Monthly Archives: November 2014

HumRaag at TimesLitFest Dec 2014

timeslitfest0 copyShoba Narayan and I are taking HumRaag to kids at the TimesLitFest – catch us on Sunday December 7th 2014 on the lawns of Mehboob Studios, Bandra, Mumbai. Join us in person, or you can always catch it on the Livecast.

The Raga Connection

Why can’t you get that Radha song out of your head, it can’t be all Alia Bhat. Come find out why these songs stay with you at a live performance of music, videos, and poetry with Chitra Srikrishna, musician and Shoba Narayan, writer.

Age Group: 10 and above

Stranger than fiction

I’ve never had to look beyond the tales of our own family to know that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. We could argue if my family or it is my husband’s family that has stranger tales. I’d let you decide.

Let’s begin with the tale of my husband’s errant aunts. An aunt who was mad about movies played a starring role in one such escapade. Every time a new movie was released, she had to catch the first show. So when the new MGR movie was released, she was first in line at the cinema hall with her sister-in law, her co-conspirator in these mad-cap schemes.

An hour went by before the two middle aged women were declared missing by the family. While the rest of the women folk initially feigned ignorance in support of their sorority sisters, they finally blurted out the truth after dire threats were issued by the male members. My husband’s uncle was unanimously elected to fetch the starstruck sisters-in-law and off he went in hot pursuit. When he walked inside a jam-packed cinema hall and heard the loud whistles, he was stumped. He had walked into a riveting scene being enacted on screen. The audience was lapping it up as their favourite heartthrob pranced around trees, climbed mountains, dived into deep waters even as he serenaded the heroine.

Though uncle was momentarily impressed by the hero’s gravity-defying acts, he remembered the original purpose of his trip. As he scanned the rows, he just couldn’t find his quarry. In what he claimed later to be a brilliant stroke of genius (the family lore certainly propagates this myth), he approached the man playing the film stills from the back. When the hero was about to declare his undying love for the heroine, a slide flashed across the screen. “Lakshmi, come home immediately. Ambi.”

 Now, catcalls of another kind ensued as two red-faced women stood up and slunk out of the hall. When uncle was spotted, their embarrassment soon gave way to fury. I don’t know what transpired between the hunter and the hunted, but my husband’s uncle certainly survived to tell the tale.

My family wouldn’t want my husband’s family to get all the credit for strange tales. One of my uncles had this charming habit of giving monikers to family members. If one had the good fortune of being called ‘Mani’, then he was certainly the ‘Bell’ of the family. When another Mani joined the family, my uncle had a quick solution. We now had ‘Big Bell’ and ‘Small Bell’. When more Manis joined, uncle threw his hands up in despair. There were too many bells ringing in his head by now. You would have thought that would be the end of it.

The women of my family wouldn’t hear of being referred to by their age or size. So my uncle modified his solution. When ‘daughter Rama’ or ‘daughter-in-law Rama’ didn’t work, the neighbourhood names were prefixed to the names. So we now had a ‘Trichy Lalitha’, a ‘Kovai Meenakshi’, a ‘Mysore Jaya’, never mind that these women never did stay in these cities for long. But that’s how one remembered them in the family for generations.

I’m relieved that there was no one living in Gopichettypalayam or Gangaikondacholapuram. That would have been a mouthful for anyone to remember!

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of the Deccan Herald.

Talking the walk

I’m walking at a sedate pace in the park when I notice a flash of colour to my right. It’s a young woman wearing red sweat pants and a T-shirt soaked in sweat. I recognise the walking Usain Bolt of the morning walking brigade. Predictably as I move ahead a few yards, she has already walked a full circle in the park, with the precision of a military general, neatly squeezing into the open spaces between slow walkers.

While busy applauding her technique, I unwittingly stumble onto a couple in front of me. When they look at me in consternation, I feel like an interloper. Muttering apologies, I give the cozy couple a wide berth as I determinedly sprint ahead, all the while keeping my eyes on the she-Bolt.

“Today the coffee was so bitter — but I dare not complain otherwise I will not even get my usual cuppa!” The remark is followed by loud guffaws and back slapping. When I look back I see a group, pot-bellied to the last man, dressed in black. Their black pants and shorts makes me stop for a moment.  I’m not sure if they are colour coordinated by intent but they certainly represent a show of unity. All that’s missing are peace bands on their wrists.

