Tag Archives: India

Sarod Maestro Rajeev Taranath Interview

One of India’s foremost classical musicians, Rajeev Taranath is a master of the sarod. His career spanning over four decades, has drawn accolades from critics and audiences throughout the world.

A distinguished disciple of the late legendary maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, he also received guidance from the great sitarists Ravi Shankar and Shrimati Annapurna Devi . Rajeev Taranath is the recipient of many honors including India’s highest government award in the arts, the esteemed Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2000.  He has received critical acclaim for his deep introspective style that melds imagination and emotional range combined with technical skill, and a highly disciplined approach to the development of a raga. “Rajeev Taranath’s sarod improvisations mixed the spiritual and the spirited…the raga began with introspective meditation and proceeded into an exuberant rhythmic celebration.” said critic Edward Rothstein of The New York Times   A noted linguist, he speaks eight languages fluently. From 1995 to 2005, Taranath served on the music faculty of the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Currently living in Mysore, India, Rajeev Taranath travels worldwide teaching and performing.  Given below is an interview with this esteemed musician. 

Did you grow up in a musical family?

My father was deeply interested in music. He used to sing and play the tabla. Although he was not a professional musician, I grew up with a lot of music around me. He started teaching me very easy songs. When I was around 3 years old, he made me listen to a lot of classical and vocal records and performances. I soon started singing and gave my first public performance at 10.

So, how did you leave singing for the sarod?

The most vivid moment in music I remember is the first experience of hearing Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, it was electrifying. I was and am a great admirer of Ravi Shankar’s music, so I used to attend every performance of his when he came to Bangalore, the city in which I lived. That particular time, he came with Ali Akbar Khan, who said that he would play the sarod along with him. Before that, I had heard very little of the sarod being played and definitely I had not heard Ali Akbar Khan play. It was a life-changing experience when he played his first movement on the sarod. That was my moment of epiphany, a moment of total grace.  As I was listening, my life changed. Music moved to the centre of the universe.  I was hooked and never looked back.

 Can you explain why it spoke to you so much?

Well, you know, it’s like falling in love. How can you explain it?

So, one performance changed your life?

My life changed direction after that point. After I heard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for the first time, it was a year and a half or more before I got introduced to him. I was just past 20 when I went to him and he soon accepted me as a disciple.

Please describe the training.

It was daily, sometimes twice a day, but then there would be periods with no lessons for a month or more, because he would be away, performing. By the time I went to him, the demand for his public performances was very high. I started practicing one hour, two hours. Then, for some time, it went on for up to 12 hours a day.

How do you work when you’re practicing music for 12 hours a day?

At that point, I was a beggar. I couldn’t find a job, but there was a benefactor Mr. P.K. Das of Kolkata. This man had nothing to do with music, but he gave me a room, and not very much later, he and his wife insisted I should have my meals with them. I had some sort of job afterward to keep me going, but they took care of me for six more years. That gave me an opportunity for which I am profoundly grateful, to practice many, many hours a day.

You had a very successful career as a vocalist when you were young. You were even described as a child prodigy. I have heard that you were and are profoundly moved when listening to the great vocalist Abdul Karim Khan. Why did you decide to switch to sarod? Many people say that the voice is the ultimate instrument for Indian music.

There is no doubt that vocals are at the center of our music. But Ali Akbar Khan is for me the paradigmatic example of excellence. I would say that in his sarod playing there is a kind of vocalism. He has a flexibility and versatility to his imagination, all of which have vocal sources. It’s not that he actually plays vocal bandishes. There are sarod players that do that, but he is not one of them. Vocalism is for him an abstract, silent, but immediate storehouse for the movements of the raga. It’s the thing that makes a raga more than a scale. I can almost say that given two very good instrumentalists, the person who is the better vocalist—in this special metaphorical sense—is the one whose music will have more “juice.” He might not be the fastest, but that’s because he would have no need to be the fastest.

Has Hindustani music changed over the years?

To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to compare music to both language and physics. If you compare the English of Shakespeare’s time to modern English, you can see that it’s essentially the same. There are noticeable differences, but we can still understand Shakespeare. The physics of Shakespeare’s time, however, has been completely replaced by modern science. Throughout the history of Hindustani music, there’s been the same kind of growth and change that you can see in a language. But you don’t have the new completely replacing the old, as is the norm with scientific progress. For example, Ali Akbar Khan made profound changes in the sarod. Before him, the instrument sounded quick and staccato, with lots of trills. Khansahib still uses those trills, but his innovative playing gives the instrument a new profundity and depth.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in playing Hindustani music?

First, of course, you must practice and study diligently. If you do that, you will become either a competent or an incompetent player, and you will get to know which very soon. But once you have crossed the bar of competence, in about three or four years, what do you do then? You know how to play the raga correctly, but then what? At that point, playing the raga is rather like spreading butter on bread. You’ve got to see how well you can spread it, and how widely you can spread it. You must push at the frontiers of the raga, and yet see that it doesn’t break. If the raga breaks, you are in a kind of melodic anonymity, which ultimately breaks you as a musician.

Have you managed to stretch the borders of any of the ragas you play?

I try. When I play Patdeep, it’s difficult to make it long. You can feel very comfortable playing Yaman long, because
it’s quite spacious and flexible. So is Bhairavi. But Patdeep is very brittle, and can’t be stretched easily. The rules for Patdeep are very strict, which is why it makes such an immediate effect. Once you’ve heard the identifying phrases, you know exactly what it is. But that’s a double-edged sword, because the audience is immediately “Patdeeped,” and it seems to be near closing time right away. Then you’re left with the challenge of where to go from there. For Patdeep, I try to unfold the scale of the raga a little bit at a time, so you can hear every nuance. You have to hold the raga back, stop it from exploding through you. That enables me to stay inside the raga, and not let the raga go, even when I’m playing for a long period of time.


Last month I did a concert in which I played Patdeep for the alap-jor-jhala, and then switched to Madhuvanti for the gat. Madhuvanti has almost the same notes as Patdeep, and many of the same note arrangements. But Madhuvanti has tivra ma (raised fourth) and Patdeep doesn’t. Even though the notes are similar, the mood is very different, and these differences have to be kept. I wanted to create a natural change in mood, while still maintaining a sense of unity in the performance.

When you play two ragas together, how do you decide which ragas to combine?

There’s a kind of dialectic involved between a technical closeness, and yet the need and challenge to keep the moods different while playing in very similar scales. There are also other factors not as capable of tidy articulation. You might combine a raga that has a certain kind of gravitas with something that is not quite so serious—moods that are contrasting, yet still very close.

Can you speak about your approach to developing a raga throughout the many years of riyaz?  

There’s a kind of patience that you learn to take with you to the raga. If you’re patient, the raga will speak to you eventually.

Can you discuss the ideas you have regarding teaching Indian classical music?

 When it comes to teaching of music, there is a trio – a teacher, a learner and an instrument. The teacher demonstrates how he has put the instrument to use and what he has been able to achieve. The attempt here is a give and take of such experience. This exploration of possibilities, initially in the form of bits and pieces, as alankaras or tabla bols or whatever, later on turns into an exercise in bringing together these little experiences to construct a creative whole. Further on, it is a kind of invitation to the learner to live with the teacher in the common world of music and in this journey together, the learner may even reach beyond. Each one’s style of playing is guided by one’s own possibilities, difficulties and impossibilities.

What is special about your gharana?

Unlike other gharanas which for many years remained closed-door, teaching freely with openness is a major preoccupation with the Maihar. Allauddin Khan, the Paramahamsa-like saint-musician took to vigorous teaching. This can perhaps be traced to the difficulty he encountered in learning and the fact that Allauddin was compelled to choose the sarod in a veena-dominated tradition which confined its veena–teaching to its kin alone. But his ingenuity incorporated the possibilities of veena into the sarod, remodelling it for the purpose. Several nuances of the veena came into sarod-baaj and later years saw the promotion of sitar, sur-bahar and sur-singar.

The Maihar-Senia gharana, which traces its lineage to Tansen in the 16th century, was one of the few schools that taught women music and we find historically the presence of many distinguished women instrumental performers within it from Saraswati, Tansen’s daughter, to Annapurna Devi, the daughter of the legendary Allauddin Khan.

In the context of our guru-sishya parampara and the oral/aural tradition, you once mentioned the ‘mediation of the eye’ in western classical music. Don’t you think a guru’s role is equally vital there in guiding….?

