Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Freedom of the Road

Recently came across a book that had this rather alluring title,- Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Good Life. Probably it was one of those days when the routine just feels a little too tiresome, and one needs some words of inspiration and motivation. I decided to give this Repacking Your Bags a try and chose the audio book so that the long commute to work could be put to use to listen to it. The book turned out to be quite an interesting one.

This blog entry is not really about the book. It is about something I experienced last weekend that was in line with an idea in the book. The interesting last chapter of the book is titled The Freedom of the Road. Discussing the ever agonizing dilemma that most urban professionals face between security and freedom, the book presents these lines,- "We’re looking for a way to ensure that we don’t end up living someone else’s life. We’re looking for new frontiers, new adventures, new places where—at least for a little while—we can feel free."

With some happy coincidence, I got to experience precisely that during the last weekend. When things get a bit monotonous or tiring, one remedy that works for me is to get behind the wheel and drive all the way to Shiragalale, my village. It works like a balm. There is really a soothing, healing power in these road trips. The roads are in good condition these last few years and passing through the familiar yet seasonally changing environs never fails to bring restfulness and a certain calmness.

A friend accompanied me on the trip last weekend. Though we had hoped to hit the road with the sunrise on Saturday, the cold Bangalore night put paid to that idea and we could start only by 8 o'clock. Our intention in this trip was to not plan things in advance but to work it out as we went along. A good decision it was, in hindsight.

My usual route to my hometown NR Pura is Bangalore-Hassan-Chikmagalur-Balehonnur. Decided to take a detour this time to visit the Kuduremukha National Park enroute. My friend, a nature-lover, was very much game for this.

Duster is such a joy to drive on a long journey. We had breakfast at Bellur and were back on the NH-48 towards Hassan. There are toll booths every few kilometers but the smoothness of the road is worth the toll collected. The highway by-passes Channarayapatna, and before you know it you are entering the land of our former prime minister.

From Hassan to Chikmagalur is also a very good road and you have many long straight stretches. It was while having lunch at The Planter's Court in Chikmagalur that the idea of visiting Kuduremukha came to us. It had been many years since I had visited this place. After calling Shiragalale to inform my mother about the change of plans, we were on our way to Kuduremukha.

As you drive past Chikmagalur, the route to Mudigere is a shady and pleasant drive through coffee plantations. The air is fresh, and the greenery is soothing to the city eyes fatigued by the computer monitors. Duster's run was quite assured in the twisties as well.

We pushed on, farther and farther away from the source of everyday anxieties of a city life, into the lap of nature.  It was late afternoon by the time we passed Mudigere and were on our way towards Kottigehara. It is wooded almost throughout this stretch. At Kottigehara we turned right to enter the road to Kalasa which passes through several plantations. It is shaded almost throughout by the woods and at some places the road is not good. You do have some great views on this route. There is a nice waterfall too.

We stopped at some places to enjoy the view. During the monsoon months, these woods must look a shade greener. Still these sights were such a contrast to the concrete jungle that we live in and we filled them up into our eyes and into the eyes of our cameras for later viewing.

It was around 5.30 in the evening when we reached Kalasa and turned into the road leading to the Kuduremukha National Park. Our plan was to try and look for accommodation in Kuduremukha itself for the overnight stay, and to return to Kalasa if no accommodation was available. It was turning dark very fast as we drove up the hill towards the Kuduremukha town.

The last time I visited this town was  several years ago and then it was a thriving mining town. The Kuduremukha Iron Ore Company Ltd (KIOCL) held sway and the town looked thriving then. In the subsequent years there were protests by the environmentalists that the mining activity was causing a lot of ecological damage. The protests were led by a Bangalore based NGO called Wildlife First. In a historical judgement Supreme Court banned the mining operation and ordered the ban to be carried out by 31st Dec 2005.

Coming back to the trip, - it was turning nearly dark when we reached the town. I was awestruck by the clear transformation of the town into a half deserted, desolate looking one. We came to know, that with a clear decision about the future course of the town still pending, there are only a few families still living here. On checking with someone taking an evening walk with his little daughter, we came to know about the possibility of finding accommodation for the night with the KIOCL guest house.

It appears that the guest house is handed over to some private management and is currently in the process of being refurbished. Our stay was comfortable.

