Tag Archives: Deccan Herald

A worried mom wails – DH

There’s never a dull moment at home and when there’s a flight to catch, the drama continues all the way to the airport. When DH published my article today my loved ones alternated between laughing and crying over my plight. Do click here to read the article.

All about legacy – RK Srikantan

Great teachers leave behind a legacy that is not confined to their technical expertise.

When Carnatic vocalist R K Srikantan passed away recently the state lost one of its most respected figures in the fine arts. A Padma Bhushan awardee and a nonagenarian who continued to perform till the very end, he never stopped perfecting the one thing he was passionate about – music. I met him a couple of years ago to interview him for an article that I was writing.

In response to the secret of his being active well into his ninth decade, he said, “For me, it’s not just music but also the way we lead our lives – the food that we eat, the time spent in useful activities instead of frivolous pursuits. The thing to remember is to have good habits and everything in the right proportion.” The caring, the attention to detail and the single-minded pursuit of the art form that Srikantan demonstrated in his life is what made him such a great music personality.

He was not merely a teacher but also a coach. Teaching is rarely a one-way process where the teacher imparts knowledge, in this case music, and the student imbibes it. It’s a two-way street where the student imbibes learning and values imparted by the teacher or coach and learns by practicing. Srikantan’s enormous self-discipline and strong daily routine made a really strong impression and reminded me of my own music teacher, the late Seethalakshmi Venkatesan, another doyen in the same field, who was also an example of a teacher, coach and inspiration.

In the traditional gurukul system of learning music, the student lived with the teacher, as a member of his household. It meant household chores, taking care of the teacher’s personal needs to liaising with the external world if needed. Almost all the greats in the music fraternity, certainly the ones belonging to an earlier era, learnt not just about music but a great deal about life and skills. It’s a far cry from students in today’s world who question, analyse and debate with the teacher and not just on the finer points of music.

Teachers need to be conscious of one fact that they inevitably become role models for the students to a certain extent. As Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets (famous puppet characters) said, “Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” It’s all about leaving a legacy for the next generation. And R K Srikantan certainly has left a legacy that will serve generations of music students to come.

This first appeared as a middle in Deccan Herald.

Ragas – what do they mean to you?

The plaintive notes of raga Sahana is playing in the background while I fold the freshly laundered clothes. The deep bass voice on the CD player has an astonishing depth and range.

Certainly not one that jumps at you with its tonal quality but like fine wine grows on you. The singer is M D Ramanathan and the song is Giripai Nelakonna, a composition of Tyagaraja. MDR’s voice like his music is unique –  a class apart.  Sahana is a popular raga with musicians and composers alike. I have mixed feelings when I listen to it. I run through a gamut of emotions ranging from joy, despair to compassion. The raga is meditative in nature and makes me contemplate a state of mind that’s far removed from the mundane. Calling it a vakra raga (owing to its zig zag nature) or a rakthi raga (because of its emotive appeal) or giving it labels like ‘intellectual’ are just technicalities.

The real question is what does Sahana do for you?  Does it make you stop whatever you’re doing and wonder why you haven’t listened to it before?

Ragas have to do with human feelings and gut level reactions. They should make you forget those bills that need to be paid, the pending doctor visits, the upcoming visit to the college principal or the last fight you had with your recalcitrant sister-in-law.

Different ragas evoke different emotions. Whether its the joie de vivre of Bilahari, the pathos of Subhapantuvarali, the quirky nature of Kathana kuthuhalam, the soporific effect of Neelambari or the grandeur of Thodi, a raga is a calling to the human soul. Not just the emotions, ragas also have a therapeutic effect on the human system. The flip side to this theory is when a musician performs poorly and the listener wishes he or she were elsewhere even while looking for the nearest exit!

Sometimes musicians are strongly identified with certain ragas as their rendition has raised the bar for listeners. The carnatic stalwart Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer’s name was synonymous with the raga Mohana, one of the oldest ragas in the history of music.

