Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A depressing discussion I had with a cousin of mine made me ponder about something that I had been thinking about for quite sometime now- the subtle but all-pervasive role that sexuality plays in the lives of average Indians. We might all be greatly influenced by the centuries of conservative Muslim and Victorian cultural influences and try to brush the issue down the carpet- much unlike the aware and uninhibited Ancients who spoke and discussed sex as part of normal seminal or religious discourse. But this apart, the undercurrents and innuendos do lead us to the ‘basics’. This is perhaps most amply seen in the kind of lingo that especially the Northerners indulge in- almost every second sentence is an invocation to the organs! The concept of the Linga or the giant Phallus in the being of Shiva who is identified with the ultimate male machismo , the concept of Ardha-Nareeshwara or half man-half woman or the ease with which Vishnu kept changing roles of a man to a beautiful nymphet in the role of Mohini- the seductress (who knows if it was an allegory to being a transvestite?) and of course not to mention the much bandied and talked about Khajurahos and Vatsyayanas of the country!---all point to one definitive fact ; that sexuality and matters related to it do matter to Indians in a manner and magnitude bigger than they portray or try to conceal! Like it or not, when it comes to these matters, we are a nation full of hypocrites who indulge shamelessly in the art, which has perfected over centuries of dramatics!

Coming back to my hapless cousin, the fact that she couldn’t bear a child after many years of marriage wrecked havoc with her domestic and marital life. She was made to undergo all the tortures therein to become ‘eligible’ enough…but sadly for her husband, the medical reports seemed to point fingers at him….and that is something that no Indian male would ever like to discuss or acknowledge. An attack on his virility or talks of his ‘incompetence’ make him feel like a wasted piece of shit- like all there is to life is procreation and bearing children! That’s where the funda of sexuality and the concepts of male hegemony therein assume importance in a purely Indian context. Even now with all our advancements and the rest, its ultimately the woman who gets blamed for a girl child, for infertility and for just about anything related to matters of sex. Talk the same to a man and presto! Veritable hell shall break loose! I’m no feminist for Heaven’s sake, but at the same time, im not the typical Yem-Cee-Pee either!!! After all as educated people, don’t we need to have some biology on our meninges?

India and Indians have a long way to go before we shed this superficial and hypocritical Islamic and Victorian veil of piety! Also the numerous sexual stereotypes that society churns out- a man is supposed to be hard hearted and never allowed to shed tears, if he does- whispers of ‘may be something is amiss somewhere’ abound….even as a kid, a boy is taught not to cry in public, chiding and ridiculing him to be so effeminate if he ever did so! as a teenager, its considered good and macho enough for him to take part in every damn sport under the sun; but fine arts or anything that has 'sensitivity' attached to it--is a strict NO-NO! Then ofcourse, with age all the preoccupations with the 'size' and the rest catches up with our poor lad! If this is how society expects a 'MAN" to be, why blame poor him when he takes it his birth right to be boorish, crude and catch every passer-by woman on street as his rightful object of lust?? its after all decades of upbringing and social conditioning that has led to him to do what he does...moreover all these images of machismo, I guess put immense pressure on the Indian male as well, as much as the repression affects the female. the 'pressures of performance' and that too all the time seem to bog him down eternally!

Well, when we cant treat the so-called ‘better-half’ of the species in a befitting manner, I don’t even want to imagine about the condition of the so-called sexual-minorities in India! I think this is one country of nincompoops where films like ‘Fire’ get shouted down by supposed protectors of ‘culture’ saying ‘Homosexuality is against Indian Culture’ (boo!hoo!)…not to mention the pitiable state of those chaps we derisively call ‘Hijras’ and ‘chakkas’ who torture us at every railways station or traffic signal in cities like Mumbai- for sheer lack of any other opportunity at employment. Why should the presence or lack of an organ, lead to them being shunned from society that way? Is the presence a pre-requisite for intelligence, to work in, say, a hi-fi software company?? Would a eunuch fare any less if he/she took calls in a BPO? have we ever given the idea a chance, a try? Isn’t this the reason why many companies resort to the crazy idea of a medical examination before recruiting new employees, where a doctor strips you down to see if you have it ‘all’ well-packaged!? So doesn’t it then lead us to the same idea that i was talking about before, of sexuality being the core of our lives, the raison de’tre of our existence if one could use that term?