Early next morning we went to the Range Forest Office to check on the possibility of a safari in the park. We were informed that the safari vehicle had not yet arrived and was expected to arrive in a few days. The folks at the office were gracious and organized for us to drive through the trail with a hired vehicle. What a drive it was!

Before the vehicle arrived to carry us on the safari, we drove along the Kalasa-Karkala road passing through the Kuduremukha range. You find some great views on this stretch.

About 9 kms from Kuduremukha is the Bhagavathi Nature Camp where we were scheduled to meet our vehicle for the safari. The trail we took started from the Ganapathi Katte - Singsar road.

It was an exciting drive and soon after we started on the trail, our driver pointed us to some Sambar deers at a distance. We got to see several of them during the drive.

We drove through a narrow trail, quite steep at places, and reached the peak. The driver updated us a bit on the issues plaguing the place. There is always a human interest story behind all the major projects. Development is a necessary, and at times a pitiless phenomenon that puts down people happening to come in its way. How often we hear these stories of displaced people turning disappointed, distraught and finally desperate.

The view from the top is just awesome and makes you forget everything else. It is a surreal feeling to be watching mountains all around you in different shades of green. The stillness, the quiet, the blue sky, and the sheer majesty of the mountains is humbling. The healing therapeutic touch of nature can be felt. We definitely felt refreshed.

We spent some time taking the view in. I have been to the top of some peaks of the Western Ghats in Karnataka before, like Mullayyangiri, Bababudangiri, Hebbe (this lies within my hometown). Still the Kuduremukha peak is special. Is it the recency effect? Not sure.

Soon it was time to get back to earth, and we started descending the mountain. We  reached the Bhagavathi Nature Camp from where we had started and spent some time at the Bhadra river adjacent to the camp. This river is significant to me as it also flows through my hometown and a dam built across this river in the 1950s changed the shape of my village and town forever.

In the late afternoon we started towards NR Pura. It is only a couple of hours from Kuduremukha and the route passes through Balehonnur. The new Balehonnur-NR Pura road, my home stretch, is very good now. In recent years it was done up as part of providing better connectivity to the Rambhapuri Mutt from Shimoga.

We reached Shiragalale by evening. The journey of about 400 kilometers had never seemed long at all. Instead, like always, the driving, the moving, had indeed taken me out of the state of mind I wanted to leave behind. 

 We started back to Bangalore on Monday afternoon.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Musical Weekend

"Culture is not just the spice; it is actually the oxygen. It is culture that really glues a civilization together" - Ravikiran, renowned Chitraveena maestro

The occasion was ArtInteract, a music conclave yesterday, where eight accomplished speakers shared their views on various facets of the arts. This conclave was organized by Centre for Indian Music Experience (IME) at MLR Convention Centre, JP Nagar. Another program, a Jugalbandhi, featuring Pt. Vishwamohan Bhatt (Mohan Veena) and Ravikiran (Chitraveena) was also organized in the evening at the same venue by IME.

These two programs were organized by IME to commemorate the occasion of  the inauguration of their beautifully designed new building yesterday by the Chief Minister.

I attended both these wonderful programs. Just as the advertising slogan promised it really was A Musical Weekend I Wont Forget.

ArtInteract began with a terrific talk by Ravikiran. This talk had the quality and assurance of a TED talk. I wish there were more folks to listen to this and get inspired about Indian musical heritage. I really liked it and thought of logging the important parts from the talk here in my blog. At the end of the program, Deepti Sudhindra from IME, who very ably compered the event, also did exhort the audience to spread the word.

Many years ago in Mysore, Ravikiran had visited my school Sri Ramakrishna Vidyashala and had played his Gottuvadyam (Chitraveena). He was already making a name for himself even as a young artist. It was great to see the same musician again, who in the interim had become a world renowned musician.

Ravi Kiran spoke about the topic "The role of culture" and he started his talk by warmly commending IME for their efforts in the endeavor of bringing the experience of Indian music to the people of Bangalore.

Talking about the patterns in promotion of art and culture in our country, he sought to look at it as two streams. The structured and unstructured. Structured being the macro level promotion by the government, and the unstructured being the promotion by individual organizations like the Music Academy in Chennai, The National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai, the Sangeeth Research Academy in Culcatta, and now Bangalore's IME and so on. He said there has been an excellent support from the unstructured segment, that has resulted in several young talents emerging. He felt the media coverage for the promotion of art and culture needs to improve, though it is not bad in Chennai (through the Hindu), Bangalore, and Hyderabad.

