By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Carrying Conviction Against Caustic Criticism

In the 1975 article in New Delhi's evening paper, which I had recalled in the preceding Articulations (July 27), I had mentioned that the reluctance of organizers to invite vocal maestro M.D.  Ramanathan to perform in the Capital was caused by the adverse criticism he had attracted in the Madras and Bombay newspapers in the 1960s. 

But that was only partly true.  The main reason was the extremely hostile attitude of the Carnatic music critic of The Statesman in New Delhi, who had a formidable reputation as a knowledgeable, witty and merciless music and dance critic.  Such was his sparkling sense of humor that even if you were offended by his caustic comments, you couldn't help admiring his lively style.  His influence over the mind-set of most music-lovers was hypnotic.   

But I was only an articulate layman, and stood no chance at all of winning any argument with him in any direct confrontation.  So I simply ignored his criticism in my article preceding the concert.  Somehow the powerful preview did carry conviction, causing a lot of earnest soul-searching, and ensured the presence of an adoring audience in a full house.

But the critic was not amused, and he wrote a very adverse review in The Statesman on the day following the concert, which did cause a flutter and much confusion in the Capital's Carnatic music circles.  So there I stood, frail David, facing the mighty Goliath!

And quite miraculously, with the grace and benediction of God, my sling shot settled the issue once and for ever, so far as New Delhi was concerned!  Thereafter, nothing Subbudu ever wrote (for that was the popular and now-legendary name of the critic) could turn the New Delhi rasikas against MDR, whose name also is a legend today. 

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Glossary/Annotations(In same order as in text)

South Indians  --  Carnatic music is by and large popular only among South Indians.  Even when it is performed in North India or anywhere else in the world, the audience normally consists mostly of South Indians.  There are rare exceptions to this rule, of course! 

Concert manners  --  Easy-going concert manners are an inherent feature of the whole Carnatic music culture.  There are rare exceptions again!

Rasikas  --  Means 'lover of art' in several Indian languages, most commonly used for referring to lovers of Carnatic music,

Spiritual emotion  --   All songs and lyrics in Carnatic music have a spiritual orientation, and there are no exceptions.

Muthuswami Dikshitar  (1775-1835)  --  A towering composer in the Carnatic music tradition, with nearly 500 songs to his credit, mostly in the classical language Sanskrit.

Ragas  --  Codified melodic patterns.

Swara-prastharam  --  Improvised sequences of notes, following a song.

Sruthi  --  Basic tonic:   a monotonous drone (deep humming sound), produced by a string instrument, which serves as a background sonar setting and thus anchors the pitch  --  an indispensable element of Indian classical music, whether Southern (Carnatic) or Northern (Hindustani).

Lionel Salter (1914-2000)  --  Versatile British musician, broadcaster, and author of several books popularizing Western classical music.  Highly respected for his constructively critical opinions.

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Evening News, New Delhi
19 December 1975

The high priest of Carnatic music

SOUTH Indians are heirs to a great classical system of music  --  Carnatic music  --  and yet their concert manners are possibly the worst in the world.

Not only in the South but wherever Carnatic music is performed, South Indians usually arrive late;  go out frequently for coffee, snacks. cool drinks, chewing leaves or a smoke;  chat incessantly in the auditorium;  hum loudly and out of tune;  measure the rhythm erratically with flapping hands and stamping feet;  and start dispersing long before the end of a concert.

It is very rarely that you see a gathering of Carnatic music-lovers maintain absolute decorum in the concert hall and concentrate on the music from beginning to end.  Maestro M.D. Ramanathan's vocal recital at the Sapru House on December 7 was such an exceptional occasion.

 A friend of mine thought that the rasikas probably stuck to their seats because it was too cold outside and the air within the auditorium was warm and comfortable.  But that didn't explain why they failed to indulge in the other disturbing activities so characteristic of Carnatic culture.

My own reading of the situation is that MDR's popular appeal has now reached a level where he casts a mystic spell on the whole audience, and not merely on a few faithful followers.  Considering that MDR's style of singing is highly meditative, and is unrelieved by any musical extravaganza, I should say this is a remarkable achievement.

Only the deep spiritual emotion he evokes in the concert hall can explain the compelling manner in which he holds the attention of a usually restless audience.

Organizers of Carnatic music in the Capital often tell me that one reason why they don't frequently invite MDR to perform here is that his music is too heavy for the public's liking.  I am afraid this presumption is not valid at all.  The public has always loved MDR's music, though from time to time it has allowed itself to be swayed by adverse criticism in the Press.

After this concert at least, the organizers owe it to the public to reconsider their opinion.


FACING such an adoring audience, it was inevitable that MDR should be in his elements.  And he was.

