Carnatic Instrumentalism

When Mint Lounge’s new editor, Sanjukta Sharma, contacted me with the idea of doing a cover story on the Chennai December Season, I had no hesitation about what I wanted to write: instrumentalists. My previous columns on singers had produced so much ire from instrumentalists for writing “vocal centric columns,” that I thought it was time.

Percussionists deserve a separate column– mridangam, tabla, dholak, damaru, and that wonderful Indian sound– morsing.

A source of conflict in writing this story was whether to include the salacious gossip about who was married to who and all the break-ups and make-ups that happen in the artistic world. I know as a reader that it is these pieces of information that will stick; that will make an artist memorable to global readers. But it is irrelevant to the story and not fair to the people in question. In the end, after thinking about it till the last day, I left all that out.

I have a personal link to carnatic instrumentalism
My late aunt, Vijayam Ramaswamy learned the violin from T.N.Krishnan. Her son, my cousin, Vinod Venkataraman learned the mridangam from Palghat Raghu-sir. Vinod’s daughter, Aishu Venkataraman is a violin prodigy who graduated from the Berklee School of Music; then went to Stanford for undergraduate and now is in medical school. I have seen her play a bhairavi ragam at home with effortless grace. Aishu’s music can be heard at http://www.divinestrings.com
I hope she continues to play in spite of becoming a doctor.

The online version of this story has great links– to music and the musician web sites. Interested readers should go to it.

Mandolin in city
Is Carnatic music’s overwhelming focus on vocalists letting down Chennai’s gifted instrumentalists? Ahead of the Margazhi season, we find out

