It is my utmost privilege to present the all-time legend Pandit Birju Maharaj-ji with Ustad Zakir Hussain-ji for this very special event.
Twenty-five years ago, I had the blessings of Ali Akbar Khansaab first presenting me in the Bay Area in 1992 when I got married and moved here. That year, I started this school with the blessings of my guruji Padmavibhushan Pandit Birju Maharaj. He himself coined the name “Tarangini School of Kathak Dance” and designed the logo. Since then, my students have also been privileged to get Maharaj-ji’s blessings and learn from him in workshops over the years. Today, it is such an honor to celebrate this legendary artist for his 80th birthday.
Parampara is a celebration of Maharaj-ji’s 80th birthday with a performance by the maestro himself, accompanied on tabla by Padmabhushan Ustad Zakir Hussain-ji. The event will showcase the lineage of Kalka Bindadin through five generations – his seniormost disciple Saswati Sen; his youngest son Deepak Maharaj and youngest daughter Mamta Maharaj; grandchildren Ragini Maharaj, Tribhuwan Maharaj, and Shinjini Kulkarni; as well as his legacy here through Tarangini dancers. Whatever Maharaj-ji presents with the legendary Ustad Zakir Hussain-ji will make the evening magical.
I have been blessed with a long relationship with Maharaj-ji and Didi (Saswati Sen). To me, Maharaj-ji is not just an artist – he is a profound human being. The world knows Maharaj-ji as a great artist, but I have also seen him for more than three decades as a student. I have never seen him express anger or raise his voice. Teaching is his passion. He has tremendous patience and keeps explaining the intricacies of the movements, always finding simple examples of day-to-day life to make it easy for us to understand. One would think that an artist of his caliber would only enjoy teaching experienced and mature dancers. But he actually comes down to the level of whatever age or experience level the students may have.
Maharaj-ji is also an acclaimed vocalist, expert percussionist, and painter; recently, he has also taken up writing poetry. From morning until night, during every waking hour, Maharaj-ji’s creative genius is always at work, always doing something constructive. His creativity emerges from things around him.
We are looking forward to you joining us to celebrate the great maestro.
Vidhya Subramanian, the acclaimed Bharatnatyam dancer, will premiere her latest piece “Still I Rise” in Palo Alto on May 18th, 2018.
Subramanian is part of the shining mecca of Indian classicalism here in the Bay, where a vastrange of artists and teachers are shaping Northern California’s arts culture, and producing an accomplished next generation of classical dancers and musicians.
She is also part of a rising movement of trans-national artists, spending half of the year in the Bay Area and the other half in Chennai.
“Still I Rise” is a dance-theatre piece. The title is inspired by Maya Angelou’s scintillating 1978 poem. Speckled with dance, spoken word, poetry, and music, in five languages, Subramanian’s piece gives voice to the controversial mythological figure of Draupadi.
“I will not be retelling her story,” says Subramanian, in describing her piece. Rather, this will be an attempt to “reshape” a mythological story and channel its deep relevance to our life and times today.
Subramanian’s performance style poses crucial questions towards the fight for gender justice. “I want to underline that nothing has changed since Draupadi”, she insists. “And, that she is not a forgotten myth, or worse, a myth placed on a pedestal, but is as current and relevant to today.”
“Still I Rise” will feature recorded music by Chennai-based composer Rajkumar Bharati, and a script co-written by Priya Das, creative director at Sangam Arts, and Vidhya herself. The evening will be presented by Narika, a non-for profit, Berkeley-based organization that actively works against domestic violence in the South Asian American community.
In collaborating with Narika, Subramanian felt a deep alignment with the organization’s mission and purposes. Last year alone, Narika advocates fielded over 1500 calls to their toll-free helpline, servicing the greater Bay Area. Research shows that 41% of South Asian women in America report experiencing domestic violence at least once in their lifetimes, compared to about 25% of women in the general United States population.
But beyond the statistics of the issue, Subramanian claims that it is the “individual stories” of domestic violence which are more haunting for her.
“There is a Draupadi in all of us,” notes Subramanian. With her work, she aims to appeal to every woman in the audience, to assure them that they are not alone in the fight for gender justice.
“Still I Rise” tackles a complex and rampant issue facing our communities through the medium of dance, music and poetry. The sound and music production has been done by Sai Shravanam, costuming by Sandhya Raman, and lighting design by Kaveri Seth.
“Still I Rise” presented by Narika at the Cubberley Theatre, Palo Alto on May 18th, 2018. Tickets $35 for General Admission and $50 for VIP. For tickets and information, please visit: https://narika.brownpapertickets.com/
After discovering the first cases of HIV in India in 1986, Dr. Suniti Solomon left a prestigious academic job to build her own clinic focusing on treating HIV/AIDS patients. Several decades and breakthroughs in treatment later, her clinic is one of the highest regarded in the country and her patients are living longer lives. While surviving, some of
her patients are not thriving. Being Indian, they feel immense societal and personal pressure to marry, but simultaneously face a stigma of being HIV-positive. Now in the twilight of her impressive career, Dr. Solomon takes the next step in her treatment by creating a matchmaking service for those seeking marriage. Through the service we meet Manu and Karthik, two of her patients who want to share their lives with someone but are fearful they never will. Shot over eight years and told with compassion and care, filmmakers Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai give us a surprising and hopeful story about the universal healing ability of companionship and love.
Priya Giri Desai’s work in print and broadcast media spans two decades and includes work for outlets such as LIFE magazine, PBS and independent film projects. Desai is a graduate of Duke University and a founding board member of The India Center Foundation, a cultural non-profit organization in New York dedicated to the study of the Indian subcontinent, the promotion of its cultural life, and the unique relationship between India and the United States. Ann S. Kim is an independent filmmaker who has reported on a range of science global health issues for public television and radio. From 2016-2017, Kim served as the first Chief Design Officer for the U.S. Surgeon General, bringing design thinking into government and urgent public health issues of addiction, opioids, and social isolation.
Lovesick had its world premiere at DOC NYC in November 2017. It will screen on April 14 at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and again on April 29 at the International Film Festival Boston.
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).
South India Fine Arts (SIFA), is the premier organization in San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to the promotion, preservation, and presentation of South Indian fine arts. SIFA is proud to present its Spring 2018 Season artists.
We started off the Spring 2018 Seasion in February by celebrating Saint Thyagaraja’s Aradhana. A lot of talented local Bay Area artists and Bay Area Music/Dance Schools presented their tribute by presenting various Kritis of Saint Thyagaraja. Check out our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/carnaticmusicbayarea/ for photos/videos from this program.