Yet each time we smirk and shrug it off when confronted by it. Each time our children ask us questions, we try to look the other way….each time we nominate buffoons to sit and censor our movies and monitor our channels—like in this age of Information and the power of the Internet, anything at all can be kept concealed for long enough from our kids! No wonder the alarming increase in the number of rapes, the cases of AIDS and the rest—simply because of our ignorance and also our reluctance to take corrective actions!

Reminds me of an age-old anecdote about how parents keep the facts off their kids doing them more harm than good in the process, but then they simply don’t know whom they are trying to fool. A kiddo goes to his dad and asks him how he was born…an obviously embarrassed father decided that the stork and bees story was a better alternative to the sperm and ovary funda and told him with a straight face about how the stork had come over and delivered him at their window sill or so. The bewildered kid asked the dad how he was born and the dad, with the same straight face repeated that the same stork visited his parents…the kid went back the family tree to his grandparents and great grandparents… and the father, very patiently blamed it all on the same jobless god-damn stork! At the end of it all, with an extremely dejected face kiddo-Sam replied ‘What a pity! Four generations of our family never enjoyed the pleasures of sex!”

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Blame it on a couple of health compulsions- but then I’m doing something which is normally not expected of me; atleast not in the midst of a vacation! Getting up at 4:30 A.M. and taking a two hour walk around Lal Bagh- one of Bangalore’s loveliest botanical gardens- was something I never thought I would be indulging in! but then over the last one month I have simply grown to love the place and the day seems so incomplete without this visit to the garden in the morn!

Lal Bagh has always been a very pleasant addiction…right from school days, when as President of the Nature Club that we started at school, I organized these ‘Nature walks’ on Sunday mornings. Ok, have to agree that not many students could get themselves up on cold Sunday mornings, for something that in no way would boost their marks in the exam! But then the few of us who did manage to beat the inertia it was lovely! We had tied up then with Prasad uncle who had this undying passion for nature and was running a similar club on Environmental consciousness called Merlin Nature Club. We had these two mammoth projects underway- one was to name all the plants in school and create a herbarium of the same, with common names and botanical names spruced in. what better place to get this database than Lal Bagh which is credited as having one of the largest and rarest plant collections of the subcontinent. Prasad uncle also took us on ‘Bird watching’ trips ( well, the actual birds which fly in sky!), taught us to identify birds at a distance from their color, appearance, sounds and so on! After all more than 200 species of birds have their home in the sprawling garden of Lal Bagh! As kids, such a practical exposure to Biology and natural science was truly enriching. Of course the games and fun that followed or the routine trips to the nearby Mavalli Tiffin Room, popular as MTR, for their famous Masala Dosas made these trips all the more delightful!

This enthralling 250 acre garden was established by Haidar Ali in the 18th century. It was his son, the legendary Tipu Sultan, who added the touch of grandeur to the garden importing shrubs from places like Turkey, Mauritius, Persia and France. In 1856 it was made into a horticultural garden and placed under the management of a superintendent from the Kew Gardens in London. In fact with over 1000 species of flora, it becomes one of the rarest treasures of natural history.

Lal bagh is undoubtedly a walker’s paradise…three rounds or so along the lake side amidst the canopy of trees is enough to get one going for the rest of the day. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people- young, old, men, women, kids being so health conscious and taking that extra effort to brisk-walk or jog their way to health. Its an ideal hang out for the old crowds—we regularly encounter an old couple who haunt the place every morning, come what may. The husband, in a tone as loud as loud can get, harangues endlessly to his pitiable old wife on everything ranging from the current state politics of Deve Gowda and Dharam Singh to the Bihar mess to philosophies of why one should not fear death! Its quite an amusing scene to see the lady drone away passively in a supposed response of acknowledgement, while its clear to even a passerby like me that her thoughts are elsewhere- may be on what to cook for the day! Then of course the group of old men who jaunt with their walking sticks commenting on the days that were, the days that are and the days that would be—having an opinion about everything and being as garrulous about it as possible seems to be a religious profession! Then the middle aged housewives in their sarees and walking shoes stroll around in an obvious posture of discomfort which years of sedentary lifestyle has brought about. There is also a regular group of Tamilians, who, true to their moorings (well, no offence meant!) believe in speaking at a tone which could be audible across the 250 acres of the greenland! The young men and women (unlike me) are too busy to stop along, observe people and their mannerisms, and jog along sweating profusely and burning those ‘extra calories’! but then they are all there with one common goal in mind- Health- and that’s so heartening to note!

