By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, November 30, 2012

Exit Ricky Ponting: Old Man Of 38!

In a postscript to my note yesterday (Nov. 29) on the age factor of spectacularly successful sportspersons, we had noted the ambivalent mood of the glamorous and much-loved cricket stars Sachin Tendulkar of India (aged 39) and Ricky Ponting of Australia (38) in the context of their impending and inevitable retirement from the game.
Within a few hours after posting the above note, I came to know that Ponting had just announced his voluntary decision to quit, after playing one last Test match in the ongoing series against South Africa. 

Being a very senior citizen, I can only think of Sachin and Ricky (who are of about the same age as my son Vijay) as "those young fellows".  It's very difficult to digest the fact that they're already too old to go on pursuing their passion, which is to achieve excellence as master batsmen at the highest and toughest levels of performance.
In this intriguing context, I can't help recalling a psychologically significant article I had written in 1976,  when these boys were all just two- or three-year-old toddlers!

Evening News, New Delhi
6 August 1976
Gold is old!

My wife Raji believes in scolding my 7-year old son Vimo whenever he misses his homework or creates any kind of trouble (which he's always doing!).  But I believe in giving occasional deterrent punishment and in offering incentives/disincentives.
Recently, when Delhivision was flashing the Montreal Games  for 75 minutes every day, I thought I had found a strong disincentive.  "You can't see the Olympics unless you do your homework,"  I told my son.

In fact, on the second day I didn't switch on the television set, just to show him that I meant business.  But there was no improvement in his behaviour.   To my great shock, I found out that the boy wasn't at all interested in the Olympics!

After a few days the problem was how to get him interested at least in the highlights.  He had a knack of sitting down for a few minutes to watch some routine events, and going away just when something exciting was about to happen.

"Vimo!  Vimo!  Come on!  Boat race!"  I would scream.  But the boy would just peep in and go away again, to do some more pranks and make his mother's life miserable.

"Vimo!  Vimo!  A knock-out!  The white man has fallen down!  Are you coming?  VIMO!"  --  but there would be no sign of Vimo.

I waited breathlessly one day to see the Russian giant Vassily Alexeyev lift 255 kg in the clean-and-jerk.  When Vimo missed that event, I  became really anxious, and decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with the child.

"Vimo, why don't you see the Olympics?" I asked.

"I am not interested."

"You don't want to grow up into a champion?"

"No, Papa."

"Why not?  Don't you think it would be wonderful to get up on the victory stand and receive a gold medal?"

"No, Papa."

"Why not?"

"I can't be a champion for a long time, can I, Papa?"  Vimo asked. "But if I become a famous writer or something, I can go on being famous, can't I?"

What the child said set me thinking hard.  Yes, indeed, where are all the glorious sports stars of yesterday?  Where is Mark Spitz, the wonder boy of the Munich swimming pool?  Where will Kornelia Ender be four years from now?

The whole world marvels when a young man like 24-year-old Teofilo Stevenson retains his heavy-weight Olympic boxing title.  "First man ever to do it!" scream the despatches, as if at 24 a man ought to be a spent force!

When a young woman of 30 like Irena Szewinska wins a gold medal in a track event, the whole world recalls that she had been a great star in the 1964 Games, and wonders how she still happens to be around.

"This tall, graceful athlete is still a track-and-field evergreen!"  says the sports writer.  Or else:  "The day's human-interest story was the phenomenal success of the age-defying wonder, Irena Szewinska...."

As if at the age of 30 a young woman has no right to be physically fit!

"Oh, yes, the child is right!"  I thought.  "Where are Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek today?  Where will John Naber and Juantorena be in 1984?"

"Papa, have you seen the old man with a paunch who runs along the road early in the morning when I wait for the school bus?"  Vimo asked, interrupting my thoughts.  "I think he must have been a champion when he was young."

Oh, yes, I've seen the gentleman all right!  Around 40, I should say.  I have just crossed 40 myself,  but my son never called me an old man.

Thank God I have nothing to look backward to  --  no gold medal as an athlete, no silver as a sportsman!  Whether I even win a tin medal or not as a writer and artist, I can at least live with my dreams till I die!

Oh, yes, never reaching the peak is better than climbing down from it too early in life!  Isn't it sad to think of all the wonderful young people who feel so old so soon after winning their Olympic gold?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Maharajah Muhammad Ali

Elementary black-and-white television was just taking roots in India in the 1970s, with a single channel (usually with no more than four hours of simple programs in the evenings), telecast by the Government-owned organization Doordarshan, meaning 'Distant Vision'.  Color TV and multiple channels were developed in the 1980s, rather sluggishly. 

In my humorous column Delhiberations in the Evening News, I used to comment occasionally on the slow but steady progress achieved.  My outlook and tone were always optimistic and hopeful, invariably giving the benefit of doubt to the organization, which I called Delhivision for fun. 