We kick off April with a concert by the dynamic duo – Dr. Krishnakumar and Smt. Binni Krishnakumar, followed by amellifluous Flute concert by Shri. Shashank Subramanyam.
In May, we have a blockbuster Vocal concert by one of the giants in Carnatic Music — the great Shri T. V. Sankaranarayan, followed by a scintillating performance by the dynamic duo – Shri Ganesh and Shri Kumaresh on the Violin.
In June, we present a grand Vocal concert by Shri Palghat Ramprasad, the grandson of the legendary Mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer.
In July, we have a divine Harikatha / Music Discourse by Harikatha exponent, Shri. Dushyanth Sridhar. We have also planned for an enchanting evening with a Vocal concert by Kum. Pragathi Guruprasad, who was the runner-up in the third season of the reality-based singing competition Airtel Super Singer Junior.
SIFA is super excited to present the above line up of artists and hopes that all rasikas would attend and enjoy the above concerts. We also would like to remind that SIFA sponsors get FREE admission to most concerts.
Please signup for Sponsorship here: https://care.way.com/#/public/13492
(Capitol Expressway West and Montrey Road Junction, Opposite and 1 Block from Capitol Cal Train Station)
www.vvgc.org or siliconvalleyhindutemple.com
Thursday, March 1st: Evening at 5.30 pm, Shiva abhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa. Evening at 6.00 pm, maasi makham (magam), holi festival, pournami vratha, Sri Sathyanarayana swamy vratha / pooja, aarati and manthra pushpa. All are welcome to participate with family.
Monday, March 5th: Evening at 5.00 pm, Sri Sankata hara chathurthi, Sri Lakshmi Ganapathi homa / Sri Lakshmi Ganapathi abhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Sunday, March 11th: Daylight savings time begins.
Wednesday, March 14th: Evening at 6.00 pm, Pradosham Shiva Sri Rudra abhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa. Night at 8.30 pm, Sri Karadayar Nombu special pooja. Please contact the temple for further details.
Sunday, March 18th: Ugadi festival, chaitra vilambi nama samvathsaram. Temple opens in the morning at 6.00 am. Sri Venkateswara suprabhatam continued with Sri Lakshmi Ganapathi abhisheka, Sri Shiva abhisheka, Sri Valli Deva Sena sametha, Sri Subramanya abhisheka, continued with Sri Panchanga patina / Panchaga sravana pooja in Telugu and Kannada. All are welcome to participate with family. Vasantha navarathri begins, continuous archana.
Sunday, March 18th; Night at 10.15 pm, Sukh Karta and Dukh Hartha aarati and Sri Jai Jagadesha Hare aarati for Balaji Ekantha seva, and the temple closes.
Thursday, March 22nd: Evening at 6.30 pm, kritika vratha Sri Valli Deva Sena sametha, Sri Subramanya abhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Friday, March 23rd: Night at 8.00 pm, Sukla Sashti Sri Valli Deva Sena sametha, Sri Subramnaya sahasra nama archana.
Sunday, March 25th: Afternoon at 2.00 pm, Sri Rama Navami, Sri Sita Rama kalayanam festival. All are welcome to participate with family.
Thursday, March 29th: Evening at 6.00 pm, Pradosham Shiva Sri Rudra abhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Friday, March 30th: Sri Panguni Uttram.
Saturday, March 31st: 12.00 Noon, Sri Nava Graha homa, Sri Saneeswara Graha homa, continued with Sri Nava Graha abhisheka, Sri Saneeswara Graha abhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Saturday, March 31st Afternoon at 2.00 pm, Sri Pournami vratha, Sri Sathya Narayana Swamy pooja / vratha. All are welcome to participate with family.
Saturday, March 31st Evening at 4.00 pm, Sri Venkateswara abhisheka, continued with Sri Vishnu Sahasra Nama chanting, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Tuesday, April 3rd: Evening at 5.00 pm, Sri Sankata Hara chathurthi, Sri Lakshmi Ganapathi homa / Sri Lakshmi Ganapathi abhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Friday April 13th: Evening at 4.00 pm, Sri Bhuwaneswari / Sri Lalitha Devi abhisheka, continued with Sri Lalitha Sahsra Nama chanting.
Friday April 13th Evening at 5.00 pm, Prdosham, Shiva Sri Rudra abhhisheka, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Saturday, April 14th: Vilambi Nama Samvathsaram / Baisakhi Tamil New Year souramana noothana nama samvathsaram, Vishnu Punya Kalam. Temple opens in the morning at 8.00 am, Sri Venkateswara Suprabhatam, continued with sri Nava Graha homa, Sri Saneeswara Graha homa, Sri Venkateswara abhisheka, continued with Sri Vishnu Sahasra Nama chanting, panchanga patana pooja, sravana pooja, aarati and manthra pushpa.
Please Make A Note: Temple Address: 32 Rancho Drive, San Jose CA 95111
Temple Timings: Week Days Morning 10:00am to 12 Noon, Evenings at 6pm to 8pm.
Weekends And Holidays: 10am to 8pm
For Bhajan’s Religious Discourses, Music and Dance Performances, Private Poojas please contact Temple for further details Mangalani Bhavanthu, Subham Bhuyath, Loka Samastha Sukino Bhavanthu, Love all serve all.
For Pujas and Rituals Contact: Pandit Ganesh Shasthry
880 East Fremont Ave #302, Cupertino Villas, Sunnyvale, CA 94087
Maryland State Delegate Aruna Miller in her bid for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District. An engineer by trade, Miller has served in the Maryland State House since 2010 where she has worked to invest in STEM education, streamline the regulatory process for small businesses, and bring 21st century jobs to Maryland. Miller has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, 314 Action, all four sitting Indian American members of the House of Representatives, and a number of state and local elected officials. If elected, Miller will be the second Indian American woman to serve in the United States House of Representatives.
Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. In 2016, Pureval won an upset victory, defeating a member of a powerful political family and claiming a seat that had been held by the other party for over 100 years. A former federal prosecutor and attorney for Procter & Gamble, Aftab has already delivered for his constituents by overhauling the Hamilton County Courts website, expanding its hours, opening a legal help center, and streamlining operations in order to return over $800,000 to the county’s general fund.
Ram Villivalam in his bid for Illinois 8th State Senate District. Villivalam is taking on an incumbent State Senator who was recently stripped of his leadership position and found to have violated the Ethics Act by the Illinois Inspector General. The 8th State Senate District has the highest percentage of Asian Americans in the state of Illinois. Villivalam has earned the endorsements of several Members Congress, including U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi and U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna as well as constituency groups such as the Sierra Club and Equality Illinois PAC. If elected, Villivalam would be the first Indian American ever elected to the Illinois state legislature.
