodox displays of virtuosity, dance cannot be performed without appropriate parallel music (usually with an accent on rhythm).  We can easily recognize the symmetry between a system of dance and the music which is meant for it -- whether we are thinking of ballet or Bharatha-naatyam, Scotch reel or Odissi, Kathak or Flamenco.  The steady pulse of a beautiful waltz contributes  to the graceful swirl of ballroom dancing, and also reflects it.  Folk music and dance everywhere are more closely bound together than art music and dance, therefore this consonance between sound and vision is more prominent in their case.

     There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  For instance, the showy gyrations and gymnastics of disco dancers or pop musicians (especially in video productions) often degenerate into wildly discordant movements and images, while the parallel music usually maintains a stable sonority.

Drama and cinema

     Is there symmetry in drama?  We do not have to search hard for an answer :  it would be enough merely to consider the composite nature of the dramatic art, which incorporates the elements of literature and the visual arts,, and often the other performing arts too.  In all shades of drama, ranging from simple rustic drama to sophisticated urban theater, there has to be a fine balance between artistic disciplines of different kinds.  It all boils down to a question of symmetry, of course.  In this regard, what is true of drama is also true of motion pictures, with appropriate modifications.

Artists and audience

     In the case of the visual arts, architecture, audio and video recordings and cinema, the interaction of the viewers is not with the creators of art, but with their creations.  But in the case of live music, dance and drama, there is a direct communication between the artists and the audience.   The success of a performance depends to a large extent on the symmetry which exists in this sensitive relationship. 

Language & literature

     Let us now take a look at language and literature.  In an earlier essay we had noted that there is considerable logic in the grammar and composition of language.  It is a fact that wherever there is logic there is symmetry.  We had also seen that there are certain illogical elements in language, especially in the case of script and spelling in relation to sound ;  to that extent, symmetry is missing in language.  Of course, it is visibly present in the maintenance of alphabetical order, the compilation of dictionaries, and in the techniques of short-hand transcription.

     There is obvious symmetry in the rhythm of poetry in any language, and in its rhyming and alliteration.  John Ruskin, the English art critic of the 19th century, talked of the "symmetrical clause of Pope's logical metre."  While poetry can express profound and beautiful thoughts, it may also be majestic and lovely in its mere form, like music.

     Elegant prose too has a distinct rhythm, but this depends more on meaning.  Herbert Reed, the distinguished literary critic, says in his book 'English Prose Style' :  "Rhythm is born not with the words but with the thought . . .  The paragraph is a plastic mass. and it takes shape from the thought it has to express.  The words are like clay on a potter's wheel . . . "   But obviously thought is the seminal source of all literature, not merely of prose.  The ultimate symmetry of literature, whether it takes the form of a poem, essay, novel, short story or play, lies in the delicate equilibrium between thought and articulation -- in other words, in the balance achieved between perception and language.  It is equally true that elegance and beauty of style basically depend on the symmetrical arrangement of words, not only as they look on paper, but also as they sound when spoken.

Universal law of symmetry

     This survey will not be complete unless we take stock of certain other manifestations of symmetry -- which are illustrative and not exhaustive, and reinforce the impression that there seems to be a universal law of symmetry. 

     Let us consider sports, for instance.  There is symmetry in the whole ambiance of a hockey or football ground, tennis or badminton court, billiards able or carom board, ski slope or skating rink, athletic track or velodrome -- not only in the visual impact of the events, but in the competition between the sportspersons and (where relevant) the cohesion of team-work.  A high degree of symmetry exists in the infinite permutations of chess and in the intricate equations of bridge.

     There are many aspects of management where symmetry is a major factor.  Institutional success depends a great deal on the kind of balance which exists in the relationship between employers and employees, between management and ownership, and between the organization and its clients, customers and associates.  There must be order in the maintenance of accounts and the contents of balance sheets.  There must be compatibility in the planning of projects, and consistency in their implementation.

     Symmetry is of paramount importance in the context of rational argument, whether it concerns legal issues. audit scrutiny, political and social commentary, scientific inquiry or the pursuit of pure wisdom.  The force of impartial argument is derived from the balance implicit in objectivity.  One naturally looks for perfect logic in judicial pronouncements, the Auditor-General's reports to the legislature, editorials of responsible newspapers, scientific papers and philosophic treatises.

     As mentioned earlier, wherever there is logic, there is symmetry.  This is true whether we relate rationality to thought processes or to the scheme of things which exist in nature or in a man-made environment.  But symmetry and logic are not synonymous terms, and we must carefully note the distinction between them.  An important fact that needs to be underlined is that while there may be logic in something which is not symmetrical, there csn be no symmetry in anything which is not logical.