In terms of structured promotion of art and music we need to really improve a lot, he felt. He regretted that among the millions of kids in our schools very few knew about stalwarts in the Carnatic music space like  Purandhara Dasa, Thyagaraja, or Oothukaadu Venkata Kavi, and so on.

He referred to the European and American school systems, where there are school orchestras, at middle school and high school level, Jazz bands, marching bands and so on. He said they have concerts at least twice a year in schools, where students are trained in Symphony orchestras and exposed to the compositions from Western classical masters like Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and so on.

He said the classical and the contemporary go hand in hand in most countries. He said it was high time that we took every step at a macro level so that every Indian takes pride in their own country's heritage and culture, as that is what the rest of the world comes to us for. He drew attention to the fact that people from US, Europe, Australia, Africa come to India just to learn about our culture.

Stressing the need to have structured programs in our school level, he said, organizations like The Music Academy, IME and so on should lobby strongly with the government to have a structured program for the promotion of Indian art and music. He recalled meeting the Prime Minister in a delegation a few years ago and presenting a proposal for a syllabus to be adopted in government schools from class one to eight. He hoped that the government starts implementing that soon.

The other aspect Ravikiran touched upon in his talk was about the depiction of classical music in films. He said he finds it objectionable that some films try to make it fashionable to degrade our own culture. It never happens in contemporary movies in the west, he said. Even while depicting their contemporary music in their movies, they never undermine their classical music, he observed.

He said our image of ourselves seems to be a confused one and that we need to wake up from our image crisis. He stressed that music is universal and that we need to respect other forms of music. He recalled his collaborating with artists of other forms of music like pop, jazz, Chinese, Brazilian, African origins. Even while respecting the other forms of music, he reminded how important it is to take pride in your own form of music too.

He summarized his thought provoking message thus-

"Our classical culture is the product of the cumulative genius of thousands of brilliant people over several centuries. The people who made the system are brilliant minds, whichever yardstick you measure them with. With the objective experience of collaborating with different systems, I would say Carnatic music is easily the most complete melodic system in the world. It has melody, rhythm, lyrics in so many different languages. It has pure rhythmic improvisation, pure melodic improvisation. It has intellectual content, emotional content, spiritual content, and philosophical content. I would not say there is a parallel to this in such a systematic way. It is one of those systems that can easily be taught to any person in any part of the world with a rational mind. It is a very scientific system with a proper notation system. There is nothing vague about it. It has a systematic theory. Mathematical and scientific principles are involved in it. So it is something that we all need to be very proud of.

So also the Hindustani music. Even though there is a lot of Persian base, it is a fantastic hybrid of Indo-Persian values and Indo-Persian cultures.

We have dance systems here like Bharatanatyam and so on.

All these have been the product of so many centuries of evolution and an occasional revolution. We need to respect this a lot.

Indian Music Experience (IME) is providing us this kind of space to take things in perspective. We are going to have contemporary, classical folk, classical and other systems from all parts of our country and anybody who is going to be in touch with this institution is going to see how enriching it is to enjoy all these different art forms and go home enriched, entertained, educated, as well as elevated. "

Indeed, Ravikiran is not just a genius Chitraveena player. He is also a master communicator. I could not agree more with him about IME. As far as I am concerned, it certainly looks like the beginning of a long association with this beautiful centre that promises to bring more such unforgettable musical weekends.

Among the other talks, the one by Vasu Dikshit, Lead vocalist at the Indian Independent Music Band 'Swaratma', was very interesting too. Priyadarshini Govind,  renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and the director of The Kalakshetra, Chennai, gave a brilliant talk on the role of music in dance. Her talk was accompanied by  dance demonstrations by one of her disciples and by herself. The final speaker for the day Prakash Belavadi, Journalist and theater personality, also left the audience wanting for more. More on these other talks some other day.

After listening to Ravikiran's talk in the morning I certainly did not want to miss his concert in the evening. It was a full house in the evening at the MLR Convention Centre. It was a memorable experience too. The sheer mastery he and the other artist Pt. Vishwamohan Bhatt have over their musical instruments is really amazing.