A raga becomes a melody only when the musician breathes life into it. Otherwise it is a mere collection of notes. People often ask me which raga is my favourite. I find that’s almost as hard as answering the question which is my favourite child. My daughters may have something to say to that but mercifully the question is not directed to them!

This article first appeared in the Deccan Herald. 

The mystic Chera king, Kulasekhara Alwar

My interest in Vaishnavite traditions and Divya Prabandhams grew as I prepared for my CD recording (see main page). My article on Kulasekhara Alwar, the philosopher-king was published in the Sunday Herald a few weeks back. I’ve posted the article here for your convenience.
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The Mystic Chera King

“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?  These words 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 exquisite 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 atttempt 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.

Raga Dreams….DH middle

Bollywood Dance Troup, World Environment Day 2...
Image by JIGGS IMAGES via Flickr

Even as I’m shuttling between Bangalore and Chennai for the music season (performing, listening) the Deccan Herald featured my article for the middle column today

“There’s one Hollywood number in the list,” declared my 10 year old. She had just returned home from her rehearsal for the annual day bash at our apartment complex. In her inimitable style, she stood there rattling off the details. “Nine items – different groups of children dancing to Bollywood numbers.” Each year the children in our complex practice hard for the annual show and it’s the highlight in many a parent and grandparent’s lives. Dressed in their Sunday best, little ones and not so little ones put on their most creative dance moves watched by the adoring crowd of relatives and friends. This year my daughters were the emcees for the show and they walked around as if they‘d won the lottery!

“Why is there no traditional music or dance programs at our annual day?“ Girija aunty was busy bending the ear of anyone who’d listen. It was her reedy voice in my head that set me thinking about Bollywood and its pernicious influence. Why do kids today act as though Indian culture means Bollywood? Going by the number of Bollywood dance classes mushrooming all over the city, I won’t be surprised if schools take it up as a vocational hobby class. I recall as a kid that there were times when I’d rather have learnt western piano or sang ghazals with Jagjit Singh than do what my mother wanted me to – learn Carnatic music. Today as a practicing classical musician and a mother I try to understand why our kids are not more enthusiastic about traditional music.

“I really don’t understand the nuances of classical music, it’s just too complicated for me!” Maya, my friend’s eighteen year old shakes her head in despair. “The hardest part is when the musician breaks into a raga” she says, looking at me for sympathy. “Do you realize that many of your favorite filmi numbers are based on these very ragas?” I ask her. I see that perks her up, at least that’s what I think her raised eyebrow meant. “There‘s only one way to get past this. Listen to a wide variety of artistes. Classical music has a way of growing on you. Soon you’ll wonder if you’d have enough time to hear all that you want!“ To my amazement, she resisted the urge to roll her eyes. I hope my advice and our children’s natural curiosity will bring more of the Pappu can’t dance crowd to the classical concert halls.

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Call of the Samurai…

Call of the Samurai
 
 
 
The Aoi Matsuri festival in Kyoto with jostling crowds and carnival makes CHITRA SRIKRISHNA feel right at home.
 

[this article appeared in Deccan Herald sometime ago]

I I have seen my share of Ganeshpuja visarjans and Mylapore chariot festivals with their jostling crowds, food stalls and overall carnival ambience, having grown up in Chennai and Mumbai. Nearer home, the Karaga festival in Bangalore last year was the most recent trigger of my pleasant memories of festival days. So imagine my surprise when within minutes of arriving in Kyoto, Japan, recently, my family and I found ourselves in the midst of such a festive parade.

The lights of Tokyo were everything we had imagined and more — it was almost too much to absorb in such a short time. Our vacation was truly going to begin in Kyoto, where we planned to take an easy four days visiting temples and getting to know historic Japan.