PostScript, 2018

Scientific sequel

When I started exploring the concept of symmetry in my monthly column 'Articulations' in THE HINDU, I knew it would call for several essays of the usual length permitted by the Editor.  But just when I had finished writing the third one -- which I imagined would successfully conclude the extremely intricate exercise -- the first two attracted a strong rejoinder from an eminent Indian scientist. 

It took me some time to respond, but after a few weeks I turned the argument into a question of science vs. language, proving my point.  That, of course, will be the topic of the next post! 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Significant Aspects Of Symmetry In Art & Artistic Settings, Architecture & Artifacts

Here is the second of my three comprehensive essays on Symmetry, which have survived -- and will surely continue to survive -- the severe tests of time :- 


Sunday Magazine
11 December 1991 

Symmetry in art
     In the first part of this essay we had noted the widespread presence of symmetry in nature and science.  Transferring our attention to the field of art, we find the role of symmetry to be no less significant.  Like science, art also has its deepest roots in nature.  The earliest forms of art in human experience were apparently an endeavor to represent nature in rudimentary drawings or etchings on rocks, or in carvings of wood and stone -- picturing the prominent landmarks of nature, which include the physical forms of life. With such a spontaneous beginning, it was inevitable that the symmetry inherent in nature would be permanently imprinted on the artistic instinct and perspective of mankind.

     It is not therefore surprising that even after superior techniques of sculpture and painting  were developed with the progress of civilization, preoccupation with nature has continued to be a compelling element of art for many centuries.  The highly symmetrical form of the human body was captured in the superb marble sculpture of ancient Greece in an idealized manner, and artists of Imperial Rome had looked mainly to Greece for inspiration.  So exquisite is the symmetry of the statue of Venus de Milo (second or third century BC) that even an ordinary viewer with a little bit of imagination can visualize, in his or her own way, the lovely shape of the lady's missing arms which have been lost to the ravages of time.

     In terms of reposeful grace, this masterpiece of Greek art has a striking parallel in the nude figure of David sculptured by Michelangelo more than 1500 years later in Italy.  Indeed, the whole art of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe  -- whether in sculpture or painting -- reflected an intense nostalgia for the grace, beauty and symmetry of the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. 

Conflicting trends

     Subsequent artistic trends in the West veering away from the instinctive affinity with nature were presumably the result of accumulated and growing intellectual ennui in the realm of art, particularly since the last quarter of the 19th century.  But even where artists have revolted against merely copying nature, they have not always sacrificed symmetry in the works they have created.

     It is true that there have been several artistic movements in which arbitrariness has been the predominant element -- such as Expressionism (Munch), Fauvism (Matisse), Cubism (Picasso, Braque),  Dada (Duchamp, Ernst), Surrealism (Ernst, Dali), and Abstract Expressionism (Pollock).  But there have also been parallel trends where even artists with unconventional attitudes did not give up their concern for harmony -- such as those belonging to movements like Realism (Courbet), Impressionism (Manet, Pissaro, Renoir), and Post-Impressionism (Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh).  There is fascinating symmetry in the severe straight lines and austere rectangles which figure in the abstract art of Mondrian.

     Moreover, the asymmetrical and anti-symmetrical elements of modern art have also tended to create their own brand of ennui in the artistic spirit :  and as the dawn of a new century draws closer, there seems to be a growing inclination among artists in the West to revert to less arbitrary styles.

     There is great symmetry to be found in the classical forms of Oriental art, whether Byzantine (Turkish-Roman), Greek Orthodox, Persian, Indian or Chinese.  In India, modern art styles have tended to copy bizarre and asymmetrical European models quite indiscriminately ; and by and large they have failed to make a forceful impact on the people, whose collective vision of the visual arts has always been rooted deeply in traditional concepts.  No wonder the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, which is supported by the Government at great cost, has only marginal relevance to the cultural life of the people.

Architecture and designs

     While symmetry can be devalued to some extent in the case of painting and sculpture, it is almost indispensable in architecture.  Buildings, bridges and other permanent constructions need to have a stable framework for retaining their forms ;  and stability in physical terms is invariably enhanced by symmetry in structure.  This is obviously the reason why, from the most ancient times to the present day, architects all over the world have generally tended to adopt symmetrical designs.  Architecture is concerned with engineering as well as aesthetics.  While science provides the foundation and the basic features of the framework, art prescribes the appearance which creates the visual impact and appeal of a structure :  and on both counts, symmetry happens to be a crucial factor. 

     Another area in which science and art have a common concern is that of industrial design.  Considerations of utility and engineering have an important bearing on the shape of innumerable products of modern industry ;  but the attractiveness of the package -- or of the shell enclosing mechanical, electric or electronic systems -- depends largely on its artistic value.  The design of a product may either be influenced by the preference of propsective consumers, or may be meant to influence their tastes ;  in either event, the designer usually faces questions of symmetry and visual appeal.  And in important functional matters like sreamlining an automobile body or devising a well-balanced internal mechanism, the engineer is vitally concerned with the connection between symmetry and efficiency.