I have compiled links to some articles on Ravikiran, published in the past in the Friday Review section of The Hindu. You can find these links in my Carnatic instrumental albums list. In this list, the Carnatic instrumental albums in my collection are listed in reverse chronological order of their release.

You will find my other music lists here-
My Music Lists

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book: Smoke and Mirrors by Pallavi Aiyer

"The two countries were like mirror opposites of each other. One provided roads, schools and electricity but stifled diversity, criticism and participation; the other allowed diversity, criticism and participation, yet achieved little in improving livelihoods and providing economic opportunities." (page 234)

This is probably the view that most of us Indians already have about India and China. Pallavi Aiyer's book brings home this same fact in a much nuanced and yet poignant way. The perspective is entirely an Indian one. This trained journalist desists from making quick judgements about what she observes. The restraint and the wisdom show through in each and every page.

Smoke and Mirrors is a memoir, a travelogue and a political analysis all combined into one book. The political aspect holds much significance for us Indians. While India has experienced much success as a political democracy in the last six decades, it has also faced enormous challenges in becoming a social democracy. In the last two decades, economic growth has brought with it  inequity and resentment in large sections of society in India.

While India talks about "inclusive growth" to achieve social stability, China even with its spectacular economic success has to safeguard political stability. China's arrangement certainly has worked well so far in terms of poverty reduction and brought in great material prosperity. But such prosperity has come at the cost of personal liberty for the people.

"China's economic achievement over the last thirty or so years may have been unparallelled historically, but so was India's political feat. Its democracy was almost unique amongst post-colonial states not simply for its existence but its existence against all odds in a country held together not by geography, language or ethnicity but by an idea." (page 242)

It is amazing how Pallavi Aiyer manages to find a way to be fair and loyal to both her native country and to the one that she has adopted for the period of five years. What impresses is not just her loyalty to the two countries but also the wise analysis she provides of the strengths and weaknesses of both the countries. In Chapter 12, titled 'Squaring the Circle and Coming Full Circle' the author provides a good perspective on the good and the bad from the two countries.

While she remarks that "maintaining a one-party system subject to the rule of the law was probably a project that would always remain incomplete" in China, she also points out that "India's democracy was far from being a fully actualized ideal".(page 256)

You can't help but nod in agreement when the author summarizes her impressions on the politics of the two countries thus- " democracy was often used as an excuse in India to justify bad governance, just as India's democracy was used as an excuse in China to carry on with its (relatively) efficient one-party dictatorship. India was the example of choice in China when it came to pointing out the pitfalls of democracy, while in India those who admired China's achievements simultaneously bemoaned the fact that they could come only at the cost of democracy." (page 257)

Well, the political angle apart, there is much in this book to ponder and wonder about. The author's experience as an English teacher, her life in a hutong, the trip to Lhasa, all these sections are delightful. Reading these sections certainly makes one wish to experience China. The language impediment that the author manages to overcome definitely is one herculean challenge for anyone wanting to take on the middle kingdom. One other thing to notice in the narration is the fact that curiosity  in India about China is of a much higher order than in China about India.

At the end of reading this book, the perception about China is bound to change from one of 'smoke and mirrors' to a 'much clearer mirror reflection'.

Find more reviews for this book here-

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book: A Girl And A River by Usha K.R.

" How can you get so immersed in cooked up tales of fictitious people? How can you remove yourself from the real world so easily?" he asked her.

"On the contrary, it is the real world created differently. And people are the same everywhere. The things that happen to them in books, their thoughts, their feelings, everything seems so much more enjoyable and more real too because you are sitting in a chair and reading about them and they are the ones getting wet in the rain and having problems and..." she stopped, for she had been about to say 'falling in love".

"That's escapism..."

" No, it's another way of getting to know the world and yourself".

Thus goes a conversation (on page 213-214) between the hot-headed revolutionary Shyam, and Kaveri, the intelligent, sensitive, spirited heroine of this novel titled A Girl And A River. A novel that beautifully and poignantly captures life in a small town in Mysore during the 1930s and 1940s when the freedom struggle was reaching its crescendo.