 The men are shadowed by three ambling women carrying on an animated conversation. Their neatly plaited hair and starched sarees appear to practically slap my face. Here I am in a crumpled Tee and pants fraying at the edges while these ladies appear immaculately attired and plaited to boot. When one of them loudly gesticulates to the others, I slow down to catch a bit of their conversation.

“She keeps demanding more and more.” Now I am all ears. Who was demanding more? A whiny daughter or a dominating mother-in-law? “Last month I had increased her salary but she takes leave for the flimsiest excuse.”

Ah! It is maid-bashing time. What follows next is like a script from a movie. When the Men in Black take a breather after lamenting over the metro construction everywhere, the amblers ruminate over maids, in-laws and shopping maladies. And circumscribed by the relentless pacing of the she-Bolt. On and on it goes. I listen to a running commentary covering a wide spectrum of subjects in my morning walk at the local park. It certainly saves me the bother of reading the newspaper.

This article first appeared in the Deccan Herald.

Picture books on classical musicians

Pictorially Speaking

''There was a total lacuna when it came to books on Carnatic music for the young,'' says Lakshmi Devnath, author of the Pictures of Melody book series.

”There was a total lacuna when it came to books on Carnatic music for the young,” says Lakshmi Devnath, author of the Pictures of Melody book series.

What makes her series interesting is that she’s chosen the graphic novel format to narrate stories of the Carnatic music greats, starting with Madurai Mani Iyer and T Brinda.

In India, comic books or even graphic novels have focused largely on tales from our mythology or superheroes. Only recently have they opened up their horizons to feature personalities from different fields. Most of us encounter classical musicians only on stage or on television and rarely think about their lives — who they are offstage and what made them the persons they are. Part of the problem, of course, has been the dearth of stories or information for readers, young or old. Lakshmi Devnath, with her books, has set out to address this gap.

The easy vocabulary of the Pictures of Melody series augments the pictures in a manner that will appeal to all readers. Devnath’s storytelling, aided by Ajay Krishnan’s artwork, is filled with little details that reveal the meticulous research she’s done for these stories. Each book, in addition to an autographed photo of the featured artist, contains a note by a famous disciple of the musician. For instance, the book about T Brinda has Aruna Sairam, a popular performer, speaking about her guru. Similarly, Madurai Mani Iyer’s story is accompanied by an interview with T V Shankaranarayanan, his nephew and disciple.

The books explain the terms used in Carnatic music without being pedantic, so the lay reader or beginner picks up useful knowledge. For the more experienced rasika or music aficionado, it offers hitherto unknown nuggets of information, both historical and musical.

In featuring T Brinda, additionally the author has brought to fore many challenges that women in classical music have had to overcome to get their rightful place on and offstage. Even the casual reader discovers how Madurai Mani Iyer sang a poem composed by a friend following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. “It is gratifying to find out that these books are being read as bedtime stories to children,” adds Devnath.

To the question what next, Devnath responds, “An organisation in Karnataka has approached me to do a picture book on Chowdiah.”

By placing the musicians and their music in the context of their times, the books have enough and more to stimulate the interest of a wide range of readers in the country.


This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Deccan Herald

Poseidon on a hill

This article first appeared in The Hindu.

Sitting way up high, it seems appropriate that the Temple of Poseidon commands the sea on three sides, find CHITRA SRIKRISHNA & K. SRIKRISHNA

romancing the ruinsAn impossible moon lights up the Temple of Poseidon

An impossible moon lights up the Temple of Poseidon

Land’s End. The words conjure up an image of a windy bluff, beyond which a restless sea, its waves tipped in white, stretches as far as the eye can see. Since time immemorial men, particularly sailing men, have been fascinated by the idea of the end of a peninsula. They’ve given them evocative names such as the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. They’ve built lighthouses and temples and buildings that have often served as both.

Cape Sounion, 60 km south of Athens, marks the land’s end of mainland Greece. When you approach it on the winding road heading south from Athens, the Aegean sea appears tantalisingly around each corner. It is only when you wind your way up a hill on the last kilometer that white columns appear ahead of you. The marble columns are what’s left of the Temple of Poseidon whose very sight, indicating that home was near, has cheered weary Greek sailors for over two millennia.

Perched on a flat area, about 60 m above the sea, sheer cliffs and the azure waters of the Aegean surround the temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion on three sides. Though only 15 of the original columns stand — their Doric style a reminder of their age and origin — you can easily visualise the magnificent sight the temple would have presented to returning sailors.

The temple was first built during the Archaic period (750-480 BC) and likely destroyed during the Greek-Persian wars. The ruins that remain today are from the temple that was rebuilt around 440 BC by Pericles, the famous statesman and general, who had the better known Parthenon re-built at around the same time. The earliest mention of Poseidon’s temple was in Homer’s Odyssey where Poseidon, the God of the Sea, is spoken of as having caused untold mishaps to the hero on his voyage back home. Even though the god’s statue is now at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, the grandeur of the temple is undiminished.

At first glance, the ruins look very like the others that spot the Greek countryside — a vaguely familiar rectangular floor plan with pillars on all sides. In fact, the largely intact Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, also built during Pericles’ reign, gives a good sense of what the Temple of Poseidon would have looked like. Yet, the temple, despite absence of roof, pediment or even pillars on one side, is remarkable because of its setting, on a promontory where the Aegean itself is an integral part of its architecture. The legends of Poseidon, Odyssey, and marauding Persian and Greek sailors down the ages imbue the temple with even more significance. Watching the sun set over the temple is unlike anything else we have experienced.

Apparently, we are not the first people to be enchanted by the magic of the temple. Nearly 200 ago, Lord Byron, then still relatively unknown, was so captivated by the temple that he carved his name on one of the columns. Authorities, of course, take a very dim view of such activities these days!

Cape Sounion is remarkable in that it is relatively unspoilt by tourists and has a beautiful natural setting. Today’s Sounion is an upscale summer getaway for wealthy Athenians, and easily accessible by road.

Later that evening, the setting sun forms a crimson splash on the horizon where it touches the waters. The scene is that of an artist’s canvas. A happy confluence of mythology, history and beauty, this is one of Greece’s lesser known but no less valuable treasures.

The Mystic Chera king

[This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Deccan Herald. My interest in the Divya Prabandhangal was picked when I recorded the CD “Saranagathi” which presented thirty of Kulasekhara Alwar’s verses in thirty different ragas]

I may appear crazy to others but it is they who are really crazy. Yes! I am madly in love with my Lord! – [In Tamil “Peyarai yenakku yaavarum yaanum oru peyanai evarkkum idhu pesi yen” ]

Were these the words of a madman?  They form one of the 105 quatrains (pasurams) of Kulasekhara Alwar’s Perumal Tirumozhi that speak of his love for Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam. Kulasekhara, was a Chera king who ruled over present-day Kerala in the 9th century AD.

Beginning in the 7th century, the Bhakti movement centered around Lord Vishnu saw a resurgence in South India. Twelve poets, collectively called the Alwars, over the span of two centuries, created an exquisite collection of hymns, collectively called the “Divya Prabhandham.” These hymns are known for their evocative lyrical content and high emotive appeal. Allegorical and set in first person, the hymns convey the poets’ intense feeling of bhakthi towards the Lord.

The ninth of the twelve alwars, Kulasekhara Alwar, whilst still engaged in matters of state, showed great interest in spirituality. Several tales, possibly apocryphal, talk of his intense love for his Lord. Once when listening to a narration of the Ramayana at court the king, was so caught up with the story that in an emotional outburst, ordered his troops to prepare for the battle against Ravana! Only when the narrator brought the story to an end with Rama’s victory did the king heave a sigh of relief.

Another story speaks of how his single-minded focus on serving Lord Vishnu alarmed his courtiers, who felt he was ignoring royal matters. In an attempt to discredit the priests that the king patronized, they charged the priests of stealing the temple jewels. The king in an effort to disprove their suspicions declared that he would place his hand in a pot of poisonous snakes. “If I am bitten, then what you say would be true. If my faith in the priests of Vishnu is justified, I will not be harmed.” It goes on to say how the king was unscathed, after subjecting himself to this test with a pot of poisonous snakes.

Kulasekara eventually renounced his royal responsibilities and proceeded to Srirangam, the bastion of Vaishnavism. It was here that he composed his most famous work the Mukundamala (“garland of hymns for Mukunda”) and parts of the Perumal Tirumozhi. The latter part of his life was largely spent in Tirupati. The threshold at the sanctum sanctorum of the Lord Balaji Temple in Tirupati is known as the “Kulasekhara padi” – a tribute to this philosopher king’s desire to serve the Lord, if only as an inanimate object in his temple! 