The concert was organized by the Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha in association with the Sangeet Natak Akademi, to celebrate the bicentenary of Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the Trinity of classical composers who dominate Carnatic music.  Quite fittingly, there was a heavy accent on Dikshitar's compositions. 

With his leisurely and expansive style of singing, MDR rendered only about half a dozen numbers, each one standing out like a tower in a temple.  All the hallmarks of MDR's music were evident in this recital  --  the weight and power of his voice, the colorful outlining of the ragas, the soulful rendering of the songs, the brief but unutterably beautiful improvisations in the swara-prastharams.

Lalgudi Jayaraman, who accompanied MDR, can be counted among the world's finest violinists.  Over the years he has infused his violin with a tone of great sophistication.

Jayaraman is a  mature artist who reserves his dazzling displays for his solo recitals.  A an accompanist he is always subdued, faithfully reflecting the spirit of the vocalist and carefully preserving the mood which the latter creates.

But the rich tone of the violin invariably comes through.  I am yet to witness an occasion when Jayaraman wasn't at his best;  and I believe he is himself carried away by the music of M.D. Ramanathan.

Vellore Ramabadhran, like many other mridangam-players, is undoubtedly handicapped when he accompanies MDR, because of the basement-level sruthi fancied by the singer.  But in a recital which is an exposition rather than a demonstration, one doesn't necessarily look for tonal brilliance in the percussion accompaniment.  Ramabadhran provided a neat backdrop of rhythm which was adequate for the occasion.


A LEADING music critic in the Capital, whose writings in English and Tamil are widely discussed by lovers of Carnatic music all over India, has described MDR's Sapru House recital as "a strange mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous". 

I know better than to dispute the technical accuracy of his statement, but I would like to point out that in a concert which lasted well over three hours, there were perhaps a few minutes during which MDR made some faux pas or other.  In a musical system which places such a great stress on improvisation, isn't there some legitimate room for a few mistakes, a few excesses  --  or even call them a few aberrations, if you like  --  which wouldn't really reduce the merits of a monumental recital?

The same critic also says that MDR 'mangled' the lyrics of the compositions so much that the recital wasn't a fitting tribute to the memory of Dikshitar, who was a lyrical composer.  It is true that MDR has a way of muffling some phrases;  but he has such great powers of suggestion that it hardly seems to matter.

Moreover, if we value MDR's stately style of singing, which greatly depends on his magnificent low-keyed voice, we shouldn't forget the fact that bass voices all over the world have problems of pronunciation.

In his book Going to the Opera (Penguin, London, 1955, page 22), Lionel Salter observes:  "The heavier and fuller tone of the bass voice prevents it being quite so agile as the others (and, as a matter of purely technical interest, it has greater difficulty in making its words clear);  but for powerful characters . . . .  high priests, kings and noblemen, its weight is a great asset."

Now, what would we rather have from M.D. Ramanathan, the high priest of Carnatic music?  Powerful singing in a rich bass voice with some margin for muffling, or perfectly pronounced texts sung in a weak, high-pitched voice?

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PostScript, 2013
Sound and style

Let  me conclude these recollections with a fine sample of MDR's leisurely style  --  a devotional song titled Mokshamu Galada, in the South Indian language Telugu:

If you are a stranger to Carnatic music,  I shall translate the lyrics and tell you about the composer some other time.  Meanwhile, just let the Maestro stir your imagination with the mere sound of his massive voice!


Saturday, July 27, 2013

How The Maestro Gave Me A Glimpse Of God And Converted Me To Carnatic Music!

In the preceding Articulations (July 21) I had mentioned the legendary Indian musician M.D. Ramanathan, alias MDR.  Here's the story of how I discovered his glorious music, exactly 50 years ago:

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Glossary/Annotations(in same order as in text)

Carnatic music --  Classical music of South India.

Capital  --  New Delhi, in the North.

Madras/Bombay  --  South-East/West coast cities, now named Chennai/Mumbai, but still called Madras/Bombay by hard-core citizens.  Madras is known as the Mecca of Carnatic music.

Sangeet Natak Akademi  --  One of the three National Academies in New Delhi, meant for preserving and promoting Indian music, dance and drama (Sangeet-Natak). fine arts (Lalit Kala) and literature (Sahitya).  When I had mentioned these important custodians of Indian culture in several articles in the 1970s and '80s, I had no idea that eventually I would be a member (and also the secretary) of an important cultural panel which would  review their performance in 1988-90. 

Sapru House  --Prestigious building in New Delhi, Headquarters of Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), with a library and conference facilities, and a fine auditorium selectively available for cultural events.  Named after ICWA's first President Tej Bahadur Sapru, an eminent pro-British lawyer in the colonial regime.

Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha  --  One of  the major cultural institutions in New Delhi, disseminating South Indian classical music and dance.  

Tamil Nadu  --  A Southern State.