Sundays hold a special meaning to the Lal Bagh regulars, as the Kannada and Culture Ministry organizes ‘ Udyanavanadalli Udaya ragagaLu’- an Open air concert of Morning Ragas- at the Band Stand overlooking the spectacular Glass House. Many noted local artists and upcoming ones display their talents in Carnatic and Hindustani classical music to a varied audience—some music lovers(like the three of us) who sit at Band stand through the one and hour half hour programme, but mostly passers by who, sporting a curious and anxious look on their faces at having heard anything called classical music in their lives, try to catch a stanza or two and make their way out! But music amidst nature and that too in the early morning hours with cuckoos cooing in the background does make a heady start for a Sunday! Where else would I get this but for my very own dear Lal Bagh!?

I’m suddenly stung by reality that the next 2 days would be the last of my strolls in Lal Bagh, even as I get-set to bid adieu to Bangalore and make way to the dry and barren lands of Gurgaon. There is a heaviness in the heart at not being able to listen to the old man’s sermons on national politics, at not being able to twitch my ears in discomfort at the Tamilian brouhaha, at not being able to catch up with Sunday morn music sessions followed by a sumptuous breakfast at Adigas or MTR…but then, I guess if there is one thing that is permanent in life, that is change! And so be it!

Monday, May 09, 2005

The weekend was dedicated to the memory of Patti- my paternal grandmother- who left us an year before at the ripe old age of 110! She had become a living bag of bones, lost a lot of her vital functions, memory and the rest. Add to it the abhorable manner in which most of her illustrious sons tossed her around, like she was some Pele’s play object. But all these honourable men didn’t lose the chance to commemorate the first year of her departure with all the traditional Brahminical rituals; followed till the last line in the rule book! What an irony life is at times! We have scant regard for people when they are alive, but the minute they cease to exist in physical form, we brace ourselves for every ritual that needs to be done, with great aplomb!

Neither was my father or his family(read me and the rest!) invited for this mega-event; nor did we have any inclination to get to Chennai to solemnize this event. It would have just led to more heartburns, more controversies, more misunderstandings. Instead we decided to cherish her memory in our own unique way. ‘Teertha Ashrama’ is an old age home for old, destitute women in Puttenahalli on the outskirts of Bangalore. Spread over some 5-6 acres of land, in the middle of a muddy, dusty, bumpy road; with a huge garden, walking space, lawns and prayer hall, the home houses some 20 old women in its quiet environs. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, these old women, in the twilight of their lives sit there patiently waiting for the end to come. Like Patti, almost all of them have sons and daughters who are respected citizens of civil society; earning huge perks and inhabiting big bungalows- though all these bungalows seems small enough to house the very person who gave birth to them and made them what they were today! Old age homes are a classic example of the insensitivity of our erudite and elite society. The affluent sons and daughters, send in monthly cheques to the management of Teertha Ashrama for the upkeep of their mothers; grudgingly make the bumpy trip to the home once in a month or so to see if the person they’d left back is alive; dump a tonne load of fruits on her though that would be the last thing she’d seek from them anyway; virulently shake off her tight clasp as she seems to beseech them through her vacant, expressionless eyes to stay longer or come often or bring the quintessence of her existence- the grandchildren-during vacations. And even before she or anyone can realize the Mercedes would’ve evanesced in a cloud of smoke and dust that it raises in its wake- and the people inside them move away with supreme self-satisfaction about how they’ve so wonderfully discharged all their responsibilities as offsprings! This has become almost a regular feature at the ashram.

I was skeptic about going there initially. Old age homes have always depressed me beyond point. More than the callousness and irresponsibility of a generation, it is the sadness and gloom in the eyes of its inmates that unsettles me each time ive visited any such home. But then to keep my Dad in good humor I condescended; all the while dreading the emotional repercussions that it might have on me! We were seated in a huge guest room since the lady managing the whole show- whom the inmates lovingly call ‘Matha ji’ was away on some errand. Another old woman was told to give us company. She seemed strong, active and agile and did a lot of administrative work. After a light conversation that Ma managed to make with her, she said with her eyes to the ground-‘ NO, I am also an inmate here…till I came here, I ddint know that a place called Puttenhalli existed; now my world is all but these 5 acres of land. I don’t care about the world outside of it!”. This was all she would give in by way of revealing her past or her family members and none of were senseless enough to probe or prod as well. She made some delightful conversation about their daily routines, how they spend time, how she helps the other old and terminally sick friends of her, showed us the garden and the vanilla plants that were grown there, the huge coconut and mangroves that were within the complex.

All through this the other inmates slowly trickled out, like animals coming out of the zoo cages to behold visitors and whispered to our old friend –“Mahalakshmi, these are your family members?” to which she answered so endearingly-“They weren’t till about an hour ago…now they are!”

We had sponsored a feast for all of them that day and it was quite a sight to see them relish with childish delight the extra goodies like the sweet dishes, vadas and the like that were made for them. Each inmate there had a story of her own; some of them came out with it almost readily; some guarded them close to their chest like they were some priceless treasure! Many of them told me point blank on the face-“Look son, we are an emotional lot…you come here once in a year perhaps and go away; for you its just another fun- outing…but then once we start getting emotionally attached to you or miss you or yearn for you to come more often, it makes life a living hell for us…we’ve had enough of relationships and emotional attachments…please don’t add to the list…thank you for the feast and may God bless you! All I request you is don’t ever leave your parents in a home like this; take care of them, come what may!” they were such loaded statements that I was left wondering what hit me and when! But I completely empathized the emotional trauma that they might have undergone or still going through, which made them so vitriolic.

But not all were as caustic…they were others who shed copious tears, one old woman hugged me and said I looked just like her grandson who is now in the US and whom she hasn’t seen in years now and she felt it was him visiting her in my form! There was a 90 year old woman as well, a child widow, who lost her husband on the same day of her marriage at the age of 15. Her own family ostracized her as they though of her as a bad omen. Ever since, she struggled her way through all these years; completed her graduation, took up a teaching profession in a government school and now; like the rest of her life; lives independently and with self-confidence. Listening to each one of them, it just felt the problems that I face are so very miniscule, so very manageable in comparison!

The post-luncheon session was one that I enjoyed the most…in the course of some chit chat Ma mentioned to one of them that I happen to learn classical music and that was IT! There were a series of requests for me to perform; luckily I had my electronic Tanpura with me and where I lost myself in the next 2 hours was something that even I didn’t realize! For any artist, the audience reaction and response matters; through the first song when I realized that all of them were deeply touched and influenced; it only helped me sing better, emote better and try all the more to soothe their pained hearts! Within the first two renditions, almost all the inmates, the gardeners, the kids, the servants and even the hitherto hostile inmates came over to the hall and crowded around like it was some celebrity performing for them! Some of them were music aficionados themselves and made firmayishes of specific Ragas and compositions as well ! one of them, who had done her vidwat in music in her heydays, quizzed Ma about whom I learnt from and her eyes supposedly lit up when among others, Ma mentioned Bombay Jayashri ji’s name! “ aah, I though as much, the imprint of that great lady’s style is so much on display; I feel I’m listening to her sing! What soulfulness, what emotions!” . It wouldn’t be an exaggeration if I said this was the best and most satisfying singing experiences for the soul…I felt so elevated at the end of it and but for the fact that it was getting dark, I would’ve continued for another hour or so! I had never got as much of a thunderous applause, as many blessings, as much copious and selfless praise as I did after this session!

We had a beeline of people bidding us farewell, some wept, some made us promise that we would return, some implored me to come again and sing a full fledged ‘katcheri’ with all the accompaniments et al…like some family member who was leaving them, all these old angels stood by the gate waving profusely till our car disappeared far from their sight and all we could see were silhouettes of frail bodies making their way back to another day of lonely existence, agonizing memories and cherishing the music and the few hours of our time that we had given them!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

It feels great to be back in Bangalore after that short interlude! Its not quite the characteristic comfortable summer that Bangalore usually has—things have surely ‘hotted’ up a bit! But then if you are a classical music fan then April and May are the months that you shouldn’t miss being here. What the marghashira or margazhi month (Decemeber-January) does to Chennai, April and May do to Bangalore! The city transforms itself into a cultural citadel with Rama Navami as the occasion for the same! There are innumerable Rama Seva mandalis that have mushroomed all over the city- many of them managed by residents and their jobless wives! I wonder if any other place in the country celebrates the birth of Lord Rama with as much fervor as Bangalore does- perhaps not even His own birthplace Ayodhya (well, there are other preoccupations there!)

Amidst all these innumerable mandalis that celebrate the festival with elaborate pujas and hawans by day and classical music feasts by evening, the Rama Seva mandali of the S V Narayana swamy Rao foundation stands the tallest. It has a certain history and legacy attached to it. The current year is the 67th anniversary of the celebrations! Its been etched in the minds of Bangaloreans-especially the old timers who’ve lived through the regal days of the Raj and the Mysore royalty. My grandfather and his brother apparently were regulars there as they made a beeline to listen to the then greats of classical music especially MS Subbulakshmi, who is supposed to have performed for more than 25 times at the same venue. My mother (and later me) also grew up with the same awe when it came to recalling the Fort High school grounds at Chamarajapet in residential South Bangalore where these annual celebrations are held each year, this time. The mandali proudly recalls that almost all the veritable who’s who in the field of Indian classical music performed at their premises- MSS, ML Vasanthakumari, D K Pattammal, Araiyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Choudaiah, Balamuralikrishna,Yesudas, Ustad Bade Ghulam ali khan, Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan, Parween Sultana, Shiv Kumar Sharma and a host of other luminaries.

Its quite an ethereal experience there to sit in the sprawling Fort High school grounds even as artist after artist make their trip to Bangalore this season, as the fest continues for 35-40 days in a row! The April mango showers hit Bangalore around this time and there is this indescribable nippiness in the air, the smell of the early drizzle falling on scorched sand and a light breeze blowing across the pandals, even as majestic idols of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman stand bejeweled in a huge gold plated mantap.

We usually buy the season tickets for the VIP section giving us a chance to sit in the front rows and enjoy the feast of music; but there are innumerable seats at the rear end and the free entrance at the back where people squat on the grass and listen to music! The festive occasion is marked with the distribution of lemonade (called Panaka) and kosambari(unfortunately there simply exists no English equivalent to this! Cucumber Salad would be a crude synonym!).

Music and religion make a heady combination! In India the arts have always been a means of an inward journey, a voyage of self discovery and exploration. Its almost no surprise then that classical music themes, like those of dance and other arts, draw heavily from religion and mythology. It is this very sentiment that is at work in all these numerous Mandalis and their festivities.

This year too almost all the known artists of Carnatic music have landed at the mandali—in fact many of them deem it an honor to be invited to perform there! Mandolin Srinivas, Bombay Jayashri, Ganesh-Kumaresh, Sanjay Subramanian, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, Bombay sisters, Kadri Gopalnath, Sudha Raghunathan, MS Sheela, Vijaya Siva, Mysore brothers, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Hyderabad brothers, Priya sisters, Dr.N Ramani, Sowmya, Nithyashree Mahadevan, TN Sheshagopalan, TV Sankaranarayanan, TN Krishnan and a host of others with Begum Parween Sultana and Ustad Dilashad Khan performing at the concluding concert. Also every evening, before the high profile artist makes his or her entry, an upcoming artist is given an opportunity to showcase his or her talents---after all it’s a platform and listeners that all upcoming artists crave for! Unluckily I couldn’t catch with the entire series this time, as I was away in Chennai and just managed to attend a select few.

Its quite an ode to the spirit of Bangalore, which like a huge melting pot, welcomes, accommodates and absorbs different thoughts, cultures and streams making them its very own- adding to its cosmopolitan nature. Where else would you have classical fests of this magnitude; where both the genres of classical music get showcased equally (unlike other cultural bastions of classical music like Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai which cater to specific genres only); at the same time you have a Mark Knofler Sting concert, a Bryan Adams, an Elton John, a Shahrukh Khan’s ‘Temptations’ programme which attracts as much crowd and public attention??? It is this accommodative spirit of co-existence which makes Bangalore what it is, (despite all those nasty traffic jams, population explosions, pollution et al that are now fancifully discussed almost on a daily basis!)- something that people who inundate it almost diurnally from different parts of the country with their parochial and regionalistic baggages simply cant understand or appreciate! But then Bangalore welcomes them as well, with open arms and assimilates them in its milieu; till none of them ever wants to leave!

As of now, the music season is steadily drawing to an end. But unlike what Shakespeare said about surfeit of music sickening and killing the appetite, its almost working the other way round for most of us-music lovers who throng the place despite the distance, despite the evening showers, despite the daily haggling with auto drivers post- concert--- in short, despite all odds!!! i dream of going to the same Fort high school grounds some day with my grandson or granddaughter and i am pretty sure the festivities would continue with the same aplomb even then!