Drop your bags right here — you may yet catch the last of the parade if you leave now!” The family and I had just arrived at our Ryokan (Japanese style hotel) in Kyoto. We didn’t even have a chance to catch our breath before the innkeeper hustled us back into a taxi. As our taxi dashed across what seemed a relatively modern town, our garrulous driver, who was caught up in the excitement, tried to communicate with us in a mixture of Japanese and English phrases. Then we saw the procession — a slow stream of people dressed in traditional costumes walking across a bridge, over the river that we had been following up town. This was our first glimpse of the Aoi Matsuri parade. The police had cordoned off all the streets on either side, and we quickly pulled into a side street, piled out of the cab muttering our arigatos to the cab driver and ran to catch up with the parade.

The Aoi Matsuri festival gets its name from the leaves of the aoi or Hollyhock bush, used to decorate all the costumes worn by the participants for the festival. The leaves are believed to have magical powers that protect people against illness and natural calamities such as earthquakes.

The Aoi Matsuri festival which originated in the eighth century, is held in Kyoto on May 15 each year. Men and women wearing period costumes of the Heian era (794 to 1185 AD) parade in a procession across town, from the old Imperial palace in Kyoto to the Shimogamo and Kamigamo Temples in the northern part of the city.
As we caught up with the tail end of the procession, we saw ropes had been tied on either side of the street to keep back the crowds. Not since a festival in India, had we seen such crowds — active grandmothers with the cutest grandkids in tow, camera laden grandfathers, some even carrying their own step ladders, newlyweds and tourists.

Two young Japanese women with painted faces and dressed in ornate kimonos were walking serenely in front of a ceremonial ox carriage. On the carriage was a woman dressed as a princess and surrounded by similarly attired women. The carriage was followed by men dressed as imperial warriors carrying swords. This carriage was the highlight of the entire parade with everyone’s eyes drawn to the girl who represented the imperial princess.

As we clambered around the milling crowd to get a better view of the carriage a swordsman wearing the trademark two swords of a samurai warrior walked by us. The carriage was followed by musicians playing traditional instruments and the rear was brought up by a Daimyo and his samurai warriors.

It was like we were home at the Karaga festival, despite being the only gaijins (foreigners) in the crowd!

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The sixty four arts…

A cook sautees onions and peppers.
Image via Wikipedia

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald

“That sambhar doesn’t look right — too much water”. My mom was watching me cook the evening meal with a critical eye. “It has to have the right consistency. Why don’t you learn from Radha Chithi?” At times she forgot that I was approaching middle age and had two nearly teenaged daughters to boot. In her mind, I was still a child whose education in certain areas was sadly incomplete.

“Do you remember the fluffy aapams that Girija maami made during Krishna Jayanthi? And Padma akka’s cheedai was so crisp, you never stopped eating them. You could still ask them to teach you.” If mom was impressed with someone’s skills whether it was cooking, painting, singing, writing, or any of the other sixty four arts, they got into “Mom’s Hall of Fame”. She kept her lists constantly updated. There were some perennial favourites in every list but rarely did anyone get bumped off any list. Cousin Gowri, my bete noire, featured in the writers and super cook list. Even if I had ever aspired “to be like Gowri” my mom’s constant anything-but-subtle reminders had put an end to it.

Uncle Andrew, our erstwhile neighbour and the resident art expert played a starring role at our post-prandial discussions when my daughter struggled with her pencil sketching. “He would bring Elizabeth Taylor to life, you could imagine blooming irises when you gazed into the eyes,” Mom sighed dreamily as she was an art enthusiast herself.

“How does it matter, Amma, if I simply can’t whip up perfectly shaped murukkus that gives you a crunchy feeling at the first bite or my articles are yet to see the light of day in The New York Times?” I argue with her. 

“If I never egged you on to realise your full potential you would have ended up like me! I never had half the opportunities that you do.” My mom had had a hard life growing up, with her own mom passing away before she was fifteen. I knew I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for her prodding and support. And when I now insist that my older daughter sign up for the upcoming school debate, much to her dismay, I realised that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!

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