9 p.m. English news  --  For several decades in British and independent India, All-India Radio (AIR) was broadcasting its evening English news at 9 p.m.  This was the only news broadcast which was heard all over the country (even the Hindi news in the national language not being universally popular) --  and thus, it was  a hallmark of India's amazing 'unity in diversity'.  I've no idea whether AIR still continues this feature or not:  --  it's a long time since I last heard the radio!


Bach  --  When I heard MDR for the first time, I was familiar only with Bach's instrumental music, and not his oratorios.  When I heard the St. John Passion on LP records later on, I was certainly impressed by the mystic power of some of the arias and choral spells.

Mridangam  --  Main percussion instrument in Carnatic music, played with the palms and fingers of both hands  --  capable of creating extremely sophisticated patterns of percussive sound.

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Evening News, New Delhi
5 December 1975

I travelled 200 miles to hear M.D. Ramanathan

I am really happy that I am living in the Capital, which is a cross-section of India itself.  But there are moments when I regret that I am not living in Madras.

Not because Madras happens to be my home town.  Not just because I miss the beautiful beach.  But because I can't hear all the Carnatic music which is flowing so profusely there, especially the music of the great master, M.D. Ramanathan. 

MDR gives not fewer  than a dozen recitals every year in Madras.  Even in Bombay he sings once in six months.  But New Delhi doesn't invite him even once a year!  His last major performance here was in March, 1974.  He did give a recital for the Sangeet Natak Akademi early this year;  but it was a formal and insubstantial affair, and didn't count as a concert.

I am therefore really glad that MDR will be here for a concert on December 7 at Sapru House.  The Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha are organizing this event.

I don't know why most of the organizers of Carnatic music in the Capital go on resisting M.D. Ramanathan.  Perhaps they are still remembering the furious controversies which used to rage round his music way back in the Sixties, when some music critics in Bombay and Madras condemned his slow tempo, gesticulations and facial expressions.

But it is a long time since music-lovers in Bombay and Madras learnt to ignore unfair criticism and to appreciate MDR's music without any reservations.  It is high time people in the Capital also found out the answer to the question:  "What is so great about MDR ?"

The answer is very simple:  his rich voice an meditative spirit.  Everything else about his music is determined by these twin factors.  Let me tell you about his voice first.


I wasn't a lover of Carnatic music to start with.  Till I was nearly 30 I was only fond of Western music.  I loved Beethoven and Brahms, Chopin and Tchaikovsky.  I loved New Orleans jazz, and I admired Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.  I was thrilled by the powerful voices of Mario Lanza, Benjamino Gigli and Paul Robson.

I never liked Indian music, classical or otherwise, because all voices in Indian music seemed high-pitched and too weak.  Because of this I never heard much of it, and of course I must have been missing a great deal.

I was living in a Tamil Nadu town in 1963.  Late one evening I switched on the radio for the 9 p.m. English news.  There were still a few minutes to go, and someone was singing Carnatic music.  Though I tried not to listen, my attention was compelled, because there was something unusually powerful about the singer's voice.

It was a full, deep-throated bass, something I had never associated with Indian music.  And the music was progressing in a stately, unhurried manner so uncharacteristic of Carnatic music, unmindful of the fact that the English news was only a few minutes away!  I was fascinated, and waited breathlessly for the announcer to tell me the name of the singer:  it was M.D. Ramanathan.

A few weeks later I travelled 200 miles by train to Madras to hear a full-length recital by MDR.  And what I heard taught me something more:  that MDR's music wasn't just Voice, but also Spirit.

I sat transfixed for three hours as he sang in his characteristic slow tempo, meditating rather than entertaining.  Suddenly sound acquired a kind of mystic beauty which I hadn't found even in Bach or Beethoven.  If this was Carnatic music, I thought, then I was already converted!  And since Carnatic music rests wholly on a religious foundation, my agnostic mind at once began to see spiritual light.  My life has never been the same again.


Since then I have attended hundreds of Indian music concerts. I have made friends with many great musicians. I have learnt a little bit of Carnatic music myself, and have even become a music critic.  But I can never forget the fact that it is through MDR that I discovered the beauties of Carnatic music  --  and, on a larger plane, the whole mystique of Indian music.

And yet here I am, living in New Delhi all the year round, not being able to hear MDR sing more than once in 18 months at best, unless I travel a thousand miles or more to hear him somewhere in South India! It often occurs to me that at this rate I may not be able to hear many more of his recitals in this lifetime, and it's a shocking idea.

But meanwhile, what a happy thought that MDR will be singing next Sunday evening at Sapru House, accompanied by the mature and dazzling violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and the subtle, sober mridangam-player Vellore Ramabadran!  I wouldn't just like to praise the Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha for organizing this event:  I would like to thank them for it.

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PostScript, 2013
Volte face!