I never made any significant contribution to the spectacular growth of television in India which has materialized since then;  but I do think that in its infant days in the Capital of India, my column did happen to be a source of valuable moral support and encouragement to the medium.

Moreover, every now and then those initial stages of growth of Indian TV created good opportunities for me to write something not only critical but also creative, which I thought would have permanent value and would be quite readable in the 21st century.

Well, here we are in the 21st century now;  and here's something I had scribbled 35 years ago, --  and I hope it will pass the test of time!

Evening News, New Delhi
8 Oct. 1977

Ring King!

My name is Muhammad Ali King,
From rooftops I will shout:
I rule the roost in the boxing ring,
No man can knock me out.

I would have licked the great Joe Louis
If only I had fought him;
Big Sonny Liston went all gluey,
The kind o' lesson I taught him!

I am the greatest champ, you bet,
I am the best and cleverest;
I am the biggest jumbo jet,
I am the top of Everest.

But folks, this time I must concede --
If I beat this Shavers fellah,
I owe my winning streak indeed
To the will and mercy of Allah!  
I read somewhere recently that Muhammad Ali's famous Kinhasa fight with George Foreman was seen by a quarter of the world's population, on closed-circuit TV, video tapes or film.  Unfortunately I can't count myself among that huge chunk of humanity.
Delhivision, as I have written in this column before, is rather good at covering sports.  But apart from the Olympics,  its coverage of international sports events isn't perhaps very impressive.  I don't know what financial constraints there would be  --  but if we could see on our TV a match like the Ali-Foreman encounter, it would surely be a memorable experience!

It is reported that after  his recent match with Ernie Shavers at Madison Square Garden in New York, Muhammad Ali, who won on points after 15 tough  rounds, said:  "Thank Allah I won!  Praise Allah!"

We've been used for a long time to Ali's "I'm the greatest!" line.  Apparently at 35 Muhammad Ali has become humble enough to attribute his success to God's grace.   
It is intriguing to see the way sportsmen in their thirties begin to sense the beginning of the end.

Although football king Pele staged a spectacular come-back some time ago, it now looks as if he has finally retired from competitive soccer at the age of 37.   Muhammad Ali is still going strong at 35, but  no doubt he realizes that some day he must also quit the scene.

The whole world loves to see a great sportsperson survive the vicissitudes of time and age.  Sports-lovers all over the world would indeed be deeply disappointed when Muhammad Ali says good-bye to boxing, whether he lays down the gloves as world champion or bows out to defeat.

Let us hope that Delhivision will give us some long glimpses of this colorful sportsman while he's still reigning in the ring! 
Postscript, 2012
Just compare the above comments I had made in 1977 with the following comments made by former Indian Test cricketer G. Viswanath a few days ago (The Hindu, Nov. 28, 2012):- 
"Two ageing champion batsmen --  India's Sachin Tendulkar and Australia's Ricky Ponting -- have come a cropper in recent times.... clearly both are in the twilight zone of their careers. 
"Some have expressed pity at his plight, but feel that Tendulkar has some more bright days in international cricket and wish him well.... Recently Tendulkar told a television channel: 'I am 39 and no one expects me to go on playing for ever.  I will go with what my heart says....'
"Ponting.... is reported to be having the support of the selectors....  According to Australia coach Mickey Arthur, Ponting, who will turn 38 on December 19, is in the radar for next year's Ashes, but there will be pressure on him to score some runs...."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Vintage Engines

Writing the light-hearted column Delhiberations in the Hindustan Times Evening News in New Delhi week after week from 1973 to '78 --  and then again for several years from 1983  --  was a great adventure.   The Editor had defined no boundaries for the topics either in geographic, historic or artistic terms, and I was free to talk about anything or anywhere or any time, as long as I could find even a remote connection with Delhi. 
Thus, discussing a local event involving some ancient steam locomotives which were still hauling trains on important routes across India, I was lost in a nostalgic day-dream about some famous British railway engines and trains I had discovered with great fascination in my schooldays, thanks to a very precious pre-war British book  (the same one I had mentioned in Articulations Online, Sept. 21, 2010).      

Evening News, New Delhi
12 February 1977

Black Beauties

I don't know what has happened to small boys these days....  they no longer seem to be interested in railway engines!
At least, that's the impression I got when my eight-year-old son Vimo refused to show any interest in my offer to take him to the New Delhi railway station to see the nine steam locomotives which have figured in the recent competition for the 'Black Beauty' prize.

Things were very different when I was a small boy myself, more than 30 years ago.

Although anonymous streamlined diesel trains had already become a prominent feature of the railways in the USA, elsewhere in the world steam engines were still in extensive use around the time of the second world war, even in such an advanced country like Great Britain. 

Perhaps nowhere else in the world had railway engines acquired such romantic color as in Great Britain, their parent country.

Naturally a vintage image surrounded famous old British locomotives like the Lion (1837) with its high chimney stack, or the original Coronation (1911) with its flat front.  But books published around 1940 used to talk fondly even of such recently-built engines like the Silver Link (1935), the first locomotive to draw the 'Silver Jubilee', the fastest British train those days.

