Patrick Pichette is probably a nice guy but…..

Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.

Begin forwarded message:

Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale
To: thegoodlife@livemint.com
Cc: shoba@shobanarayan.com

Dear Shoba,
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?
Warm Regards,
Vaibhav Bhosale

Why balance wins over early retirement

patrick-kFpC--621x414@LiveMint

A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote.​ In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.

Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”

Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.

But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.

What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.

Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.

Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.

Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.

Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.

Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.

If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.

Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Probably the only thing Jony Ive and I have in common

Is the cadences of speech.  Wish I had read this profile in the New Yorker before submitting mine– I would have led off by saying that I speak like Jony Ive.  I think the profile is right in that it is a desire to be “liked” that makes us speak this way.  But the benefit of middle age is that you can attempt to overcome this.  Shorter Ive profile takeaway here at The Awl.

Clunky headline notwithstanding, my piece for Mint Lounge below.

Which Verbal Personality type are you? 

What is your verbal tic? Do you say “like” or “means” more than two times in a sentence? Big data has discovered that men say “uh,” and women say “um,” according to The Atlantic Monthly. Perhaps yours is not so much a verbal tic as a tone that conveys the wrong impression. You are not a complainer but you have a whiny voice. You think you are flexible but your tone is clipped, giving the impression of rigidity.

I have a verbal tone that drives my husband nuts. It is needlessly tentative. “Why do your sentences trail off towards the end?” he will ask. “Why do you ask questions instead of just stating facts, especially since these are subjects that you know?”

I think I speak this way because…wait, scratch that. Let me be declarative and you will see why. I adopt this tone out of childhood habit. I was taught to speak a certain way so as to not appear arrogant.

Our speech patterns are deeply ingrained and most of us don’t know how or why we speak the way we do. Some of it is because we mimic the speech of those we admire. Some of it is because of our inner biases playing out in the cadence of our speech; and some of it has to do with assertiveness.

Do you declare (“This research paper is hogwash”) or do you hedge (“Seems to me and I could be wrong but this research paper doesn’t read quite right”)?

Do you speak forcefully (“India wants an answer”) or do you speak softly (Don’t mean to push but would you like to answer that?”)

Assertive people speak to claim attention. Reticent types speak to connect with each other. Speech patterns also have to do with whether you are comfortable with disagreement. Some of us hate confrontation. We don’t interrupt others and fall silent when we are interrupted. Arnab Goswami would render such people practically mute. Both men and women interrupt a woman four times more than they would interrupt a man.

The problem is when your speech doesn’t reflect who you are. You may be confident but you speech is tentative. You may second-guess yourself to be polite, but you appear unsure of your opinion (“I may be wrong but I think Rahul Gandhi has some issues”). Do you have speech patterns that you have fallen into; that it is time to outgrow? Do you qualify your statements and if so, why? To appear nice? (“You probably know this already, but everything is relative, isn’t it?”)

Assertive folks speak 2.5 times longer than shy retiring types: in classrooms, meetings and boardrooms. When someone interrupts them, they shut up; and take a while to speak up again. They are vulnerable to interruption, as the jargon goes.

This applies in social settings as well. During a debate or a discussion at a party or salon, a few people jump in assertively. They interrupt each other constantly. When things get heated, they have no problem out-shouting each other. They think fast on their feet and state opinions authoritatively, even if they end up being wrong.

The other group waits to be heard. They engage in “turn-taking” behavior. They don’t interrupt, and if they do, they aren’t loud enough. They wait to formulate perfect opinions before they open their mouths. They worry about being seen (and judged) as stupid or ill informed. Predictably, women speak far less in public than men. One-on-one, it is the opposite.

The next time you are in a lecture and the speaker invites people to ask questions, notice the ratio of men to women. Which gender asks more questions?

The question is what to do with this information. If you are running a meeting; or convening a business conclave where men outnumber women 3:1, as they usually do, what is your approach? If you want to make sure that the shy brainy folks contribute to the meeting, what is a good strategy?

One approach would be to simply pause. Take a moment before responding to what someone has said. Be aware of how you are responding to women versus men. Satya Nadella discovered that too late. Notice your biases and your body language. Are you choosing men to answer ‘impactful’ questions and tossing the women the lighter questions? The idea is to cultivate a memory for your behavior and biases so that your responses can be equitable.

