Monday, 31 December 2007



Chennai - the city of twin personalities; For 11 months of the year, you can find people who say it is "kollywood's crib", "land of compulsive hooting", "home of haggling salespersons", "city of scrumptious vegetarian Indian cuisine", "a dust filled atmosphere", "a haven for unruly traffic" and "increasing in property prices". Though people will relate to you the vastly diverse facets of Chennai for 11 months, for 1 month Chennai puts on her best and shows-off her stuff - the Music Season of December. And thank God for the affluent capitalist NRIs in one sense, this musical, intellectual, soulful season is now extended...from November, through to the end of December.


Though the concerts are many and we (music enthisiasts) are all drawn to different artistes and 'sabhas' (halls), one thing's for sure - the audience in these performances show a marked improvement in knowledge compared to when I came for the first time to Chennai in '98. Though reduced to memories of a short trip for music in '98, that trip gave me my first insight of the performers and audiences of the music season. I can bravely say that the comparison between then and now is obvious my view, more people know what to look for in a Carnatic performance now. Questions asked during lecture demos and discussions on which I've eavesdropped (bad girl me!) outside the halls lead me to this conclusion.

Fellow enthusiasts/audiences who cram into the halls with me, still constitute the elderly, but a new wave of young blood is also present, clearly bewitched and bewildered by Carnatic music. These youngsters may well be the first generation of beneficiaries, who have inherited the drive and thrist for protecting their culture, from their forefathers' generation. The way this happened I think is that the older generation saw the need to inclucate the love for this (somewhat) fledgeling artform in their children. Perhaps they were noticing the dwindling number of young fans over the last 30 years, and felt the need to resurrect the diminishing interest to preserve the art. Their resultant outcome of their efforts, if we can indeed attribute the outcome to them, is an 'influx' of Carnatic Music enthusiasts, performers, critics, connoiseurs, intellectuals and educators today. So, is this then the Golden Age of Carnatic Music?

I ask because, these audiences walk into the halls armed with knowledge, skill and a learning mindset to say the least. Many in the audience, let alone those on stage, are undiscovered prodigies in some aspect of the art, and the blessing they've inherited is that many of them, with the available avenues in Chennai today, will be discovered at tender ages for their respective niches in the art such as being adept at tala, rendering alapanas or flawlessly rendering a krithi after a single lesson. Our forefathers will be happy to learn that the means exist today, to assist in assimiltion, analysis, appreciation and augmentation of one's skills in the art.


Though students of my generation have only been discovered in our later years for our talent, I take pride in being priviledged to learn music in Chennai during what may be perceived as the Golden Age of Carnatic Music. This is a privilege that offers supreme opportunity to develop one's art.

While personally, I may enjoy this privilege, the current day 'movers and shakers' of the art will tell you that it isn't all fun and games; it is very easy to lose sight of the woods for the trees in such a time. This is because handling the art with the same tenderness and protectiveness that its forefathers did, is very much a part of the role of the musician, just as it is his/her role to perform for the entertainment of today's musically-educated (and yet, demanding and diverse-in-view) audiences.

That fine balance between entertainment and art-preservation I reckon, is the biggest dilemma an artiste of today is facing. For the purist Carnatic artiste, it can almost be a moral issue. But for the less than traditional, the art is seen as constantly evolving almost to the point of needing rather than wanting change.

In my current view therefore, that there are 2 schools of thought on teaching the same art, i.e. Carnatic Music. These schools (for sake of explanation), can be categorised somewhat losely, based on what proportion of their focus is dedicated to entertainment, vs. the proportion dedicated to preservation. The greater the focus on tradition rules and accepted deviations from the aspects which are considered true Carnatic music, the more "purist" the teaching. Thus, entertainment is secondary to art-preservation. On the other end of the spectrum are those that feel Carnatic music is still evolving, thus they accept creative changes in preference to some of the more traditional norms of rendition.

The ultimate Carnatic "entertainer" will almost always be labelled as being less true to the artfrom and thus more irresponsible, by the purist. The ultimate purist inadvertantly, could be regarded as being closed-minded by the entertainer.


Thus, during the music season, the one thing I feel that can pressurise artistes to worry more about the packaging than the product, is that certain review /analysis written on their performance. Sometimes, veterens are mocked for being 'old fashioned' and newbies prematurely commended for for a single act of ingenuity that can't be repeated or explained by the performer! Though many perfromers are assessed fairly or at least diplomatically, the pressure to perform in a manner acceptable to both the purist and the entertainer seems to be the driving force behind the nature and content of today's performances. Perhaps it is a good thing. Perhaps it isn't. In either case, pressure of this nature deviates the art from the artiste, i.e. the product loses to the packaging.

So, if this is indeed the Golden Age, perhaps the hardcore art-preserver/purist would encourage us to be careful about the product first. Packaging later. Afterall, we don't want to be blamed by future generations for carelessly losing the very treasure that our previous generation saved for us. Their fervour is perhaps parallel to nature-loving activists whose cause is to preserve the ecosystem.

Then again, speak to a hardcore entertainer and you'll be opened to a whole new set of arguments that say the treasure of the past is only the basis for today's entertainment, not the template. Their fervour can be likened to those who believe in the theory of evolution, for without evolution, no thought, no expression, no art and no civilisation would be present today.

Both have valid arguments.


Having said that, interestingly, if you watch the audience that glue themselves to performances during the music season, you realise that the issue of entertainment vs. art-preservation is non-existant to an engraossed audience. The artist's magnetism which is possibly a combination of technical prowess and expression of self whisks the listener to a place where only the music matters.

* PIO - Person of Indian Origin

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Had a Bad Day...Week, Rather!


I was in Malaysia on a dutiful visit for some days. Just returned to Chennai on 29 Dec.


It wasn't planned as I flew home on 20 Dec to pay my respects to my late, dearly departed cousin whose funeral I missed, thanks to my deaf/indifferent Chennai travel agent who got the departure date wrong and booked me on a flight with a transit in Colombo! It was a sombre week in KL and the travel left much to be desired; During the 3 hour transit in Colombo, my credit card got jammed in some reader in the airport. Upon disembarking in KL, I learnt that I would miss my friend, Nyuk Chin's wedding as my travel agent only managed a ticket out of KL on 29 Dec, 9am, which is NC's wedding date! Next, I learnt through a total stranger that a "so-called" friend of mine forgot to tell me she's getting engaged on 23 Dec (Satya, don't worry, I didn't tell anyone it was YOU!) ...hehehe. I found this out on 24th.


Meanwhile, an aunt got admitted in hospital and everyone was a bit jittery about the her health until she made it out a day before I left, though the good news is that she looks heaps better now, according to an uncle.


Went to buy a much needed school bag to take to Chennai for my lectures, but ended up with with a party blouse thanks to two very persuasive cousins who themselves incidentally, bought nothing during our shopping! Finally I found the bag section in the shopping centre but then, my camera-phone went bonkers while one cousin decided to try out my phone. The poor thing's so sad about it, but I am aware that electronics and me have generally not had long lasting relationships for one reason or another.

Next whopper, the service centre promised rectification of my phone AFTER I departed for Chennai! Nice huh?! Thus I'm resigned to a previously retired cell phone and will only get my own phone back when mom visits in March. Meanwhile, I've lost some phone numbers as my "re-hired" handphone has no memory chip reader/facility.


Then on my return to Chennai, which my agent promised would have an IMMEDIATE transit flight, I got free character-building lessons. Here's how you can sign up for the course:

First, hire my travel agent. He'll sign you up. He'll put you on a flight like the one I go put on.

Here's what to expect in the course:

Board the plane one hour late. Why? Because the plane will arrive late. Then it's "sitting duck" time. This means you get to sit, and sit, and sit on board, with no apparent explanation by the crew. You're not checking how long, cos if you know it may freak you out more. So you just wait. Then as the plane finally starts taxi-ing, the pilot will speak over the PA system and tell you that the plane behind spotted a smoking right engine on your plane, taking this baby back to the docks, so to speak. After another hour, you can take off and survive the turbulent weather which will make youfeel like it's your last trip. Then, when you finally reach Colombo, you will be treated to 6 hours of waiting within the confined space of the little airport which only accepts USD and credit cards. If you're like me and your card jams, you get to walk around the airport for 6 hours, and sleep next to screaming 4 year olds who are for some reason, enjoying the transit more than the holiday their parents spent thousands on! And you'll also be treated to a buffet lunch at a nice restaurant which you have to travel to, for half hour, in the scotching sun. Then you'll eat with passangers who for some reason, prefer to poke their food at the buffet before selecting it!

Anyway, when the 6 hour wait is finally over and hope is on the horizon, an announcer will notify you that the flight to Chennai, (which is a city placed just 1 hour away), has been delayed by another 2 hours. And as you count your fingers and toes and your eyes start crossing from the boredom, the waiting and the hunger, you'll give in and try the only thing which the airport sells in Indian rupees.... a suspicious looking chicken minibun. Out of sheer hunger, you wolf down two minibuns and spend the remaining time hearing sounds of indigestion emerging from your belly, much to the annoyance of other cranky transit passangers in the boarding hall. As though that is not enough, another 1/2 hour delay is announced and the guy with the suit and laptop seated in front of you appears to suddenly twich and seem like the veins in his neck are having a party. Then finally the boarding call is made and the passengers, disregarding the first call for the elderly and those with kids, make a dash for the plane. Wearier passengers like me, amble on slowly, reaching our seats just before take off.

And as luck would have it, you just may get a neighbour who likes his whiskey so much that he talks loudly to it after a couple. Finally, at 2300 hours, you land in Chennai. A 14 hour flight to a 3 hour destination. This is my agent's promise. If that's not character building, tell me what is!

Anyway, if you need my travel agent's contact details call me. And for all those other add-ons, just have a bad week and it'll just follow naturally.


I think I've gotten every thing down from my bad week. Feel much better now.

....SIGH!....And this, my friends, is what I love about the power of blogging! Feel the PEACE!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Amma's Vacation in Chennai, 2007


Yes! I had mom's presence in Chennai about a month and a half back.

Unlike her earlier trip to Chennai, this trip was much better. Her last trip was something in parallel to Christmas Lampoon's Vacation, that Chevy Chase movie, which meant I had to convince her that this trip would be great. For one thing, there was electricity, water, gas, TV, and a pre-arranged cab to take her around at times unlike her last trip when everything just went wrong...for both of us as we were new to Chennai.

This time, her day time was spent experimenting in the kitchen with all ingredients native to Chennai, watching the Malayalam channels (more like Devouring!) and visiting nearby garment shops. All her saree shopping was done for the decade by the time she left Chennai. So glad she enjoyed it all!

Mom is in her element surrounded by home deco items. This place is made for her, I tell ya!

Mom at a Music Show dedicated to late composer, Kannadaasan and his melodious compositions (dated pre-80s). Don't look for mom in this shot, she's in the audience, not on stage. :-)

Mom watches "Chocolate", the latest Malayalam movie in Chennai, on the big screen! Prithvi Raj is her latest favourite and that just made this movie all the more important to catch before leaving Chennai.

Mom enters crafts-centre, Poompuhar on Mount Road, all grins.

Once in Poompuhar, mom's too much in love with the art to leave.

(Can't get this picture upright, help!)

Mom visits relatives and gets a shot with everyone, but I chose this to publish since this is the only photo in which my cousin Ramesh's daughter, Paru's face, as well as mom's are both clearly visible in the same photo.

Hmmm....who's that shopping for art again? ;-)

Mom at Chennai's favourite bookstore, HigginBothams, looking fulfilled with her purchases of numerous astrology books!

Mom's visit this time was bearable afterall, I guess. She also ate in all my favourite restaurants in Chennai like North Indian Restaurant Kabul, Chinese at Wang's Kitchen and Noodle House. South Indian food at various places and a visit to our old "home" Woodlands Hotel made the visit complete.

With purchases in hand, mom returned to KL with a grin this time! :-)

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Pink Toy-Teacup

The following is a short story I wrote recently. Characters and events are wholly fictional.

As a child of about 7 ish, Beena had to share her toys with her little brother. Not for very long...he soon tired of her kiddy, feminine cutlery sets and blonde haired dolls when he discovered the joys of battery operated toy-jeeps and toy-swords with "Thunder Cats" stickers all over them. That and gadgets which dismantle and rebuild. Ah the 80s!

But during those 1-2 years when all he had were Beena's playthings, she was asked to share. She was told not to deter this "tiny tot" from attaching plasticine to little talking-doll Linda's blonde hair, for instance. Beena realised she would never have a complete, well-matched set of toys the way her cousin Deepika had. Deepika had a pretty sky-blue ceramic toy tea set with every piece intact. And another shiny green plastic one laced with fairy-dust, and again with every piece intact. If one cup was apple green, the rest were too. If one toy knife was 3 inches long, so were the others in the set. There were as many cups to saucers, as there were forks to spoons.

Unlike Beena's own set, in Deepika's there were no imposter-like stand ins for the real thing; Take the instance when Beena's brother satisfied his curiosity by jumping on on her pink clay toy teacup. Naturally, parents being loving as they are, immediately try to mend wounds like these quickly and painlessly. In her case, Beena recalled, this took the form of a new replacement teacup. It would have been the solution, except that the new cup was white, made of plastic, and was smaller than the other pink clay ones. Of course tea sets never had spares. Beena understood that when mom comforted her. Little Beena did not accept it, but she surely was bright enough to understand it.

As she grew up, Beena forgot how significant these episodes were to her as a child. Over the years, she found herself, by some twist of fate, always being the one to create harmony among the people around her. She was the one who calmed tempers and then, offered counsel when the dust settled. Never judged too soon or too harshly. Perhaps it was this trait that led her to a career in counselling. She loved this career and was continually fascinated about what she learnt on the job.

The thing is, for a long time, Beena did not know at which point she became drawn to understanding people better. Recently, a 20-something neighbour, Parvati, said something that reminded Beena of the 80s after a long time.