Symmetry in settings

     When discussing painting and sculpture, we have so far referred to symmetry only in the sense of an artistic work displaying a symmetrical pattern, whether as a reflection of the symmetry which exists in nature, or in a different form altogether.  We must also observe the fact that when a faithful or even impressionistic image of a real object or person is created in a painting or sculpture, there is a symmetrical relationship between the subject and the work of art.  This aspect is more conspicuous in the case of photography, where the picture seeks to represent a subject or scene faithfully unless any deliberate distortions are introduced by manipulating the normal process itself.  And what is true of photography in this regard is also true of cinematography, TV transmission and video recording.

     In the case of cinema, there is a symmetrical link between the scene which is shot and the film, and between the film and the immensely magnified image on the screen.  Similarly, in a video recording there is a symmetrical link between the original scene  and the magnetic tape, and between the tape and the monitor screen.  In the case of live television, there is a direct symmetrical link between the image telecast and the one received, just as there is a symmetrical bond between inputs and outputs in the case of the telephone, telegraphy, gramaphone, sound-recording tape or compact disc. The continuing efforts of inventors to develop more and more sophisticated techniques -- with the ultimate objective of reproducing sound and vision with the highest fidelity -- are in fact a constant search for finding effective methods for achieving greater symmetry in the whole system.  

    There is, however, a serious paradox in the evolving situation.  The state of technology in cinema and television has already reached a very high level today ;  and the possibility of duplicating reality with still greater accuracy by deveoping perfect three-dimensional imagery creates the legitimate fear that it may only lead to a reduction in the artistic value of the viewer's experince.  This would mean that a delicate equilibrium which is conducive to artistic excellence may be lost, spoiling the symmetry of the whole equation. 

Decorations and artifacts

     Symmetry would seem to have been a basic element of decoration from the earliest times, whether in relation to objects of art or articles of utility ;  and by and large it continues to be so today.  In architecture, symmetry is found not only in the harmonious shape of a structure and its constituent parts, but in interior and exterior xevoration as well.  Thus, the symmetry visible in the arabesques, friezes, mosaics, frescos or stained glass of olden days is matched by the symmetry one sees in the carpets. mantels and chandeliers of more recent times, and in today's linoleum, wall-paper or even functional tiles.

     We have noted the relevance of symmetry in modern industrial products.  This is reminiscent of the symmetry which has generally charaterized the artifacts of human workmanship from pre-historic periods to the present times, through successive civilizations.  There is a compulsive urge in human nature to look for beauty in addition to utility even in things which are intended to serve ordinary purposes.  This calls for elegance and symmetry in curtains and carpets, cutlery and chinaware, cooling and washimg machines, and so on endlessly.  To what extent this need is actually satisfied by contemporary industrial culture geared to mass production is an issue which has to be studied separately.

                                                                    (to be continued)


PostScript, 2018

Blending beauty and utility     

As I was writing the last paragraph of this essay in 1991,  I could hear loud echoes of the following thought expressed by Mr. P.N. Haksar, the distinguished Indian diplomat-turned-cultural-philosopher, a couple of years earlier :-

"It must be ensured that the cultural life of the individual, no less than that of the community, should seek to relate aesthetic fulfilment to the everyday activities of life.  Encouragement should be held out to creative activity which locates both beauty and utility in the artifacts of cultural as well as material production." 

A significant sequence of his profound reflections can be seen in my blog :  When & How Chairman Haksar Wrote His Monumental Essay On Art & Culture

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Intricate And Intriguing Dimensions And Manifestations Of Symmetry

My contributions to THE HINDU, one of India's most prestigious English-language newspapers, were spread over half a century in successive spells and columns which had several different characters and colors.  The initial spell in the 1960s featured articles cast in the mould of classical English essays ;  this was followed by reviews and sketches on the Carnatic and Western music scenarios in India's capital city New Delhi in the late '80s and early '90s. 

I also wrote a column titled 'Articulations' in 1990-93, recording the reflections of an articulate layman on the intricate manifestations of art and culture, as well as some psychological or philosophic aspects of life.  In the following recent blog I had explained how this column happened to be launched :   When & How Chairman Haksar Wrote His Monumental Essay OnArt & Culture.   