Mediation of the eye is important in Western classical music because of the reliance on the system of notation. The journey is from note to note but nothing as much may happens between the gaps. It is in the movement between notes that one’s culture operates. Mimesis is the basis of our music-teaching. Our music fills up with meends, gamaks, bols and these cannot be written down. We clutch the guru’s imagination, his mind that is so private. A guru gives good active seeds… but can one teach creativity?’ The artist or maestro, as T.S. Eliot says, lives at a conscious point where past and future are gathered. He has all the richness of the past, waiting to pass it on to the future, for his students to gather it all.  So I try to teach, but a problem which I have repeatedly faced is this: I can transfer musical information but I don’t know yet, how to transfer the sense of relish. This is important in the kind of music we play and teach because the given is so tenuous.    

Can you explain the artist’s process or desire for mastery?

To make better music– there is a desire, which is a life-long process- to create a match – to bring the thought and performance nearer and nearer.  Actually it is the desire to translate what is happening in your mind into your fingers – even without that gap. The finger itself becomes imagination.  But curiously the more you master, the more your imagination becomes active. Because what strikes you or me is seriously limited by what we can execute in singing or playing.  And as that capacity improves, your imagination improves. The more you go toward mastery the more you see, the more you climb, the more you see. So there is no end to that – they feed on each other.  Because you see, you want to climb more. Because you climb more you see much more. And so it goes on.  And that act itself is a matter of very profound satisfaction – a  fullness, which I suppose is why you are really after this exploration of mastery.   In music it is more obvious perhaps, but it is there in everything.

In the education of a performing art, there is the finding of greater and greater satisfaction in the possession of the knowledge you are seeking. The same art can be treated as a discipline or can be treated more casually, mechanically as a subject.  When music becomes a discipline, that’s your life, when music is a minor subject, it’s very different.  If anything becomes a discipline, you seek a fuller kind of satisfaction.  Simply being well- trained in something is not enough.  Often many are well-trained for a purpose which quite often lies outside the central subject.  Their own interests are elsewhere.    When something becomes a discipline, that becomes a center of interest.  If it isn’t, it shows.  And in some artists it becomes obsessive.  And when it isn’t obsessive or the central interest you can make out at some stage.  

How would you describe mastery in this art form?

If given more time, I will go more and more toward radiant simplicities. Those simplicities are the product of a lifetime. Any durable experience has to arrive into a state of simplicity. Courtship is complex, a durable marriage is simple.

This article was compiled from several interviews by Leslie Schneider and is reprinted with permission from the Canadian South Asian magazine, “AAJ” (Oct 2016).   

A Conversation with Ram Sampath

Ram Sampath enthralled the audience with his unique music compositions synchronized to a live dance troupe in San Jose, an event hosted by the Mona Khan Company, on March 10 and 11, 2018.  Held in the intimate Mexican Heritage Theater, the concert was accompanied by Mona Khan’s own dance troupe.

The multi-talented Sampath – musician, producer, vocalist, composes for Bollywood movies, MTV India, Coke Studio musical series, and popular TV shows such as “Satyamev Jayate” in India. His background in Carnatic music infuses his compositions with a meld of Indian classical music, jazz, western and pop.

After having started his career composing jingles for advertisements, Sampath moved into the realm of pop music and later started composing for Bollywood films. Sampath’s musical score for the movie “Delhi Belly”, which was acclaimed by music critics, earned him a Filmfare Award.

He now has his own music production house “OmGrown Music”, in collaboration with his wife, Sona Mohapatra, who is a singer in her own right.

The concert in San Jose was a rich experience for the audience, featuring a medley of hit songs by Ram Sampath, who was accompanied by vocalists, Pawni Pandey and Siddhanth Bhosle, as well as a live band. The dance choreography synchronized perfectly with the music, and the dancers in vibrant Bollywood outfits were eye candy. The tight synchronization between the music and dance was the obvious result of an incredible effort and practice by the team.

Sampath exhibited the range of his musical and vocal prowess, in the short span of the two-hour concert, with compositions that were mostly his own.

He also introduced new singers Rithisha Padmanabh and Nishant Bordia, winners of a singing contest that he had hosted in the Bay Area along with Radio Bollywood 92.3 FM

I had a glimpse of the man behind the musical mask in a post-event interview:

I.C.:  Who is your muse or your inspiration for your music?

Sampath:  Life is my inspiration and the experiences that have shaped my life. Even when I started out as a young lad, I had privy to life experience content to express in my musical composition. I have had an eventful life, right from my childhood (smile).

I.C.:  You were trained for 8 years in South Indian Carnatic music. Does that training permeate your music style?

Sampath:  Yes, of course. I still love Carnatic music and often use it in my compositions. There are many modern day Carnatic music composers who I consider giants in the industry that I listen to regularly.

I was exposed to many genres of music growing up. Learning music at a young age is a blessing as it becomes a part of who you are – your roots, so to speak.

My dad loves Western music – the Beatles, for example. My mom is a fan of Bollywood music. I also have a rock and jazz component in my music. When I compose, I am influenced by all the above and more. The move into Bollywood was organic, the result of my eclectic music background.

I.C.:  What is your favorite musical composition or song?

Sampath:  That’s easy. Definitely “Abhi Na Jao Chhod Kar” composed by Jaidev from the movie “Hum Dono” and sung by Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi. It is a masterpiece in musical composition. It has so many elements that are perfect in the song – emotions (longing), lyrics, melody, and overall composition. It’s timeless.

I.C.:  What is your biggest challenge?

Sampath:  My taste in music needs to be agreeable to Bollywood. There is a lot of junk music out there that is being consumed. My desire is to create amazing, high-quality music for the audience. Consistently.

I.C.:  What is the future of your musical journey?

Sampath:  I am getting more collaborative in nature. For example, this live show with Mona Khan Company is a new beginning for me. I want to do more live stage shows and collaborate with other artists in the years ahead of me.

Thanks for the show Ram Sampath and the heart-to-heart interview. It was good to get a feel of the man behind the excellent music.

https://www.facebook.com/monakhancompany/videos/1858429227561991/

Grameen Pragati

I’m Anav Mehta, an 8th grader at Hyde Middle School in Cupertino, California. My family runs a charity called Grameen Pragati for which we raise funds by running marathons to fund projects. Grameen Pragati was founded in 2011 in San Jose, California by my parents Reena and Huzefa Mehta. The goal of this organization is to support people in need. Our way is through providing lights, lanterns and water filtration systems which are run on solar energy.

Installing Water Filteration System

In the middle of the rainy, hot summer of 2017, my brother and I went to India to help out at a village called Chinchani in the state of Maharashtra, (where my grandmother grew up in) along with my aunt. During the seven day visit, we made multiple trips to the village from the city of Dhanu, Maharashtra. We took a group taxi and train as transportation. Visiting the school village was interesting as we saw kids playing games and running around. I felt glad when I saw the children having fun even though they remained in need of so much.  I found out that, thanks to an energy shortfall, power cuts in schools and villages are common during the summer months. This shortage hits school children the hardest as it disrupts their study schedule. So this year Grameen Pragati undertook projects of installing hybrid Solar Tube Lights and a Solar filtration filter at Ranchet Ashramshala, a boarding school of about 750 boys and girls located near our village The projects comprised of 7W DC LED in each of the 8 rooms for the girls and boys; 14 feet tube light in the common area; 18 W tube light in the kitchen with 12 hour backup and a Solar Water Drinking Plant. 

Installed Lights in Girls sleeping area

We also went to an Adivasi village school situated at Sagdevpada, Dhabhon, in Thane, Maharashtra. We chose this school due to our deep family roots in the region. The school was in a much poorer and smaller village without any electricity. With the help of the school Chairman, Shri Rajnikant Shroff, and the teachers the needs of the students were identified. After a bumpy ride on a non-paved road, we arrived to a small welcome ceremony and then gave Solar Lanterns to students who had come with their parents. The Solar lanterns were for students to utilize for studies during the night and to stay safe. The kids in this village have barely any time to study before it gets dark as they also have to do housework. I saw kids washing their own clothes by hand unlike, here in Cupertino, where we have electric machines washing our clothes. I also saw some  kids cooking their food on fire, unlike here where we use gas and electricity to cook.

Also, not being able to see at night can be hazardous. Villagers sometimes get lost or injured by snake bites as they venture out at night without any light. I thought that even though I can’t give them what I have, I can help them improve their lives a little bit through the solar lanterns..

Last day of the project

After we returned to the United States, my aunt received this feedback from the Ranshet school: “Since last Saturday there is absolutely no light at the Ashram Shala and the Grameen Pragati Solar Lights have helped the kids and students feel secure, especially girls and helped them to have dinner instead of being in complete darkness or just with candles!”

Most of the money collected for these projects was by running half marathons, full marathons, and ultramarathons. For this project, my family ran the Sacramento full marathon and five half marathons! The trip made me feel grateful for what I have in my life because I know there are people out in the world that don’t have enough.