And the engine driver was a romantic figure too, and had his share of glory those days.  Thus, a picture of Mr. W.H. Sparrow, driver of the Cheltenham Flyer (the fastest British train before Silver Jubilee), showing him clambering up the foot-board of his engine, stands immortalized in a book my father bough in 1939 and which has influenced my outlook more than the scriptures have done.

We in India were so thrilled in the 1950s when the first streamlined steam engines arrived from Canada and were put on the trunk routes.  The mere sight of them told us that India too was making progress at last.

Since then we have come a very long way indeed!  With Air India's Boeing-747s flying over our heads every day, the sight of modern streamlined railway engines made in India hasn't any great thrill for us, and it makes no impression at all on our young children!

Yet these steam locomotives on display are not yet obsolete in our country ...  far from it!  They are all still in active use, and some of them haul our express trains.

But that is good, in a way.  This beauty contest might have been motivated by the Railway Administration's desire to encourage railway crews to take more interest in engine maintenance, but it serves another great purpose   --  it brings the railwayman's image more forcefully before the public.

Thus, today we know the names of some of our dedicated engine drivers.  Mr. Godrej Rustomji or Mr. Deep Narain may never become as famous as Mr. W.H. Sparrow, but back in the loco sheds and railway colonies of the Central and Western Railways they will no doubt be heroes for some time to come, as the drivers of 'Jhansi-ki-Rani' and 'Paschim Pratap', the prize-winning locomotives.

Our sons dream of becoming spacemen, just as we used to dream of becoming engine drivers when we were small kids.  Neil Armstrong's name will perhaps make more sense in my children's life than Mr. W.H. Sparrow's name has made in mine.  But I am grateful to the Railway Administration for providing me with a brief fling down memory lane, while offering a tangible incentive to its crews to keep their engines in good trim.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Poppish-Turkish Folk music

Reviewing the occasional live performances of Western (or other foreign} music by highly accomplished foreign musicians visiting New Delhi was a challenging task.  Guest musicians would hardly care for any critical opinion expressed about the quality of their music by foreign music critics, whose credentials they would be inclined to question (often quite legitimately). The reviews therefore tended to be concerned more with capturing the atmosphere and mood of the occasions rather than with making any technical or even artistic assessment of the actual merits of a performance.

So far as Western classical and folk music and jazz were concerned, I had many clear insights into their native environment and quality, thanks to my long experience of listening to crystal--clear trans-continental radio broadcasts and my self-taught knowledge of several European languages (apart from English, which I knew very well, like any other educated Indian). 

But when it came to the music of of many Asian or African countries, my ignorance far outweighed my knowledge, and I didn't have much to say usually in artistic terms.  Nevertheless, there were some occasions when I did get a clear insight into some significant aspect, and I could write something very sensible and useful.  The following review of a Poppish-Turkish folk music concert had a focus on the power of music to transcend language and cultural barriers, and cross-cultural experiments and encounters in music -- which are vital themes I've been exploring extensively and intensively ever since.

The Hindu, New Delhi
17 Oct. 1986

Folk music overcomes language barrier

The universal appeal of pop music was forcefully demonstrated some time ago by the marathon Live Aid concert, which was televised worldwide and led to the collection of fabulous amounts of money for flood relief in Africa.  In fact, so compelling is the current idiom , with its catchy tunes and rhythms and striking vocal and instrumental inflections, that even your grim and conservative lover of classical music is sometimes caught listening to pop music with pleasure.
Folk music too usually has a universal appeal, whatever may be the country of origin.  Folk songs by their very nature are simple and unsophisticated, and are not expected to have any intellectual refinement.  Therefore it is not really necessary to understand the meaning of the lyrics for enjoying folk music.  Moreover, the strange and unfamiliar language of foreign folk songs even lends a touch of mystery to the music, and adds to its appeal.  It was interesting to see how enthusiastically our folk music was received in France and the U.S. during the recent Festival of India organized there.

Turkish visitors

So then, take the folk music of a country, charge it heavily with an element of Western pop music, travel to a foreign country where your language is totally unfamiliar, and give a forceful recital in front of a large international gathering consisting of music-lovers of all types, ranging from Beethoven addicts to Boney-M fans -- and you are bound to make a sensational impact!  That is precisely what happened when Ms. Nukhet Duru and the Modern Folk Trio from Turkey gave an unusual recital last week in the FICCI auditorium in New Delhi, organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Turkish Embassy in the Capital.