Earlier, in several successive blogs I had also recalled half a dozen essays on friendship, starting with the following one :  Frontiers Of Friendship : How, Beyond Natural Boundaries, Close Friendship Becomes Troublesome Bondage! 
Let me now  share with you a set of three seminal essays on the concept of symmetry, which were followed by a lively exchange of clashing ideas between an eminent Indian scientist and myself :-            


Sunday Magazine

17 November 1991

Reflections on symmetry

     In my last column I had expressed the view that other things being equal, the universality of music in terms of space and time depends on the degree of its symmetry.  This raises a pertinent issue : what exactly constitutes symmetry in music?  For finding a convincing answer one must naturally start with a proper definition of symmetry.  However, the effort to expain tends to become an exploration, and one is astounded by the far-reaching significance and apparently unlimited manifestations of symmetry.  So then, let music wait!

     The true meaning of symmetry is not limited to parallelism -- namely that two things (or two sides of the same thing) look alike in an absolute or inverted sense -- although that is the most popular connotation of the word.   In a much larger frame of reference, symmetry implies good proportion, balance, harmony and equilibrium ;  concordance, congruity, consonance and consistency ;  and even orderliness, grace and beauty.  And if one took a careful look at things,  one would realize that symmetry so defined exists on an intriguingly wide scale in nature, as well as in science, art and other concerns of civilized life.

Symmetry in universe

     Nowhere in nature is symmetry present as a more awesome phenomenon than in the meticulous order of the universe, where countless celestial bodies of colossal size exist in the form of noble spheres  -- either in a solid form or as a mass of energy -- and are endlessly tracing elliptical paths in the cosmos without  collision, indicating a perfectly balanced equilibrium.  The gravitational forces which are responsible for this amazing consistency in the perpetual motion and recurring relative positions of stars and planets do not operate in an arbitrary manner, but obey certain eternal laws of nature.  That is why astronomical research and predictions are able to reach out to infinity in terms of time and space.

     There is great symmetry in the way light behaves . . . in the infinite directions in which it tends to get dispersed unless obstructed . . .  in the constant and inexceedable speed at which light beams travel, and in the absolutely straight line of their course which can stretch over millions of light-years till they encounter something which stops, retracts or reflects them.  There is symmetry in the refraction of light . . .  in the way a prism breaks it up into the basic colors of the spectrum, or a wet sky conjures up a magnificent rainbow.  There is symmetry in the constant speed of sound, and in the echo which results when it is reflected.  There is symmetry, too, in the velocity of electricity and radio waves, and in the radiation of heat and other forms of vital energy. 
Symmetry on earth

     There is symmetry in the shape of the earth, and in the composition of its atmosphere.  One can see perfect order in the latitudes and longitudes which are man-drawn lines on paper or on a globe.  There is symmetry in the directions -- north, south, east and west -- and in the compass which indicates them.  There is consistency in the altitudes at which different kinds of clouds float or cruise in the sky ;  there is symmetry in the waves of the seas and their alternating tides.  There is symmetry in one's view of the horizon, which resolves itself into a perfect arc or circle as one moves up in the sky regardless of the nature of the landscape, in the way lighthouse beams constantly sweep and scan the horizon, and in the way they are observed from any given spot as flashes which recur with unerring regularity. 

     There is great symmetry to be found in crystals and snow-flakes.  Trees may not always be symmetrical in shape unless they are coniferous or palm ;  but leaves, flowers and fruits are almost always symmetrical in form.  Even where trees and plants grow in irregular shapes, the configuration of forests has an inherent pattern.  There is symmetry in the atoms and molecules of the elements, whether they are in a solid, liquid or gaseous state, and in the temperatures at which those conditions are altered.  There is precision in the annual cycle of the seasons :  spring, summer, rain, autumn and winter.  There is symmetry in the way water invariably finds its mean level no matter how intricately it is connected -- particularly in the way the surfaces of all the oceans have a common, immutable level which forms the basis for all geographical calculations of altitude and depth.  There is symmetry in the flame of a candle or oil-lamp, and even in the volatile flames of a blazing log-fire. 

     There is a strong element of symmetry in the physical features of most living creatures . . .   in the limbs and bone structures of mammals ;  in the twin eyes and ears which make three-dimensional vision and stereophonic hearing possible ;  and in the almost invariable matching of the left and right sides of animate bodies.  There is remarkable balance in the shape of fish, which are streamlined by nature to overcome the resistance of water, and in the wings which sustain the airborne condition of birds.  There is symmetry in the traits which characterize any given species on this earth ;  and even between different species there is a striking similarity in the sexual division and functions.     

Symmetry in shapes

     So far as shapes are concerned, symmetry invariably  concerns two dimensions, and sometimes three.  It will hardly be disputed that the circle and the sphere are the most perfectly symmetrical shapes which exist.  Symmetry can be axial, radial or bilateral, depending on whether it has a reference to a bisecting line, central point or dividing plane.  When we consider only two dimensions, we observe the symmetry of the circle, ellipse (or oval), square, rectangle, and equilateral triangle, pentagon, hexagon, and so on.  