Parvati and her sister Priya, lived next door to Beena in Chennai, where Beena had recently been posted after living all her life in Mumbai. Parvati asked over breakfast one day, "Ever feel that you had 4 knives from the same set and now somehow they've become 3, after you hired a maid to help you in the kitchen?"

Beena laughed in agreement and joked, " Yep, and in parallel, ever realise that the 2nd yellow bowl you bought thinking it matched the first yellow in your kitchen doesn't match? And suddenly you have this entire ugly set of cuttlery of mismatched shapes, colours and sizes?"

Parvati did not think it was a joke, and agreed vehemently, "Aiyo, my sister thinks I am crazy for wanting matching kitchen sets and all that. She says it is all for utility, not beauty. But I can't help thinking that the matching sets present some order in the chaos of a kitchen, don't you think? She doesn't mind our kleptomaniac maid Visalam taking our knives and spoons. My job is not to replace these things every now and then, what?"

Beena nodded empathetically and lifted her spoon for another mouthful of ponggal. Though she wore a calm smile, she understood that Parvati was too angry to keep her thoughts to herself. This neighbour continued, "When I was a kid, Priya used to break all my nice-nice kitchen sets that Thatha used to buy from the nearby toy shop. Then Amma used to replace them with things she made from wire, wood and tape and all that. And now I am doing the replacing myself. I just want ONE set which does not have a blue saucer for a purple cup or a stainless steel knife for an aluminium fork."

As Beena agreed with her annoyed neighbour, she remembered the words mom spoke when little Beena was being comforted years back. It was that day of the broken pink toy-tea cup. The words suddenly seemed to sound different to Beena now, compared to when they were first said, 25 years ago. "See molu, this set used to be so uninteresting because all the pieces looked exactly alike. Now, you have a different piece. Think of the different members we have in our family. Just as the father and mother and children are all different in a home, in your set now, you have something different. So your set may not be uniform, but it is more interesting than a uniform set. The disparity adds confusion but the variety adds character."

Beena shared this memory with her neighbour who then appeared to remain thoughtful for a moment. Her eyes then revealed something of a breakthrough and she said, "Yes, perhaps I push Priya too much about the little things as I do about big things. Hence, she's indifferent to my opinions, including the the antics of our Visalam."

Then Parvati looked up at Beena with a twinkle in her eye and said, "Hey, you're pretty good da!"

Beena smiled back but refrained from sharing her thoughts on her mother's words. Beena's thoughts were that she was conscious of mom's wisdom surrounding the cup all of a sudden, after 25 years. It took her this long to figure out that mom's speech was about understanding and accepting people as they are.

So, after many years, it looks like she had finally understood from where she got her talent for counselling. And her education and interest in counselling may well have begun at around 7.

My "Spanish ...(etc!) Conquest" wild imagination please, I was refering to my efforts to learn Spanish, as the "Spanish Conquest". I love learning languages. And I love Spanish, now that I've 'tasted' it.

However, I must say that when I first landed in Chennai to study music, I thought I was not going to need much more ramping-up of language skills given my 4.5/6 GMAT language score in English... and my proficiency in spoken Tamil and Malayalam.

I thought that my existing language knowledge surpassed that of most people I knew, and that it was all I needed to manage the tongue-twisting compositions that would come my way. Now, well into my course, I find myself swarmed with language, symantics, phonetics, grammar, vocabulary and what have you, of a whole host of languages! Try this on for size - an elective in Sanskrit, compositions in Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and Manipravalam, music theory in Tamil tradition and prosody, lectures delivered in English...and here's the cherry - Espana, the extra (compulsory) subject! Hence, my time has to be divided absolutely down to a "t", so that no language suffers neglect.

It's no wonder that I suddenly greeted my Spanish teacher in Sanskrit this morning and wrote "Introduction to Spanish" on the Sanskrit Exam answer sheet under "Subject:" this afternoon. Two minutes after I had written that, I realised what I'd done and made the correction. After I handed up my exam answer sheet with the corrections, a fellow Sanskrit enthusiast who heard my account of the last few hours said, "It's ok, it's common around here...students who take Sanskrit invariably also have a hand in anything between 4 and 9 other languages." Then, just as a matter of fact, he raised his hands and counted on his fingers, 11 other languages he was studying at unversity besides Sanskrit.

Definately a humbling moment.

Well, whatever it is, on the balance of things, I somehow feel elated with language more than I feel burdened. Perhaps it is that special something that language offers in terms of opening doors to a new culture. Language allows insight without having to sail the world to acquire it.

So will I take Spanish II next semester?

Hell, yeah!

Exams Versus Music Season


It is that time of the semester, when stress is at its highest - exams are up! And at the same time, music season is here. It's like having the cake and not eating it. Can't wait for 8th Dec!