Ms. Duru, who has a powerful voice and a dynamic singing style. has been acclaimed as the best pop singer in Turkey for  several years, and she seemed to be in her elements in the recital under review.  The Modern Folk Trio --  Selami Kara Ibrahimgil, Ahmet Kurtaran and Dagan Canku  --  also seemed to put their heart into their singing.  Apart from a solitary instrument called 'kanun' (which looks and sounds a little like our santoor),  the instrumentation was thoroughly pop-oriented.   Some of the numbers were simply described as pop, and others were said to be derived from Turkish folk songs and classical music. 
Most people in the audience naturally could not follow the meaning of the Turkish songs.  But it did not matter.  On the contrary, for that very reason the music acquired a highly exotic quality although it was presented in a familiar pop style.  The mix was a very effective one, and the audience responded vigorously, keeping time with their clapping whenever there was a chance.

The idea of the team to combine the folk and pop modes is obviously an admirable one, if exposure of Turkish music to the whole world is one of their main objectives (as seems to be the case, judging by the large number of tours they have undertaken to various countries in Europe, Asia and America).

Validity of venture

While the essence of folk music is its simplicity, it is by no means an insignificant art form.  To quote Cecil Sharp, the well-known authority on English folk-song:  ".... The unconscious music of the folk has all the hallmarks of fine art.... it is wholly free from the taint of manufacture, the canker of artificiality...."   Folk music invariably reflects some ingrained characteristics of a country's spirit, history and traditions, and it must therefore be preserved well for the future.

The important question which arises, then, is how far Ms. Nukhet Duru and her companions have modified Turkish folk music.  When integrating it with the Western pop style, have these musicians retained the purity of the folk music, or have they so substantially altered its character that its authentic quality has been reduced or lost?  Surely foreigners like us , who know nothing about Turkish classical or folk music, cannot legitimately offer an opinion on that point;  only music-lovers and critics in Turkey can find the correct answer.

This context, however, draws our attention to certain experiments which some of our own classical musicians have been making for some time now, either to integrate our two different major systems of classical music (Carnatic ands Hindustani), or to graft alien systems of music to ours.  It is necessary to consider how far they are justified in doing so, and in this case we Indians are the legitimate judges, and we must judge well....

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fado : Sorrowful Songs

Ever since I came down to live in my home-city Chennai in South India a few years ago, after having lived in New Delhi, the cosmopolitan Capital of India, for 32 years almost continuously (except for a break of four years from 1979), my whole musical environment and experience have been altered convulsively.

There are two diametrically opposite reasons for such a dramatic change of atmosphere from the Capital's:  (a) Madras-turned-Chennai is not only my home-city but also that of Carnatic music, which overflows here; and (b) Western music tends to trickle in a very anaemic stream, with far thinner audiences and far fewer organizers than in New Delhi, rarely featuring distinguished visiting musicians from abroad.

Luckily, in the past few years The Hindu has developed a superb online edition which attracts a lot of readers abroad, so I still have an incentive to explain and analyze fundamental aspects of foreign music also from time to time.  The following extract from a couple of successive essays on Portugal's musical ethos is a good example.

The Hindu, Chennai

13/27 June 2008

.... Whenever we talk about folk music traditions prevailing anywhere in the world, we normally tend to visualise only rural settings and vibrant pictures of village life. That’s no doubt a universal scenario, but there are also isolated cases of urban folk music traditions, which are inspired by the common historic concerns of people living in large cities.

A flourishing example of this can be found in the traditional music known as Fado in Portugal, which had evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly in the capital city Lisbon, and also in a university region called Coimbra. It projects a uniquely nostalgic vision of urban sea-shore life, and is defined by the Collins Portuguese Dictionary as follows:

“The best-known musical form in Portugal is the melancholic Fado, which is traditionally sung by a soloist (known as fadista) accompanied by the Portuguese ‘guitarra.’ The theme is nearly always one of deep nostalgia known as ‘saudade’ and the harsh reality of life.”

I had discovered the universally appealing character of Fado more than 50 years ago, thanks to the broadcasts of Radio Goa [in India]. And after losing touch with it for a very long time, I have now discovered it all over again, thanks to the Internet....

Half a century has elapsed between these two phases of my life, and a distance of oceanic dimensions separates the technological, economic, social, and cultural manifestations of life then and now all over the world. And yet my memories of the traditional Fado I had heard when I was a young student aren’t substantially different from the impressions of current trends which I obtain today as a senior citizen.

                                        *                                        *                                        *

I had developed a keen interest in European languages and Western music in my college days long before I learnt Hindi or discovered the true glory of Carnatic music, thanks mainly to an amazingly efficient six-valve HMV radio receiver made in England which my father had bought just before the Second World War.

Throughout the 1950s, I used to spend long sleepless nights listening to crystal-clear short-wave broadcasts from almost every capital city in Europe. For some mysterious reason, I could never receive any broadcast from Portugal; but that omission was made good by Radio Goa’s short but regular programmes of Portuguese music, especially Fado (pronounced Fadu, rhyming with Sadhu).
Those were days when long-playing records and tape-recorders were still far too expensive and unfamiliar, and I had to listen to the radio with absolutely intense concentration so as to register whatever I heard permanently in my memory. That’s probably why I still have so many vivid impressions of the kind of music I used to hear so long ago!