“Not only do these individuals showcase the talent and patriotism of the Indian American community, they also represent the next generation of American political leadership,” said Deepak Raj, co-founder of Impact and chair of the Impact Fund. “Voters are hungry for fresh faces and new ideas. These candidates are well-positioned to be part of a new wave of national and state leaders who will help fight back against xenophobic rhetoric and regressive policies and fight for economic opportunity and a stronger, fairer economy.”
In addition, Impact Fund has endorsed for re-election all four Indian American Members of the U.S. House of Representatives: Ami Bera (CA-07), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL-08), and Ro Khanna (CA-17).
Added Raj Goyle, co-founder of Impact and former member of the Kansas House of Representatives, “These four Members of Congress exemplify what it means to be an Indian American elected official. Not only have they fought tirelessly for their constituents, they have provided bold leadership for our entire country. They are proof that our work matters.”
A political action committee, Impact Fund works with experienced operatives, campaign strategists, and donors to endorse candidates based on their viability and commitment to advocating for the needs and values of the Indian American community. Impact Fund continues to track nearly 60 Indian Americans running for office in 2018, including over 20 first-time Congressional candidates, and will issue further endorsements in coming months.
Vaishnava jana toh is known as Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite bhajan. It is commonly sung, instrumentally rendered, and danced to at various devotional or cross-cultural Indian gatherings. Sonny Mehta, founder of the Austin, Texas-based band Riyaaz Qawwali (Riyaaz) presented it in the Qawwali style and hasn’t looked back. The Huffington Post recently included it in its “Daily Meditations” column and featured the group, as did NPR.
Qawwali is characterized by an intense Sufi undertone of attempting a communion with the Divine. This underpinning is what keeps Mehta inspired. “The music is unlike any other, due to the melodies and upbeat rhythmic cycles commonly used. Everything one hears in Qawwali can be addressed to a lover and to the Beloved. There are so many parts of this art … can be a life-long catalyst for inspiration.”
Riyaaz’s most recent album called Ishq, was released in March and is a ghazal album highlighting evergreen poets Mirza Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Amir Khussrau, and a living poet, Tahir Faraz. The first album, Kashti, is available on iTunes.
Listening to the group’s tracks through the years, it becomes apparent that they have continuously worked on perfecting their sound, with innovations of their own. Right off the bat, one notices the violin in the ensemble, uncommon in this genre. Riyaaz’s originality shines through in the selection of the songs themselves and in the creation of their Qawwali avatars. Inadequacies in tonal quality in a few of the early works are more than made up for in the sentiment, which arguably is the truer test of a qawwali. Vaishanava jana toh, for example, has notational improvisations that Sufiana lovers have come to expect, as does the bhajan, “Pyaare kanha bajaye bansuri.” The second volume of Ishq includes “Maye ni Maye,” a tribute to motherhood. Its folksy language is weaved through the fabric of chorus deliberation, intertwined with the tenacious rhythm and cycles of the qawwali style. The meditative quality that Riyaaz has been able to capture with every beat and syllable makes it remarkable. “Rone se aur ishq mein” brings home the Divine drama of Riyaaz’s qawwali starting with surrender, petulance, and despair: through Mehta’s crescendo, the poet speculates, “Tumhari berukhi par bhi lootadi zindagi humne; agar tum meherbaan hote, hamara haal kya hota?” (I spent a lifetime embracing your rejection; should you have reciprocated, I wonder what my condition would be?)
The ethos and pathos of this music makes it challenging for practitioners and organizers alike. About the first, Mehta says, “Being able to reach our own goals and standards, practicing enough, learning enough about the music and the poetry—these are struggles for any artist … Two weekends every month, we take our individual practice and build a combined sound. [Qawwali] requires knowledge of lyrics that is deeper than just mere translations. Practices are spent on musical and linguistic growth.” Many in the ensemble have been trained classically, Western and Indian. Mehta himself was initiated into classical music by his grandfather, who would insist that he hold a note for long periods. After that, he pursued his training for 16 more years, with various teachers. He continues to cultivate his interest in Urdu and Punjabi poetry under the guidance of experts in the field.
Mehta asserts: “Bringing Qawwali on to a professional performing stage is harder than you would think. The stage is heavily biased towards Bollywood, who consider us classical but classical music stages consider us semi-classical. Quoting from a poem … dyar-e-ishq mein, apna makaam paida kar (Through the frontiers of love; stake your own claim).”
His claim paid off, when in 2013, Riyaaz was chosen by prominent music composer Philip Glass for the presentation of “In The Spirit: Music from the World’s Great Traditions” at the Garrison Institute in New York City. Mehta proudly reminisces, “He picked four musicians from around the world. It was an exhilarating experience, with fantastic audience response. The best part was that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saheb had performed his first U.S. concert at that venue!” Interestingly, Glass is very familiar with the Mahatma, having produced his own musical “Satyagraha” which premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in 2008. Khan needs no introduction; his performances are what made Sufi Qawwali popular in niche circles in the last two decades.
Mehta is committed to expanding the borders of both, his musical medium of choice and geographical listenership. He is in talks with a television network regarding “The Riyaaz Experience.” It is planned as an 8-episode series that looks at Qawwali in the new homeland, collaborations with other art forms; including expert opinions from University of Texas and Harvard Universities. Of non-South Asian audiences, Mehta says, “We have fared well, because we try to break the art down into universal truths: love for the Beloved, inner search for the truth, harmony among one another. These audiences have given us the love that boosted us early on. A quote again: “Jab tak bika na tha, koi puuchta na tha, tune mujhe khareed kar anmol kar diya.” (When I was in the market, nobody valued me; you made a bid for me, and I became invaluable.)”
Riyaaz’s second album, Ishq, will be available on iTunes in May.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz, and other genres.
Splayed on 75-year-old Kamala Krishnan’s bedside table are three books: Life After Death by Deepak Chopra, Reaching to Heaven by James Van Praagh, and Love and Death by P. Rajagopalachari. These books are a constant reminder that the hereafter is no further than an arm’s reach away.
Krishnan’s is the typical story of the elderly Indian American immigrant. After the death of her husband, she moved to America to live with her daughter. “Truly, I wish to die and not trouble her like this,” says Kamala Krishnan, with a betraying quaver to her voice.