Society lays the onus on women. Lean In, says Sheryl Sandberg. Break the glass ceiling. Speak up. Dance like a man. That is one way. If you are the boss, sure, you can tell your quiet colleagues to speak up. Or you can simply hire more women. As has been reported in the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Inc. and The Atlantic, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men on a consistent basis. “The secret to smart groups: it’s women,” as a headline in The Atlantic said.

Shoba Narayan has never had assertiveness training. She could be wrong but she doesn’t think she needs it.

Valentine’s Day

Had fun writing this piece.

Are you a spouse whisperer?

Pity the newly-weds this Valentine’s Day. Flush with love and fresh with flowers, these men and women make heartfelt declarations of love, little realizing that what they need is not a card embossed with hearts, or an app that suggests new ways to regurgitate that tired old phrase, “I love you”, but a spouse whisperer.

What, you will ask, is a spouse whisperer?

Remember The Horse Whisperer, the movie in which Robert Redford makes a horse do things that it does not want to do? Spouse whisperers do the same thing to spouses.

There comes a time in every relationship when you realize a simple truth: Your spouse doesn’t listen to you. The harsher truth will follow: Your spouse listens to someone else who says the exact same thing that you’ve been repeating for days, months, sometimes years. That beloved man with a dimpled chin that you fell in love with is 100 times more likely to follow well-meaning advice and instructions when it comes from a dispassionate third party.
You could have been telling him to buy mutual funds for years. Suddenly, one day, he will return from his golf game or even his barber and announce: “You know, Billu barber is buying mutual funds. I think we should too.” Before you froth at the mouth, read on. If you are as smart as I think you are, you will immediately see the need to cultivate the barber, tailor, hairdresser, golf buddies, drinking buddies, and colleagues, who shall henceforth be referred to as spouse whisperers.

The common need for spouse whisperers became apparent to me after a night out with friends. We had a few drinks and pretty soon, we began talking—lovingly, of course—about our spouses. My husband, poor thing, works long hours; he should exercise more. She should shop less. He wakes up too early on weekends to head out to the golf course. She stays late at work. He needs to cultivate hobbies; I only have his best interests at heart. She should nag less. After our venting, we arrived at the same conclusion: Our spouses didn’t listen to us. They followed the advice of TV news anchors; articles in magazines; and even random strangers they had met at parties.

Sounds familiar? I thought so. In all these situations, who are you going to call? A spouse whisperer.

Take a simple example that is the source of much discussion in many households these days: the amount of time that your spouse spends on social media. As her well-meaning husband, you believe she is spending far too much time on Twitter and Facebook. It is not a belief; it is a fact.

Being the software engineer that you are, you have ingeniously set timers to detect when she logs in and out of Facebook and Twitter on all her devices. You have wads of proof that you have collected on your daughter’s graph paper—pencil marks that go up and down like an ECG, plotting the amount of time she is on social media on a minute-by-minute basis.

One evening, you begin a discussion about this, little realizing that it is a path to self-obliteration. Let’s figure this out rationally, you say. As you speak, there is a series of reactions in rapid succession. First, she doesn’t listen. Then she pretends she doesn’t understand what you are saying. Third, she says that you are wrong! Flat out. Without discussion. It is all in your head, she says.

That’s when you bring out your ammunition: those green graph papers that you clutch in your hands. Proof. Going back weeks. That’s when her eyes go cold. “Have you been spying on me?” she says in that deceptively quiet voice you have come to fear. That is when you realize that all your meticulous tracking of her time on social media, and rigorous collection of proof, was not just suboptimal; not just a waste of time. It was worse. It was like digging your grave, jumping inside it, and smearing yourself with dirt just to save your face.

The tone of the discussion changes entirely after that. Your spouse spiritedly argues with you about how you are wrong in your perception of her. She has the gall to call it “perception” when you were waving around scientific proof. Then she turns the tables on you. She isn’t the one spending too much time on Facebook, she says. You are the one who is constantly on the phone—checking messages, texting colleagues, giving the thumbs-up to lame jokes on all the superfluous alumni groups that you are part of on WhatsApp, all late at night, when you should be sleeping or doing better things, like cultivating your mind. You are the one with the addiction, not her, she says.