 

Hindustani High in San Francisco

Hindustani High in San Francisco

San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) this year has a lineup coming up soon that pays homage to the collaborative performing spirit, with artists from India, China, and non-Indians playing Hindustani music sharing the stage. (Browse through this issue to read more about the dance events at the festival.)

Festival director Andrew Wood underscored why international collaboration was a conscious choice, saying, “Some people in other parts of the country may want to cloak themselves in a veil of intolerance, but we are different. San Francisco will lead by example and continue to embrace the people of the world. We invite all those who want to share in these sentiments and who still believe in America’s multicultural promise to join us for an occasion that is powerful, provocative, and beautiful.”

Melody of China, comprising musicians of Chinese-origin, views a collaboration with Indian-origin Swapan Chaudhuri as an opportunity to strengthen its contemporary arts focus while branching out to include other forms of traditional music. “Indian music has increasable rhythm, beautiful melody, and is very spiritual,” said Artistic Director Yangqin Zhao, who plays the hammered dulcimer.

Chaudhuri has always been struck by the similarities between other Asian melodies to Indian ones. “I first noticed it in 2000, when I was accompanying Pandit Ravi Shankar, and then again last year, when I was playing in Japan. During rehearsals, they kept coming back to a scale that I realized was very similar to the Indian raag Bhupali.” He played it for them and there were astonished conversations after that. He experimented with the newly crafted Indo-Japanese sound with the ensemble at the School of Music where he teaches at the California Institute of Arts in Valencia.

The collaboration with Melody of China at SFIAF seemed like a perfect opportunity to extend musically into China and shape new tonal harmonies. While Chaudhuri will be playing an original composition, he cannot quite describe it, since it will come together as an improvised piece onstage. “The music will take care of you once you surrender to it,” he describes, “much like riyaaz (practice). I always tell my students, don’t “use” it, give it love, and you will get a lot back. There is no start and end. It’s never-ending. Once you surrender, you sense a special power.”

The multicultural, harmonizing vibe of the festival this year is not new to Chaudhuri; he remembers fondly the time he worked with Stevie Wonder on the album A Time to Love. The album has some brilliant percussion from all over the world, with the table rhythms being clearly discernible.

The presentation aims at bridging the gap between contemporary arts and traditional music as well. Artists also include Melody of China’s own Gangqin Zhao on Guzheng (zither, vocal), Wanpeng Guo on Sheng (mouth organ), Shenshen Zhang on Pipa (lute) and Xian Lu on Dizi (bamboo flutes). The concert will also feature the world premiere of a new piece, “Opera 4 x 4” in the style of Beijing Opera by Gang Situ with Melody of China and guest cellist Kevin Yu.

SFIAF has another event featuring Indian music with Matthew Montfort (known for his scalloped fretboard guitar) and Habib Khan (on the sitar). They too, are planning to surrender to music onstage. Montfort explains, “I really don’t know exactly what we will be playing yet as that will be determined by the muse. Pandit Habib Khan and I have quite a bit of repertoire that we have performed over the years, but we tend to make up new material onstage. I love working that way because it keeps things fresh!”

The scalloped fretboard guitar was constructed by Montfort and is influenced by both the veena and the sitar. He uses string bending techniques that are similar to those used on the sitar. But the guitar has the ability to play up chords of up to six notes. A guitar-sitar jugalbandi is exciting because it expands the territory of each instrument. For example, the sitarist has the opportunity to explore playing chords if so inspired, and for the guitarist, the challenge will be in matching them. The two artists have recorded five albums together. Ferhan Qureshi will accompany them on the tabla at the festival.

Montfort sees this performance as poignant in the context of Hindustani music tradition and the political climate today. He believes that some of the greatest successes in world fusion music right now are outgrowths of Hindustani music. He thinks the tradition is future-proofed internationally; but also in part by the fact that it accepts performers who were not born into it, such as himself.

However, he says, “Society’s commitment to support the arts has continued to erode, and so the future of virtuoso level music is in jeopardy. This is exacerbated by the current political environment, which is more toxic than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. World fusion music can be part of the solution to humanity’s problems. There is a lot of work to do to get things on a better path.”

8 p.m. Thursday, June 1
Ancient Future Guitar-Sitar jugalbandi
7 p.m. Sunday, June 4
Melody of China www. sfiaf.org
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Eminent Dominatrix

Eminent Dominatrix

BEGUM JAAN.  Director: Srijit Mukherji.  Players: Vidya Balan, Ila Arun, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajit Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi, Chunky Pandey, Vivek Mushran.  Music: Anu Malik.  Hindi with Eng.  sub-titles.  Theatrical release (Vishesh Films)Begum Jaan, Movie

The ill-advised, ill-defined and ill-executed dividing of what was British India into India and Pakistan and smaller neighbors was a monumental event in the history of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps even more damaging than any war, including the two World Wars. Partition, as it became known, uprooted, shattered or downright destroyed the lives of upwards of 15 million people.  By any measure, truly a giant human flood. The impact of that seismic event is a daunting task to juxtapose over the plight of a whorehouse that finds itself straddling the invisible line that will soon become a boundary.

And yet, Mukherji’s ambitious entry aims for exactly those coordinates on the geopolitical map and comes darn close to succeeding. Remaking his own Bengali original Rajkahini (2015) and moving the late 1940s Partition-era stage from what was then India-East Pakistan border over to India-West Pakistan border, the evocative script lands with a gut-punch. A group of surveyors from India and Pakistan, jointly tasked with tracing the imaginary line that far-removed mid-level British bureaucrats contrived, stumble upon a rather large whorehouse smack on their survey line with the occupants, led by the iron-willed Begum Jaan (Balan), refusing to budge. It is, after all, their home. Eminent domain be damned.

In mismatches, the burden of proof perennially falls on those with a shorter reach. By day time, the Begum and her adopted brood put up with jabs, insults —or worse—hurled by upstanding village torch-bearers feigning moral outrage.  By night time, in reprising millennia old hypocrisy, more than a few of those same flame-throwers come knocking on the brothel’s doors flashing money. In this locale, the social strata occupied by both large niches are taken at face value and passed down as “tradition.”

Malik’s score is perhaps his finest ever.  Malik, somewhat of a border-themed specialist (Refugee, Border, LOC: Kargil), working with Kausar Munir’s excellent lyrics, orchestrates keepsake music. As a showstopper, the great—and increasingly reclusive—Asha Bhonsle lends a lilting, aged romance to “Prem Mein Tohre.” Even old man Time makes an exception by pausing when this dame sings. Kavita Seth’s reprise of this same tune is also no slacker. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Sonu Nigam comprise incongruent vocal ranges and their tandem “Aazadiyan,” while a good tune, feels limited on both ends.

The emotional tug of Kalpana Patowary and Altamash Faridi’s “O Re Kaharo,” however, gives powerful voice to a socially encumbered woman’s call to a passing wedding party asking them to stop at her doorstep knowing full well that will never happen while Arijit Singh elevates “Murshida” with a pathos of thwarted love. Then there is Singh and Shreya Ghosal re-touching “Woh Subah,” which re-ignites an uplifting, subdued hymn to charting one’s destiny much the same as the Khayyam-Sahir Ludhianvi 1958 original “Woh Subah Kabhie to Ayegi,” by Mukesh and Asha Bhosle which extolled socialist virtue. “O Re Kaharo” and “Woh Subah” are twin peaks on Malik’s sumptuous score.

The roles are mostly carved up fairly nicely.  Kapoor and Vidyarthi are opposing map-drawers wielding the shots–one Hindu and one Muslim–who are also scheming, jingoistic prototypes of entrenched prejudices. Mushran is a mousy well-wisher making frequent stops at the Begum’s abode while Pandey is a thug whose violent tactics may force Begum Jaan and her fold to take up arms. As housemother to the women in the brothel, Ila Arun’s Amma is also Begum Jaan’s closest confidant and does so well.

Balan can emote, beguile, charm and seduce with ease. The boon of earthiness in her mere presence, something few A-listers can match; she can disarm just about any patron refusing to pay or any strong-arming two-bit uniformed sap that lands on her doorstep. Balan’s presence, however, comes on too strong. There is more of I-am-Vidya-Balan-hear-me-roar than there is of I-am-Begum-Jaan-hear-me-roar. Balan’s takeover is unabated by the absence of a single strong male lead as counter-weight. There is Shah. In a limited role, however, he is the suave, over-the-hill lecherous local prince personifying old guard nobility suddenly put on notice by shifting political headwinds. Hardly a match for Balan’s hookah-puffing virtual dominatrix.