By
Shoba Narayan

carnatic-kbLB--621x414@LiveMint

The romantic view of music is that it is divine, soul-stirring and above shallow commercialism. Wrong. In today’s Carnatic music world, lots of things that have nothing to do with music matter.
Pedigree counts and with good reason: Genetics does have something to do with musical talent. Style, or bani, matters. The fast-paced “GNB bani”, popularized by the late, great (and good-looking—M.S. Subbulakshmi was an admirer) singer and composer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, is no longer popular.
Looks matter. Today’s musicians, particularly the women, have embraced their stage personas and carried them to lengths that would make a Punjabi wedding planner proud. Singer Sudha Ragunathan flashes rings on all 10 fingers. Saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath wears bespoke brocade kurtas. The Priya Sisters wear matching Kanjeevarams. Sisters Ranjani and Gayatri match the body colour of one sari to the border colour of the other.
All this is a great and pleasant contrast to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar appearing on stage with an otha-mundu or single-dhoti. In my view, visual overkill doesn’t detract from the music. Indeed, it provides a pleasant diversion when the musician falters. Today’s Carnatic musicians are savvy about image, the media, and know how to court controversy as a way of drawing attention to their art. That is not the focus of this piece, however. In this season in Chennai when singers reign supreme, I would like to talk about instrumentalists.
If you are an instrumentalist in Chennai, you work doubly hard to get the same number of stage performances. You have to do everything the voice does and better. This is because you are functioning in a music genre that is entirely lyric-driven. Carnatic music is suffused with sahitya-bhava, or emotions that come from words. Kurai ondrum illai, sang M.S. Subbulakshmi, turning Rajaji’s words into a paean for contentment and acceptance: “I have no grievances.”
I know the song by heart. Everyone in Chennai does, or seems to. The minute any singer begins this song, the entire auditorium sighs in recognition. The minute S. Sowmya begins singing Papanasam Sivan’s Tamil song, Devi Neeye Thunai (Devi, you are my only companion/hope), the audience will shake their heads in devotional fervour. Thyagaraja’s Swara Raga Sudha? We know that one too, and can compare versions by different singers. This is the greatness of the Chennai audience.
For instrumentalists, it is their greatest challenge as well. Carnatic music is monophonic, suited therefore to verse and melody. How then does an instrumentalist deal with an audience that expects him to duplicate the pleasures of lyric-based songs?
One way is through collaborations. Pianist Anil Srinivasan interprets Carnatic music in fresh ways by performing with dancers (Anita Ratnam), singers (Sikkil Gurucharan), veena players (Jayanthi Kumaresh) and choral groups. His jugalbandi with Pandit Sanjeev Abhyankar can make today’s teenagers, used as they are to rock and pop music, stop in their tracks and listen. Making Carnatic music accessible to a broader population has become the de facto role of instrumentalists.
“Instrumentalists have to work extremely hard to connect to their music and the audience in a way that is both authentic and original,” says Srinivasan, who reads the stories behind the song before playing his piano, thus eliminating, or at least reducing, the need for lyrics.
During a performance in Australia, he told the story of Gajendra Moksham, or the “Saving of the Elephant Gajendra by Lord Vishnu”, as a prelude to Mirabai’s composition Hari Tuma Haro, which Mahatma Gandhi requested Subbulakshmi to sing at what would turn out to be his last birthday celebration. She couldn’t make it but sent a tape with a recording of the song.
Carnatic music is suffused with religious fervour. It has a context that is very specific to Chennai. Rasikas (aesthetes) still remember the song, Nagumomu, that Balamuralikrishna sang at the Narada Gana Sabha in 1978, or so I heard from my aunt; it stunned the audience into silence, unusual for a Chennai concert.
Instrumentalists therefore play second fiddle, quite literally, to singers. Even if audiences don’t understand the Telugu sahityam (lyrics) of Thyagaraja, or the Sanskrit ones of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, almost anyone who has grown up in the Carnatic music milieu knows the lyrics by heart. So singers get the most patronage.
This means that if you are a budding musician, you will most likely try to be a vocalist unless you have a parent or family member who insists that you choose an instrument. The market, perhaps more than passion, muse or mood, drives musical choices. Ranjani and Gayatri switched from being violinists to singers. Akkarai S. Subhalakshmi, a talented violinist, is also fashioning herself as a singer.
It wasn’t always this way. The late great Mandolin U. Shrinivas created a flutter by showing Chennai what he could do with this unusual instrument. Kadri Gopalnath coaxes kritis (compositions) from the saxophone in a way that would give American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz pause. The Lalgudi family produces musicians who reach into your marrow and then stir with their bows—beginning with Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, and now his children, G.J.R. Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi. T.N. Krishnan, my favourite instrumentalist, can move me to tears when he plays Mari Vere, in the Ananda Bhairavi ragam. Look for the Maestro’s Choice CD or search on iTunes. But the musician who has currently captured my imagination is Jayanthi Kumaresh, described by Srinivasan as a “genius”.
Ask anyone in the music circle about Jayanthi and you get to know a few things within the first few minutes. She belongs to the Lalgudi family—her mother was Jayaraman’s sister. She deplores the media portrayal of veena as a dying art. She recently toured North America with tabla player Zakir Hussain. She created the Indian National Orchestra (INO) with a host of Hindustani and Carnatic musicians to present music in an ensemble format. She lives in Bengaluru, is married to the violinist Kumaresh Rajagopalan, and enjoys Kalidasa’s poetry. As I write this, I am listening to her Paras thillana from the album Jathiswara—compositions of Veene Sheshanna, himself a path-breaker. Before Sheshanna of the Mysore school, veena players held the instrument sideways, like sitar players. Sheshanna played, composed and brought the veena down to its current horizontal position on stage.
How are instrumentalists faring in today’s music world, I ask Jayanthi. “If by world you mean the entire universe, including all foreign countries and not including Chennai, I would say that instrumentalists are ruling the roost,” she says with a laugh. “If you ask anyone for a list of top Indian musicians, they will list Ravi Shankar, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Lalgudi mama (her uncle), instrumentalists all. Saraswati, the mother of all learning and creativity, plays the veena; Krishna plays the flute; Nandi plays the drums; Shiva plays the damaru. Instrumentalists are part of our music tradition.”
The veena is arguably the oldest and sweetest of instruments (my father was a veena player, as was Ravana, not that they are linked).
Earlier, every home had a veena and Balagopala, Dikshitar’s majestic composition in the Bhairavi ragam, talks about Carnatic musicians as vainika-gayakas, or “veena players and singers”.
In previous generations, every Carnatic musician, including singers, learnt to play the veena because its notes resembled the human voice. There are photographs of Subbulakshmi playing the veena. Playing the notes helped singers see and feel their music in a way that complemented their vocal riyaz (practice). You could watch your fingers go through the swaras or notes; practise the gamakas or vocal quivers that are Carnatic music’s signature; and internalize this instrument’s tactile feel into your repertoire. The veena, more than the voice, I would argue, is perfectly suited to the gamakas that differentiate Carnatic music from Hindustani.
Even if you know nothing of Carnatic music, listen to S. Balachander’s rendition of Raghupati Raghava on YouTube. It is a familiar song, and you will instantly get an idea of how Carnatic music approaches a melody. Jayanthi is S. Balachander’s student, but her main guru, she says, was her aunt and Lalgudi’s sister, Padmavathy Ananthagopalan, with whom she lived and learnt in the gurukula tradition.
Chennai remains a tough market however. “They want us to play like singers,” says Jayanthi. “That’s like going to Saravana Bhavan and asking for a pizza.” She recounts how her uncle, Lalgudi Jayaraman, played a fantastic Telugu composition, Brocheva by Thyagaraja, on his violin. After the song, an audience member asked him to play a Tamil song. Lalgudi, whose laser tongue was as sharp as his violin’s bow, replied, “Sir, in what language did I just play the violin?”