Krishnan’s daughter, Kshetra Srinivasan, admits that this exhortation frequently occurs and usually accompanies a disagreement over something as trivial as a dinner menu that might consist of something as egregious as a green salad. “In India, only cows eat raw food like let-tooce. Here…” Krishnan shakes her head with patent dismay. It’s not really the salad that is the subject of the discourse between mother and daughter. The subtext is helplessness, loss of independence, cultural chasm, and a normalizing process that is frighteningly unfamiliar.
Seniors who immigrate to the United States to live with their children face the daunting challenge of having to adapt to a new way of life. Their frame of reference is limited to their families who, more than likely, are ambivalent custodians of tradition and culture. These seniors face language problems; receive limited or no economic or health benefits; encounter family conflicts; are not fully aware of programs for seniors and are at a loss to spend their time productively. They feel lonely and fall victim to depression and delirium.
Dr. Rita Ghatak, Director of the Geriatric Health Services at Stanford University Medical Center, confirms the cultural issues embedded in older adult care. “Listening and quiet acceptance go a long way,” she replies to my question of how our generation should cope with supplanted elderly parents.
The brochure that is handed to Stanford Hospital patients has this introduction to her program: “Welcome to Aging Adult Services (AAS) at Stanford. This is a program devoted to meeting the needs of older adults and their families and providing them a continuum of care with support and resources.” What leaps out at me is the phrase “and their families.” It seems a much-overlooked aspect of adult care. “The family is the advocating unit for adult care,” Ghatak emphasizes.
Usually medical advice is sought as a last resort among South Asian families. As adults age, common symptoms like tiredness, apathy, and memory loss mask parameters of more chilling diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and chronic depression. Families are fooled into believing that these issues are part of the natural process of aging. “Besides, anything to do with mood and cognition has stigma associated with it,” Ghatak adds. So even if families are in the know, they sometimes don’t seek medical attention.
Ghatak relates a case where the parents immigrated to the United States to live with their children. The father, who had undiagnosed borderline dementia, had trouble adjusting into the affluent (and isolating) neighborhood, which exacerbated his condition. The family was forced to address the father’s ailment the day he went for a walk, got lost, fell, injured himself, and was taken to Stanford Hospital. The doctors at the emergency diagnosed and put him on a treatment course for dementia, which worked well. But once he got discharged the follow-ups were not performed. Besides overcoming the stigma surrounding the diagnosis of dementia there was the more practical issue of medical insurance coverage.
Insurance is such a huge problem that internist Caroline Stratz blames the system for failing the elderly, calling it, “the Mediocrity of Medicare.” In a heartfelt piece she wrote for the Los Altos Town Crier on January 20, 2010, Stratz agonized about having to withdraw from Medicare because of the steep drop in reimbursement rates. “When I started my practice nearly 10 years ago, colleagues advised me against accepting MediCare patients because reimbursement rates are low.” But Stratz held on to her ideals about the kind of medicine she would practice. Then this year, Medicare reimbursements dropped by a further 20 percent and she could no longer justify the lowered compensation.
The price of healthcare is so steep that, without insurance, the elderly have few options. It is estimated that in 1996, average annual managed care spending for depression was $6,777 and for dementia it was $11,114.
So what is the solution? According to Ghatak, to forestall medical costs, the elderly need a regimen of good diet, good exercise, and engagement with the family, community, and society.
Sarada Sankaran’s story is a textbook case of engagement. She is 71 years old and is a self-confessed computer addict. She habitually delves into the brightly lit stratum of our sphere that we call connectivity via cell phone, email, Facebook, and a blog. She drives, watches CNN/MSNBC, practices yoga daily, goes to the library, and is currently working on a Tamil drama script. She is sprightly, alert, and converses with her college-age grandchild well beyond the midnight chime of the grandparent clock. “I’ve adapted to this culture,” she says, “I have no qualms about shedding the sari and donning sweatpants. I’m in this country for my grandkids and I need to be able to relate to them. I believe in the power of now.” Truly amazing! But hers is not the typical story; it is the inspirational one.
Most elderly parents in the South Asian community help the family unit in definable ways: housekeeping, cooking, babysitting, helping with homework and, in some cases, driving grandchildren to activities. It is when role, responsibility, and ownership are not clearly defined that problems crop up. When Krishnan moved into her daughter’s house, she happily took on the task of cooking for the family. However, as the grandchildren grew into teenagers, the idea of eating grandmother’s freshly prepared Indian meals daily challenged their assimilated palates. Krishnan’s role in the household slowly began to erode, leading to her morbid fascination with death and despair.
Isn’t depression just part of aging? According to National Institute of Mental Health, temporary emotional experiences of sadness, apathy, grief, and despondency are normal. However, if these conditions persist, and they interfere significantly with the ability to function, then treatment should be considered. To recognize that a problem exists is the first step to a cure. In most cases, that is probably the hardest step. When parents are burdened with the demands of jobs and rearing young kids, the needs of elderly grandparents are bundled and swept behind the phrase “when I have the time.”
There is a glow in Krishnan’s eyes as she returns from a trip to the grocery store. “The girl there recognized me,” she says sounding breathlessly like a young girl herself. “She gave me this packet free!” Krishnan reaches inside her bag and pulls out a packet of biscuits. Such a small gesture, with such a large reach.
According to Himanshu Rath of Agewell, a charity providing support to the elderly in India, “Collectively we celebrate the old. At home, we often ignore them. We say: ‘Have you had your medicine? Have you eaten?
Here is the remote control.’ And then we get on with our own lives.”
Initiator of the punctuated Google group, THATHA’s “R” US (thatha means grandfather in Tamil), Krishnamachar Sreenivasan understands how easy it is to fall into a blue state. His resume lists The Mitre Corporation, SRI, Hewlett Packard, and Agilent as employers. He is considered an expert in the field of computer performance evaluation and analysis of multiprocessors. The weeks following his retirement, however, his achievements were cold comfort. “I woke up in the morning and the only thing I changed was my remote battery.” It took great effort and considerable control before he came to grips with his changed situation. “I realized that there’s an unfavorable bias towards seniors. I had to do something to impact people around me.” He started a radio show on KLOK 1170 AM, a community service call-in program that airs every Wednesday from 11 to 12 pm every week, which aims to connect volunteers with those who need help.
Shifting the lens to the other end of the generational view, I queried some teenagers on living with elderly grandparents. “I love my grandmother, but I don’t understand her and she doesn’t understand me,” said a 14-year-old, adding, “She obsesses about food.” A college graduate explained that it was nice to find the warmth of her grandparents when she came home from school. “Not that I shared deep emotional moments with my grandparents,” she added. Her grandparents were there through her middle school and high school and she grew up with lots of religious events, good Indian food, Indian music, and Indian television.
Hesitatingly, she admitted that she’d been more attuned to their company when she’d been younger, but by the time she left for college, there was a large language, cultural, and generational barrier. “I did envy my Caucasian friends who were able to share a deeper emotional bond with their grandparents that was not complicated by language and culture.”
In September 2009, New York Times columnist, Patricia Leigh Brown wrote an article about the 100 Years Living Club, an all-male Sikh group of elderly immigrants. The group meets regularly at a mall in Fremont, Ca. to stave off feelings of isolation and alienation. According to Brown, late-life immigrants come to the country clinging to hopes and dreams of family togetherness, only to find that American society isn’t responsive to these cultural expectations.
A Growing Trend
Studies indicate that America’s ethnic elderly are the most isolated group in America and, yet, this group continues to grow. According to the 2007 census, one in three California seniors is foreign-born. It is estimated that the elderly constitute four percent of the global population (419 million) and there are approximately 350,000 Indian American elders, nationwide.
In his book gravely titled The Gray Dawn, Peter G. Petersen argues that, with the increase in life expectancy and decline of birth rates, the numbers of seniors will continue to grow, creating a demographic shift. The magnitude of this shift will result in seniors outnumbering the working age population. This will have a dire consequence on the economies of developed nations. This is partially borne out in Japan where it is predicted that, by 2015, one in four Japanese citizens will be 65 or older. As this shift in balance continues to dilate, Japan is looking at its trade surplus withering into deficit, driving industry and innovation overseas.
As public policy shifts are considered, ethnic seniors need to be part of the proviso. This group’s spiritual, physical, and psychological well-being becomes a critical parameter to social and economic prediction.
Local programs like the Community Ambassador program for Seniors (CAPS) and the India Community Center(ICC) offer a plethora of possibilities for seniors. ICC’s seniors program is designed around clubs and activities from simple socialization, yoga, and Bollywood dancing to round table discussions. Sankaran is an active member of the ICC senior program. Krishnan is a registered member, but finds it difficult to make it to the sessions. Krishnan informs me that conversations at the ICC Senior Center are wince- and wonder-worthy, ranging from daughters, daughters-in-law, financial crises, recipes, oil spill, medical problems, travel to India, and Bombay Jayashree ( a Karnatik music vocalist). Everybody is encouraged to participate.
One Friday afternoon I see Outreach cars pull in like grand limousines at the ICC-Cupertino parking lot. From these cars the elderly slowly emerge like stars, dressed in swathes of silk and serge. They grandly ascend the steps to the facility. I watch the way they enter and mingle with each other. This time, place and moment is theirs. They own it. I quietly leave, reminding myself that my time is just around the corner.
(Names of seniors have been changed at their request to preserve anonymity)
Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer and is currently in the process of writing a novel.
Hindi movies like Baghbaan and Lage Raho Munnabhai pillory the boomer generation for contemplating nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and retirement homes for their elderly parents. Newspapers decry the oursourcing of senior care with articles titled “Old Age Homes Against Our Culture.” But the times, they are a-changing. The harsh critical glare of disapproval is dissolving under the circumstances of nuclear double-income family units. Living in elderly group housing with nurses and doctors on call and the ability to talk about “the old days” is sounding more and more attractive. Canadian resident Saroj Sood voluntarily opted to live in a South Asian Assisted Living facility in Surrey, UK. She quoted the Vedas as justification for her move. Sood explained how the last of the four stages of a Hindu life, the “sanyasa” stage, requires renunciation of society and meditative solitude.
In the United States, South Asian elder institution options are limited to just a handful. In my research, I was able to source only two: AristaCare Nursing Homes, catering to elderly Indians, with three locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and a retirement facility, ShantiNiketan, in Tavares, Florida. ShantiNiketan is advertised as a retirement community for Seniors of Indian origin. Iggy Ignatius, the founder of the community project, says that he wanted to give it an “ashram” feel. The gated property consists of 54 condominiums, 35 of which are sold. There are Assisted Living facilities in the Bay Area catering to other ethnicities: Aegis Gardens in Fremont for elderly Chinese and On Lok Senior Health Center in Oakland for Filipino Americans, but none for South Asians. Is our diaspora equipped to handle the growing numbers of elderly?
Outreach’s Senior Transportation Program offers transportation options for seniors that can take them to any destination within the county. http://www.outreach1.org/seniors/seniors_mainpage.html. (408) 436-2865
India Community Center
With locations in Milpitas, Cupertino and Fremont, the India Community Center offers yoga classes for seniors, round table discussions, Jollywood dance classes opportunities to participate in theater, knitting club, bridge club or even a computer class. Subsidized lunches are provided to seniors as part of the program.(408) 934-1130 or check the website: http:indiacc.org/node/293
CAPS – Community Ambassador for Seniors Program
CAPS ambassadors serve seniors and their families by assisting with questions related to identifying local resources, programs, and services in the Tri-City area (Fremont, Newark, and Union City, Ca). Senior Helpline: (510) 574-2041
Stanford’s Adult Aging Services (AAS)
Stanford’s AAS program offers consultations, assessments, home visits, and general outreach assistance. Here is a list of some of the options:
• Geriatric Out-Patient Clinic and Consultation Service (650) 387-6777
• Dementia Support Program (650) 723-1303
• Partners in Caring (650) 725-4137: A program that helps older adults in their homes
• Strong for life (650) 725-4137: A muscle strengthening exercise program
National Indo-American Association for Senior Citizens (NIAASC)
National Indo-American Association for Senior Citizens (NIAASC) started in 1998, serves Indian American seniors across America, “through information, referral and advocacy services.” http://www.niaasc.org/
Seniors are encouraged to visit Artesia’s Senior Center where they can form clubs and intermingle. The two big deterrents for South Asians, language and diet, were addressed by the Oldtimer’s Foundation, a community-based organization that began serving a weekly vegetarian Indian meal, cooked by a local restaurant owner and paid for by the county’s office of aging. (662) 272-5276
Dhrupad Vocal. Gundecha Brothers. Sundaram records. Available at www.dhrupad.org
Hindustani musicians often speak of dhrupad the same way that jazz musicians speak of the blues: It is the root, the source from which their music springs, and to which each musician must return to continually recharge and revitalize. But while blues is an unabashedly popular form of music, dhrupad came from sources that were not even music at all, if we think of music as being something performed for audiences at a concert.
Dhrupad is probably closer to the chanting of Hindu priests than any other form of Hindustani music, and such chanting is primarily a tool for reaching enlightenment, rather than an art form. Unfortunately, this closeness to spiritual practice has prompted many people to think of dhrupad as a kind of musical “spinach” i.e. something that you should listen to because it’s good for you, not because it’s aesthetically pleasing. Consequently, many Indian music stores with substantial selections of khayal and other Hindustani classical music will carry little or no dhrupad recordings. Even devotees of classical music often seem to think that listening to dhrupad will be about as exciting as watching the grass grow.
Thanks in part to the efforts of the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), the three Gundecha Brothers (vocalists Umakant and Ramakant, accompanied by Akhilesh on pakhawaj) are helping to dispel this myth. They performed two benefit concerts this year for IAHV’s 5H program, which provides education, medicine and nutrition for poor people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. And although those who came may have thought their primary motivation was to help a good cause, they experienced an evening of music that was not only spiritual, but beautiful and artistically sophisticated as well. Dhrupad, after all, has been concert music since Mia Tansen sang it for the emperor Akbar. And the similarities to more modern forms of Hindustani music are more noticeable than the similarities.
The first most obvious difference is the formal structure. Almost all of the improvisation takes place during what dhrupad performers call the alap. Dhrupad alap however, actually corresponds to what Hindustani instrumentalists call the alap, jhor and jhala, for it consists of slow medium and fast sections (called, vilambit, madhya, and drut, just as they are in instrumental music). The percussionist plays an older two-sided drum called the pakhawaj, which has its pitched sound ringing on a note much deeper than the “ta” of the modern tabla. When the vocalists sing with the pakhawaj, they begin with a fixed composition that usually uses a text by a traditional poet such as Tulsidas or Kabir. They then improvise entirely in Bol-baant i.e. singing variations in which the words of the poem are repeated and varied. There is no use of the taans or sargam which are so important to khayal.
But aside from these relatively minor differences, most of what you will hear in a given dhrupad performance will be greatly similar to what you would hear in a khayal performance. Many of the ragas are the same, as are the srutis and the rhythms, and the overall experience of the concert makes one think it would be more appropriate to see dhrupad as a cousin of khayal rather than its grandfather. One could say that dhrupad is “simpler” than khyal. But this is true only in the sense that it has fewer ornaments and flourishes. In this sense, a B.B. King guitar solo is “simpler” than a Jeff Beck solo, Haydn is “simpler” than Beethoven, and the Parthenon is “simpler” than a Gothic cathedral. But simplicity in none of these cases implies lack of sophistication or artistry. It merely means that the artistry is focused on broad lines rather than on filigrees and curlicues.
When the Gundecha brothers sing an alap, there are fewer shakes and quivers than you will hear in khayal. But they do use slow subtle shifts in sruti which require tremendous vocal power. The great khayal vocalist Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan said of dhrupad that “the long gliding phrases require very deep and sustained breath. I readily admit that I would not be able to become professional in that style.” Dhrupad also requires a very large pitch range (two and a half octaves, going all the way down to a low sa), extensive use of volume dynamics and tone quality shifts, and as sophisticated a knowledge of layakiri (rhythmic variations) as any other form of Indian music.
It is widely asserted that Dhrupad has not changed for centuries, but strictly speaking this not true. Dhrupad jugalbandi (two vocalists singing together) did not begin until the second half of this century, and now thanks to the Gundecha brothers and their teachers the Dagar brothers, this practice is extremely common. This was a very effective innovation, for it enabled the broader lines of the dhrupad ornaments to be used in new ways without having to borrow ornaments from khayal. When the Gundecha brothers sang the pentatonic raga bhupali at their San Francisco IAHV concert, the wide intervals in the raga made it possible for their vocals to freely swell and slide against each other, creating a languid counterpoint that almost sounded like widely spaced harmonies. And during the drut alap, their staccato recitations of quick syllables created bubbling cross rhythms that could exist in no other form of music.
On their new album “Dhrupad Vocal”, they also add another innovation: a rich reverberation that creates a sound more like a concert hall than the traditional small room sound used in most Indian classical recordings. Because Indian classical music today is almost always played amplified in large concert halls, this is a more accurate way of reproducing a live performance, and the resulting sense of grandeur fits the music quite well. I would have preferred to have less reverb on the pakhawaj, for this setting obscured many of the higher tones of the drums, and forced brother Akhilesh Gundecha to play with less drive and virtuosity than he used in the live concert. But there is no denying that the explosive snare-like quality produced by the reverb was extremely effective. Perhaps this pakhawaj sound will become the standard for twenty-first century dhrupad, just as jugalbandi became standard in the twentieth century. Only time will answer that question, but there is no doubt that, thanks to the Gundecha brothers, dhrupad will continue to grow and flourish.
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.
“Born in the land of the mighty Roraima/ Land of great rivers and far-stretching sea … ” are words sung in drunken glee by relatives of my parents’ generation. The song tells of the land of my birth, Guyana, a place called “back home” by my elders, but which to me had always been merely a source of relatives’ funny accents and the occasional bawdy provincial story; a place lost entirely in the immaturity of infantile memory and remade incompletely through the borrowed memories of others.
But all that changed as I return to Guyana, unexpectedly and unprepared, 31 years after leaving as a baby. “Born in the land where men sought El Dorado/ Land of the diamond and bright shining gold,” the song goes, boasting of the land’s natural wealth, and hinting at the plight of those who had sought it. I return as a recipient of one of Guyana’s national arts awards, undeserving because I am heretofore unable to find a connection to the ancestral land, which now honors me. That would change as the assault of sights and scents, and the camaraderie of locals, conspire to force my acknowledging of that buried organic thread of belonging.
Despite the song’s promises, I see no gold or diamonds, nor do I find the time to explore the great rivers or far-stretching sea. But I do taste the sweetness of Guyana’s fruit, remark on the comeliness of her women, the brightness of her tropical sun and the seeming timelessness of her stitch within the fabric of colonial history. This is a place beaten by its history, existing at the rare conflux of a dozen trading nations, yet striving valiantly to pull itself from the status of Third World indigent to modern Caribbean power broker.
Guyana is a frequently misplaced and mispronounced nation in the Canadian travel vocabulary. Formerly called British Guiana, it is nestled longitudinally between Brazil and the Caribbean ocean, and horizontally between Venezuela and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana). A democracy, she remains the only officially English-speaking country in South America, and one of Canada’s most effusive sources of Caribbean emigration.
At the time of Columbus, the region was inhabited by the Arawak and Carib aboriginal tribes whose legacy is the word guiana. It means “land of waters,” testament to the region’s multitude of waterways streaming to and from the Amazon basin. The three Guyanas of history, Dutch, French and British, were a trading and farming delta operated by European powers for the past two centuries. The land was valuable for its rugged frontier against the rich South American jungle, its navigable river system, its potential for a plantation-style economy, and its position on the shore of the lucrative Caribbean shipping lanes.
When the aboriginal tribes were pushed back into the rainforest, African slaves were brought in to work the sugar plantations. With the transition to British rule in 1786, the labor structure, punctuated by violent slave revolt decades earlier, fell under the auspices of British imperial law. Hence, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire 21 years later led to a critical need for cheap plantation labor. That labor was found via the indentured servitude system wherein subjects of the empire, mostly East Indian and some Chinese, were shipped in to work on a supposedly contractual basis. The colorful songs do not tell of this history. That task is left to the pockets of angry subversive writers scattered throughout the diaspora.
Most historians agree that the British violated the service contracts and refused the indentured laborers their promised passage home. The result was generations of large numbers of people, mostly Indians, stranded in a country to which they never truly intended to emigrate. In the twentieth century, with the dissolution of British rule in favor of a fractious parliamentary system, Guyana remains a nation of essentially two races: African and Indian. This racial duality is a persistent social and political theme, occasionally sinking to riotous violence, and sometimes rising to philosophical elegance, as in the establishment of the multi-racial socialist government of the late President Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s most beloved fallen hero.
Jagan is often called the father of the modern Guyanese nation. His 80-year old widow Janet, also a former President, remains an honored national figure who hearkens to a bygone era of Gandhi/Mandela styled social protest and political sacrifice. Even their 1943 interracial marriage (he was Indian, she a Jew from Illinois) was a daring feat, a template for a coming age.
Despite the Jagans’ heroism, Guyana’s story in the twentieth century is one of corruption and lost opportunity. As the song describes so proudly, it is a nation rich in mineral and biological wealth, devoid of the population pressures of other developing nations (there are fewer than a million permanent residents). Its rugged beauty inspired the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle who fashioned his 1912 novel “The Lost World” after Guyana’s unspoiled jungle primacy, specifically the misty Mount Roraima upon whose paleolithic peak Conan Doyle envisioned Victorian dinosaur hunters and lost prehistoric tribes.
Guyana’s enviable position as an English-speaking literate nation whose expatriate vim offers access to the resources of the West should have propelled Guyana into the role of Southern leader. Yet the nation has languished economically by virtue of recent dictatorial corruption and mismanagement. High inflation, elevated rates of maternal and child morbidity, increased street crime and official corruption, and residents poor access to infrastructure—the textbook signatures of Third World status—have been typical of Guyana up to and including the 1980s.
This was the ominous data I weighed while considering whether to undertake the visit to the land of my birth. I was taken from Guyana at the age of 2, and returned once more for a summer visit 20 years ago. I had joined the great soup of immigrants in Toronto, multicolored, multicultured, and undeniably Canadian. Despite the thickening density of Guyanese expatriates filling the Toronto-New York corridor, I had no conscious desire to return to my motherland.
However, my book of short stories titled “Sweet Like Saltwater” ostensibly about the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, surprisingly won the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. Just like that, I was on my way back to this lonely tropical waystation.
The existence of the Guyana Prize is itself a window into the psyche of a nation making great strides to re-position itself as a trade-and tourism-worthy modern democracy. It is one of the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary awards, and the only national book award offered by a Caribbean country other than Cuba.
Though the official literacy rate hovers about 98%, the country only produces a handful of books each year. But in many Southern societies, the written word retains both power and prestige, regardless of the official rate of book production and consumption. The literary legacy left to Guyana from its most culturally influential ancestral places—India, West Africa and England—is one that seemingly demands the recognition of communicative excellence, evident in the oratorical skills of local leaders and in the impressive feats of poetic recitation required from schoolchildren. Given the poor rate of domestic book production, due in part to a hobbled publishing industry, it is not surprising that the nation glories in the artistic achievements of its expatriate children. London’s Pauline Melville and Fred D ‘Aguiar of Florida are but two such non-resident writers oft honored in Guyana.
Arriving in the capital city, Georgetown, I am filled with trepidation. One guidebook describes the place as “the second most violent capital city in South America, after Bogota.” It further warns: “under no circumstances go out at night, and avoid doing so in the daytime, too.” Wariness of violent street crime was the mantra preached to me by friends and relatives, none of whom had been to Georgetown in many years.
But the city is surprisingly pleasant. Nestled against the Atlantic shore, it nonetheless considers itself a Caribbean metropolis, yet its official population of 200,000 would make it merely a large town by North American standards. It was once a colonial gem, still proudly bearing its traditional moniker of “the garden city”, though decades of infrastructure neglect have tarnished its floral vigor. Whitewashed wooden buildings with thatched multicolored roofs still provide a fair amount of charm and elegance, and rebuilt roads encourage the recent inundation of American sports cars and utility vehicles. All about, the signs of an economic renaissance abound.
One is struck by a distinct odor that, to me at least, is ubiquitous across all tropical domains: the scent of damp fabrics, unseen fungal growths and hot, wet sea air. Not necessarily unpleasant, it is womb-like in its familiarity. Eager surveillance from the window of a cramped Guyana Airways plane revealed dazzling green arteries of water that pulse with life, giving truth to the aboriginal name for the place. The odor and the greenery seem complementary, and one is made less aware of the urban concrete, and more sensitive to the nearby ocean and strategically planted foliage.
The streets and highways are cluttered with autos, muscular and loud. The car is a symbol of machismo here, and owners have taken to emblazoning their vehicles with personalized names. My driver has named his for the Backstreet Boys, and gestures to the photo of the cover girl on his dashboard: “That’s the backstreet girl,” he jokes.
Minibuses plow by. Lynn Mangru, a local sitcom actress and my guide for the morning, tells me that the buses are privately owned with fares set by the government. “People choose which bus to ride by the music the driver is playing,” she says. I decide that my favorite bus is one named “Sweetness” driven by a sloppy, big-bellied, very un-sweet man. On the bus’s back, the driver has written the explanation: “Your sweetness is my weakness.”
Crowds of people gather in every public locale in Georgetown. The roars of rancorous Creole, English-based and similar to Jamaican patwa but spiced with elements of French, Dutch, Senegalese, Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese, assault the ear in torrents of musical speech, sometimes joyous and sometimes angry 97the sounds of street commerce common around the world. The Creole of Guyana is a trademark of the place. It was the language of my youth, usually summoned from my subconscious only with the aid of alcohol or family prodding, embarrassing for its foreignness and inapplicability to Canadian life. Here it is refreshingly familiar, heard at last as a living language for an entire people, and not, as the locals would describe it, as simply “poor English.”
Teenage boys, both brown and black, strut along the roadways with New York ghetto attitude. Basketball shoes, fake jewelry and hip-hop mannerisms are common. Judging from fashion choices and the plethora of cheap low-quality consumer products, this could be any American inner city—except that, alongside these thrusts into the banal continuum of the world economy, there are unmistakable nods to both tropical wherewithal and a recent colonial legacy.
Indeed, while modern autos screech through crowded roads, many side streets are the exclusive domain of horses and horse-drawn vehicles. The preferred mode of transport of many goods, particularly construction materials, appears to be via animal sweat. Time does not allow me a foray into the rural countryside to visit the rice-farming village of my infancy, or to the rugged interior; it would have been interesting to see whether supreme reliance is still made upon beasts of burden for all physical tasks too challenging for mere human muscle. It is quixotically ironic, this superposition of agrarian methods against an urban backdrop of somewhat modern buildings, Western outlook and new American automobiles.
More irony befalls me as I check into the Hotel Tower, supposedly one of Georgetown’s top hotels. Half a century ago, my father worked here as a waiter and had alerted the industry minister to the hotel’s unfair treatment of workers; the pro-labor socialist sentiment runs strong in Guyanese of his generation, those touched by the crusades of Cheddi and Janet Jagan. Today, after decades of decline, the Hotel Tower has remade itself into a gateway for adventure tourism, offering “romantic” rainforest tours to mostly foreign couples. Indeed, eco-tourism is the buzzword across the nation. Industrial forces are arrayed to parcel off Guyana’s pristine jungle ecology in the name of debt reduction, and ventures within the city are positioning themselves to provide the necessary support for such activities.
The city’s center is dominated by the clock tower-crowned Stabroek market, a grand old Dutch structure whose contents today can be compared to rural flea markets in Canada. It is probably the oldest building in the country, and an enduring democratic structure in which everyone, rich or poor, shops. Some say it was intended as a railway station for another colony, but ended up in Guyana by accident. Pierre Trudeau once called it a “bizarre bazaar.” Whatever the colorful anecdote, the market is a beloved sprawl of simple commercial reciprocity where anything that can be carried by hand is sold.
In addition to the basic supplies and knick-knacks sold here are the fresh produce brought in from farmers outside the city. The fruits are glorious in their ripeness, and I gladly indulge in a wide array of tropical nectars. Tourists are ill-advised to wander about the market unescorted, so I was pleased to find manning some of the vending stalls relatives whom I had never before met in person: an aunt, a great uncle and several cousins.
The place had evolved since my family’s exodus I was informed. No longer the refuge of impoverished rural agrarians desperate to hawk their undervalued goods, it is now a locus for lucrative high commerce. A vegetable stall like that owned by my aunt would be sold for the equivalent of tens of thousands of American dollars.
That night is the televised ceremony for conferring the Guyana Prizes for Literature; my reason for being in the country. Professor David Dabydeen of England takes top honors for his novel “A Harlot’s Progress”—the trend of rewarding expatriates continues. Harvard student and proud Guyanese native, Paloma Mohamed receives the award for best drama; her rousing patriotic speech would bring the crowd to its feet. While I nervously wait to make my acceptance speech for my Best First Book prize, an elderly woman strikes up a conversation with me about her grandchildren in Canada. It takes a few minutes for me to recognize Janet Jagan, former President and figure of lore. It is surreal to be making disposable small talk with a woman whose name is spoken with quiet reverence in most Guyanese households, my parents’ included. I decide that this is indicative of the informality of the place, where grand historical figures are simply citizens on about their business.
It is therefore not surprising that the sitting President of the country, Bharrat Jagdeo, proves eminently approachable. His mind is understandably elsewhere as a national election looms close. But his popularity almost assures a victory for his People’s Progressive Party, the political party founded by the Jagans. Government stability is an encouraging sign for sustained development and wealth production.
“My job is to pull government into the background and let creative people run with their innovations,” he says, sounding vaguely Ontarian in his politics. He further laments the limited experiences of many visitors to Guyana, wishing more would choose to step beyond Georgetown to see the beauty of the unspoiled interior. “Just a few hours travel and you can meet AmerIndian children who must take canoes to get to school.” Again, there is that ubiquitous dichotomy of the modern alongside the pastoral and ancient. His words remind me that despite Guyana’s bold forays into aggressive world commerce and the increasing affluence of many of Georgetown’s more visible citizens, this is still a country struggling to find its role in the globalized Caribbean milieu.
I recall the growing links between Guyana and Canada: the 1997 flirtation of Saskatechewan’s SaskPower with acquiring the Guyanese electrical infrastructure; the public health program offered by the medical school of Kingston’s Queen’s University to allow their graduates exposure to the truly impoverished in Guyana’s interior; and recent rumblings about debt forgiveness and other sorts of aid. Yet, despite its rural poverty and tiny population, this is a nation with, astonishingly, 23 television stations.
“Anyone can put up a TV transmitter from their front porch,” says John Mair, a BBC producer who moonlights in Guyana as an election consultant for Mr. Jagdeo, and who also writes a popular political satire column for a national newspaper under the pen name of Bill Cotton. The television medium tends to be so unregulated and unprofessional, Mair says, that “if you watch the Berbice news, you can hear the dogs barking on the broadcaster’s front lawn!”
Guyana is a nation much like other Southern countries in this new age, traveling simultaneous paths of spiraling rural poverty and rapid modernization. The vivacity and robustness of Georgetown is promising, though, as is the seeming genuineness of the current government. But one young entrepreneur, the owner of a rice mill, is keeping his enterprise off-line until after the coming election. When asked what difference it makes which party wins, he answers, “I need to know whether they prefer their bribe as a percentage or as a lump sum.”
The chorus of that inescapable Guyanese song seems particularly poignant to me then, testament to a people’s penchant for adaptation and renewal: “Onward, upward, may we ever go/ Day by day in strength and beauty grow/ Till at length we each of us may show/ What Guyana’s sons and daughters can be.”
Raywat Deonandan is the author of “Sweet Like Saltwater” (TSAR Books, 1999), winner of the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. Visit him online at www.deonandan.com.