At the end of 4 hours, she doesn’t merely disagree with you or think you are wrong. She is furious, packing her bags to go to her mother’s house. The present scenario is so far removed from the image you had in your head that it makes you doubt how somebody in your office called you empathetic and insightful in your last performance review.
In your imagination, you show her the graph paper. She pores over the weeks of data you have collected and goes red with shame. She sees the validity and truth of your statements. She sees the fault of her ways. Her eyes fill with tears of gratitude. “Thank you for showing me the way,” she says. What follows is a night of merriment.
What has ensued is the exact opposite.

You know what the worst part is? It is not that she has packed and gone to her mother’s house. She will be back after two days. The house is in her name anyway; for tax reasons. If anything, you’ll be the one thrown out on the street should you guys split. The worst part isn’t the fight or its aftermath. It occurs during a casual dinner a couple of weeks later. As she sips soup, she says casually, “You know, there was an article posted on Surekha’s Facebook update about how women are addicted to social media. It causes our hormones to go entirely out of whack; and turns us into raging psychotic beasts. Do you know that the most aroused emotion when you are on social media is envy?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you?” you feel like shouting. But you hear the word “aroused” and stay silent.

Your lovely wife proceeds to blithely tell you that Surekha and she have made a pact to stay off social media for a week; to “detox”, as she calls it. You may wish to dump all those graph papers on Surekha’s head; you may wish to avoid her at all parties. But that would be a wrong approach. You need to cultivate Surekha so that she can deliver your messages to your wife. Silly Surekha, as you call her, is your spouse whisperer.

Spouse whisperers come in many guises. As a sneaky spouse, your job is to figure out who they are; and how you can get them to pass along your messages. If your wife reads a daily tarot card or an app that gives the day’s astrological predictions, you need to be able to get the astrologer to predict what you want: “Engage in loving habits with your husband and it will pay off handsomely this week. Don’t buy jewellery.”

If your husband is tight with his golf buddies, befriend them. Get them over for lunch or dinner. Then, have a quiet chat with the man your husband respects: “I think it is so great that you are strict with your children. You should mention that to Ravi (insert your spouse name). He spoils our kids and leaves me to be the bad guy.”

The last bit of advice I have for you is to cultivate a tag-team of spouse whisperers, because you never know when your spouse will wisen up to the fact that the driver is giving him suggestions for vacation destinations—particularly if those vacation destinations happen to be the ones you are pushing.

Always have a Plan B: in life and in terms of what you want whispered into your spouse’s ears.
Happy Valentine’s Day—to you, your spouse, and your team of whisperers.

Shoba Narayan has ruined all the whispering by revealing the concept to her spouse through this column. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Wildlife Tiger Census

Indian forests are wonderful ecosystems. Teak and sal trees shed dew tears in the misty mornings. Babblers bable; Serpentine eagles soar; Rufus treepies shriek; and humans shiver in the morning cold. Jackals come out of the grasslands. Herds of deer graze under trees. Langurs swing from trees, which themselves whisper and sway towards each other. There is Indian gum, gooseberry, Arjuna, pipal, banyan, frankincense and countless other species. Picturesque as they are, these species are no match for that apex predator in terms of viewing pleasure: Panthera tigris

Tiger numbers are up. That is the good news. The latest tiger census reveals that we have 2226 tigers in our wildlife preserves, up from about 1400 in the last census. Among experts, there is a lot of sniping and critique about methodology and accuracy of camera traps. Odisha is miffed that its tiger counts are lower than expected and wants a recount. There are questions about whether shrinking habitats can sustain the rise in tiger population. For amateur wildlife enthusiasts, it is simply enough to know that India’s wildlife efforts are gaining traction and moving in the right direction. Experts such as Ullas Karanth have given detailed interviews in this paper about the various issues surrounding wildlife management. Karanth, like many in the field, is optimistic about India’s prospects. “Tiger conservation has been more successful in India than any other country,” he said. “We are doing it in a moree cost effective manner. But we have no goal. What is the objective for the year 2020? We are spending money, often too much money without any goal.”

That said, this piece is not so much about the how of conservation, but about why we should care?

When talking about nature, wildlife, or the ecosystem, humans often use the paternalistic and patronizing word, “fragile,” to describe it. We see ourselves, as custodians of this planet as well as its most deadly criminals. We conserve and exterminate. We use more resources than any other species and are the planet’s apex predator. This human-centric view is both understandable and wrong. The planet isn’t fragile. Life on earth existed long before humans got here, and will likely continue in spite of us. The engine of evolution will continue in spite of human intervention. This so-called fragile planet, in other words, isn’t waiting with bated breathe for humans to save it. It couldn’t care less.