The gifted instrumentalist is still held hostage by an audience that hums Tamil or Telugu lyrics. Just ask Shashank Subramanyam, the flautist who was given the prime evening slot at the The Music Academy, Madras, when he was just 12, a record still unbeaten by any performer. Master Shashank, as he was called then, was a sensation in the late 1980s. Like Krishna (the God not the singer), his flute attracted droves of women who crowded into sabhas (concerts) just to hear the boy.
Shashank is now a senior artiste, married to a dancer. But he is still subject to the brutal calibrations that sabhas make during any music festival or season. “In any season, the sabha chooses 10-12 singers and one-two instrumentalists,” he says. “This means that if I get a slot at a certain sabha this year, I won’t get a chance there for another five or six years.”
It is easy to fault the sabhas for their patronage of singers. It is easy to say these sabhas are bowing to the market instead of promoting musical traditions. But this is a problem with no real villains; no real quick fix. The audience prefers singers, and as an audience member and listener of Carnatic music, I can see why. When a violinist plays a familiar Carnatic song like Dharma Samvardhini or Endaro Mahanubhavulu, our minds automatically fill in the words. For that reason, the future of Carnatic instrumental music may lie outside Chennai.
North Indians have no such baggage when it comes to Carnatic music. They can listen to Shashank’s jugalbandis with Rakesh Chaurasia and absorb Carnatic music subliminally, sans its lyrical baggage. They can listen to talented mridangist Patri Satish Kumar and learn about Carnatic rhythms. They can watch (on YouTube) the Mysore violinist brothers, Nagaraj and Manjunath, play Bantureethi in a restrained fashion, reminiscent of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, who popularized the song. They can listen to Ganesh and Kumaresh play a divine Vaishnava Janato on their violins and appreciate the Carnatic way of interpreting this national song.
Carnatic instrumentalists, more than its singers, operate in a global world. They believe that their future lies outside Chennai. “Carnatic instrumentalists are very popular in Europe,” says Ghatam Karthick. “You can play Kurai ondrum illai in Paris, but they won’t know that M.S. made it popular and that it is an ode to Perumal (the Hindu god Vishnu), or about Tirupati or its laddus or anything.” Carnatic music has to be de-religionized or de-contextualized for instrumentalists to hold equal sway. That’s not going to happen in Chennai for a while.
Instrumental music suits today’s world. When I listen to music while working, it is almost always without lyrics. Words intrude in a way that music doesn’t. So what is the future of Carnatic instrumental music?
My quest began with S. Gopalakrishnan, a music connoisseur who sends out a daily email with a song and an explanation—from both the Hindustani and Carnatic genres. Historian Ramachandra Guha introduced me to his mailing list and I’ve been on it since.
Gopalakrishnan lives in Sarojini Nagar, New Delhi, and is a project director for Sahapedia, an online encyclopaedia of Indian art, heritage and culture. One day, I phoned him to discuss songs versus instruments. We spent a pleasant hour discussing how singers used to absorb influences from the various instrumental schools in the past.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who taught Subbulakshmi, was hugely influenced by the nadaswaram schools, he said. Today, nadaswarams have become the south Indian shehnai, generally played only at weddings. The same thing has happened to the harmonium, which once was an important instrument—both for accompanying and for practicing to get the shruti (tone) perfect. Today, it is used mostly in Harikatha (stories accompanied by music). “The supremacy of vocal khayalism limited the growth of instruments,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Instrumentalists became prisoners of the literary composition or sahitya.”
Shashank agrees. “I think instrumentalists should all get together and come up with a Carnatic music repertoire that is perfectly suited for instruments,” he says.
We don’t have to look very far. Western classical music is all about instrumental supremacy because the concertos are written for instruments, not the voice. In the West, voice (opera and choral singing) attracts a smaller crowd than a symphony. Instruments are king and singers are queens.
The future of Carnatic instrumental music requires both a stroke of genius and a paradigm shift. How do you end the supremacy of lyrics in what is being performed today? As a listener, even I know and love the lyrics. Why then would l listen to only instruments? For that, several things need to happen. A genius composer needs to write for instruments—either a concerto format with multiple instruments or a song with a long instrumental riff like in Hotel California, where the guitar becomes the melody at the end. The third way is to mimic a Western jazz or rock band, where a group of instrumentalists come together and create a new sort of music. The musician who has gone the farthest in this area is Chitravina Ravikiran with his melharmony (a convergence of melody and harmony).
Ravikiran is a prodigy. He identified 325 ragas as a two-year-old and has received praise from the doyens, including the late sitarist, Ravi Shankar, and Carnatic vocalist, T. Brinda. He performed as a vocalist from ages 5-10 and then switched to the chitravina, previously called gottuvadhyam, an older form of the veena. Since then, he has composed, created new ragas, written operas, and worked with symphonies in England, Europe and the US, to create melharmony.
It is a step in the right direction, but even for an amateur listener like me, it is not there yet. It sounds like a mishmash of Carnatic and Western traditions, without being fully evolved.
Ravikiran disagrees with the argument that a paradigm shift is needed to increase the popularity of instrumental Carnatic music. “I think a lot of instrumentalists are flopping because they are trying to do too many different things in an experimental way that borders on desperation,” he says. “Sometimes you chase the extras at the cost of the essentials. Whether you are a vocalist or instrumentalist, if you are playing under the banner of Carnatic music, the music should have some essentials. Lyrics are an essential part of Carnatic music. But lyrics have a joint supremacy, not a solo one. Melody and rhythm are equally important.”
Ravikiran believes any instrumentalist who tries to remove the lyricism of Carnatic music is playing “two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional music”. You have to play the instrument so that people can hear the words, he says. That is not easy.
As I see it, there are three ways that instrumentalists can gain ground. One, Carnatic music has to gain a global audience, and not just one comprising non-resident Indians. Once you have French or Latin listeners, then the lyrics cease to be important. “Vocal is local,” as Ravikiran says. The second method has to do with compositions, and this applies to Hindustani music as well.
Nobody in Carnatic music is composing for instruments. Violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman composed beautiful tillanas (or taraanas in Hindustani) but they included lyrics and have been co-opted by singers. Instrumental primacy requires the harmonic polyphonic focus of Western classical music. Should Carnatic music compositions imitate Western classical compositions just so its instrumentalists will have a bigger role as performers? And how does one even begin to compose a Carnatic symphony? Will that sound like Carnatic music?
So maybe the solution has to come from the same place as the problem: the audience. Ravikiran says the audience has to be taught how to appreciate instrumental music; how to appreciate T. N. Krishnan’s masterful restraint; how to enjoy M.S. Gopalakrishnan’s amazing aesthetics; and how to venerate the two game changers of Carnatic instrumentalism: Flute Mali, or T.R. Mahalingam, and Lalgudi Jayaraman. And instrumentalists have to perfect their craft to please a difficult audience.
As the singer Gayatri says: “Take it from me. I have played the violin and I have been a singer. To achieve a level of competence in an instrument is hard. To achieve brilliance and perfection is brahma prayatnam (“ridiculously hard” is a poor translation). The audience patronage for an average vocalist is far more generous than (for) a brilliant instrumentalist.”
That is the charm and the challenge of instrumentalism. You can listen to truly brilliant instrumentalists if you aren’t hung up on the lyrics. So perhaps it is time for Mumbaikars and Delhiites to descend on Chennai and patronize its instrumentalists.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