There is a distinct charm in the narration of a story when a pair of  lively and curious young siblings are added to the mix. A certain magic is apparent even in the everyday events when viewed through the inquisitive eyes of children. This is something that we experienced earlier in some very successful novels too. Who can forget the antics and travails of Rahel and Estha in The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy? Or the shenanigans of Scout and Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Setu and Kaveri form the windows through which we get to view the life of the family of Mylaraiah, a prominent lawyer in the town. While the son Setu, like his father, unquestioningly accepts the British, the daughter Kaveri is influenced by the visit of Mahatma Gandhi to the town and finds it  shameful to accept the foreign rule. Kaveri knows her own mind and in an attempt to chart her own course even defies her father to attend a Quit India march organized by Shyam. Things take a brutal turn when a police firing takes place...

The British rule of the country and the freedom struggle is something that the generations of us born after independence are only vaguely aware of. Our text books also sometimes leave us confused. History is a complex thing. People remember things differently. They remember things based on their own agendas, and forget some things. Eventually, all of it results in a concoction that we accept as our history. Well, we all know that there was the peaceful approach advocated by the Mahatma and the armed route propagated by Subhash Bose. These are historical facts we are all aware of. When the same facts are presented with a context and a setting, like it is done in this novel, we can better appreciate the distinctions between the two approaches.

We know that there were people in our midst who did support the British rule. It is interesting the way Mylaraiah defends the British (on page 37). "I'm happy to be a pillar in a system run by people like Judge Riley," Mylaraih said, "And there's no denying that whatever we have is thanks to them. Think of the chaos there'd be if we allowed our people to run things their way. Every man, right from the diwan to the petty clerk in the government office would be bringing his brother or his son through the back door...We'd endlessly be salaaming worthless people even to get what was due to us."

Again, see this (on page 49-50). "If the many , disparate, tightly wound communities, cocooned in their unchanging ways, suspicious of each other and quick to take offence, were the bones in the spine of the country, the British to Mylaraiah were the gel-filled discs that separated the bones, defining them, giving them space, the ease and the swing they required to live with each other. If the gel were to slip out of place, the body would be prostate and aflame with pain; it was so easy of their dissensions to lose all sense of proportion. People could be strange; the most docile and compliant of them could go berserk if given half a chance".

On the other hand, there was also Shyam, fiercely patriotic and a believer in violent struggle to dislodge the British. This is what he says, in his address to the Mahila Samaja (on page 206-207)- "Our young men are emasculated and our young women, too timid. We have lost the vital spirit of the youth, too fond of our food and drink, our unhampered routines, our clothes and jewellery, our meanigless entertainments, so much so that we want others to rule us, to think for us, to tell us which is our right hand and which is our left...we don't even mind being slaves so long as we are not disturbed from our state of rest."

While these paragraphs bring out the politics of the day, there are also parts in the book that capture the dynamics of the family and relationships of the day. It is interesting how Rukmini, the loyal wife to Mylaraiah, and the caring mother to Kaveri and Setu, reminisces on marriage (on page 63), -    "They were like paper kites in the sky, women, Rukmini thought. How high they flew and how long they stayed up depended on the slack they got from the men who flew them. Sometimes, they might not get off the ground at all."

They are all strong women, - Kaveri, Rukmini, even Rukmini's mother Bhagiratamma. It is interesting what Bhagiratamma thinks about the wickedness of subtle, underhand women like her daughter-in-law, and the culpability of spineless men like her own son (on page 192), - "Better to do wrong, she said, than to do nothing, than to build an anthill of routine around yourself and hope that keeping yourself occupied from morning till night will make the things you didn't want to confront , disappear".

The novel alternates from the 1930s to 1980s. While the story starts unfolding in the 1930s, it is in the 1980s that Setu's daughter(who is also Kaveri's grand-daughter) tries to unravel some of the circumstances of the past in her family. She finds two books and a letter in a tea tin in the attic which finally lead her to some details about Kaveri.

A Girl And A River is a story that a lot of folks, especially us from the old Mysore region could, in a lot of ways, identify with. Many of the words and expressions in Kannada that are used in this novel bring to mind an old world that is fast fading into oblivion. The characters in the novel are sure to stay etched in our mind. Most of all, Kaveri, who inspite of her great spirit, and an indomitable verve becomes a double victim of the crossfires of the freedom stuggle and the social mores of the times. Another tragic figure, like the unforgettable Thomas Hardy character Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

A preview of A River And A Girl is available at-