Though Kulasekhara Alwar is believed to have died young, before he reached his 30th birthday, he lives on in the regular chanting of his Perumal Thirumozhi in temples throughout South India. In the first week of March, this mystic king’s birth anniversary, under the Punar Poosam star,  is being celebrated by the Hindu Vaishnavite community all over the world.

An adventure in Monte Carlo

What happens when a mom ends up in Monte Carlo with two toddlers in tow? [This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Deccan Herald]

I have it all chalked out, to the last detail. After a quick breakfast, we’ll head to the Oceanographic Museum, then to the palace and be back at the hotel in time for lunch. I announce it to the family in a no-nonsense tone.

But even the best made plans go awry. My troubles begin right at the beginning. Getting a two-year-old and a five-year-old ready by 9 am on any day is an effort worthy of a Nobel prize. I’m about ready to tear my hair out, whatever is left of it, as we finally head set out in a taxi towards the museum.

A month earlier, when a business trip to Monte Carlo came up for my husband, he had a brainwave that it would be great for us to tag along. Can you even imagine how it would be? Think of yourself on the French Riviera, rubbing shoulders with the glamourous and the famous. Carried away in his excitement, I had nodded. Hadn’t I seen Sean Connery as James Bond, cutting a swathe through the casinos? The very thought had brought a smile to my face. I was truly stirred.

Monte Carlo, in the tiny principality of Monaco, is a scenic delight with winding roads carved out of steep cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. The taxi ride along the cliffs conjures images of a suave man driving an Aston Martin DBS. But the sound of paper tearing quickly brings me back to planet earth. My children are busy fighting over a packet of crackers. Even when the driver makes a sudden sharp turn, they are unperturbed as their battle reaches a climax. I scream when it appears that the car is teetering on the edge of the cliff. The driver gives me a befuddled look in the mirror and continues his Grand Prix run. When the taxi finally comes to a shuddering halt outside the museum, I open my eyes cautiously. I could have sworn Nancy Sinatra’s smoky voice was singing ‘You only live twice’.

The signs outside the museum are mostly in French. When I brandish my guidebook like a Beretta a la Bond to the ticket collector, she’s all smiles. What ensues is a parody of mime and accentuated English, and we’re ushered into a large hall. The Musée Océanographique boasts of a large collection of sea animal specimens and fauna. The sheer variety of marine life on display reflects the passion of the museum’s founder Prince Albert I. My garrulous girls are dumbstruck as they stare wide-eyed at the skeletal exhibits.

Just when I’m beginning to enjoying the peace, my five-year-old speaks up. “I need to go to the bathroom.” Her sister, who senses a diversionary tactic, joins in tugging at my hand. As their decibel level slowly increases, I get a pointed look from the security guard. I look around but see no signs that are even remotely relevant. “Madame…,” the sphinx-like guard points to a doorway. Convinced that he’s the local version of the MI6, I use the facilities and quietly slip out with the girls.

Walking past beautiful gardens and Monaco’s crooked streets with stunning vistas, I lose track of all time. Suddenly, the Palais du Prince appears almost magically in front of us. When my younger daughter shouts in glee, I quickly turn to her, eager to bask in her joy. But she’s looking at an ice-cream cart. She wants all the flavours there, the whole caboodle. For all the time she takes to decide, the palace may not have been there in front of her. Exasperated, I end up buying the girls a cone each. Gazing forlornly at the palace, with sticky fingers and a pounding headache, I wonder if I’m ever going to make it inside. The slurping and licking noises behind me continue for a while.

“Let’s go back to our hotel room and watch TV,” declares my older girl. “I see a taxi there.” She points to the far end of the road. The siblings engage in a visual lock with each other, and turn to me. I know I’ve lost the battle at this point.

Holding onto the stroller handle and grabbing her hand, I race like a mad woman, with no pretensions of being the debonair Brit. Gritting my teeth, I open the door and plonk myself onto the back seat, kids, stroller and all. I don’t know if it’s the supercilious curl of my lip that does it or the entreating look on my daughters’ faces, but the driver simply nods his head and we are heading back to our hotel. Even as I’m a tad disappointed, a velvety voice whispers to me “Never say never again.”

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