BOX
Guides to the right ‘sabha’
These websites can help you plan which concerts you want to attend

Four websites will help you plan your concert- viewing. The top musicians sing at different ‘sabhas’ every night, so you’ll catch them somewhere; for instance, the Narada Gana Sabha, Rasika Ranjani Sabha (RR Sabha), Mylapore Fine Arts Club, and Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.
Or just go to The Music Academy, Madras, because anyone who has been given a slot there, particularly the 7pm one, has to be really good.
If you have four days to visit Chennai, go around New Year’s Day so you can catch the dance festival which begins 3 January.
The websites to visit:

http://www.chennaidecemberseason.com
http://www.musicacademymadras.in
http://www.kutcheribuzz.com
http://www.indian-heritage.org/musicseason/sch.html

Shoba Narayan

Men’s rules

At work, women don’t need to play by the same rules as men

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Indian politician and novelist Shashi Tharoor. (David Levenson / Getty Images)
At work, women don’t need to play by the same rules as men
Shoba Narayan

December 8, 2014 Updated: December 8, 2014 09:30 AM

My grandparents had four sons and one daughter: my mother. My grandmother’s favourite son was her eldest. He was always smiling, had a sweet word for everyone and sent my grandmother photos from faraway England with lines of Tamil poetry as captions. Her third son lived in the same town as she did. He was the one she called when she needed to go to the doctor, have a piece of furniture moved, or speak to her tenants about rent increases. He was her SOS and showed up when needed. He was not, however, her favourite. Perhaps this was partly because they dealt with each other too much. Mostly, it had to do with his volatile temperament. “He will do everything but with one shouted angry word, he will spoil the whole effect,” my grandmother would say.

Temperament and competence have often been framed as a dichotomy – in life and work. The nice guys aren’t competent and the screamers climb up the corporate ladder. It is a stretch I know, but political parties too have this dichotomy. The “ethos” of the Congress, as Shashi Tharoor described it during a television interview, versus the efficiency of the current BJP-led government. This dichotomy becomes even more stark when it comes to women. Most people expect women to be nice, not brusque; competent, but caring; tough, but compassionate. How does a woman balance or even acquire all these qualities?

Competence is a given in most top jobs. To climb up the ranks and run a company requires certain characteristics: perfectionism, efficiency, vision, creativity and courage. Women in top roles must have all these qualities. What brings them down however, is temperament, according to the many articles on the subject.

What is the way forward? Do you tell women to be as good, or as bad as any man; to seek equality and justice at all times during their professional career? Or do you tell them to play up the strengths that anthropologist Helen Fisher describes in her book, The natural talents of women and how they are changing the world?

According to Ms Fisher, women have the ability to build consensus, empathise and nurture relationships. Not all women are this way and these qualities aren’t the sole prerogative of women. Still, as stereotypes go, these ones hold water and, I might add, cause problems. We expect women to cooperate so, we find the pushy ones jarring. We expect empathy from women, so we can’t stand the ones that are abrupt.

Many companies – and Google is one of these – insist that their employees undergo gender sensitivity training. Words are flashed rapidly on a computer screen and you have to pick whether they are “male” or “female” qualities. The results are shocking.

One way to approach this thorny issue is tangentially. Instead of playing by the same rules, why not change the rules; change the paradigm? Why not win over the workplace through kindness and courtesy – heretical and silly as that might sound? Again, I know that these traits aren’t exclusive to women, but it is also true that men are far more comfortable being aggressive, even sometimes obnoxious.