This article was one of the landmarks in my track record as a journalist, and also marked a dramatic turning point in MDR's New Delhi connection.  The large auditorium overflowed with wildly enthusiastic music-lovers, heralding a period when the maestro's image in the  capital would soar sky-high.  But that was only a repetition of what had happened in Bombay seven years earlier!  Let me tell that story some other time.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Legend Of Lord Rama Condensed In A Capsule!

Here's the second and concluding part of my 1987 essay about the Benedictine monk Abbot Angelo Grillo's thrilling experience of seeing some of his sacred lyrics set to glorious music by leading Italian composers of the Renaissance era, and hearing them performed by distinguished singers of devotional music.  (I postd the first part a few days ago).

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Glossary/Annotations (in same order as in text)

Pallavi  --  In Carnatic music (classical music of South India), 'Pallavi' means either the first brief stanza of a song, visualized as a prelude, or a self-contained couplet which tightly packs a whole idea or theme in a tiny capsule. 

Tamil  --  One of the four major languages of South India, with very ancient roots and culture, but -- unlike Sanskrit or Latin --  well adapted to suit the modern world.

Raga  -- Pronomced 'Raaga', it means a structured and codified melody in Indian classical  music, both in the Southern (Carnatic) and Northern (Hindustani) systems and traditions.

Poorvikalyani  --  A major and frequently rendered melody.

Ramayana  --  Predominant epic of India, depicting the life and mission of Lord Rama (or Raam), a divine incarnation in human  form as a noble prince for conquering a near-immortal demon king.  Exiled frivolously by his royal father for 14 years, Raam spent 14 years wandering in the forest with his faithful wife and younger brother, eventually accomplishing his mission and returning home triumphantly to be crowned.

Padinaangu (14) - Varuda  (year/s) -  Vana (forest) - Vaasam (life, living) - Pirahu (then) - Pattaabhishekam (Coronation).

Neraval  --  Repetitive recitation of a selected phrase in a song, building up an intensely devotional mood.

Himalayan --  like the Himalayas, the vast and formidable mountain range bordering North India, where Mount Everest, the highest spot in the world, is situated.

MDR  --  Popular initials of M. D. Ramanathan (1923-1984), legendary vocal maestro in Carnatic music. 

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THE HINDU, New Delhi
17 July 1987

Poems and unsung pallavi  (continued)

Inspired Pallavi

I claim no proficiency in Carnatic music, and I have no credentials whatsoever as a poet.  Yet on a memorable day a few years ago, I was suddenly caught in a whirlpool of inspiration, and I composed two simple lines in Tamil, which acquired the shape and substance of a Pallavi when rendered in the raga Poorvikalyani.  The text, miraculously, summarized a whole section of the Ramayana:

Padinaangu varuda vanavaasam,
Pirahu Pattaabhishekam

(Fourteen years in the forest,
Then Coronation)

Surely this was the result of some unusual spark, and not of any poetic skills of mine!  Surely it had to be sung by a master musician, and subjected to a 'neraval' (melodic elaboration) of Himalayan proportions!  Whose vocal splendor could give it grander shape than that of MDR?  Which passionate devotee of Lord Rama was more competent to sing this piece than MDR?

It took me, however, all of two years to muster enough confidence to submit my song to him.  The maestro was favourably impressed.  He said it had tremendous possibilities, and he would consider singing it some time or other. I was greatly thrilled by his response, but unfortunately that rewarding occasion was never to come.

How could we have imagined ever that M.D. Ramanathan would cast his mortal frame away and leave this world so prematurely?  My unsung Pallavi was nothing but a drop of water in the ocean which was drained at a single stroke.  How many wonderful concerts, how many marvellous songs, how many spellbinding sessions of music have his countless admirers missed since, and continue to miss!  Can this loss ever be made good?

Such were the thoughts which flooded my mind as I read the good Abbot Angelo Grillo's adoring letters to the great musicians of his times.  I could well visualize the supreme excitement he must have felt every time he heard one of his sacred poems transformed into a glorious piece of music!

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PostScript, 2013
MDR and I :  marvellous memories

It's now exactly 50 years after I heard MDR's massive voice for the first time in 1963, and discovered the meditative and sculptureque quality of his music.  I have many wonderful memories of his concerts, and many close insights into his musical vision.

As a music critic of leading newspapers in Bombay, Madras and New Delhi, I had many opportunities to record my impressions in rave reviews from time to time.  You can be sure I shall share some of those memorable experiences with you in due course!

MDR's repertoire was heavily weighted in favour of songs in praise of Lord Rama, of whom he was a passionate devotee. To get a glimpse of his majestic style, please see (from beginning to end) on YouTube :  MDR-Purvikalyani-Meenakshi-Dikshitar.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Monk, The Maestros, And The Magic Of Their Music

The extremely hot weather during the summer season in most parts of India (including the Capital, New Delhi) is not very conducive to cultural activities.  If you write a culture column in a newspaper, this near-vacuum creates an ideal opportunity for reading and reflecting on cultural concepts, trends and issues  --  and sometimes it results in a monumental piece of writing, like the following essay.