Humans need wildlife, not because of some misconstrued sense of noblesse oblige, but because nature is central to our existence. The birds, bees and beasts that surround us weave a web that is far more complex than we can fathom; and far more necessary to our wellbeing than we have the knowledge or sense to admit. We need them more than they need us. At the very least, nature and wildlife are what differentiates us as a species.

The tiger exists to show us what is possible and what is not. It is a biological differentiator as well as a milestone in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, going back millennia. It is also, quite simply, a magnificent beast, inspiring awe and fear. S.H. Prater describes why in the “Book of Indian Animals,” published under the auspices of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) by Oxford University Press. “The characteristics that mark a perfect carnivore—claws especially adapted to strike and hold struggling prey, and teeth especially designed to bite into, cut up and tear flesh are most perfectly developed in the cat.”

This feline grace, strength and agility is reflected in every aspect of the tiger. It has the largest eyes in the Felidae family, able to see acutely at night. Its tracks or ‘spoor’ as they are called, reveal four toes and a pad with no sole. This is because cats are digitigrade: they walk on their toes, giving their bodies a forward thrust that makes them built for speed and stealth. When tigers track their prey, they place their hind legs in the exact same spot as their forelegs. They walk like bipeds as the “Book of Indian Animals,” says.

Project Tiger was Indira Gandhi’s gift to Indian wildlife. Since its inception in 1973, several stalwarts such as Fateh Singh Rathore, Raghu Chundawat, Belinda Wright, Billy Arjan Singh, K. Ullas Karanth, Valmik Thapar, H.S. Panwar, and M.K. Ranjitsinh, among many others, have all worked tirelessly to preserve our ecosystems and wildlife.

The connection between humans and forests is ancient and primal. Trees are where we came from; and returning to these wildlife sanctuaries calms us down and makes us feel alive and connected to our planet and ecosystem. Nature heals in mysterious ways. It gives us solace without saying a word. As Anne Frank said in her dairy, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside; somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.”

Wild animals show us a way of being that is primitive, yet noble. Their way of life is both alien and yet rises above human constructs such as greed and materialism. We in India are lucky to have not just the world’s largest populations of tigers, but also the only surviving population of the Asiatic lion in Gir forest. We have snow leopards in Hemis national park; barasingha deer in Kanha; and two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga. We need them to show us another approach to living. Our natural world holds the greatest expression of life on earth. As ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin said, our forests hold answers to questions that we have yet to ask. At least till we figure out the questions, we need to hold on to our forests.

Shoba Narayan hopes, wishes, and dreams that she will go to Kaziranga National Forest in 2015.

Madras to Mumbai

I was conflicted about writing this, because I don’t think people should define themselves so narrowly.  In terms of the “land they sprung from.”  But I cannot deny the fact that such an identity exists.  So I wrote it.  Tried to keep it light.

The psychology of a Matunga Tamil

I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri, one half of the Carnatic singing sister duo of Ranjani-Gayatri. “Actually, you should say that I grew up in Matunga, which in many ways is like growing up in an agraharam (an enclave beside a temple, usually occupied by Brahmin priests and their families).”

What is it about Matunga and Chembur that makes these areas a thriving home for south Indian culture?

The sisters grew up in a housing society that was surrounded by four temples. The fabled Sri Shanmukhananda hall was down the hall, figuratively speaking. During Margazhi—15 December-15 January—while the rest of Bombay (now Mumbai) drank bed-tea, Matunga’s citizens would congregate on the streets. Women with dripping wet hair would wait outside housing societies to watch bare-bodied men walking down the street, singing bhajans, clinking kartals (called kinnaram in the south), beating dholaks and tambourines in time to their shaking bellies. “We would circle these mamas (uncles), do namaskaram (prostrate before them) and go in for our morning coffee,” says Gayatri.

Matunga in the 1970s was entirely south Indian. The girls wore long skirts, called pavadai, their oiled, braided hair adorned with flowers. “When I came for college to Chennai, my classmates couldn’t believe that I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri. “I told them that Matunga was different.”

Matunga holds a special place in the imagination of south Indians, because it is the land where our relatives went to make their fortune. They left villages with long, syllable-laden names and returned as posh Bombayites. Suryanarayanan became Suri; Ananthapadmanabhan became Padi; Balasubramanian became Balan; and their daughters became Raji Suri, Priya Padi and Vidya Balan. These early south Indians who migrated to Bombay didn’t forget their roots. Rather, they fulfilled their love and longing for their ancestral homeland by duplicating its ecosystem in their new home.

At the Matunga market, women would bargain vigorously in Tamil. “Not just any Tamil but Palakkad Tamil,” says Gayatri. “Pumpkins were referred to as ellevan (white) or mathan (yellow) pushnikai, instead of the traditional way of calling them vellai or manjal pushnikai.”

Among Tamil-Brahmins, Palakkad Iyers form a unique subset. These were people who could trace their roots to the Palakkad pass between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Palakkad Iyers, or Pattars as they were called, migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, and felt equally at home speaking Malayalam and Tamil. My father is one, and although he spent his career in Madras (now Chennai), he still multiplies in Malayalam. Palakkad Tamil liberally interspersed with Malayalam is pretty much unrecognizable to locals in Chennai.

Each of us has many layers; many personas. There is the global self that is at home in Cuba, Iceland or Japan. There is a world citizen who skiis in Zermatt, Switzerland, scuba-dives in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, shops in Rue St Honore, Paris, catches a Broadway show in New York, learns tango in Argentina, and drinks sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. Certainly, if you are a reader of this newspaper, you do all these things and more.

Then there is the local self that has to do with family, history, stories and myth. The local self is why we define ourselves as Syrian Christians, Surtis, Bohra Muslims, Parsis, Kamma Naidus, Kulin Kayasthas, Agarwals, Assamese Kalitas, Sindhis or, in my case, a Palakkad Iyer.

The local self has to do with religion and caste, but it goes much deeper than that. It has to do with a small patch of ground from which we have descended—be it Kathiawar, Kanpur, Khajuraho or Karwar. It is the reason we Indians use the word “antecedents” in a meaningful way. It is the reason we have very specific idiosyncrasies and unstated enmities. It is also the reason for our deep-seated superiority complex and insecure chip on the shoulder, for each of us believes that the patch of land we sprung from makes us superior and special in some obscure yet salient way. This is true whether you are a Rajput from Marwar, or a Goan from Colvale. You don’t care about the next province, leave alone the next state. Your insecurities and enmities have to do with your neighbours: people who call the same patch of land by that resonant word—home.

The patch of land that I sprang from plays out in my head in this way. Strip away the politeness; strip away the—sincere, genuine, authentic—belief in plurality, the abhorrence of “narrow domestic walls”; strip away the garden-party persona and pour a few dirty martinis. Then stream some Carnatic instrumental music, if possible violinist T.N. Krishnan’s rendition of Nidhi Sala in that “curly-hair” ragam, Kalyani, from your Dynaudio Xeo 6 speakers. Ask me then who I am and I will tell you, somewhat sheepishly, yet bolstered by the music, that I (like T.N. Krishnan) am a Palakkad Iyer. The music is key; also the martinis. Django Reinhardt or Manitas de Plata will not produce the same answer.

Underneath the “we are all one” persona, I am secretly proud of my roots. I was taught to be. Palakkad Iyers make good “cooks, crooks and civil servants”, said former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan. To that, he could have added musicians because his clan dominates the arts. Actor Vidya Balan; singers Shankar Mahadevan, Usha Uthup, Bombay Sisters, Hariharan and Ranjani-Gayatri: Palakkad Iyers all. My mother “hails” from Tirunellai, a village near Noorani in the Palakkad district.

Palakkad Iyers believe (as do most ethnic groups in India) that we are better than our neighbours. Our women are beautiful and accomplished; our men are fair and charming. We take pride in our food, our character and culture. When Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who is from the same village as my father, died recently, the entire clan mourned his demise. And yes, we drop names in select circles to prove our superiority. This is why India is united—not because we are tolerant, but because we haven’t been able to prove, definitively and without doubt, that As Palakkad Iyers, my family only cared we are better than our neighbours. about proving its superiority to Iyers from Thanjavur, or those pesky Iyengars. If you were a Bengali or Punjabi, we didn’t have a quarrel with you. We would accord you the courtesy of a guest, but you were as foreign as the man from the moon. Our petty hierarchies and feuding quarrels were limited to the neighbours who occupied our land.

One way in which Palakkad Iyers claimed superiority (to other Iyers, let it be said) was through music. The line of musicians who hailed from Palakkad is long. The other was a belief in the curative powers of coconut oil. A third was an affinity for border-dwellers like us.

People who lived in the areas bordering states were intellectually superior, I was told. This is why Dharwad produced exceptional musicians. Living on the border made you mentally nimble. It forced you to square away [off?] different, and sometimes opposing, constructs. It taught you how to settle into a new home but leave your stamp on it. It taught you to bring Madras to Matunga—actually Palakkad to Matunga, but Madras is a better alliteration.

 

Shoba Narayan’s Tamil when she hangs around her Palakkad cousins is an unrecognizable mishmash of Malayalam, Tamil and a few choice expletives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Indian dance

Of all arts, dance is the one that encapsulates a country’s culture.

I was thrilled to discover this link about Kamala here.

My other dance connection is that I went to Women’s Christian College and Urmila Satyanarayana was my classmate. She is here.

A dance questionnaire for dancers and critics

The most important thing in dance appreciation is to have the courage to respond to it

Shoba Narayan

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I am a failed dancer. As a child in Chennai, some of my most memorable visits were to my aunt’s house. Her name was Kamala and she was known in dance circles as Kumari Kamala. My uncle, Major Lakshminarayan, was her second husband. He would take us to The Music Academy, Madras, where we could sit in the front row and watch her perform. She received the Padma Bhushan and scores of other awards.
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To us children, however, she revealed quirky human foibles. I eat curry leaves today because Kamala mami mentioned in passing that it would help hair growth. My love of Bharatanatyam comes straight from time spent with her. Their home in Poes Garden was filled with beautiful young girls and the tinkle of anklets. Singers would be rehearsing and endless cups of coffee and tiffin would appear from the kitchen. To me, it represented a world of beauty, art, and apsaras (fairies).
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After my uncle died, my aunt emigrated to the US, where she still lives. She teaches dance and leads a quiet life. People still talk about what a fantastic dancer she was. She inspired this column, as she does anything I write about dance.

Chennai’s dance festival opens today. We asked a few dancers and critics the same questions.
1. Who is your favourite dancer and why?
2. Teach our readers how to appreciate dance.
Here are their answers, edited for length.

ALARMEL VALLI Bharatanatyam dancer
1. My favourite dancers are T. Balasaraswati, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Kumari Kamala. When Bala-ma won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, there was some controversy about whether it could be given to a dancer. Bala-ma sang a snippet of a song about 20 times and emoted different feelings. She established without a doubt that dance is visual music. Yamini was a flame. She just set the stage ablaze with her dance. I used to watch her vitality, fire and joy with fascination. I was watching Kumari Kamala on TV the other day. What grace! What life! Today we have become obsessed with the geometry of dance. Dancers of the previous generation paid attention to subtexts, nuances, and poetry that went beyond technical perfection (Valli did not know that Kamala is my aunt when she mentioned her name).

2. I think the most important thing in dance appreciation is to have the courage to respond to it. Dance calls for an investment of effort from the audience. A willingness to receive. Does it touch you? Does it move you in any way? Can it transform you? Don’t worry about the reviews. Cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. Listen to good music. The arts sensitize and refine your spirit, but you have to invest in them.

ADITI MANGALDAS Kathak dancer

1. To give one name for a favourite dancer would be impossible.

2. I think the specific things you should look for are: a) The technical grounding of the dancer, in all aspects—the pure dance aspect, the abhinaya (emoting) aspect as well the musicality and collaborative aspect with the musicians. b) I give a lot of importance to the content and whether the content of the dance has been literally expressed because this will only invoke a feeling of momentary appreciation…. For it to linger as a fragrance in your mind for years to come, the entire performance has to be transformative. Therefore, one needs to look at whether the content has been merely translated or whether it has been transformed into something else. Has it evoked in the viewer a sense of wonder and magic? That to me is one of the most important things. c) To see how the piece has been choreographed, keeping in mind the space where it is being performed, the lights used, the costume worn. Whether the aesthetics of the work are in harmony with the dance.

ASHISH MOHAN KHOKAR Dance critic

1. A good critic cannot have a favourite! But since you ask: Padma Subrahmanyam for her academic mind and divine art and decades of sincere service; and Alarmel Valli for her precision, spontaneity, clarity, class and depth of art.

2. Go with an open mind. Try to understand the literature/poetry of dance because therein lies its kernel. Don’t see the physical features, but the inner beauty of the dance/r. Look for substance and structure. Clarity of positions, delivery; standards in aesthetics and overall presentation. Hidden in the word heart is art. See from your heart, not head alone.

BICHITRANANDA SWAIN Director, Rudrakshya Foundation, an institute of Odissi dance

1. Sujata Mohapatra is the one dancer who stands out in my eyes. Not only is she a wondrous and brilliant dancer on stage, but also a charming, kind and compassionate human being off stage. When she enters, it seems sculptures have come to life and the finesse with which she dances, her technique, her abhinaya, almost everything about her can blow your mind away. Her strenuous dance regime and discipline is something many young and upcoming dancers should take note of. The Rudrakshya Foundation dance troupe. Photo courtesy Rudrakshya Foundation.

2. Watch as many dances as you can. You may never go into specific details as to which pose is what and what the name is, but once you have seen a large number of performances, you will automatically compare and will know good dance from bad. Also, since dance is all about aesthetic beauty, there is no specific need for the general audience to know the bhangis/charis/bhramaris (bends, specific leg postures, and movement patterns). Leave that for the critics and the scholars. The audience should just delve deep into the rasa. Talking about rasa (“emotions” would be an incomplete translation), classical dances are mostly made up of abhinaya, and any layman can understand the expressions of love, hate, jealousy, bravery, etc, just by looking at the dancer’s expressions. The only requirement is that the dancer should be proficient enough to portray them efficiently.

MADHU NATARAJ KIRAN Dancer and founder, Natya Stem Dance Kampni

1. I have several favourites, for different attributes constitute a great dancer for me. I have chosen the following: My mother and guru, the late Maya Rao, who was a beautiful dancer in her youth. Her lifetime’s commitment, passion, and complete surrender to Kathak showed even at age 86 when she demonstrated an abhinaya piece. The nazaaqat (delicacy) of old world Kathak and her training at European dance studios gave her dance an unparallelled edge. Anita Ratnam, for creating a neo-classical mosaic which balances artistry and accessibility to dance. She balances mythology with current women’s issues in a unique and potent manner Alarmel Valli, for personifying a dedicated regimen and clarity of form

2. My advice to a dance novice, or an enthusiast for that matter, would be to watch a performance with an open mind. It helps to research the artiste and her organization and gives one a glimpse into her ideology, her process of creation, which then makes the “viewing” more meaningful and multilayered. Traditional and contemporary performers explore and experiment with mainly two aspects: Form, which is her chosen dance vocabulary—Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, etc.—and content, which is the theme of the presentation, and which can range from the Ramayan to a very personal take on life. Although the classical forms follow certain codified motifs that provide a yardstick for critiquing, every performer also infuses her personality and vision into every piece. Try and catch a few performances of a young/emerging dancer, one in her prime, and a maestro, preferably over 60, and you will be able to see the phases, ranging from athleticism and virtuoso qualities to the dancer herself becoming a symbol of experiences and memories

Shoba Narayan wishes that Bengaluru had a dance festival to equal Chennai’s.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/NTfUPj44CGLq6ScoM27DgM/A-dance-questionnaire-for-dancers-and-critics.html?utm_source=copy

K. Balachander

RIP KB.

The rebels of Tamil cinema

K. Balachander’s heroines, and others from films in the 1970s and 1980s, played complex roles and scandalized the Tamil society of that time

Shoba Narayan

sridevi67-kytE--621x414@LiveMint

As someone who has watched and tracked Tamil movies all her life, one of the things I notice is the fall of the heroine. There are exceptions, but by and large, Tamil films these days are hero oriented, action films with a thin storyline. Women play the love interest, or dance an item number, with Rajnikanth’s Linga being the latest example.

It didn’t used to be this way. Directors like Balu Mahendra, Bharatiraja, Bhagyaraj, and most particularly, the late great Balachander, who died this week, made films that were centered around women. Where are those types of directors today?