So far, we women have assumed that imitation is the only way to enter a man’s world and be like them. Perhaps the time has come for women to stay true to themselves – at home and at work.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Women’s Colleges

LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE

Why your girl should go to a women’s college

Making a case for women’s colleges as an option for young women
Shoba Narayan
gargi-kYuB--621x414@LiveMint

George Bernard Shaw knew what he was talking about. “Youth is wasted on the young.” Our college years exert a long shadow, recognized only in adulthood. I studied at the Women’s Christian College (WCC), Chennai, and Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, US. Both of them changed my life and made me who I am today.

I went to Mount Holyoke in the late 1980s as a raw, giddy 20-year-old, eager to escape the stultifying embrace of a large Indian family. The college took me in, and did everything that a great educational institution ought to. It opened my mind, and palate; challenged my beliefs; encouraged me to try new things; and allowed me to lick my wounds in private. I went from not knowing anything about the women’s movement to defining myself as a feminist. I switched majors from psychology to sculpture and went to graduate school for a master’s in fine arts (MFA). The fact that I didn’t graduate with an MFA degree is another story, and something that I look back on with pride.

If you are a reader of this newspaper, it is that time of year when your daughter, niece, godchild, or family friend is thinking about college—perhaps here or abroad. I would like to make a case for women’s colleges as an option for young women. Going to a single-sex educational institution is not for everyone—men, for instance, cannot. But it will change an 18-year-old girl’s life for the better. It certainly did so for me.

What studying at a women’s college does is remove that entire male-female dynamic that shapes how girls behave in classrooms; the one that forces young impressionable girls to act and appear less smart than they actually are, lest they be viewed as undesirable nerds by the male objects of their desire.

Times have changed, you will say. Today’s girls are confident and don’t seek male approval. And what kind of a stupid paradigm is that anyway—where a young woman measures her worth by how popular she is with the men? In return, let me ask you to remember your high school and college years, when appearing attractive to the opposite sex occupied a significant amount of mind-space.

In the classroom, being around men robs young women of their natural drive and ambition; and renders them pliant and non-assertive. This is not the case when you are amid a group of women classmates. The playing field is levelled and you can be as in-your-face and aggressive as a start-up. You don’t have to play nice; to “be cool”. Read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to find out how a cool girl can go wrong.

During my classes, I didn’t miss men; not one single time. I missed having men around during happy hours and ice-cream socials; but not in the classroom. Freed from the distraction of good-looking males and how I could make an impression on them, I was able to focus on my studies. It was liberating.

In the US, Mount Holyoke is part of the “seven sisters”, or the “female Ivy-ies”, as they are sometimes called. The others are Smith, Vassar (now a co-ed institution), Bryn Mawr, Wellesley (hotelier Priya Paul is a trustee and an alumnus), Barnard, and Radcliffe (now merged with Harvard). They are a loose association of traditionally women’s colleges that offer a liberal arts education in picturesque surroundings.

In India, we have tons of women’s colleges. Besides my own WCC, there is Lady Shri Ram in New Delhi, Sophia in Mumbai; Loreto in Kolkata; Ethiraj in Chennai, to name just a few. Those of us who went to women’s colleges know their benefits. Our colleges made us confident. They allowed us to enjoy the company of men without being threatened by them.

Good educational institutions are exquisitely attuned to the needs of their students. They know when to prod and when to pull back. Professors, particularly student advisers, listen to what their students are saying—and equally important, not saying. They pay attention to non-verbal cues. They keep office hours and have freewheeling, off-the-cuff conversations in the corridor. Good colleges guide in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where the teacher or guru not only passes down knowledge and skills, but an entire way of being. Through role play and encouragement, faculty and staff teach young women to be assertive, to speak up; to stop second-guessing their thoughts and opinions.

My view—from personal experience and from watching other adolescent girls—is that women have many voices in their heads that tell them how to behave. They have a mortal fear of being judged. They hate confrontation. A good teacher can drown these voices. A good college can alleviate the desire for approval that women have; the self-correction that they engage in all the time. In ancient India, the guru pretty much took charge of the student, not just in the intellectual sense but also in the holistic sense. They taught their students a new way of looking at the world; of processing choices. This happens at every great educational institution, but women’s colleges are particularly attuned to that specific demographic that they cater to: young women.

It is for this reason that you should urge your daughter or niece (assuming that she is inclined) to consider a women’s college.

Shoba Narayan self-corrects (and star-gazes) all the time. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Women’s colleges

Inspired by the visit of Sonya Stephens of Mount Holyoke, I began thinking about women’s colleges.

An all-women’s college changed my life
Shoba Narayan

November 29, 2014 Updated: November 29, 2014 05:48 PM

Those involved in higher education – and I say this as the daughter of a college professor – sometimes forget just what an impact they can make on a young student’s life.