EQ: B+
Aniruddh Chawda

From Leh To Lamayuru

Maitreya Buddha at Deskit MonasteryHere in the valley of the Indus, the sharp peaks of the Ladakh and Zanskar Ranges pierce the sky like jagged swords. The Indus River flows through the high Ladakhi plateau swiftly, sculpting the greater Himalayan landscape.

Fifty million years ago, the Indian plate surged across the Tethys Sea to collide with the stationary Eurasian plate. This dramatic impact resulted in a colossal pileup as sediment from the bottom of the sea was thrown up to form some of the Earth’s highest plateaus and mountain ranges. Today, the high desert landscape of Ladakh looks sepia toned in the unfiltered light of the mid-morning sun. Mountains of limestone, red sandstone and shale dominate the horizon. We follow the Indus River from Leh to Lamayuru in a SUV as it curves along the mountain ridges; the foamy white water rapids catching the sun now and then.

Several Himalayan villages dot the water’s edge like welcome desert oases. The valley at Nimmu village is stunning. Here the Indus meets its tributary Zanskar in an eddying confluence. Small green farms grow wheat, barley, vegetables, apples and juicy apricots. Poplar trees shimmer in the wind. Further down river, Basgo village is shaped like a cow’s head. Traditional Ladakhi women walk uphill, their hair in two long pigtails; their top hats decorated with rows of bright turquoise; their faces creased like weathered mountain ridges.

Confluence of Indus and Zanskar Rivers      Basgo Village is characterized by a Buddhist monastery (or Gompa) that is built into the mountain sitting precariously at the edge of a high ridge like a fortress, overlooking the fertile valley below. Like the quintessential churches that one finds in English villages, these Himalayan monasteries are the sites for social gatherings and cultural events for the local village folk.

We veer left on a bridge towards Alchi Gompa. Prayer flags—blue, white, red, green and yellow line the edge of the bridge, and flutter wildly in the wind while the brimming Indus flows rapidly below. Chortens, the little white mounds that house the relics and offerings, sit like meditating Buddhas along the roads and on the mountainsides.

       Alchi Gompa is unique in that it is situated downriver; we walk downhill in the shade of the poplars and willows past the stalls selling Tibetan wares, to the crumbling monastic complex or chos-‘khor. The enclave is attributed to the great Tibetan scholar Rinchen Zangpo, a visionary. When he sought to incorporate Tibetan Buddhism into the local culture around the 11th century, he employed Kashmiri artists in the area to create murals and sculptures to adorn the temples in the chos-‘khor.

The Alchi Sumsteg is a three-storied building within the enclave with elegant columns and ornate Kashmiri woodwork. We walk though to the main ceremonial hall, the Dukhang, where the monks assemble for worship and meals. Colorful mandalas and thangkhas hang down from the ceiling like prayer confetti. It is dark inside the inner sanctum, where the bejeweled miniature idol of Maitreya sits in eternal meditation. The chos-‘khor has a central courtyard with short apricot trees and faded prayer flags in the center and little shrines lining the perimeter.
The temple of Manjushri dedicated to Buddha’s disciple of the same name, has a very small, ornate entryway with a cave like interior. Once inside, we are awed by four gigantic figures of Manjushri sitting back to back on a common brightly colored pedestal. A naked bulb hangs from the ceiling, lighting up Manjushri’s red effeminate body adorned with bright jewelry—gold, green and turquoise.

The murals of the meditating Buddha are repetitive, like Warhol’s screen paintings. They line the walls of the temples and also the interior of the chortens in the temple complex.
It is noon by the time we leave Alchi. The sky is a limitless blue; a blazing sun sears the barren peaks to purples and reds. The scenery at Lamayuru is like a desolate moonscape. The wind has weathered the mountains here to form conical rocks. We are at once bathed in a golden light.

We part with the Indus at Khalste. The river snakes away from us towards the border town of Kargil, then past the border into Pakistan. The bucolic Ladakhi village houses have given way to military barracks. The Indian Army fought a war not far from here in 1999. Soldiers perform their exercises; long convoys of green trucks carry supplies, choking the road. On the hill above us, a soldier rests his gun on a pole bearing prayer flags. It is paradoxical: prayer flags blow mantras in the wind, promoting peace, compassion, strength and wisdom against the harsh backdrop of war and unrest.

Monastery at Lamayuru       Centuries ago, the Buddha looked eastward to spread his teachings. In Deskit Gompa, a gigantic golden sculpture of the Maitreya Buddha dominates the barren landscape of the Nubra Valley. In Thiksey Gompa, the statue of the Maitreya is 3 stories high. Also revered in this land of monasteries is the 14th Dalai Lama. He traveled westward as a young boy, across this unforgiving terrain to escape the Chinese invasion, to preserve the teachings of the Buddha. We encounter many monks in these monasteries. Some are Tibetan refugees, some are pariahs ostracized by their families.

Clad in maroon and yellow robes, their guttural chants rise and fall like spiritual waves. Some monks lead very simple lives, detached from the material pleasures of the world below them.

The hard life of the Ladakhi people is tied to the seasons. In the ephemeral days of summer, they earn a living by cultivating crops, driving tourists around and doing business in town. Markets are bustling, cattle graze on the banks of the Indus and children go to school in packed school buses. Then winter comes quickly, harshly. The cattle hurry into the sheds, their fodder is stored on the rooftops. Schools, shops and mountain passes close, shutting the mountains from the plains, bringing life to a halt.

Prayer flags with Chortens        We are touched by the warmth and openness of the mountain people. We learn from the Indus River, which knows no boundaries. Originating in China, the Indus, like Alfred Tennyson’s Brook chatters as it slips and slides through India before winding into Pakistan and finally curving and flowing into the Arabian Sea. Men may come and men may go, but the Indus seems to go on. Forever.

Rama Shivakumar’s travel writing has been published in India Currents, InTravel Magazine and Coldnoon Diaries. Her short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Hailing from Bangalore, Rama now lives in the Washington DC area and works as a scientist in a biotechnology firm.
This article first appeared in inTravel magazine.


How to Get there
Leh is most accessible from New Delhi or Mumbai. There are direct 90-minute flights that take off from New Delhi or Mumbai to Leh every morning at 6 am. You need to arrange for a reliable car and  driver once you land at Leh to navigate the difficult mountain roads and high passes. Our trip was organized by Odati Adventure Tours and Travels. We had a Ladakhi driver Sonam, who drove his own SUV. Whilst driving us around, he also gave us insights into the Ladakhi life, which is incorporated into the essay.

Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Leh is August, when the weather is dry and there is plenty of sunshine. The trip duration should be a minimum of 8 days to allow a day or two to acclimatize to the high altitude. We stayed in a resort in the village of Saboo.

What to Buy
The market at Leh is bustling with Himalayan wares—pashmina shawls, Kashmiri carpets, prayer flags and figurines of Tara Devi and the Maitreya Buddha. There are a number of restaurants featuring the local cuisine.

Other Sights
The article follows the Indus, a day trip that we took during our extended stay there. There are many sights to see in Leh like the Shanti Stupa, Thiksey Gompa, Hemis Gompa and the Army museum. Nubra Valley is a lovely overnight trip from Leh. The journey here is spectacular as we drive through the highest motorable pass, KhardungLa. Pangog Tso (lake) is another much-visited tourist destination. I chose to omit the more touristy sights from the travelogue and covered the day trip along the banks of the Indus, as it was a more  poignant drive in many ways. The Indus Valley and the backdrop of an ongoing conflict also was personally more interesting to me from a literary perspective.

Blurred Feud

HAPPY BHAAG JAYEGI.  Director: Mudassar Aziz. Players: Diana Penty, Abhay Deol, Momal Sheikh, Jimmy Shergill, Ali Faizal, Kanwaljit Singh, Piyush Mishra.  Music: Sohail Sen. Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release (Eros)  HAPPY BHAAG JAYEGI

To mention Pakistan in a Hindi movie script, habeas corpus requires that it be in the context of either a) war footing (Refugee, Border, Line of Control, Kargil) or b) parody (Filmistan). Yes, there was the sordid romance that more often than not gets entangled in border lining barb wire (Veer-Zaara, Henna)—which squarely place them back at war footing in the grand scheme of things. That leaves precious little space in the middle. There is no other route.

Unless you are Happy Bhaag Jayegi. Avoiding a movie focused on war or parody, this nifty border-hugging comedy takes a friendly cultural clash between neighbors and elevates it into an unlikely delight.

This story, written by Director Aziz, has a somewhat far-fetched and yet pleasantly approachable premise. Harpreet Kaur aka Happy (Penty) is about to be unhappily married off to the strong-armed Bagga (Shergill) in New Delhi.  Not so fast. Happy, you see, has other plans. On the nuptial date, Happy plans to elope with her beau, the not-so-rich Guddu (Faizal). The teensy weensy bummer is that instead of hiding in the truck that will carry Happy to her beloved Guddu, Happy mistakenly jumps onto the wrong truck and ends up in—wait, wait—Lahore, Pakistan where Happy becomes a most unruly and unwelcome house-guest to the Lahore princeling Bilal Ahmed (Deol).  Jeepers creepers!

Aziz and company make this completely implausible scenario so seamless and so plausible that before one can truly appreciate the irony of precious turns to Happy’s misadventure, we are already onto the next escapade. The comedy style that Aziz employs is often reminiscent of black and white 1960s Johnny Walker or Shammi Kapoor mistaken-identity, mistaken-deliveries capers. A large enclosed basket that should haul flowers instead has a highly surprised—and angry—bride  popping out of it. A no-nonsense and handsome lord of the manor clad in traditional salwar-kameez must rely on his bumbling cast of benevolent underlings to maintain a social straight face.  They are trademarks that help this bridal flight remain afloat.

From the get-go, the staging is also surprisingly non-religious. Happy, her angry father back in Delhi (Singh), Guddu and Bagga are all Sikh or Hindu. Everyone in Lahore is Muslim. And yet there are no signs of comeuppance directed at anyone’s creed. This is all about the inflections of vernacular—Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu—that mix in comical phrases and the juxtaposition is uncanny. It is all good clean fun.

As Happy, newcomer Penty brings a nice who-me-surprised expression to her role.  She must—and does—remain feisty to throw everyone else off-kilter. Deol’s political. Grand Poobah-in-the-making is refinement personified—at least in his public appearances. His trespasses with his upper crust fiancé Zoya (Sheikh) might as well be Dharmendra and Saira Bano from another era. Ahmed’s unwitting sidekick is the not-so-bright Lahore beat cop ACP Afridi, played with impeccable self-deprecation by Mishra. Afridi being made to go to New Delhi against his better judgement is seen refusing to step off of a bus to touch Indian soil. That pretty much sums up the state of diplomatic affairs that often characterize the India-Pakistan rivalry: the scene is both hysterically funny and also simply insightful.

Sohail Sen’s soundtrack has good things to offer.  There is bhangra bounce—Harshdeep Kaur and Shahid Mallya’s Happy Oye and especially the throb of Mika Singh’s Gabru. There is emotion—Arijit Singh’s Zara Si Dosti and especially Altamash Faridi’s beautiful Ashiq Tera. And there is a sufi-qawalli stop—Javed Ali’s Yaaram.  The quality, pacing and choreography of these songs greatly enhances the story’s appeal while the somber musical moments gracefully counter-balance the non-stop laughs.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the script is its apolitical take.  For all the zingers flared in both directions, Indians and Pakistanis might as well be neighbors settling a missing-bride case over the fence. Improbable as it may seem, it is highly refreshing to see an India-Pakistan détente through soft focus binoculars which capture a blurred-line contiguous landscape separated by miles and not trenches.

EQ: A

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

Musical Ballot Boxes

During an election season, anywhere in the world, candidates need an image: to be likeable, and reliable; a platform: explicating stances on issues; a base: of people who donate, vote, support, and work for the candidate; and to add to this list of musts (at least in most parts of the world)—music.

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Music is as personal to the candidate as a base, with as much mass outreach potential as an image. It instantly builds a sonic brand; announces and identifies the candidate. It can be as controversial as the platform, with the power to damage an image. This was evidenced by the Trump campaign, when R.E.M. (for “The End of the World”), Adele (for “Skyfall” and “Rolling in the Deep”), and Aerosmith (for “Dream On”) were among those that cease-desisted their songs from being played at Trump rallies.

Before she stepped on stage to give her presumptive-candidate speech on Super Tuesday II (June 7), Hillary Clinton had Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” broadcasting her message. She apparently spent a few thousand dollars for a Portland music agency to come up with an official playlist. Lyrics play as much of a role in the selection as the mood. Also implicit in the selection is that the musician supports the candidate; broadening the base and/or appeal.

Neil Young and Art Garfunkel had no problems, for example, with Bernie Sanders playing the respective “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “America.” Their fan bases comprise the young at heart, idealists, and romantics, the kind of people Sanders is credited to have attracted the attention of.

Ushering in Politics
Music has made ballot boxes sing the world over. India heard music of the original kind in recent elections. Assam ushered in BJP to the tune of Zubeen Garg’s song  saying that “Assam’s joy is everybody’s joy,” the last two words being a play on the candidate’s name, Sarvananda.

Tamil Nadu had an election anthem that urged citizens to vote,  “Our freedom fighters fought for our right to vote. Let’s vote, it’s our duty.” A trendy Tamil pop song by Put Chutney and Culture Machine urged the electorate to vote NOTA (None of the Above) if they’re disillusioned by mainstream candidates/parties.  Trinamool Congress had Anupam Roy composing for Mamta Bannerjee in Bengali, “It’s been five years of great change in West Bengal; Mother, Earth, and Man have flourished.”

2015 had Bihar listening to “Phir Se Nitishe” (Nitish, Again) sung by popular Bollywood singer Neeti Mohan and “Iss baar BJP, ek baar BJP” sung by Bhojpuri well known singer Manoj Tiwari. 2013 had Prime Minister Narendra Modi featured in a song that said NaMo is the Maha Nayak (greatest protagonist), while the Congress was humming along to “Sab Ki Yahi Pukar, Congress iss baar” (Everybody’s calling for Congress).

But the most revolutionary election song in South Asia has got to be the 1988 PPP’s (Pakistan People’s Party) “Dila Teer Bija … Jiye, Jiye Bhutto Benazir.” It was iconic because it unleashed melody publicly on the Pakistani masses after Islamization had virtually wiped out social music from making a public appearance; it was the promise of democracy after a long time; it heralded the return of hope to a region with the face of a popular icon; it got the masses in and around Pakistan to its feet. The music was catchy; still is.

“Let’s ask Ram about it!” is the start of a flirty Q&A sponsored by Nepal’s Election Commission and Democracy and Election Watch, which regularly employs Lok Dohori (Street/People Musical Performance) to coax the uninitiated population into the voting process. This video has four men and four women dressed in folkwear and featuring voter registration how-to. As is characteristic of most folk tunes, the rhythm has your head nodding in no time.

Rocking Indonesia
The most “rocking” note was in Indonesia. Current Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) 2014 election can be partially attributed to his musical campaign, a precursor of which was the success of his 2012 Governorship campaign music video. Jokowi’s volunteers had created a parody of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” that lamented Jakarta’s state of bureaucracy, the reason to elect him, of course. The Youtube video shows a twenty-something getting out of bed in a panic because he has to update his ID card. The panic grows as he is held up by traffic and then long queues at a government office; at long last, an official comes out to announce it’ll take years. Conclusion: Jokowi is the need of the hour!

Inside, Indonesia has reported that even musicians Sting and Jason Mraz and rock group Arkarna encouraged Indonesian voters to support democracy and get behind Jokowi in 2014.

Jokowi’s rival Prabowo Subianto tried to make music campaigning history by featuring a popular rock icon called Ahmad Dhani. However, it spectacularly back-fired, as it had Nazi-looking imagery and tones, completely annihilating the spirit of the song it was based on—Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” It was no competition for Jokowi’s captivating music-video and a sold-out open-air concert attended by tens of thousands, featuring a rapper called Kill the DJ and a crowd shouting and holding up two-fingered salutes—Salam Dua Jari.
#2 was Jokowi’s number on the ballot and it made music for him.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Coconut and Mangrove Dreams

I am standing on a stunning cliff-top, situated between two deserted strips of honey colored beaches, looking across a jade colored infinity pool fringed by palm trees. Away from the bustle of Kovalam, near Trivandrum, Kerala is Niraamaya Surya Samudra (part of Relais and Chateaux) where the property is studded with typical teak wood Kerala houses called tharavadu with wooden pillars, terracotta roofs and tiled floors built by local craftsmen from recycled wood, garnered from hundred year old Kerala homes.

I love the fact that greenery pervades even the bath areas. A gargantuan banyan tree that spreads its tentacles all over the open bath area and watches over a room.

It’s a celebration of architecture and the culture of Kerala with multiple elements woven into the landscape—gleaming urulis (circular bell metal vessel) filled with bright red flowers, kalvilakkus (stone lamps), yaalis (part lion, part elephant, part horse sculptures), rotund stone Ganeshas resting beneath the abounding coconut trees guarding their territory in proprietary fashion, brilliant Kerala murals with their natural dyes in orange and ochre livening up walls, heavy wooden doors carved with intricate details, large plantation chairs to watch the sea and small hanging bells outside each room.

I am near the the breathtaking coastal village of Pulinkudi, about 10 km from Trivandrum, where Klaus Schleusener, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, transformed a barren hill into his winter home. Today his original house called the “Octagon House” still lives on in the property.

Klaus built the Octagonal House where he spent his winters and eventually, since his friends loved to come and stay with him, he bought some more land and reassembled old Kerala homes. “He transformed the life of the local village where you could not even get five eggs from one shop” says Renjith, the operations manager of the resort. The omnipresent motif of Niraamaya Surya Samudra is of course the sea. At night you hear the waves pounding the rocks as you drift off to sleep, and in the morning you wake up to yoga on the pavilion overlooking the beach and “pre-dawn tea on the beach” with the waves lapping at your toes.

The cotages have idyllic positions set in lush foliage and with magnificent sea views. The best part of the resort is the spa with its own herb garden which provides ingredients for the treatments. I have a simple Abhayanga snanam (bath) with earthy smelling herbs and oils.

 

A Kathakali performer in full costume and extravagant makeup
A Kathakali performer in full costume and extravagant makeup

Therapists gently wash my feet before I am lying supine on a wooden table placed in a bamboo curtained therapy room. After being kneaded by expert hands, I feel like I am almost levitating. Come nightfall we sit on tables at the Essence restaurant and watch a Kathakali performance.

Originating in northern Kerala this combines mime, classical music, and intricate eye movements. The make-up with vibrant colours applied to the characters is part of its charm.

Traditionally a vibrant green face means good, white indicates super-human and crimson red signifies the demonic!

We take a backwater cruise through mangroves to Poovar estuary where the river Neyyar has breached the sand banks and reached the ocean. It’s a sight I cannot easily forget. The ferocity of the waves, the balance of nature that ensures that the backwaters don’t flood the homes on it and the golden sand banks with tender coconut sellers and brightly dressed locals.

Canoeing through the mangroves is a slice of local life: some young men boisterously washing an elephant named Mahadevan Kutty; a pistachio green mosque; women bathing on the banks and the prolific bird life—a snake bird which has us searching for a decapitated head of a snake in the waters, a sea eagle gliding and soaring and cormorants diving to get their fresh meal. I leave the resort the next day, with a heavy heart and a heavier hamper of fresh organic beetroot pickle and pineapple jam, promising myself a return journey here.

Fort Kochi in the evening dusk on the coast of Kerala
Fort Kochi in the evening dusk on the coast of Kerala

From the beaches we make the long road journey to Kochi and stay in the historic Fort Kochi which is intricately connected to the city’s importance down the ages as a trading post for spices. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British settled here in the past attracted by its lucrative spice trade.

Our home away from home is the Malabar House a boutique hotel—a labor of love by German designer and hotelier Joerg Drechsel and his pretty Basque wife Txuku. The property has a history that can be traced back to the 1700s.

I walk into an airy reception with a huge red sphere suspended from the ceiling and eye catching art on the walls with a carved wooden horse and a café courtyard with a frangipani tree. My room has a teak four poster bed, an electric red wall with a painting and delightful cotton cushions.

I squeeze myself into a local auto for a quick conducted tour of the grid of streets, where every door, window and brick offers a lesson in multi layered history. From the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, an old Jewish House converted into a hotel, Princess Street dotted with old fashioned villas converted to boutique hotels and guesthouses, the ochre St Francis church (where Vasco Da Gama, who died in 1524, was buried before his mortal remains were returned to Portugal 14 years later) and the large Parade Ground dotted with boys playing a boisterous game of cricket under the massive umbrellas of giant rain trees.

A historic part of Mattancherry
A historic part of Mattancherry

Just over a mile away is Mattancherry, the Jewish quarter, where I get lost in antique warehouses lining Jew Street piled with carved wooden doors, window frames and furniture gleaned from old Kerala homes and the Pardesi Synagogue with its Cantonese hand-painted tiles and its ornate Belgian chandeliers. We end up at the water’s edge where we find the iconic Chinese nets that look like giant spiders, erected in teak wood and bamboo poles with a network of pulleys, silhouetted against the setting sun making for a brilliant photo-op.

Come nightfall, Malabar House entraps you in its romantic ambience with musicians strumming sitars, a sparkling pool, fairy lights strung around trees and a traditional pole framed dais.

 

The exterior of Aspinwall facing the Kerala coastline
The exterior of Aspinwall facing the Kerala coastline

We spend a morning at the Kochi Biennale which has brought streams of visiors to Kochi.

Historic sites like the sleepy Cochin Club, the sea facing historic Aspinwall House with several warehouses, David Hall—a Dutch House from the 17th century, and Pepper House have become temporary spaces for experimentation—a space for artists to do something not bound by commerce with its mix of film, installation, sculpture, painting, performance art and new media.

Of course any Kerala sojourn revolves around water, and it’s to the backwaters that we head last. This is a tight network of bottle green lagoons, estuaries and deltas of forty four rivers and canals where sky and water segue seamlessly in a silvery haze. Water and greenery are motifs of this part of the state.

Our last sojourn is at the boutique property Purity, on Lake Vembanad which used to be an Italian guest house and Joerge has converted it into a vibrant turquoise and pink haven of rooms with leather puppets sandwiched behind sheets of glass lit up, modular blocks of furniture designed by him, larger-than-life bathrooms and antiques dotted around the hotel ranging from a palanquin to a statue of the super-god Hanuman. With its stained-glass windows and airy verandas decorated with contemporary art, this is a visual feast. We take a canoe ride across Lake Vembanad  with water hyacinths, as houseboats called ketuvallams drift by.

We watch these micro-economies where kids play in the water and farmers herd ducklings to feed in paddy fields and strong men row small boats weighed down with cargo or dive for mussels.

In the evening we dine on the waterfront with candlelit tables, and ruminate over the trip through the beaches, backwaters and history of this state. Time seems to slow down and then remain still. A pace of life lined with lassitude that stays stored in your memory chip for years to come.

Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog

Music That Bridges Boundaries

In February 2015, the Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB) was at the center of a musical discord—within a week, it was nominated and then disqualified for the Global Indian Music Awards. The Pakistani publication Dawn, reported Hasan commenting, “We didn’t ask for a nomination in the first place and given that they deemed us worthy enough to be nominated, disqualifying now doesn’t really make sense to me. The album was not recorded solely in Pakistan, rather half of the work was done in India.”

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The band is currently on tour in the United States and has an interesting profile—it is Indian and Pakistani, comprising Hasan (guitar) and Muhammad Ahsan Papu (flute) from Pakistan; Sharmishtha Chatterjee (vocals), Gino Banks (drums; yes, son of Louis Banks), and Sheldon D’Silva (bass) from India.

Hasan is driven by the Indian and Pakistani relationship: not by the conflict, but by its potential; saying, “The fact that we have hundreds of years of shared musical and artistic history is in and of itself a treasure trove to be delved in deeply as partners in art and culture. While much is made of the often acrimonious relationship between the two countries politically, not enough is done to explore the many wonderful things we can build upon together.”

Hasan himself seems to epitomize the prefix “inter:” He is an inter-faith product- of a Muslim father and Christian mother; plays inter-genre music (Sufi and rock); works with inter-tradition musicians (classical and jazz); is inspired by inter-ethos poetry (spiritual and modern) and of-course founded an inter-geo band. The latest album, Andholan—meaning “organized protest” in Hindi—is aptly named for what the band represents.

A listen to the album drives home this aspect: “Kinarey” is semi-classical but philosophical, with Chatterjee starting off in wonderfully clear-toned vocals, Papu’s flute providing soulful accompaniment. “Ghungat” on the other hand, stays true to rebellious rock, strong on the guitar, bass, drums and the vocals highlighting the conflict in the lyrics—“Your slave is being auctioned free, Come my love and rescue me, No longer can I perch elsewhere?”

Champkalli” fuses classical vocal with a rock score. “Sayon” has playful guitaring and lighter-toned vocals, that belie some deep lyrics “I drank the cup of poison, without a thought of benefit or loss. I desired this grief, this pain.”

But the highlight is the track “Malkauns,” where its namesake raga has never before, to my knowledge, been rendered as in Andholan, in a heavy metal avatar. The interplay between drums, bass, guitar is particularly interesting juxtaposed as it is between soft fluting and strident vocals.

Chatterjee’s singing holds every number together, but the interesting fact is that until 2014, for over a decade, the band was all-male. She remembers, “Mekaal Hasan called me one day and asked if I would like to sing for his band. I loved MHB’s music ever since I heard it. The Indian classical element in the music paired with the languages and poetries was something I found fascinating and I knew in the process I’ll grow as an artist.”

Growing up in Kolkata, Chatterjee has had some rigorous training, “I learnt Indian classical from my guru Pandit K.C. Lahiri. He was basically a violinist and also taught instruments like sarod and sitar. So my vocal training was rather experimental and very different from the rest. He taught me raag Yaman for 10 years and said if you manage to learn one raag properly, you can sing or pick up anything in the world.” Her musicality took on new dimensions when she came to Mumbai in 2005 and started singing in Bollywood and advertising projects.

Chatterjee’s earliest recollection of the Indian and Pakistani conflict was while watching a cricket match as a child. Today, she aspires to be a better musician and human by banding with Indian and Pakistani musicians. “This is a myth-breaking band with a female singer in a rock band, an Indian singer in a Pakistani Band … all sorts of man-made differences that engulf human minds. Music truly has no boundaries and barriers.”

Andholan comes after a five year hiatus for the Mekaal Hasan Band, which has seen some artist turn-over. Proof of its persuasive music and compelling message is in the fact that it was selected as part of South By South West’s (SXSW) first ever lineup representing Pakistan, earlier this year. (SXSW is a well-established, premier conference for music, independent films, and emerging technologies held every year in Austin, TX.) Interestingly, the Pakistani showcase was sponsored by the Islamabad-based Foundation for Arts Culture and Education (FACE), a U.S. State Department-funded organization countering violent fundamentalism with cultural exchange.

Please visit their facebook page for news and dates and venues for their September tour (https://www.facebook.com/mekaalhasanband). The music is available on iTunes.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Hyderabadi Splendor!

Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, epitomizes the perfect blend of diversity, both in culture as well as age, seamlessly integrating the ancient with the modern.

I decided to devote a few days of my summer vacation in 2013 to exploring this historic city, which is known for its magnificent forts and palaces, gardens and lakes, and of course the delectable Hyderabadi biryani, shimmering pearls and colorful glass bangles.

The beautiful Charminar Monument in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
The beautiful Charminar Monument in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

I began my trip with a visit to Charminar in the old city area. The most identifiable monument in Hyderabad, the Charminar is a majestic structure built in the year 1591 CE by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah. An imposing edifice of four ornately decorated minarets and four grand arches facing onto different streets, the Charminar exudes the grandeur of Indo Islamic architecture. It has a profusion of balconies and balustrades, with a mosque on the fourth floor of the structure.

The exquisite exterior of the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
The exquisite exterior of the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

There is an interesting anecdote associated with the construction of this grand monument. It is widely believed that Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah promised to build a mosque at the center of the city where he prayed, on the eradication of a plague that had been ravaging his city.  Thus, the Charminar was built to celebrate the end of the dreaded plague.

Gazing at the tall imposing monument made me feel as if I was looking at a signature icon of the city somewhat like the  The Gateway of India is to the commercial capital, Mumbai.

Adjoining the Charminar area is the popular market called the Laad Bazaar, where I found rows and rows of shops selling lacquer and glass bangles studded with many hued dazzling stones. I entered one of the stores to take a closer look and the salesman filled my wrists with the dazzle of multi-colored bangles! It was, indeed, very difficult to choose and buy one or two pairs of bangles out of the many lovely designs and colors available.

Close to the Charminar is the Chowmahallah Palace, which was our next experience of Nizami grandeur. I was awestruck at the sheer brilliance of the architecture and the lavishness of its appointments. The Chowmahallah Palace was once the throne of the Asaf Jahi kings and was believed to have been inspired by the Shah’s Palace in Tehran, Iran.

The Chowmahallah, which literally means four palaces, was originally spread over an area of fortyfive acres (of which only twelve acres remain), consists of the Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniyat Mahal and the Aftab Mahal. Though the palace’s construction was originally started by Salabat Jung in 1750, it was completed in 1869 through the efforts of Nizam Afzar ud Dawla Bahadur. The Chowmahalla palace has two courtyards—the northern and the southern. The southern courtyard is the oldest part and has four palaces in it. The Khilawat Mubarak contains the royal throne with the richly decorated chandeliers and architecture complementing the grandeur.

The colorful Laad Bazaar in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
The colorful Laad Bazaar in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

At the time of Indian independence, the Nizam of Hyderabad was said to be the richest person in the world. On September 17, 1948, the Nizams lost Hyderabad to  the Indian union. At present, Princess Esra, the last Nizam Mukarram Jah’s wife, is overseeing the renovation of the Chowmahalla along with the government.

The fine intricate carvings on the walls of the palaces; the huge ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and the royal throne of the king give a perfect glimpse of royal Nizami setting of a bygone era. The Chowmahallah Palace also houses different items of daily use owned by the Nizams. Ornate items of furniture, exquisite cutlery, pieces of royal clothing, lethal weapons and much more can be found on the upper floors of the palace.

The dreamy Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
The dreamy Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

Lingering at the Chowmahallah, we didn’t realize the passage of time. It was past two in the afternoon when we left. To set our hunger pangs at rest, we hailed an auto and arrived at Paradise Food Court; which is well known for its special Hyderabadi biryani.

Hyderabadi biryani is made from a superior quality basmati rice and is flavored with a number of spices and condiments. While cooking, the edges of the vessel are sealed with dough to keep the aroma intact. Hyderabadi biryani has a spicy, tangy taste which lingers on the palate for long afterwards!  After the sumptuous biryani, it was my turn to tuck into the delectable double ka meetha. This dessert is a tasty bread and milk pudding topped with dry fruits and is a must for anyone with a sweet tooth.

A visit to Hyderabad would be incomplete without shopping for pearl jewellery. Today Hyderabad is the world leader in the pearl trade and pearls of different hues and designs can be found here. I headed to the showroom of Mangatrai Pearls and Jewellery at Basheerbagh. The extensive collection of pearl earrings, pendants, bracelets, necklaces and finger rings tested my resolve.

Satisfied with the pearls I finally bought,  I hired an auto and whizzed off towards Hussain Sagar Lake along Necklace Road. This lake was excavated in 1562 by Hussain Shah Wali during the rule of Ibrahin Quli Qutb Shah.  This lake offers facilities for water sports like boating and paddling among others. At the center of the lake stands a majestically built monolithic structure of Gautam Buddha, which is 18 metres (~60 feet) tall. It was carved out of a single white granite stone weighing 496 tons and was erected in the year 1992.

 

A night time image of the impressive Buddha Statue at Lumbini Park in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
A night time image of the impressive Buddha Statue at Lumbini Park in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

I strolled through Lumbini Park and bought tickets for a boat ride to the Buddha statue. As our boat steered towards the huge statue, a mild cool breeze touched our faces. On reaching the statue and the enclosed garden, I marveled at the serene atmosphere prevailing there.

A visit to South India must accommodate the delicious food of the south. Though usually taken for breakfast, I had  a masala dosa for dinner and topped it with a tall glass of lassi at Chutney’s a vegetarian restaurant

I had heard so much about Ramoji Film City that I could not resist verifying it. A drive of one and a half hours from Hyderabad, Ramoji Film City has been acknowledged by the Guinness World Records as the largest film studio complex in the world.  A wonderland to the eyes, the film city left me mesmerised. The Mughal gardens, the Japanese gardens and the Hawa Mahal are all here at Ramoji. A movie makers paradise, it has everything from the settings for every scene of a film to the technical support required to make it happen. Our friendly guide, Halder, informed us that scenes of the recently released blockbuster Chennai Express were shot here. Ramoji Film City also has a number of restaurants, shopping centres, hotels and rides. Different cultural programs, which include an opening and closing ceremony, stunt shows, and dances are performed live throughout the day at several theatres and at the central court. There was also a session dedicated to the art of film making, which showed how sound mixing and video editing is done in films.

The world class environs, the magical world of films and the many fascinating sights and rides of Ramoji lure thousands of people to this wonderland of cinema.

Even as I left Hyderabad, the sights, smells and sounds of this Nawabi city lingered on my senses. Hyderabad was an unforgettable blend of history with modernity.

Arundhati Nath is a freelance writer from Guwahati, Assam. She has written for publications like Child, Crystal Quest, Pulse and Sterling World. She can be reached at [email protected].

Seeking Kabir in Malwa

It was close to midnight as we made our way from Bhaklay village to the town of Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada. We were at the Malwa Kabir Yatra—a week long annual event organized by Prahlad Singh Tipanya, a folk musician from Madhya Pradesh. There is a busload of folk musicians from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, several young urban musicians and several diehard fans from around the world. All of us have been touched by Kabir’s songs and Prahlad-ji’s music, and we travel around Madhya Pradesh, stop at a different village each night and celebrate by singing songs of Kabir all night long. We had come from all over the world, all inexplicably pulled to this place, to share a journey and to discover a little more about ourselves.

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(Photo credit: Kedar Desai)

The road to Maheshwar was little more than a narrow track. The bus, usually pounding with the beat of the dholak and a full chorus of voices, had gone quiet as we wound our way in the dark through the hills. Suddenly the bus stopped. Ahead was a small bridge, still under construction, with a bypass thick with mud from a heavy downpour earlier that evening.

There was no question of going down the bypass, and trying to turn around would just as likely get the bus stuck in the mud. We were in the middle of a forest and the locals declared that there were enough wild creatures around to make walking a bad option. After much debate, everyone got out, gathered rocks and levelled the gap between the bridge and the road. I held my breath, wondering if the sharp rocks would result in a flat tire, but it didn’t seem to worry the driver. He stepped on the gas and the bus made it across unharmed.

The next morning, we sat on the banks of the Narmada at Maheshwar, fresh from a dip in the sacred river, drinking in the cool morning air. Behind us rose the majestic Rani Ahilyabai fort and temple, changed little from the eighteenth century when Maheshwar was the capital of the Holkar empire. The Sahasrarjuna temple glowed with its eleven lamps. Legend has it that they have been burning since the time King Sahasrarjuna defeated Ravana, pinned him to the ground and placed 10 lamps on his heads and one on his hand. Mooralala Marwada, our fellow yatri and folk singer from Kutch, gave thanks for all of us with a soulful song, “Hamare satsang mein, hamare satsang mein, aavo Sri Bhagwan ki, hamare satsang mein” (In our gathering, grace us with your presence, O lord.)

Later that evening, Mooralala-ji would keep a young crowd on their feet, dancing the evening away in Indore to a foot-stomping, heart pounding, rock concert like rhythm, “Vaari jaaon re, balihari jaaon re, mhara satguru aangan aaya, mein vaari jaaon re” (My true lord has come into my home—I am dancing with joy and surrender everything I have to him.) The crowd kept calling for more and he obliged and the concert didn’t end until well past midnight.

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I had first heard Prahlad Singh Tipanya in 2003, when Linda Hess, a Kabir scholar at Stanford, had brought Tipanya’s group on a tour of the United States. The music drew me in and then words pierced me to the core. “Shabd ki chot lag gayi” a friend remarked when I told her I couldn’t stop listening to his music. That’s Kabir for you. One of my favorite songs speaks to the presence of the universal spirit in everything on this earth. “Choron ke sang chori karta, badmashon me bhedon tu, chori kar ke tu bhag jaave, pakadne vale tu ka tu” (You are a thief among thieves, a troublemaker among troublemakers, you steal and run away and the one who catches you is you too.”)

Apart from the local Malwa musicians, the group included varied participants. There was Mooralala Marwada and Shankar, the percussionist, who had journeyed two and a half days from Kutch, near the Pakistan border,  as well as a young English college girl, volunteering at Manzil, an NGO educating underprivileged kids in New Delhi. There was a group from Anhad Pravah, an NGO focused on building leadership skills among youth, Samarjeet, a young Sufi singer from Mumbai, accompanied by Durgaprasad, a versatile young tabla and flute player. Durgaprasad was a student of Hariprasad Chaurasia, who had run away from home to Mumbai to study music.

Luniyakhedi village, Prahlad-ji’s home, was a special place for me ever since I heard him sing. Prahlad-ji welcomed me with a sandalwood tilak on my forehead. There was a big tent set up and by 7 p.m., several thousand people from the surrounding villages had started to gather. There was food for everyone—we sat cross-legged on colorful dhurries laid out in the open and were served a traditional meal. A simple dal was served with baati (baked wheat flour rolls soaked in a pot of ghee) and a fiery aloo sabzi, packed with red peppers freshly picked from the fields  that you could see drying all over in colorful mounds.  Outside the tent, a couple of vendors served a sweet cardamom tea in tiny cups under a hurricane lantern all night long. Moths buzzed around, drawn to the light, wanting to be one with it. One group after another sang late into the night. When I couldn’t stay up after 3 a.m., I turned to Devnarayan-ji and asked him how long it would go. “Until just after the sun comes up,” he said, “you see, people come here as the sun goes down and they don’t have a way to make it back home in the dark. So we keep them engaged by singing until dawn.”

The next day found us at Sewadham Ashram near Ujjain and we were welcomed by Sudhirbhai Goyal, a bear of a man with a heart as large, who has taken in more than 300 destitute women, children and elderly and given them love, respect and a place to call home. As we helped give polio vaccines to the kids and fed chapatis and jaggery to the cows, Sudhir showed us his expansion plans for the ashram. “How do you fund it all?” I asked. “I just make the plans,” came the answer, “the lord makes it happen.”

One morning, as we lazed around, Shankar, the percussionist, showed off his skills with a ghada-ghamela or earthen pot and an everyday aluminium basin, which looked like it had been used not too long ago to shovel dirt from the fields … In his hands, they came alive and out poured a rhythm that had people on their feet. Samarjeet started teaching him a Sufi song and soon we had a ghada, flute and vocals jamming away. The audience got pulled into clapping hands to keep the beat and joining the chorus. These informal jam sessions were what the Kabir Yatra was all about—we’d crowd in a little room, under a tree or any place at all and the music would start—the rural and the urban all coming together, bound by the music, tossing aside any boundaries that existed earlier that may have kept us apart.

That’s what the Anhad Pravah group was doing too—bringing college kids into spaces that force them to step outside their comfort zone and challenge them to break all the boundaries that shackle their thinking. They went from being spectators to participants, and taking the lead in whatever needed to be done. For many of the city youth, it was their first taste of rural life—drawing water from a communal well for a bath out in the fields (you keep some clothes on), taking turns to serve food when you weren’t eating, and sleeping in communal quarters where you could whisper to your neighbor on either side. On the first night, I was feeling a little lost since the few people I know were the organizers and rather busy. But by the second day, after a few jam sessions and lots of singing on the bus, it felt like we had known each other for a long time.

Oh yes, the bus! Each time we’d embark for the next destination, we’d get no more than a couple of minutes of quiet before the music started and wouldn’t stop until the bus did. The hours seemed to be gone in minutes and nobody was in a rush for the bus to reach its destination. The dholak would emerge and Kishen, son of Bhanwari Devi (who always sang with a veil over her face) would stand up and get everyone clapping to the beat. Samarjeet led from the front with a rip-roaring “Damadum mast kalandar” and Pritam and Mohanlal of the Mohan Barodia village bhajan mandli kept us true to the songs of Kabir with a “Sahib ne bhang pilaye re, akhiyon mein lalan chhayi”(I am drunk with the thought of my lord, my eyes see love everywhere.”)

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The aisle would be packed with people dancing and even Julia, the gray-haired horticulturist from Auroville, would be on her feet. I couldn’t help but sing along and soon was welcomed as an honorary member of the Mohan Barodia bhajan mandli.

“Peekar pyala hua deevana, ghoom raha jaise matwala,
Janam janam ka tala khul gaya, mere jyot lagi ghat mahi”

(I drank from the cup till I was out of my mind, I wander about like a crazed one!
The lock of many lifetimes has sprung open, a spark ignites, a light fills my body.)
As we got off the bus at a village in Khargone district, we were mobbed by several thousand people who had come for the night’s program on a desert plateau under the stars. As friends of Prahlad-ji, we were greeted with the utmost love. You could feel it in the tilak placed on your forehead. In the cities, Prahlad-ji had touched many souls. In the village, he is god. I asked a local if he Prahlad-ji visited Khargone often. “Maybe once a year” he said, “but that’s fine. I have his bhajans on my mobile phone. When I wake up, I listen to them and before I go to bed, I listen to them again. He is with us all the time.”

When I got off the bus for the last time, covered in dust and grime from all the travelling, I felt more cleansed than after my bath in the Narmada—cleansed from a week of sharing so much with fellow human beings who all accepted each other as their own. As I took leave of Ajay Tipanya, Prahlad-ji’s son, he summed up the spirit of the Kabir Yatra with this: “Yeh to bidaai nahin hain—ab ham sab to jud gaye hain” (This is not goodbye, now we are all one.)

Jayaram Kalpathy is a technologist from San Jose, CA. While he is not chasing bugs, he can be found searching for himself in his garden, on hikes in the woods, in music and on bumpy footpaths in India.