Chennai in the seventies was a mixture of conservatism and oddball eccentrics. Girls couldn’t walk down the street in jeans without getting disapproving stares. But it was perfectly okay for a man to be married to two sisters. This triumvirate lived down the street from my aunt’s home in T. Nagar. It gets weirder. They had sublet their downstairs apartment to the milkman, who chose to house his buffaloes in the flat and live in his ramshackle hut. Balachander’s genius was to choose themes that were considered revolutionary for Chennai, yet ones that they could relate to. His movies mirrored Chennai’s fervid lust and shrouded hypocrisies.

Balachandar’s films were all women-centric; but his heroines weren’t doormats who served their husbands rasam-rice, and shrunk into the background. These heroines took charge of their destinies. In Arangetram, released in 1974, the heroine came from a large, poor, and conservative Brahmin family. She turned to prostitution to support her large clan. Sensitively and sympathetically told, the film simultaneously caused an uproar and raised questions about family planning. To have a young Brahmin girl support her family was novel enough; but to have her look the audiences in the eye and justify her choice of career upended everyone’s expectations of how a Brahmin girl ought to behave. The fact that the plot was believable made it critically and commercially successful. Balachander didn’t do fantasy. His women took their reality by the balls and shook it to suit their circusmtances.

In a 1976 film, Moondru Mudichu (three knots, traditionally tied during a marriage on a turmeric yellow mangalsutra or thread) Balachander gave a 13-year-old voluptuous actress named Sreedevi her first adult film role. She was the woman caught between two men (Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth). The man she loves, Kamal Haasan, dies in a boating accident, engineered by the other, Rajnikanth. Freed of her lover, Rajnikanth pursues her and corners her in the belief that his wealth and power will make her marry him. What does Sreedevi do? She turns the tables on the man who lusts after her by marrying his father? As a stepmother, she is owed respect and has the power over her scheming ‘son.’ It is this facile use of specific cultural touchstones that gave Balachander’s movies their potency. Chennai audiences could relate to arranged marriages, even ones arranged by the woman in question. They could imagine a poor girl like Sreedevi marrying an older man as a marriage of convenience. To watch her arrive as Rajnikanth’s stepmother was the ultimate “up-yours” from both a traditional and feminist point of view. Marrying these two effects was Balachander’s forte.

Bhagyaraj was similarly effective in combining tradition and novelty. In Andha 7 Naatkal (Those 7 Days, made into Woh Saat Din in Hindi), a woman tries to commit suicide on her wedding night. Her husband discovers that she is pining for her lover and decides to find this man. By that time, the heroine has formed relationships with her husband’s child (he is a widower) and his aging mother. The climax has her clutching to her mangal-sutra and refusing to return to her lover. “My lover can become your wife, but your wife can never become my lover,” says the hero in the end.

Balu Mahendra cast Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in Moondra Pirai (Sadma in Hindi) where a young man looks after a mentally retarded girl. Sridevi, quite simply, stole the show, a far cry from the ‘thunder thighs’ roles that she essayed for Hindi movies.

Sridevi proved to be quite a muse for many of that era’s directors. Bharatiraja made his cult classic 16 vayadhinile (Solwa Sawan in Hindi), with her in the lead. Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan played opposite her. Films such as these began their long tenure as leading men of Tamil cinema. Sadly, neither of them used their clout to encourage their female co-stars. Not then; and not later. Then again, it is no use blaming the heroes. Both Kamal and Rajni have two daughters each; and are ostensibly surrounded by strong women. Yet, women are marginalized in their movies; forced to conform to traditional roles that are almost like caricatures in today’s world. Rajnikanth’s current movies have forgettable women who are cast simply for the glamour quotient.

What Tamil films need are strong directors who are fascinated with women like those directors in the 70s and 80s. Balachander died on December 23, 2014. He will be sorely missed.

Shoba Narayan’s favorite Balachander film is Apoorva Ragangal.

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

FIRST PUBLISHED: SAT, DEC 20 2014. 12 46 AM ISTHOME» LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh). http://www.perrinparis.com/en
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The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600. http://www.sophiehulme.com

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Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy. http://www.bodosperlein.com

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Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each. http://www.leebroom.com

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Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else. http://www.akris.ch/en

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Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on eBay.in. http://www.williampenn.net

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper. http://www.champderevesvineyards.com

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. http://www.fpettinaroli.it/ and http://www.rubberbandproducts.com

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu. http://www.theammashop.org

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Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring. http://en.bulgari.com

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Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

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

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