     In three dimensions, we find symmetrical structures in the sphere, cone, pyramid (which you might call a 'square cone'), cylinder and cube.  The whole exercise of solving the intricate problem set up by the Rubik's Cube is a quest for restoring a symmetrical scheme of things from an extremely disturbed state.

Symmetry in science

The fundamental connection between nature and science is obvious, and has two distinct aspects.  Science is concerned with the discovery and interpretation of natural phenomena or laws ;  it also seeks to counter or harness the forces of nature for the purposes of mankind, whether these are constructive or destructive.  And since symmetry figures strongly in nature, so it does in science also.

Thus, the discipline of physics is concerned with deciphering the symmetry which governs the universe as well as the microscopic atoms of the elements.  Physics and astronomy together deal with complex issues concerning gravity, relativity, displacement in space and time, homogeneity of space, properties of heavenly bodies -- all of which raise vital questions of symmetry.  In chemistry, we come across equations and formulas which indicate the reactions which ensue when elements interact with one another, altering the symmetry of things.  Geology studies the symmetry of the earth's structure.  In biology scientists are deeply rooted in nature, studying the symmetry of plant and animal life ;  research in microbiology is essentially  concerned with the symmetry of living cells.

     No less significant is the status of symmetry in mathematics.  It has a conspicuous presence in geometry, which deals with magnitudes in space and the visual shapes of things ;  it is also present, though less perceptibly, in other branches of maths like algenra and calculus.  Of course, it is difficult to mark the borderline between mathematics and certain other sciences like physics and astronomy which are concered with the symmetry inherent in the laws of nature.  In statistics, there is always symmetry in the compilation and tabulation of data and their systematic analysis.

Symmetry in technology

     Symmetry can be found in the elementary tools devised by primitive men as well as in the sophisticated machines produced by high technology today.  There was symmetry in the blunt instruments of the stone age and in the original wheel whenever it was invented, as there is in the complicated gears or mysterious electronic systems of modern machinery.  There is symmetry in the way a sensitive gyroscope works, or in the way a simple bicycle in motion balances itself.

     The physical shapes which vehicles have assumed from early times to the present day provide sriking examples of symmetrical forms.  The streamlined structure of boats and ships, aeroplanes and rockets is the result of the necessity to overcome the resistance set up by natural forces.  The basic objective of hydrodynamics and aerodynamics is to discover the most effective symmetry of objects moving in water and air.  Of course, it took researchers condiderable time to realize that automobiles and rail-bound trains moving on the ground also need streamlining. 

Symmetry in standards

     Symmetry is inevitable in standardization, whether it concerns instruments, weights and measures, currency or the diverse products of modern industry.  A forceful illustration of this is provided by the identical specifications of gramophone records, photographic and cinematic film and magnetic recording tapes adopted all over the world.  We tend to take things for granted when we casually play a long-playing record or video cassette made in India or Bulgaria on a reproducing machine made in America or Japan.  The remarkable symmetry of the whole system which makes this possible may not be perceived unless one consciously looks for it, but it is there on a global scale all the time.   By contrast, the spread of the computer culture in the world today is perhaps retarded to some extent because of the inadequate symmetry of the existing software, although the computer itself represents a marvelous symmetry in science and technology. 

                                                               (to be continued)  

PostScript, 2018
Symmetry in articulations

Looking at this tightly-packed text written more than 25 years ago, I can't help feeling that it couldn't be so relevant and readable today -- as I am sure it's likely to be even after a hundred years from now -- if there hadn't been a substantial element of symmetry in the whole composition.  This impression is strongly reinforced by the two essays which followed, as you will see.  But  then, of course, that must be true of almost all my reflections as an articulate layman!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Kung-Fu Adventure : How I Entered The 36th Chamber Of Audit

Contrary to the expectations of some of my close friends, who were convinced that my column 'India of C-A-G' couldn't last long without becoming extremely tedious to write and read, it became as entertaining as it was profoundly insightful, thanks mainly to the absolute freedom of expresssion, style and presentation which the Editor, Mr. N. Ravi, had given me. The articles on tobacco exports, which I posted recently, clearly showed how exciting my recollectiions and reflections could become.  And here's another excellent example of how unlimited my boundaries were :-

Glossary & annotations

States  --  There were 26 States in India at the time of this story (now there are 29, due to subsequent partitions).

Lok Sabha  --  Lower House of Indian Parliament (in India's prime language Hindi, Lok = people ;  Sabha = assembly).

Madras  --  South Indian metropolis, capital of Tamil Nadu State (and my own home city!).


11 December 1996

India of C-A-G

The 36th Chamber of Audit

Two years have passed since this column was started, and more than sixty articles have appeared so far.  Some of them described the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, as well as the nature, scope, attitudes, environment and quality of Government audit in India, but most of the articles were devoted to disseminating the contents of the CAG's Audit Reports.

Regular readers of this column  must be wondering where exactly the Audit Reports are leading.  Are they having any perceptible and positive impact on the Central and State Governments?

Are the institutions responsible for following up the CAG's reports under the Constitution -- the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) and the Committees on Public Undertakings (COPUs) of Parliament and the State Legislatures -- doing a useful job?  This is a problem with which the CAG has been wrestling for 50 years, and a proper solution still seems to be as elusive as ever!

And that reminds me forcefully of the Shakdher Committee, which had gone into the related issues on the States side a few years ago.  I happened to be the Member-Secretary of that panel, which had been appointed by the CAG.  But before I explain the background of the Commitee, I must recall the memory of a certain young exponent of the ancient Chinese martial art Kung-Fu.

Crusade against tyranny

In the Chinese film 'The 36th Chamber of Shaolin', which ran to full houses in several Indian cities 15 years ago, the hero is a handsome young boy who grows up in the terrible and repressive regime of a merciless tyrant in ancient China, and resolves to fight the oppressor effectively.  Now there is a sequestered monastery called Shaolin, where the finest masters of Kung-Fu live and teach.  But they teach solely for the sake of keeping the art alive, and an inflexible tradition does not allow any master or disciple ever to leave the premises and practice it outside.

The boy decides to learn Kung-Fu, and smuggles himself into Shaolin by hiding in a cart carrying provisions.  He makes a good impression on the elders, who take him in as a monk and accept him as an apprentice.

The monastery has 35 chambers specializing in different aspects of the martial techniques, ranging from the physical to the spititual.  Our hero proves to be the best disciple ever to have been taught there, and very soon masters all aspects of the art comprehensively.
In a decisive final test, held in front of all the elders, he bows humbly before his chief master asking for forgiveness, and proceeds to defeat him in a spectacular demonstration of skill and power. 

So impressed is the doyen of Shaolin that he not only nominates the boy on the spot as a teacher, but directs him to choose any one of the 35 chambers, which would be his for the asking.

However, our hero humbly asks for the 36th chamber.  "But it does not exist, my son!" says the puzzled doyen.  "Yes, master, it does -- outside Shaolin," replies the boy.  He proceeds to reveal the true reason for learning Kung-Fu, and pleads for a chance to fight the tyrant and end the oppression.

The supreme monk is so impressed by the boy's earnestness that he breaks the rigid tradition by ostensibly expelling him from Shaolin but implicitly permitting him to leave the monastery, practice the martial art outside and accomplish his mission -- which, of course, he does in a triumphant climax.

Tyranny of indifference

Well, by now the reader must be wondering what all this has got to do with the CAG of India and his Audit reports.  Let me explain!

I spent the final years of my civil service in the CAG's Headquarters office in the Capital, and during that period I was supervising the work relating to the production and editing of the CAG's Audit Reports concerning all the States.

One of the very old and vexing issues we were grappling with was the abysmally poor response of all the State Governments to the CAG's reports, and the extremely lethargic manner in which the Public Accounts Committees (PACs) and the Committees on Public Undertakings (COPUs) in all State Legislatures were functioning. 

The contents of the Audit Reports were voluminous, and the PACs and COPUs could hope to keep their work current only if they could adopt a very selective approach in holding detailed discussions, as was done at the Center.  But in the States they were adopting a very rigid approach, trying to discuss all the material, so that several past years' work had accumulated into a formidable backlog, becoming a heavy and permanent burden.

So much so that in 1992 many of the State PACs and COPUs were still trying to discuss the contents of the CAG's reports relating to 1984-85 and 1983-84.  In West Bengal they were still debating the issues raised in the 1981-82 report!  And the current year's reports invariably got placed at the end of the long pipeline, to await disposal several years later. 
Mr. C.G. Somiah, who was the CAG then, felt extremely concerned about this state of affairs, and wanted to do something to improve the situation.  So all through 1991-92 the Accountant-Generals in all the States went far out of their way, meeting the Governors, Chief Secretaries, Finance and other Secretaries, Chairmen of PACs and COPUs, and Speakers of the State Legislatures, and pleading with them to improve the situation.  But all those extraordinary efforts were leading nowhere, and the fossilized system was just not responding to any stimulus we could think of.

By mid-1992, I had reached the conclusion that nothing more could be done by the Accountant-Generals without sacrificing their own dignity, which would be counter-productive anyway.  So I suggested to the CAG that we should call off the special drive and let things take their own course.

I recorded my views in a note, strongly stressing the fact that it was not really the job of the Audit Department to activate the Governments, PACs and COPUs, and that only some forceful extra-mural influence -- like the conferences of PAC and COPU Chairmen annd those of the Speakers -- might have any positive impact on this totally negative environment.

Enter 'The Author'

It was in this extremely distressing context that Mr. Somiah thought of appointing a committee, to be headed by an exceptionally influential person, to take stock of the whole muddle and try to alter the environment.

"Ramakrishna, you wanted someone to take some extra-mural initiative,"  he told me.  "So let us organize it now.  I shall nominate you as Member-Secretary of a Committee.  Let us find a proper Chairman.  You can retain the office facilities here, but you can go out and do something!" 

And that is how, after serving the Indian Audit and Accounts Department for 35 years, I had a chance to go out and try to influence the outside environment in the 36th year, in what I like to think of as the 36th Chamber of Audit.

Anyway, I did find the father figure in the Committee's Chairman, who was none other than Mr. S.L. Shakdher, the former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and former Chief Election Commissioner.

If you are now in a mind to ask whether the Committee altered the environment and killed the tyranny of indifference and lethargy, the honest answer must be no, it certainly did not. 

But I do think its efforts were worthwhile in a way, for in a conference in Madras in 1993 the Speakers of Parliament and all State Legislatures unanimously endorsed the Committee's recommendations 'in toto'.  It was Mr. Shakdher's towering image as a Parliamentarian (and author of the standard reference book on Indian Parliamentary practices) which brought about such a firm resolution. . . ..

           (This scenario and the sequel were amplified
                    in several essays which followed) 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Concerns And Constraints Of CAG's Colossal Audit Mission

Here's the second of the twin seminal essays I wrote as an overture to my column 'India of C-A-G' in THE HINDU towards the end of the 20th century. 

The published text contained some detailed information on the specific scope and processes of the CAG's audit, which I am skipping here (. . . . . . ), occasionally adding a phrase in square brakets for continuity :-

Glossary & annotations

C-A-G  -- Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, a Constitutional authority.

British regime/Raj  --  Political set-up in colonial India, from late 19th century to 1947.   In Hindi, 'Raj' means (among other things) 'Rule' in a political sense.

Presidency  --  This should have read 'Province'.  (Please see PostScript below).

'Dak' pad  -- 'Dak' means 'mail' in Hindi. 

Peon  --   In colonial India, unskilled helpers in Government offices were called 'peons', an expression of Spanish origin.  In independent India, they are technically designated as 'Class IV employees' and are popularly known  as 'messengers'.

Rs. 325 crores  --  Rs. = Rupees.  One crore = 1,00.00,000  [10 million].  One US Dollar = about 65 Rupees.  So,  Rs. 325 crores =  about US $ 50 million.

Business Review

17 November 1995

India of C-A-G
The mills of the C-A-G

"Although the mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceeding fine . . ."

I always recall those famous lines from Longfellow's poem Retribution whenever I reflect on the colossal organization of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India and its wide-ranging and far-reaching activities.

The main function of the CAG under the Constitution and an Act of Parliament is to audit the transactions of the Central and State Governments, and those of the autonomous bodies substantially funded by them, as well as their public-sector undertakings.  He has also certain accounting and entitlements regulation functions. 

Before India became independent, the Auditor-General -- as he was called in the British regime -- was not answerable to the People of India, and his loyalty was to the British rulers.  His job was only to find out what, if anything, was going wrong in the Government's day-to-day financial affairs, which were not very complicated.

Government audit accordingly was a relatively simple matter those days, and it continued to be so well into the 1950s . . .[and was mainly concered with routine checks of expenditure on establishment and public works]. 

Expanding horizons

As the activities of the Central and State Governments grew rapidly in independent India, their expenditure expanded spectacularly.  Various schemes began to be conceived and implemented under the Five-Year Plans for the welfare the people -- to generate higher levels of employment, ameliorate education, modernize roads and highways, improve irrigation, agricultural practices, health services, etc., provide subsidies for industrial development or export promotion, and so on.

In course of time, the concept of efficiency-cum-performance-audit (ECPA) -- now known as value-for-money-audit (VFMA) -- was developed, looking beyond regularity and propriety, and judging the effectiveness of Government activity, not only in respect of large schemes but also in the context of individual transactions of very large magnitude and the overall performance of specific offices, organizations or departments.

From the early Seventies onwards, this kind of investigative expenditure audit became a constant preoccupation of the CAG.  But that was not all, for his horizons were expanding on all sides.  On a different plane, Audit had also started checking the receipts of the Government.  Here too, the audit perspective widened as the receipts were progressively enlarged ;  thus. not only were the actual tax collections checked against the dues, but the efficiency and soundness of the operations and systems also began to be reviewed.  On yet another plane, the CAG started auditing the transactions of the public-sector enterprises, superimposing his own scrutiny on the usual verification of accounts by Chartered Accountants ;  and this too is a well-established audit practice now. . . . . .