Of course, in some cases a far more important reason for such a strong impact was the tremendous power inherent in the music itself. I did acquire a smattering of Portuguese in due course, but even before that I was quite fascinated by the distinctly sorrowful tone of Fado, which could pierce your heart sometimes.

                                        *                                  *                                        *

This urban folk music tradition had acquired certain intensely nostalgic undertones because it had evolved during the 19th century mainly in certain proletarian districts of Lisbon where there was a concentration of home-sick immigrants from Portugal’s far-flung colonies in Africa and South America, and also families and lovers of sailors who were usually absent and were sometimes missing altogether.

For more than a half-century from around 1940 to the mid-90s, the Fado scene was dominated by Amalia Rodrigues, who not only carried the folk art from the taverns in the poor districts of Lisbon to affluent social circles and sophisticated cultural settings, but also took it back to the grassroots level enriched with refined and poetic lyrics. Being also a beautiful actor-singer in several Portuguese films, she was mainly responsible for attracting international attention to Fado.

As in the case of old cultural traditions all over the world, there were also technical innovations in Fado in the 20th century. Thus the instrumentation, which had traditionally consisted only of a plaintive Portuguese guitar and an acoustic guitar, was extended to include the cello, piano and drums or even a whole orchestra sometimes.

But such modern trends haven’t materially altered the traditional spirit of Fado so far. Nostalgia, however, is a heavy cross to carry in cultural terms; and I do foresee an eventual shift in Fado’s ethos, from the constant contemplation of lost horizons to a hopeful quest for elusive but attainable fulfillment....

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rustic Rituals, Romantic Reveries

When I was writing on Carnatic and Western music in the New Delhi edition of The Hindu some 20-30 years ago, often my focus was on fundamental issues, because I was inclined to explain some vital elements of South Indian classical music to intelligent readers in the Capital hailing from many culturally different parts of India (as well as foreigners in the diplomatic community), and also highlight some basic aspects of Western music for the benefit of my All-Indian readers. 

In  my previous note (Nov. 17), I had provided a sample text in the form of an essay marvelling at the purity of the ever-flowing music of pipes and percussion instruments in South Indian temples.  Now let me recall a concert review in which I had explored the subtle points of difference between the characters and original environments of European folk and gypsy music. 

As regards the specific Russian song I had mentioned in this context, I gained some fresh and surprising insights a few years ago after the Internet had infinitely extended our cultural horizons. I had conveyed those impressions in this column on 31 Oct. 2010.

The Hindu, New Delhi
1 April 1988

Lively session of gypsy music

Ochi chorniye, ochi strastniye
Ochi zhgoochiye,  i prikrassniye!
Kak lyublyoo ya vass! 
Kak bayoos ya vass!
Znat oovidyel vass
Yav nyedobriy chass!

     Eyes dark, eyes passionate,
     Eyes burning and beautiful!
     How I adore you!
     How I fear you!
     It's just that I see you
     At an unkindly hour!

This is a famous traditional Russian song, which many students of Russian are likely to have encountered some time or other.  When I was much younger, countless were the occasions on which I had heard it in an Assimil language course packed into a set of LP records.  There was. however, a special thrill in hearing the song rendered by the visiting Soviet musician Valentina Mashtakova, in a live concert given by the Mashtakov Gypsy Ensemble in the Kamani auditorium last week.  The event was organized.... as part of the second phase of the USSR Festival in India.

In this country we are not very familiar with the folk and gypsy music of Europe, and one may be pardoned for having a general impression that these have the same characteristics.  But while it is true that some features of Western folk and gypsy music are similar, there are certain basic differences between them which would be worth noting.

Much of European folk music and dance is related to rituals performed in ceremonial contexts like weddings, childbirth and funerals, or the advent of spring, summer, equinox, etc.  A substantial part of it has a functional character, and used to serve as an aid to (or celebration of) agricultural and rural activities like ploughing, sowing, harvesting, spinning, weaving or cattle-breeding.  In contrast, gypsy music is neither ritual-based nor work-oriented, for the simple reason that the gypsies were nomadic tribes who had no social moorings, nor any consistent work environment, which would give rise to such ceremonial or functional occasions.  Consequently, the gypsy songs are mostly romantic reveries, which reflect a certain freedom of spirit and gay abandon, and not the bondage of custom and hard work.

There is another significant aspect to be remembered.  Folk music and dance in their authentic milieu would generally involve the active participation of a large number of ordinary people belonging to any given community, whether rural or urban.  But gypsy music would be performed only by the small wandering groups of musicians, the local inhabitants normally  constituting a passive audience, and the dancing being only a marginal activity.  This is no doubt why even the modern ensembles which project these traditional arts on the stage tend to be fairly large in the case of folk dances, but quite small in the case of gypsy music.

                              *                              *                              *

The Mashtakov Ensemble from the Soviet Union consists of three women artists and half a dozen men.  The concert started with some resounding songs rendered by Vladimir Klimeshenko, accompanied by a couple of accordions, several guitars, a violin and a zither.  The instrumentation remained more or less the same throughout the evening.

In the main part of the performanc, Valery and Valentina Mashtakov and their daughter Anzhelika, who were the star attractions, sang several lively numbers.  A characteristic feature of the music was the alternating phases of slow and fast tempi -- and the accelerating or scorching rhythms -- reminiscent of the Hungarian musical and dance form called Czardas....

In the programs of various Soviet folk ensembles which had performed in New Delhi during the first phase of the USSR Festival last year. music was not the predominant factor, but had only served as a vehicle for the folk dances.  In the gypsy ensemble's concert under review, however, music was the main thing, and the sinuous dancing by the women artists was only a secondary feature, though it did provide an interesting visual relief.

                                   *                                   *                                   *

Incidentally, due to some undisclosed reason the Aeroflot could not deliver the costumes of the ensemble in time....  But acting coolly and resourcefully, a consultant for the USSR Festival had procured some colourful Rajasthani and Lambadi folk costumes for the women artists, though the men had to be content with ordinary trousers and T-shirts.  So well did the improvised dresses blend with the musical scene that it was difficult to believe that they were actually an alien element.  The apparent universality in the gypsy image, visually speaking, came as quite a revelation!

But if the ad hoc costumes did not seriously affect the authentic quality of the presentation, something else did.  There were half a dozen tall microphone stands spread out on the stage, and yards and yards of electrical wiring. cluttering up the entire stage floor.  The singers' self-conscious way of brandishing portable microphones and constantly stepping over the wires added an artificial touch of pop music to the whole proceedings, and that certainly took some of the charm away.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


In the note on 'Spaceviews and Skyviews' (posted on Nov. 14),  I quoted a 1984 article in which I had raved about my great fascination for world maps and globes.  This is an obsession which has survived to this day, and it has a way of figuring in my writing again and again -- as it did, for instance, in an essay on music eleven years later.

Incidentally, I happened to be writing regularly on Carnatic and Western music in the New Delhi edition of The Hindu, for about 10 years from 1986.   Carnatic music and The Hindu, of course, are the classical music and classical newspaper of South India.  But in the Capital I had a very cosmopolitan set of readers hailing from all over India -- and, in the diplomatic circles, from all over the world.  So I had a natural incentive and inclination to analyze many fundamental aspects of Indian and Western music, and the following essay is a good sample!

The Hindu, New Delhi
31 March 1995

Of rivers, streams and springs

I always find it fascinating to gaze at a large globe or map showing the world's countries, cities, oceans, mountain ranges and rivers.  It invariably makes me think of the innumerable cultures, languages, literatures, arts and musical traditions which have flourished and continue to flourish in the world.

Rivers, in particular, have a close resemblance to music.  The water and the music keep flowing endlessly, but their sources are inexhaustible. 

Rivers are of many kinds, of course.  Some of them are magnificent, thousands of miles long, with deep waters which seem to flow peacefully but have very strong currents, sometimes even turning into torrential waterfalls on the way.  Others are less voluminous, less profound, but are nevertheless dynamic.  And all this is equally true of music.

Springs and streams are the origin of rivers, whether they materialize out of melting ice or rainfalls.  The rivers of music too are fed by springs --  which materialize out of tradition and innovation, which are like melting ice and rain-bearing clouds. Rivers tend to be polluted by many untidy things, but the great rivers usually survive most of the pollution.  It is because the constant springs and streams which feed them are always pure.  

Musical systems and traditions too tend to be polluted by many impurities;  but if they are truly great, they too survive most of the contaminating influences, because the musical springs and streams which feed them are also pure.

These thoughts flashed through my mind as I stood listening with closed eyes to the smooth flow of drum-beats played by a handsome, bare-chested young man, in front of the 'sanctum sanctorum' of New Delhi's Ayyappan Temple in Ramakrishna Puram the other evening, patiently waiting for the shrine's door to be opened as the idol of Lord Ayyappan inside was being adorned for worshipful viewing by the assembled devotees.

                         *                                   *                                   *

The youngster was playing an instrument called 'edakka' which is a simple drum carried like a shoulder-bag, and struck by a single thin and curved stick. 

The variety of throbbing sound clusters which can be produced by this simple percussive device is truly astonishing!    'Edakka' is one of the five basic instruments which constitute the traditional 'Panchavaadyam' played in temples in Kerala State on festive occasions, the others being two types of more powerful drums called 'chendai' and 'maddalam', plus horns and cymbals....

The endless and massive flow of such drum music on festive occasions constitutes one of the main springs of traditional South Indian music.  It is on such rhythm-soaked soil of the West Coast that some of the greatest percussion artists of Carnatic music had grown up and got their musical bearings!

Another temple drum which is extremely popular not only in Kerala but all over South India is the 'tavil', a large and powerful barrel with tough leather surfaces on two sides, one of which is struck with a thick wooden rod, and the other with the artist's palm and hard-ringed fingers.
This is normally used only as an accompaniment to the traditional temple pipe 'naagaswaram'  (often called 'naadaswaram') on which the music performed is invariably classical Carnatic.