Think about it. If you are over 40, you probably don’t remember who you met last week. But you do remember those teachers whose classes you enjoyed and the teachers who shaped your mind, who charted a course that was different from the one that you had planned for yourself. These inspirational faculty, staff and advisers have been given the gift of interacting with young people when they are pretty much a tabula rasa.

Professors sometimes forget about this in their rush to publish papers and write grant applications. Reminding themselves that their jobs allow them to do what many adults aspire to do – influence young minds and leave a legacy– should help teachers get through the drudgery of institutional work: the grading of papers and writing of reports.

I went to Mount Holyoke College, a small liberal arts women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. My college days were a happy mix of curious coincidences that I could not have foreseen or engineered.

A random student, Millie Cruz, who stayed in my dorm, told me about a charismatic sculpture professor. I had never taken an art class before and indeed, the beginners’ sculpture class didn’t fit into my course schedule. But when I phoned Professor Leonard DeLonga, he told me to take whatever class that my schedule allowed. That was how I, who had no clue about art, became an advanced sculpture student at Mount Holyoke.

Good professors nudge students into paths that they may not have foreseen. Good colleges allow their faculty to make such decisions spontaneously. Good colleges go out on a limb for the student, not just with words, but also through actions.

After a year of art classes, I realised that it was my passion. I wanted to switch to becoming an art major, but I was running out of time. I had only a semester left before I finished my courses. The only choice that I – an international student on a student visa – had was to apply to graduate school. There was one problem: I didn’t have enough credits.

This was the second time that Mount Holyoke went out on a limb for me. My professors wrote to the college president and asked for an extension, so that I could stay one more year and make up an art portfolio. College president Elizabeth Kennan agreed with their analysis and gave me a full-tuition scholarship for one more year so that I could make up enough art credits to apply for graduate art school.

I did go on to graduate art school on a scholarship. A life’s path was forged at a world-class undergraduate institution.

Women’s colleges in the United States are coming under increasing pressure to convert to coeducational institutions. They were always a minority. Mount Holyoke was part of the “seven sisters”, a loose consortium of liberal arts colleges that traditionally admitted only women. The others were Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Radcliffe and Barnard. Of the group, Radcliffe has merged with Harvard and Vassar has became coeducational.

Every now and then, the remaining “sisters” open up a discussion about the future of women’s education. It happened even when I was in college. Typically, the students could go either way, but the admissions office would prefer that the college become coeducational, so they can recruit more students. The alumni, however, are the most vocal voice in favour of women’s education.

This, then, is the paradox. I only realised the value of studying at an all-women’s college after I graduated. If you have a young girl in your family who is looking at a college education, particularly in the US, I would urge you to help her consider going to a women’s college as an alternative. It could change her life.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Raga Connection show

I will be doing a workshop “The Raga Connection” along with a friend and fabulous singer, Chitra Srikrishna, at the Times of India literary festival this Sunday on the 7th of December (details below) If you have kids who would be interested in attending the workshop or other friends in Mumbai, please let them know.

Details here

http://timeslitfest.com/schedule-7-dec.php

Bonda Soup

Still bummed that I didn’t go to Ayodhya in Mangalore for typical Mangalorean food.