Then and now

In the good old days of the British Raj, when the concerns of Audit were far less, the Auditor-General and his senior officers in the filed apparently used to lead a very leisurely life.  It was even said (and believed) that a certain Accountant-General of a Presidency, who was an Englishman, would arrive in his office on horseback, and would glance through a thin 'dak' pad handed over to him by his secretary or peon while he was still astride the horse near the gate.  Maybe he would also sign a couple of letters sometimes without dismounting, and then he would ride away back home or on to the golf course!  But today the volume of audit activity is so great that it has been found necessary to have two, three or even more Accountant-Generals in almost all the States [earnestly working full-time] . . . . . . 
Considerable preliminary research is usually undertaken before commencing the Statewide and countrywide reviews of important schemes.  Where the Government of India extends financial assistance to the various State Governments to implement Centrally sponsored schemes, the concerned audit officers in the Capital undertake pilot studies and prepare suitable guidelines for audit which the audit officers in the States broadly follow, subject to their own initiatives and innovations which are encouraged.  The results of such investigations and further research in the field are consolidated in the CAG's Audit Reports on the Central Government, and are also featured in his Audit Reports on the respective States . . . . . .
On an average, the CAG issues about a hundred Audit Reports every year.  On the Central side, there are about two or three volumes of what is called the Civil Audit Report, and also separate Audit Reports on the Railways, Defence Services, Posts and Telecommunications, receipts, public-sector undertakings and autonomous bodies . . . . . .   There is an Audit Report on each of the 25 States every year, and in most States there are separate Reports on receipts and PSUs as well. 

During 1992-93, the various field officers totally inspected about 35,000 units spread all over the country on the Central side, and about 52,000 units on the States side.  During the same period, the number of vouchers and other records checked in the field offices themselves amounted to more than six million in the case of the Center and nearly 13 million in the States.

The CAG's organization (the Indian Audit and Accounts Department) has a network of . . . .  [about a hundred offices, not counting their branches . . . .  The staff strength is about 60,000 persons, and the annual budget is over Rs. 325 crores, or about US $ 50 million].

The time factor

It is often said by senior officers of the Central and State Governments that the CAGs Audit Reports tend to raise issues which are so old that they are not worth pursuing. There may be a small grain of truth in this assumption, but it is generally not valid. 

Often it is very difficult for audit officers to gain access to all relevant information, because they encounter considerable all along the way ;   it is inevitable that there should be a generous lead time for converting impressions into conclusions, especially for ascertaiing the views of the Government, which is vitally important in a precedural as well as ethical sense.   Moreover, when schemes running for several years are reviewed, some issues relating to several preceding years are bound to figure in the Audit Reports.  Such instances are often cited as cases of delayed reporting, which is very misleading.   
It is true that sometimes there are undue delays in the preparation of Audit Reports by the CAG and their printing by the State Governments.  There is certainly scope for accelerating things all round, and the CAG constantly strives to do so.  However, his performance cannot be said to be slack in the long run.  The quest for achieving better quality of audit and improving the audit officers' sensitivity too the Executives's genune constraints and compulsions is also a continuing objective of the CAG. 

The really serious delays, which ought to create far greater concern,  tend to occur in the pursuing of the Audit Reports by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Committee on Public Undrtakings (COPU) of the Legislature in most States.

We shall examine later the diverse aspects of the facts mentioned here.  Meanwhile, one might well declare, paraphrasing Longfellow's celebrated lines quoted in the beginning :  "Although the mills of the CAG of India grind and roll rather slowly, yet they grind exceeding fine, and they roll none too badly . . ."

PostScript, 2017

Presidency, Province, and Puerto Rico

From my schooldays in British India more than 60 years ago, I've been under the honest impression that the colonial set-up just before India became independent in 1947 had consisted of four vast Presidencies (Delhi. Bombay, Calcutta and Madras).  

But only this morning, checking the British background in Wikipedia before annotating the expression 'Presidency' in this blog, I made the shocking discovery that it was in the earlier days of the East India Company's administration that Presidencies had figured, there were seven of them and not four, and there was no Delhi Presidency at all ;  and that under the British Government's rule from 1857 the major administrative units were called Provinces and not Presidencies.  So how did I ever gain the impression that my father was an Executive Engineer in the Madras Presidency, as I've said in several contexts  with conviction? 

By the way, this revelation comes just a few days after I made an equally surprising discovery that Puerto Rico, which was hit recently by two furious hurricanes, is not an independent country in Latin America but just a just a 'territory' of the United States.  Surprising because, as a frequent companion of my grandchildren who live in America, I happen to know the names of all the States by heart, and can even recite them backwards alphabetically from Wyoming to Alabama.

All of which only shows how imperfect our perception of history and geography can be, even in the case of our own native lands and the countries where our children live,  leave alone the rest of the world!

                                            Next :  The 36th Chamber of Audit