Both these instruments have such a powerful volume and reach that they are meant to be played only in the open air or inside very spacious temple buildings without amplification.

Some very enterprising artists have managed to use them in concert halls, but normally these are played only in South Indian temples and devotional processions, and in special religious contexts like wedding ceremonies, by musicians who usually remain anonymous.

                              *                              *                              *

A remarkable thing about the naagaswaram and the tavil is that there are thousands of excellent performers all over South India --  in villages, towns and cities ranging from the smallest to the largest ones.  Their command over the quintessential melodies and rhythms of the classical music is usually very impressive, and often astounding.

Undoubtedly, their music constitutes some of the deepest and most authentic springs and streams of Carnatic music, flowing constantly and purely, unmindful of the many distractions and unhealthy influences which have started affecting its concert-hall manifestations in recent years.  Perhaps it is the performers' anonymous image which helps them to preserve the purity of their art!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

India Looks Lovely!

The essay 'Space and sky' (1984) which I had mentioned yesterday was actually a sequel to another article I had written a week earlier, the twin concerns of which were the steady progress of television and space research in India.  And here's an interesting extract:

13 April 1984

Cosmic view

It was a memorable evening on April 5, with millions watching the live television chat between the Prime Minister and the first Indian in space.

This program brought out the best aspects of television, as did the subsequent sequences with Rakesh Sharma and his Russian colleagues abroad Salyut-7...

                        *                         *                         *

In historic contexts like this one (Salyut-7, of course, is a landmark in India's history, if not Russia's), the central character had a glorious chance to say something significant which will be quoted by the world or by the country for a long time to come.

Who in the world in the next thousand years will fail to note Neil Armstrong's classic remark as he set foot on the moon's surface?  --  "It's a small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind."

And which Indian in the next hundred years will fail to associate Rakesh Sharma with Iqbal's national song: "Saaray Jahaan Say Achcha"?

One must thank Indira Gandhi for having prompted Sharma's quoteworthy words, with her eager question:  "How does India look from out there?"

The Prime Minister's face glowed with unsuppressed curiosity as she put the question, and the spaceman's answer "Better than any other place!"  did sound authentic and true.

I had always thought that undivided India looked absolutely beautiful on the world map, like a lovely dancer or a charming village belle striking a statuesque pose!

We don't know whether Neil Armstrong's first words on the moon were rehearsed in advance or not.  But millions of us on this part of the earth  can assert that Sharma's catchy comment from space was spontaneous.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Spaceviews And Skyviews

In a 1977 article in the Hindustan Times Evening News, New Delhi, which I mentioned yesterday, I had expressed a significant thought about today's heroic pioneer airmen being overtaken by tomorrow's ordinary airline passengers.  When fishing for that cutting in my old files, I found another article in which I had expressed the same idea in the same column seven years later.  And, like the earlier piece of writing, it still seems to be quite readworthy!

20 April 1984

Space and sky

In my schooldays I used to enjoy looking at the world map in my atlas and letting my mind wander endlessly.

I would gaze at the vast Eurasian spread of Russia, and I was immediately on my way from Leningrad to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  One minute I'd be motoring through the Mont Blanc tunnel, and the next minute I'd be yachting in the Pacific Ocean or living in an Arctic ice-cap station.

But the inherent distortion in the relative sizes of countries as figuring in the standard Mercator projection of the world used to puzzle me in the beginning, and it has never stopped irritating me.

Though I did figure out the reason for it (that the latitudes and longitudes are depicted as parallel lines), I could never come to terms with such visual anomalies as Greenland looking much bigger than India.

But there's no such mental hurdle with a globe.  Turning it round and round,  you get an accurate picture of the way this world of ours is ordered, and even now I find it a fascinating exercise.

               *                    *                    *

I was very young when Yuri Gagarin achieved terrestrial orbit in 1957, and I greatly envied him.  He had the original globe itself placed before him for direct observation, and I felt a vicarious thrill imagining what he would be seeing.

Since then a great deal has happened in space, but when our own boy Rakesh Sharma sat inside Salyut-7 last week looking at the world through his cosmic window, I felt a surge of that old excitement again.

It was too late even in 1957 for me to have dreamed of going up in space,  but when I think that my sons might well do it, I am lost in wonder.

I haven't given them the kind of background which would turn them into spacemen, but that may not prevent them from travelling in space.

I wasn't trained to be an airman;  nor was I ever fit to be one.  Nevertheless, I frequently find myself cruising at high speed five or six miles above the land, sitting comfortably in the pressurized cabin of a commercial airliner.

I look out through the window, and I see the world from a greater height than Charles Lindberg ever did. 

It is a marvel of the modern techno-commercial world that that the adventure of a hero today becomes a routine experience of the common man tomorrow.

                    *                    *                    *

While there's an abstract thrill in jetting across the country at very high speeds and altitudes, there's a concrete pleasure in setting the clock back now and then and hopping over a short distance in a small, old-fashioned aircraft.

I had to fly to Jorhat in Assam last week, and there was no Boeing flight from Calcutta that day.  So I got into a tiny Fokker Friendship, which hopped over via Gauhati and Tejpur.

We didn't climb above the cumulus clouds, and we flew along the left bank of the Brahmaputra.  The Fokker's windows are tall, wide and curved, and I had a near-vertical view of the river and the enormous sandy islands.  It was as if a detailed survey map had been spread out below me, and the flight was fascinating.

Rakesh and his Russian friends were still up in their spacecraft getting a grand space-view of the earth, and I was happy to have my own small sky-view of it.

But the intriguing aspect of the situation was that I was glad I was inside a leisurely , low-flying Fokker rather than a hectic, high-level Boeing on this particular occasion.

Back home in my South Delhi apartment,  I relax on the balcony and watch the incoming airliners climb down their glide path towards the airport.  And it occurs to me that my children might some day have a breezy argument about whether the earth looks better from the moon or from a man-made satellite.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Spirit Of Adventure

A couple of days ago, when renewing my resolution to resume this wonderful adventure called Articulations Online, I couldn't help recalling a significant article I had written on the spirit of adventure in the Hindustan Times Evening News, New Delhi, in 1977.  So here it is!

August 26, 1977

Spirit of adventure

The spirit of adventure is just now overflowing in India!  On the same day as the London-Sydney rally cars flashed through New Delhi, Sir Edmund Hillary put his three power boats down on the Ganga waters at Haldia, ushering in his 'Ocean to Sky' expedition.

While long lines of children and adults tried to mob Sir Edmund at the Finger Jetty in Haldia, young boys in blue jeans and girls in hot pants were mobbing Andrew Cowan and other rally stalwarts in front of the Oberoi Intercontinental in the Capital.  So engrossed were the Delhi youngsters with the cars that they completely ignored film star Hema Malini, who was herself clicking away with her camera!

One can't help wondering what use it is to the common man that somebody climbs Everest, swims the English Channel, wins an Olympic gold medal, boats along the Ganga, or drives a car from London to Sydney.

Far more useful to humanity would seem to be a different kind of adventure, like Columbus sailing the high seas, De Lessseps cutting the Suez Canal, Charles Lindberg crossing the Atlantic in his Spirit Of St. Louis, or Neil Armstrong landing on the moon!

Exploring new areas of land, sea or space, designing and building ships, machines or bridges, constructing dams and power stations -- these are adventures which make a direct contribution to the progress of civilization.  Hasn't Harry Slocum, who built the Bhakra dam, done more for India than Sir Edmund Hillary?

The greatest adventurers are those who make tomorrow's common man the equal of today's hero.  For an amount of money which is a small sum for my employers, today I can look at the Atlantic Ocean from a higher spot on the sky than Lindbergh could ever reach.  But can I climb Everest, swim the English Channel, win Wimbledon, or drive a car from London to Sydney?

But the common man needn't despair, of course. He has his own adventures to undertake!  Doing one's work better than others is by itself a great adventure.  A sister of mine is a doctor who works day and night;  another sister of mine spends a lot of time helping slum-dwellers in Madras.  Both are adventurers in their own right.

I wish I were Art Buchwald, with a world-wide syndicated column to write.  But in my scheme of things Delhiberations are important. Believe me, keeping my deadline every week is an adventure for me!

Ultimately, then, it is the spirit of adventure that counts, not precisely what you do!  Looking at things from that angle, I must say that Edmund Hillary and Andrew Cowan do contribute something valuable to society.  My son may never swim like Mihir Sen or Mark Spitz, but he finds their example inspiring, and they produce in him a spirit of adventure.  Maybe it will help him to do his work better, whether he becomes a doctor, artist, engineer, soldier, spaceman, or civil servant!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

AOL: Adventure Online!

Exactly one year ago. on Nov. 11, 2011, I had earnestly resolved to resume this online column, from my home in Chennai on the East coast of South India -- exactly one year after I had written my previous note on Nov. 11, 2010 from my son's home in Beaverton, not far away from the West Coast of North America.  At that point of time, I had confidently hoped to set sail again on this wonderful adventure in the Great Cyberian Ocean (see 11-11-11 : Resuming AOL!).

I managed to post my next note several months later, on March 2, 2012, resolving to change my whole modus operandi for effectively resuming the column (see 2012: Re-orienting AOL).  I did manage to follow it up with another note on May 7, 2012, quoting extensively from an old favourite detective novel (see Peter Cheyney: Callaghan Cheynsmokes!). I had promised to continue that chain of quotations, but couldn't write another line till today, Nov. 11, 2012, when I am resolving once again to resume this self-imposed task of  mine. 

Mind you, I am offering no alibi or even explanation, because nothing I can say will carry conviction obviously!