The bowl matters as much as the soup

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I grew up in a home where we ate on stainless-steel plates. My grandmother’s idea of a festive dinner was to lay banana leaves on the floor and have a small army of topless dhoti-clad men race down serving spoonfuls of various dishes in a prescribed order: first payasam (kheer), then paruppu (dal), then pappadam , then pachadi (raita). Then came an array of dishes that are pretty much untranslatable— kootu , avial , olan , kaalan , kosumalli —and pretty much inedible according to my husband. If you were lucky, the meal would include an “English vegetable” such as potato or plantain fry. By the time you opened your mouth to ask for a second helping of plantain fry or whatever it was that your heart longed for, the bare-torsoed men had scurried to the end of the banana-leaf line. The men had names, surely, but we didn’t know them.
 The “mama” or “maharaj” in charge had a bulbous stomach shaped like a ghatam. If we dared to ask for seconds, he would glare at us for a second before yelling, “avial vaa”, which was akin to saying “chorizo, vamos” in Spanish. I think this is the reason that restaurant menus got more and more complicated with the description of the dishes—because they don’t have a top-dog “maharaj”, referring to servers by the names of their dishes.
 Can you imagine the maître d’ at Noma or The Fat Duck calling a waiter by the dish he is serving? “Oy! Shaved cod with grilled steak tartare served with toasted areca nuts and passion-fruit purée. Come here and serve this chit of a girl who is eating as if she has escaped a famine.”
When we met as a family, food was served on the dining table with a hearty dose of “feed you till your stomach bursts” type of hospitality. This essentially meant that there was no conversation; only incessant questions: Do you want more potatoes? How do you find the dal? Is there too much salt in the biryani? So you ate like a duck, quacking “yes” or “no” to the questions that were thrown at you from grandmother, mother, and every sundry aunt that was hovering around the table, serving us all. Interspersed with the questions were constant accusations: “What do you mean, you don’t want more sambhar? Are you sick?” was the most frequent, accompanied by a frown and a glare.
My family viewed food in a complex way. Food was utilitarian—you ate for sustenance. Mealtimes had that hurried feeling of “eat quickly so we can get this meal over with and move on to the next”. It was an expression of aggressive love—you ate because the women in your life would be insulted if you didn’t. It was a competitive sport—you ate because there was a finite amount of your favourite dish and you had to eat as much as you could before your 20-odd cousins could.
It was a delicate balancing act that occurred in between the times the bai (maid) would show up to wash utensils. It was a connection—quite literally, since Indian women are prone to rolling rice-balls and sticking them into the mouths of the non-eaters. If you didn’t eat, it wasn’t because you were full. It was because you were sick. And then you were force-fed Horlicks with bread.
Food was a calling card; a brand identity. Savita maasi’s mango pickle versus Dimple aunty’s lemon relish; Kanti bua’s Goda masala mix versus Shetty aunty’s chicken ghee roast mix. Now we just go to Thom’s Bakery and Supermarket and buy Everest garam masala sans provenance or pride. Women identified themselves with certain dishes. They still do. Entire weddings were centred around the arrival of the Sridevi-like character in my family who made divine laddoos. Saralamami wasn’t as pretty as Sridevi but her laddoos looked better than the ones in English Vinglish and led her to deliver love masked as a threat: “What, you don’t like my laddoos? Why are you eating only four of them?” Accusations and badgering till you hung your head in defeat and masticated without a word.
When I lit a candle on the dining table after returning from the US, my entire family thought that I presaged a power cut. “How does she know when Amma (J. Jayalalithaa) will turn off the power?” they murmured and stared at me with wonderstruck eyes. When my extended family and I gathered for annual vacations in Coimbatore (my Mom’s side) or Kottayam (my Dad’s side), their idea of a fancy dinner was to go to Annapoorna or Aryaas, and have masala dosas with flies on the side. As for conversation, you stared dourly at the sour waiter and willed him to serve you more red chutney. I tell you this as background for what I am about to reveal. My aunts were wrong; my parents were wrong; and my grandmother, whom I adored as a child, was more wrong than them all. Accoutrements matter. Utensils matter.
What you eat with is as important as the dish you actually eat in—and I say this after eating food without caring about where it came from. You can eat a bonda-soup from Mangaluru but equally important is the dish from which you eat it. I have no connection to Arttd’inox or Magpie design, but if they priced their stainless-steel dishes more reasonably, I would eat my bonda-soup from their bowls.

Shoba Narayan enjoys the Shetty’s chicken ghee roast powder that she purchased in Mangaluru at Sri Sai Condiments. She coats her paneer with it. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Wine glasses

How to balance multiple readerships is my challenge.
Wine one week; heritage conservation, the next; and wildlife, the third. How to make wine glasses palatable for the activist so that they don’t dismiss it as frou-frou?
I often think of narrowing down my writing to one topic. Just can’t figure out which one will sustain my interest.

In search of the perfect wine glass

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A goblet being gilded at a unit of Baccarat in Nancy, France. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/xpF8gExiOeiHdCflMjKN8J/In-search-of-the-perfect-wine-glass.html?utm_source=copy

Anyone who has stayed in a hostel has a resource-constrained mindset towards food. I don’t care which college you went to. Standing in line and waiting for a finite amount of food does something to your psyche. It makes you think of food, not as a pleasure to be had, but as a resource to be grabbed. It has taken me several decades to get out of this mindset.
I write this as I drink a 2011 Chateau de Fontenille from a wine goblet with a curvy bottom that is shaped like Jennifer Lopez’s—there is no other way to say this—flight path if she were sitting on a boomerang. The wine is golden in colour and goes straight down—like the Congress party. It is available in Bengaluru for about `2,000 and is a blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris, muscadelle and semillon.
The best part of this wine is that the grassy acidity of sauvignon blanc is hidden, or at least balanced, by the other grapes. I have not had a sauvignon blanc that I like in years. Friends have been raving about Charosa’s version but I haven’t tried enough of their wines to agree. I don’t like sauvignon blanc’s herbaceousness. If I want that taste, I’d rather eat ajwain (carom seeds).
The wine is from the lesser-known area of Entre-Deux-Mers, between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France. I have a case and enjoy it with the manchego cheese that my friend, Phyllis, brings for me from the Whole Foods Market in New York.
The main point of this passage is not the wine but the fact that I am drinking it from a glass that I love. As a college student, if you had told me that people would pay good money for dishes from Rosenthal, Noritake, Villeroy & Boch, and Versace, I would have sputtered out the hot hostel bondas that were served on greasy, grainy stainless steel plates with a side order of a scowl.
Behavioural economics has shown that the environment in which you eat matters just as much as what you eat. A study conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab enlisted an actress who would wear a fat suit and dine with fellow students. The study discovered that people do eat more when they are with heavier people. Moral of the story: When you go out to eat, sit with a thin friend.
Does drinking wine from a pretty glass make the wine taste better? I was about to find out.
My wine glasses are in a state of flux. As newly-weds, we bought Baccarat crystal glasses, which got destroyed on one memorable evening when my husband and I threw them at the wall to… check if they would bounce. When the children were little, we bought pewter glasses from Royal Selangor in Malaysia. They look like Roman amphora now, after many washes in the dishwasher. This year I decided to get a whole new set that fulfilled a specific criteria: They had to look good and feel good; and not be so expensive that I would un-friend those friends who broke my wine glasses. That meant removing Bottega del Vino, Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau from the list; not that they are easy to get in India.
The glasses I bought are by a Thai brand called Lucaris. I bought a set of six at HomeStop for under `4,000. The wine glasses from the “Tokyo Collection” are expansive—not expensive. They are better than Riedel which, in my view, has become an overexposed brand. When you can walk into a Macy’s at Tyson’s Corner Center mall in the Washington, DC area, or at 1MG Road in Bengaluru, and buy Riedel glasses for 50% off, then you know that the brand, which once marketed itself as exclusive, is actually not.
I know wine tumblers are all the rage, but I think they were designed with breakage in mind rather than the beauty of the glass itself. A tumbler doesn’t give me the feeling that I am drinking wine. It’s like drinking filter coffee in a cup. It may serve the purpose but it just ain’t right.
Being south Indian, I’m not as finicky about chai. I know that it perhaps tastes better in a kulhar, but I like drinking my green or masala tea in thin, clinking China cups, with a pretty glass teapot that has an infuser in the middle so that you can see the beautiful tea liquor turn golden. Pour the tea into a glass cup the way the plantation folk do it and you can enjoy your tea in a way that “Nair, single tea,” will never equal.
I have gone from being a utilitarian diner to a finicky one, especially as far as the serving ware is concerned. It had to happen of course. I grew up eating on banana leaves where you had to build dams out of white rice to protect the rasam from running over. There is a charm in that. But there is nothing wrong with the plates that Thomas Keller has designed (I think the Taj group has them in its New Delhi restaurant), pretty linen napkins, sleek cutlery or silverware as the Americans would have it; and wine goblets that curve like a certain part of the anatomy.