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Glossary/Annotations (in same order as the text)

Pallavi  --  In Carnatic music (classical music of South India), the first stanza of a traditional song   --  which is invariably very brief  --  serves as a prelude, and is called 'Pallavi'.  In a different sense, Pallavi also means a self-contained lyric of just two lines, which resembles such preludes but encapsules a whole theme, and is rendered in a repetitive mode with gradually increasing intensity. 

Max Müller Bhavan  --  Name by which the units of the Goethe Institut (a world-wide German cultural organization) functioning in Indian cities are known.  Max Müller (1823-1900) was a dedicated German scholar and Indologist, and 'Bhavan' means 'institution' in Hindi and other Indian languages.

Bucephalus  --  The famous horse of Alexander the Great (4th century BC).

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THE HINDU, New Delhi
17 July 1987
Poems and unsung pallavi

This smouldering summer in the Capital has been a sabbatical season for the culture correspondent, because there are no worthwhile events to attend and write about, week after week.  If you are not lucky enough to have gone away somewhere else on vacation and are also reluctant to get away from your subject even for a short while, you spend much of your free time either catching up on cultural education, or indulging in introspective reflections on your past experiences and old memories. 

So far as I am concerned, I am neither on furlough, nor can overcome my preoccupation with music;  so I try to improve my knowledge by reading scholarly books on the subject and listening to recorded music.  In this frame of mind, I naturally tend to recollect  the highlights of my own musical experiences and savour the marvellous memories they evoke. 

The other day I borrowed from the Max Müller Bhavan library a delightful volume entitled Essays on Music, by the eminent German musical scholar Albert Einstein (1881-1952).  He not only revised certain famous musical lexicons and edited a distinguished German journal of musicology, but also wrote with insight on many aspects of Western music.  One of Einstein's most valuable contributions to the history of music was his authentic research on the Italian madrigals of the Renaissance period.

Humble poet

The book I've mentioned contains an interesting chapter on the lives and works of the Italian poet, Abbot Don Angelo Grillo, a Benedictine monk who lived in various monasteries  in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Grillo revelled in writing madrigals which were set to music by several contemporary composers including Claudio Monteverdi.  He seemed to have been greatly impressed by the distinguished musicians who honoured his poetry with their compositions;  and the admiration and humility with which he approached them are clearly visible in some of his letters which are reproduced in Einstein's book.

For example, here's an extract of a letter written by him to the composer Massimiano Gabbiani, who was also a monk of the Benedictine order:

"The steel which pierced San Placido had, as I read last night of his martyrdom, also penetrated my heart.  Soon afterwards from my eyes, and soon also from my pen, fell this little tear-drop. . .  May your Reverence receive it as a pledge of my piety, if not as the text for a composition. . . ."

Later on Grillo followed this up tactfully:

"I sent your Reverence a few months ago little madrigal about the martyrdom of San Placido, so that you might honour it with your music, but I fear it was lost, for you have written me nothing about it.  I am sending it to you once again.  Signor Lelio Bertanti used to say to me that a capable musician who composed to a foolish text was like a brave knight riding a sorry jade.  Though your Reverence in this case is not exactly riding Bucephalus, nonetheless I think you are not altogether badly mounted. . . ."

To the composer Giulio Caccini, who was a good friend, Abbbot Grillo once wrote as follows:

"To give to you is more valuable than to receive from others, as you crown one's gift with the glory of your music, and make the giver famous. . . . I know how far that madrigal of mine has flown on the wings of the song with which you provided it, and what sweet power it has when it is sung with the right expression. . . ."

Heavenly harmony

And finally, I would like you to consider the following passage from the monk's letter to Monteverdi:

"How well your divine music corresponds to the divine subject of my sacred madrigal, and how completely heavenly it has become through your harmony!. . . .  I wish I had the tongue to praise it according to its  merits, as I have the ear to appreciate it as it deserves, especially when it is sung by Campagnola, or a comparable singer.  For only a perfect singer with a heavenly voice, such as the Signora Adriana , should dare to approach such a composition.

"When Signora Adriana unites her voice with the instrument, and gives the strings life and speech with her direction, she wins our hearts with her sweet enchantment;  we are carried to Heaven although our bodies remain on earth.  And this rose of mine, blossoming from the bloody tears of Jesus Christ's body, will, because of the gentle emphasis of your music, bring from the eyes of the listeners real tears of compassion  --  and from their mouths a thousand blessings for you, who do not merely add notes to the text in your creations, but form magic wands directing the heart and the intellect through your art, to say nothing of darts which inflict wounds of joy and astonishment. . . ."

(to be continued)

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PostScript, 2013
The Abbot and I : parallel dreams

This was a rather long article which projected two very different scenarios, in different countries, cultures and centuries, both governed by very similar sentiments.  I shall separately post the concluding part of the essay, which concerns my own day-dreams about a couplet I had composed for Carnatic music  as it calls for some detailed explanations to make it truly ww-ww (worldwide-webworthy).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Are they playing Cricket Or Crookedt?

The way betting, match-fixing and spot-fixing are tending to ruin the noble game of Cricket, I wanted to sit down and write a comprehensive article about the whole affair.  But having jotted down this title, I find it says it all   --  and I really have nothing more to say!

Friday, July 12, 2013

When India Adopted Dollar-Rupee Dual Currency System!

During the past couple of weeks, the value of the Indian Rupee vis-a-vis the American Dollar has hit the rock bottom, at $ 1 = Rs. 60+.

Which reminds me of a humorous article I had written in the Shankar's Weekly 40 years ago about the intriguing obsession we Indians were having with the U.S. $ in the 1960s and '70s (which, by the way, we are still having in the 2010s, for different reasons!).

Those were tough times when there were very severe restrictions in India on converting the native Rupees into foreign currencies on Indian soil (even in the context of people going abroad legitimately, whether for very short periods as guests or tourists, or for longer stays as students or professional visitors).  And there was a huge premium for the US $ in the black market.  Now read on!

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Glossary/Annotations (in same order as in text)

Returning to India  --  This was pure imagination! Actually I went abroad for the first time only many years later.

Sa'ab  --  Conversational form of 'Saheb', a respectful Hindi expression, meaning 'Sir' in this context but having several other connotations also.

Dollars  --  So far as we Indians are concerned, 'Dollar' always means only American Dollar, unless specified otherwise.  It was so 50 years ago, and it's still true today!

1o c. / Re. 1  --  In 1972, the conversion rate was 7.5 Rupees to a Dollar.  So 10 American Cents were equal to 75 Indian Paise, or 0.75 Rupee. Bonus of 33 % made it Re. 1.

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Shankar's Weekly
26 Nov. 1972
The Indian Dollars

I returned to India recently after an extended stay abroad, and I had no ideas of the latest developments here, as these weren't fully reported in the foreign Press.

As soon as I got into a taxi, I noticed two meters ticking away.  I asked the driver about it.

"Did you not know, Sa'ab?"  he said.  "We have two meters now.  One is in Dollars and the other is in Rupees."

"Is there any difference in the fare?"

"Yes, Sa'ab,"  the driver said.  "The fare is the same as before if you pay in Dollars,  It is one-third more if you pay in Rupees."

I still had some foreign exchange with me, so I paid him off in $.  And he accepted my dime tip with a big smile.

There were other surprises awaiting me in the city.

On the way to the office I dropped in at the coffee house for a cup of good old Indian coffee.  It tasted the same as ever.  The surprise came when the waiter brought the bill.

It said:  "10 c. or Re. 1, as the case may be."

I didn't care to ask the waiter for an explanation.  I just put 20 c. on the saucer and waved him off. and he  seemed delighted.

The real revelation of the day, however, came in the office.

As soon as I had settled down at my desk after meeting all my colleagues, my personal assistant came in and gave me the day's mail.

The first letter I saw was from a local supplier.  It contained quotations for a tender advertised some days earlier by the office.  I thought the rates looked the same as usual, till I saw the last paragraph of the letter.

"The above offer"  the para said, "is subject to payments being made in Dollars.  If you pay in Rupees, our rates will be increased by 33 %."

After some time my P.A. came in and gave me a blank form to fill up and sign. 

"What's this for?"  I asked.

"It's the income tax option form, Sir."

"What income tax option?  Have  they given us a choice not to pay our taxes?"

"Oh, no, Sir!  But they have allowed an option for paying income tax in Dollars or Rupees."

"I see.  And there is some difference in the rates, of course?"

"Yes, Sir.  The tax is the same as before if you pay in Dollars.  It is 33 % more if you pay in Rupees."

"But how can anybody get Dollars here for making tax payments?  It's just a new surcharge, of course!"

"Not really, Sir!"  the P.A. grinned, obviously amused by my total ignorance.  "We have this other thing, Sir  --  the pay option."

"What pay option?"

"Everybody is allowed to draw his salary either in Dollars or in Rupees.  Here, take a look at this other form, Sir.  You have to declare an option."

"I see.  Is there any difference in the salary if you opt one way or the other?"

"Yes, Sir.  You get the same pay as before if you take it in Dollars.  You get 33 % more if you opt for Rupees."

"That doesn't make any sense!  Everything here seems to cost 33 % more now if you pay in Rupees.  So what's  the difference whether you get your pay in Dollars or 33 % more in Rupees?"

"It does make a difference, Sir!  Probably you haven't found out yet, but there's already a 40 % premium on Dollars in the market."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you can get a bonus of 7 % if you take your pay in Dollars and convert them into Rupees, Sir.  And they say the premium is likely to go up again soon!"

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PostScript, 2013

The foreign exchange scenario in India today is spectacularly different from what it was 30/40/50 years ago, and there's no shortage of any foreign currencies now.  But even so, we Indians haven't lost our fascination for the American Dollar, for various reasons.  I have some interesting stories to tell about the old times, and some important impressions to convey about recent trends.  So let me follow this up later on!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Marvellous Memory Of Isolated Madras Beach

There was a time long ago, when the Marina in Madras (India) was globally famous as the second most beautiful city-bound beach in the world, after the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).  I don't remember the exact status of Naples in Italy, which also had a very famous sea-front.

There's another lovely stretch of seashore in Madras, South of the Marina, called Elliot's Beach, just a kilometre away from where I live now.  I had written an article about this place 35 years ago, recalling my impressions obtained a quarter-century earlier when it was a very isolated spot beyond the city's Southern border.  So today I have a marvellous sixty-year-old memory to share with you!

Although my column in the evening paper in New Delhi was called Delhiberations, the Editor had given me unlimited freedom to write about any place on earth or even in space which I found interesting, the only condition being that there should be some connection with Delhi, Old or New  --  which wasn't very difficult to ensure really, as you can see from this sample!

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(in same order as in text)

 Madras  --  Metro city on the East coast of India, facing the Bay of Bengal.  Now re-named Chennai, but still remains Madras in conversations.

Elliot's Beach  --  Named after Edward Elliot, Governor of Madras in the British regime.  On the sands here stands a historic monument called 'Kaj Schmidt Memorial', commemorating the sacrifice of a Dutch seaman who saved the life of a young  Englishwoman on this spot in 1930, losing his own life in the process. 

 Rangarajan (alias RJ)  --  My college friend who lives in Virginia, USA now, and who has figured in this blog before (Ochi Chorniye, 31 Oct. 2010, and Teach Yourself French, Italian, Spanish!, 7 Feb. 2013).

Bundle of beedies  --  'Beedi' is a native Indian smoking stick  --  a small dose of tobacco rolled with a dry leaf into a tapering shape.  Relatively inexpensive in comparison with cigarettes, beedies are never sold in packets, but are invariably tied up in cone-like bundles of about 20, in an amazingly uniform rustic tradition prevailing all over India, not only in rural areas but in the cities as well.

Tamil Nadu  --  A State in South India, whose main city is Madras.

Jamuna  --  Although actually it's a long tributary of the river Ganges, flowing down from the Himalayan mountains, we Indians always think of the Jamuna (or Yamuna) as a great river in its own right  -- on whose banks are located India's capital New Delhi, and the world-famous marble monument Taj Mahal in Agra, 200 kilometres further downstream.

Sir Edwin Lutyens  --  Distinguished British architect who made significant contributions to the design and architecture of New Delhi, a vast section of which is still informally known as 'Lutyens' Delhi'.

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Evening News, New Delhi
17 April 1978
Back to the beach!

I am not a house-building type of man  --  and being an All-Indian rather than a South Indian , all my life I have neglected the question of getting a house of my own for my old age.

Some 20/25 years ago, when I was a young man, I used to spend a lot of time on the secluded Elliot's Beach in Madras.  Those days, this was a spot rather insulated from the mainstream of the city's life, and only a few people used to go there for swimming.

A friend of mine called Rangarajan (alias RJ) used to go there sometimes for a swim, and I used to sit on the sands under a blazing sun and make friends with the fishermen.  A bundle of beedies or a packet of cigarettes was the only investment necessary for striking up a conversation with those simple folk.

I used to tell my friend:  "RJ, I don't think I will ever build a house  --  but if I ever do, I would want it to be right here on this spot!"

And now here I am in Madras, 20/25 years later, taking over a lovely apartment built by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board, just a kilometre from Elliot's Beach.  Some more flats are coming up within 200 yards from where I used to chat with the fishermen, and I can have one of them for the asking;  but as a sober middle-aged man, I now prefer to have my home a little farther away.

I can't say I have ever dreamed of owning a house near the sea (or anywhere else, for that matter);  but I have certainly dreamed a great deal about the Madras beach.  Time and population have taken their toll, and the Marina (which is the main sea front of Madras, north of the isolated Elliot's Beach) has lost some of its glorious sand;  and the polluted air has made the sky and the sea more gray than blue.  But even now the sight and sound of the foaming breakers remain more or less the same, and they stretch your imagination to eternity.

I have fully enjoyed the peaceful life I've led during the past six years in my self-contained South Delhi sector, and I've enjoyed the many splendid vistas of the Capital.  But from time to time I have certainly wished New Delhi had a beach too!

A  well-bridged urban river in the centre of a city can compensate to some extent for the absence of a beach.  Haven't you seen lovely photographs of the Seine in Paris or the Danube in Budapest?  But we in Delhi can't boast of our Jamuna as being anything other than a mere borderline.

No doubt it is just an accident of history that Sir Edwin Lutyens wasn't day-dreaming about the Thamescape in London when he went to work on New Delhi! 

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PostScript, 2013
Memories of Marina
The above reflections did not describe the Marina in Madras, which has many wonderful memories for me.  Just wait till I fish out some other old articles (or write fresh ones) about some splendid views of sea, sky and sand!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Total Vegetarian Today : Triumph And Troubles Co-exist!

As I had mentioned yesterday, my light-hearted article on the troubles of the total vegetarian, which marked the beginning of my 50-year-old association with THE HINDU, was  a rather insubstantial piece of writing compared to a series of insightful essays which followed. This was so because the article projected only a partial view of the outlook and personality of the total vegetarians, merely taking a laughworthy look at their self-conscious discomfort in highly Westernized five-star dining circles in India, and totally ignoring the rationale and virtues of pure vegetarianism.

I've often wished I had made my debut as a journalist with my second article, The Marker, which had the true colors of a classic essay, comparable with the best in the English literary tradition.  But reviewing the whole context now, I am inclined to think that there was really nothing wrong with this humorous commentary, and that what had actually gone wrong was not the text, but the title --  which had suggested an all-round view of the vegetarian's concerns.  
Total vegetarianism is a traditional phenomenon which probably exists only in India --  and that too only among very small sections of India's immense population of over a billion people.  Its  hallmark is absolute-zero tolerance of all meat products and other animal-related food articles including hens' eggs.  However, in an expedient  perspective which shows utter contempt for logic, the cult not only excludes milk (of cows and buffaloes usually) from the forbidden foodstuffs, but considers it to be an essential element of even purely vegetarian Indian cuisine.

In recent decades there has been a progressively growing world-wide awareness of the merits of a purely vegetarian diet in terms of health and hygiene, particularly in the wake of alarming new epidemics like bird-flu and mad-cows,  And consequently, there has been universally growing respect for total vegetarians and their viewpoint and values.

However, that doesn't save them from finding themselves in serious trouble in glamorous dining circles now and then.  A spectacular instance of this was the crisis faced by the Indian contingent in the recent film festival in Cannes, as can be seen from the following news reports:  



Thali  --  In North Indian restaurants or dinner parties, the food is traditionally served on a very large brass plate (called thali) individually for each diner, with an array of small bowls containing assorted dishes.   

Palak-paneer  --  Spinach cooked with cheese.

Makhani daal  --  Liquid cereal side-dish laced with butter.

Bollywood  --   Popular name for Bombay's film world, still in vogue even after the city has been re-named Mumbai.  

Amitabh Bachchan  --  An iconic Indian movie superstar, still dominating Indian cultural life as an elder actor, film producer and television personality.  Has recently made his Hollywood debut as a supporting actor in The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Big B  --  Indian media's favourite tag for Amitabh Bachchan.



Report from Cannes

Vaiju Naravane, Paris Correspondent

The special Indian evening to celebrate 100 years of the country’s cinema began with a screening of Bombay Talkies, a four-handed exercise, consisting of four short fictions by our best new talent. . . . 

The atmosphere at the massive sit-down dinner that followed was very similar to a noisy marriage-party in India. . . .  No kudos to the caterers at the dinner, however.  The meal was Indian with a pretentious, mile-long menu, [but] the waiters had not been briefed about the large number of vegetarians amid the diners. . . . 

It took an interminable time for the thalis to arrive, and the vegetarians, who had missed their entrée, had to wait an eternity before being served cold, rock-hard poories straight out of a lunar landscape accompanied by a teaspoonful each of palak paneer or makhani daal. The pudding never turned up because by then the guests were so fed up of waiting they had started moving towards the doors. . . .


Did Amitabh Bachchan get anything to eat at the opening gala dinner of the 66th Cannes International Film Festival?
 Cannes, 16 May 2013

We hear that the gala dinner at the opening of the Cannes film festival consisted of a four course meal, with every dish a non-vegetarian one. And since Big B is a devout vegetarian, we have to wonder how he survived . . . . 

Amitabh Bachchan looked dashing as he made an appearance . . . . in a sequin studded jacket, posing with Leonardo DiCaprio and spreading his charm on the red carpet. . . .  We hope Big B found a solution to his food problems. We don’t want the superstar to sulk like a kid who’s forcefully asked to gulp down a bowl of cornflakes instead of chocolate cake, especially while he’s represeting India on the sunny Riviera!