Shoba Narayan drinks Kusmi tea from a translucent teapot. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Identity and Culture

One more ode to my favorite garment: the sari.

How a simple, draped cloth defines a national aesthetic
Shoba Narayan

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November 19, 2014 Updated: November 19, 2014 07:07 PM

There are many ways to come at the concept called identity. Aesthetics is one of them. Every culture has a distinct aesthetic. Chinese poetry describes eyebrows like willow leaves; Japanese paintings celebrate women with white skin and rosebud-shaped lips; the Arab world emphasises the beauty of a woman’s eyes; Europeans pay attention to cut and silhouette and how it complements a woman’s body.
India, in contrast, is a culture of drapery, not tailoring. Even though we have fantastic tailors, we love hand-woven textiles. Women of my mother’s generation called it “the purity of the unstitched cloth that has not been sullied by a needle and thread”. Our saris are woven, as are our pashminas and the dupattas that we wear over our tunics.
That is the Indian aesthetic and I think it’s remarkable – because I cannot think of any culture that has this historical link to textiles the way early humans designed them. If you go the Louvre or to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and look at ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art, you will see humans wearing draped cloth. The men and women wear textiles that are draped just like we Indians drape saris and, for the men, lungis.
Today, the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians have all migrated to tailored clothes. Nobody is wearing a toga on the streets of Rome these days. India is arguably the only civilisation that still has a vibrant culture of drapery, with a living connection to textiles that goes back tens of centuries. Even the Arabian abaya, which comes close in terms of draped cloth, is stitched, unlike the sari.
This is why I try to wear a sari as often as I can. Frankly, I am not very comfortable in it. Not as comfortable as my mother anyway. The women from previous generation could work and sleep in saris. But I love this tactile connection that I have with history, with my heritage and, indeed, the history of all textiles across all civilisations. The sari is a living emblem of the human connection with unstitched cloth.
Anthropologists look at things that are unique and specific to a particular culture. However, few researchers talk about the aesthetics. India is a culture of ornamentation. You can look at Kerala paintings – by Raja Ravi Varma, for example – and get an idea of the Indian fashion sense as it percolates down the centuries.
Take anklets, for example. They are distinctive Indian ornaments that are rarely found in other parts of the world. India has jewellery for pretty much every part of the body: the forehead, ears, nose and even ankles. Anklets jingle as a woman walks. My feminist Indian friends say that it is so the husband can keep tabs on his wife as she walks around the house. I think that the reasons are less about power and more about sensuality. The sweet sound of jingling anklets are a good way to drive out traffic noises. They are also Zen in that the sound of the anklets focus your mind as you walk.
Modern designers fetishise the leg. Shoe designers like Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo know that the arch of the heel is beautiful. They design their stilettos to emphasise this arch. But western designers have forgotten about the ankle and making it beautiful with an anklet. Indians didn’t forget.
In that sense, India is not like Scandinavia with its “less is more aesthetic”; nor it is like Japanese minimalism. We have a “more is more” aesthetic. For global business travellers who work in multiple cultures, there are many ways to understand the people that they interact with. One way is to observe a culture’s aesthetic.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir