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

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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
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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

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

Heritage Conservation

What Mumbai has that Bengaluru doesn’t

There is an anecdote that is the stuff of legend. When queen Victoria took over the administration of India from the British East India Company in the 1860s, she gathered a group of cultural big shots to figure out urban planning and aesthetics. The group came up with a plan. They would give Bombay a Gothic style of architecture; Calcutta, a Colonial style; and Madras, an Indo-Saracenic style. As for Delhi, they would give it to a young architect called Edwin Landseer Lutyens, who was becoming known for his syncretic approach to building. The question then is, what is the Indian style of building; and when we talk about heritage conservation, aren’t we mostly referring to buildings built in the British time?
Should we preserve the British aesthetic that was handed down to us; or should we define an Indian one that is suited to the time and place we live in? The question is in some senses moot (or irrelevant) because the real-estate titans who are defining our skylines are adopting an approach that is more global than local—building glass and steel high-rises that look no different from the ones in Shanghai, New York or London. The buildings that are being constructed in any urban city in India today have largely no character or sense of place and serve a utilitarian purpose of maximizing space and economic returns without any real panache—all of which bolsters the argument for heritage preservation, such as it is. Can there be an Indian model for heritage preservation?
Shikha Jain, director of Dronah (Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization working in the field of preservation and community design, has described one model that could be useful to many of our Indian cities. In her paper, Jaipur As A Recurring Renaissance, Jain makes a case for viewing city planning as a process rather than a product; marrying current city needs such as solid waste management and parking spaces with existing heritage structures. The rub for Bangaloreans, who are new to this game, is that a number of Indian cities have thought about this and implemented heritage conservation acts, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Panaji. The reason is obvious, even to someone who makes her home and loves the city of Bengaluru, as I do. Bangaloreans aren’t united, passionate, or driven enough to make a case for its heritage structures. That may change with the victory civic activists have had with saving the Balabrooie Guest House. Mumbai, in contrast, has whole clusters of civic activists who are passionate about preserving its buildings and streetscapes.
When I called conservation architect and activist Abha Narain Lambah, she was at a government office, trying to get the paperwork for a heritage project moving. “In Bombay, we realized early on that we could not rely on the government for help,” she said. “We also realized that we had to be more innovative with respect to what constituted heritage. Is it streetscapes? Is it urban clusters?”
When I asked about Mumbai’s successes with heritage conservation, Lambah promptly listed what her fellow citizens had done. Three women took Mumbai’s municipal corporation to court to get custody of the badly maintained Oval Maidan and won. To this day, Ocra, or the Oval Cooperage Residents Association, maintains the premises. Anahita Pundole filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court, stating that the visual sanctity of the city was being spoilt by hoardings. She too won. Lambah convinced 70 shopkeepers on Dadabai Naoroji Road to accept redesigned signage that was in keeping with the area’s visual history. The shopkeepers not only agreed, they funded the project. Recently, the residents of Bandra Bandstand reclaimed its seafront. The list goes on.
Mumbai seems to inspire this sort of loyalty and activism among its citizens. Does it say something about the quality of its residents? Is it because Mumbai is a wealthy city?
Heritage conservation is an elitist, high GDP (gross domestic product) activity. This is not to say that the average driver, cobbler, waiter or flower seller does not appreciate the graceful proportions of old buildings. It is that this busy segment of the population either has no access to these spaces or sees no value in them. The Balabrooie Guest House is off limits to most Bangaloreans. I have never entered it. So are many old buildings. How then to get the general public to care? How to get them to protest to save a building or tree? Or is it not important to involve all segments of the population? Is heritage conservation a rich person’s game? More specifically, is it a niche in which women do well? If “his-tory” is written around men, does “her-itage” centre around “her” or women? Okay, I just said that for wordplay.
The truth is that heritage conservation is not a costly exercise. In 2001, the facade of Elphinstone College was restored for `15 lakh, according to Lambah. In the late 1990s, the Kala Ghoda Association restored Horniman Circle for `6 lakh. “It just takes one municipal commissioner with will and a group of dedicated citizens,” says Lambah.
Sounds simple but hard to duplicate in other Indian cities. It takes visionaries like architects K.T. Ravindran and A.G.K. Menon, who can combine urban planning, heritage conservation and development. It takes urbanists like Prasad Shetty and multifaceted personalities such as poet-translator-architect-teacher Mustansir Dalvi to come up with nuanced yet implementable approaches to heritage conservation. It requires collaboration and consensus-building on what constitutes heritage and how to conserve it. So far, in Bengaluru , I cannot think of a single person who has the will, the wiles and the chutzpah to take it forward.

This is the second in a two-part series on heritage conservation. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Heritage Buildings

Thank you, Deepa Krishnan of Mumbai Magic for pointing me to a great PDF describing heritage conservation in Bombay

Lessons from the Balabrooie brouhaha
On heritage conservation in India
Shoba Narayan
Heritage views No.1: preserve or modernize?
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A smart leader allows his people to believe that they have influenced him; and that is what the chief minister (CM) of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, did a few weeks ago. The brouhaha began with the news that the Balabrooie Guest House, a beautiful 150-year-old government property near the golf course in Bengaluru, was going to be razed to make way for a legislators’ club. Stanley Pinto, a member of the Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.pac), sent out emails protesting this. Eric Savage, an American expat, created a Facebook page called “Siddaramaiah: Save the Historic Balabrooie Guest House”. A Change.org petition was sent out. Rabindranath Tagore stayed here, said one email. As did Mahatma Gandhi.
The thought of this bungalow being converted into a club where legislators could have “women doing Mohini dances”, as the Kannada papers called it (in a manner that was sexist, yet perhaps truthful), was unthinkable. Protesters including artist S.G. Vasudev, singers Raghu Dixit and Vasundhara Das, architects Naresh V. Narasimhan and Sathya Prakash Varanashi, and other citizens gathered on a wet Sunday morning. The CM met a small group and assured them that the Balabrooie Guest House would not be touched.
Bengaluru celebrated and took stock.
Perhaps because we are surrounded by so much history, Indians have little patience for it. If you showed pictures of people protesting to save heritage buildings to shopkeepers at New Delhi’s Khan Market, Chennai’s Pondy Bazaar, Kolkata’s Park Street or Bengaluru’s Ulsoor Market, I dare say they would laugh and dismiss the protesters as jobless: “Vere velai illai,” in Tamil lingo. “They have no other work.”
I purposely left out Mumbai because it is different.
Heritage stands in that nebulous space between archaeology and modern buildings. In India, it is those buildings that are old but not old enough to be turned over to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). “Heritage should be viewed as a palimpsest,” said Narasimhan. I nodded knowingly without knowing what the word meant. When I looked it up, it made perfect sense: something reused or altered but still bearing traces of its past. This layering is part of the joy of belonging to an ancient civilization, and this same layering could extend to relatively newer buildings, streetscapes too. That is the point of heritage conservation in India.
For the average citizen activist, the problem is that there is no clear definition of heritage. Does a building become a heritage structure because a famous personality or historical figure stayed there? Because it has beautiful architecture? Or simply because it withstood the ravages of time? A lot of so-called heritage buildings are quite ugly. Should we preserve them merely because they are old? What is cultural heritage? Is heritage fenced off monuments or non-monumental streetscapes? Is it a street or a cluster of buildings?
Going forward, Bengaluru needs to answer questions like these. It also needs a leader—someone like Abha Narain Lambah, a Mumbai-based conservation architect and activist, who has worked for this cause for decades.
Mumbai, or Bombay in heritage conservation terms, is singularly lucky in its citizens; in the passion that the city inspires in its people; in the poetry and prose that it commands; and in the ownership that its residents feel for the city’s boulevards and streets. The cast of characters is varied and aplenty.
There is author Sharada Dwivedi, Mumbai’s biographer. She is the person researchers and conservationists turn to for stories, context and arcane trivia. There is architect Rahul Mehrotra, who collaborated with Dwivedi and is now chair of the urban planning and design department of Harvard’s School of Design in the US. There is the late Shyam Chainani, who put heritage conservation into the vocabulary of municipal governments, not just in Mumbai, but also in Hyderabad, Chennai, and New Delhi. There were civil servants with foresight and willpower, such as Jamshed Kanga and D.T. Joseph, who worked with the list of 145 buildings that the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee submitted to them in 1988 and got the files through the various regulatory bodies by the end of 1994. In April 1995, taking observers by surprise, the newly elected Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government sanctioned heritage regulation and the heritage list of Greater Bombay. “We had all thought that it was the end of things but in the end, this is what happened,” says Mehrotra.
Like art appreciation, heritage conservation is a learned skill. I still remember the car ride I took with a European professor through the streets of Bengaluru. She looked at a crumbling wall and commented on its beautiful “textures” and “layers”. Where I saw fungus and peeling paint, she saw beauty. How then can this appreciation be transmitted to the public, and why is Bombay so good at it? Next week.

This is the first in a two-part series on heritage conservation. Shoba Narayan loves crumbling walls—nowadays. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Spirits of India

Cocktails have an intrinsic problem. Unless they are well made/well balanced, they are too sweet for my taste.

MISSING THE INDIAN SPIRIT
By
Shoba Narayan
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Korea has soju; Japan has sake; America has bourbon; Mexico has tequila and mezcal; Germany has schnapps; Scandinavia has aquavit; France has wine; Greece has ouzo; Britain has beer; Portugal has port; Spain has sherry; Turkey has raki; Brazil has cachaça; Peru has pisco; Scotland has Scotch; and India has…what? Chai? Horlicks? At a time when national spirit is high, shouldn’t we consider a signature spirit as well?
The strongest contender in this area is feni, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of Tulleeho.com, a beverage education and consultant company. “But feni is still to rise above a state-level curiosity and shed its tag of being a country liquor,” he says.
If Goa, the land of the good life, has not been able to market its tipple, where do mahua, chandrahaas and handiya, the fermented spirit of Jharkhand, stand? And really, it is these local tribal distillations that ought to be our starting point.
In the luxury world, three things are revered above all: revenue, brand identity, and provenance. Indian tribes have been distilling spirits for as long as the Scots have—look where they are with their single malts and look where we are with our local liquors, the names of which even we Indians cannot pronounce.
All is not lost. Things can turn around faster than you can down a gin and tonic which, by the way, was invented in India.
Take tequila, for instance. Fifty years ago, it was a nonsense drink: pungent, unrefined, highly alcoholic. The Mexican government, in its wisdom, decided to throw its weight behind marketing tequila. Enter lime and salt; and a hop, skip and jump to frozen margaritas and tequila shots. Before you knew it, tequila had become a party drink. “Now, tequila has taken the luxury route with 100% agave and boutique producers,” says Yangdup Lama, co-founder of Cocktails & Dreams, a bar and beverage consultancy company in Gurgaon.
Local liqueurs are something that Man Singh, owner of Jaipur’s Narain Niwas Palace and Castle Kanota, knows something about. His family recipe for chandrahaas contains 76 ingredients, including saffron, rose and anise. Rajasthani liqueurs contain herbs, dry fruits and flowers. They taste good and are perfect after a meaty meal of lal maas or safed maas. They haven’t crossed borders though and remain with the home or palace, made in small batches with recipes zealously guarded.
Italy does the same thing with limoncello, except that they market the heck out of it. The fact that a particular limoncello is made using a family recipe is used as a virtue. With the variety of tropical fruits that we have, with our penchant for mixing spices and our heritage for distilling drinks, you would think that at least one of these liqueurs would have made it big.
Part of the reason is that we—country and government—are deeply ambivalent about promoting alcohol. On the one hand, prohibition does not work. Yet, on the other, should we actively encourage drinking? One place to begin would be the North-East and Himalayan states where tribals distil spirits anyway. Just as non-governmental organizations and the government promote small-scale, village-based industries and crafts, says Lama, why not encourage handcrafted spirits in a controlled and refined fashion? Instead, we import and pay premium prices for beer, wine and spirits that are produced in small batches in Europe.
The only area where local players have jumped in is wine. Here too, we are planting imported species of grapevines, be they Sangiovese, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Our wine industry is basically a copycat business where consultants and grapevines are brought in from abroad. Still, it begs the question: Why isn’t there a KRSMA, Fratelli or Sula type player in the spirits space?
Amrut Distilleries has done great work with its Amrut brand of single malt and there are now me-too players like Paul John and, to some extent, Tilaknagar Distilleries. What we lack are the mavericks and lone rangers who chase a spirit just because; who distil or die as it were.
Desmond Nazareth is a candidate. His 100% agave and 51% margarita mixes are produced in Andhra Pradesh and bottled in Goa under the brand name Desmondji. It is a start even if isn’t original or, for that matter, Indian. Offering greater hope is Desmondji’s orange liqueur that uses Indian sugar cane and Nagpur oranges.
None of these—Indian spirits or liqueurs—are marketing to the luxury market that is waiting to be tapped. Indians have travelled everywhere and tried out artisanal spirits, beers and wines. This consumer confidence can translate to sales of locally distilled quality spirits if there is a player with imagination and staying power. In these compressed time cycles, what took Scotland several centuries and Mexico 50 years to achieve with their national spirits can happen in India in a mere 10 years—witness the burgeoning Indian wine industry.
Or can it?
Bangalore-based drinks consultant Heemanshu Ashar believes that the Indian market is not ready. “Chasing one national drink is a pipe dream,” he says. “If even the chai we drink is prepared differently in different regions, how can we be united by one drink? We are a nation of choices—multiple choices—so let’s rejoice in that.”
Only a Rajput riding across the horizon with his chandrahaas, or a Himalayan distiller carrying his home-made spirit in a flask, can change this scenario. I am hopeful.

Shoba Narayan likes her martini shaken and not stirred. With a side of olives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Birds

Birds Have included the scenes from my balcony. IMG_4683 A tryst with cacophony and camouflage Pigeons can fly great distances, crows are wacko and many more interesting findings while birdwatching in Bangalore Shoba Narayan Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/hfu1MXeumPbsHp2e2kisqK/A-tryst-with-cacophony-and-camouflage.html?utm_source=copy Do you have a cherished image of yourself that is entirely delusional? I know, which one, right? My cherished image of myself is that I’m a naturalist. Not just any old naturalist: a naturalist-healer if you please. The kind that can not only identify every species of bird, but also walk by a plant and say, “This is a copper pod tree. Crush its seeds, swallow for 10 days, and you will have a cure for your piles.” The fact that I need to hang around people with piles in order to prove my prowess as a naturalist-healer is somewhat pathetic, even for a dream. What is scarier is the distance between my dream image and reality. I once made a fantastic Pesto Genovese— with neem leaves. The taste of it haunts my family still. Plant identification, shall we say, is not my forte. Recently though, I decided to take matters in hand. I decided that I would become an expert on birds. I would start small. I would begin by observing the birds that populated my urban habitat. Once I had learned their names and mating calls, I would learn about birds all over India, and then the entire world. In the blowsy diaphanous fairytale that was my dream, I would end up writing a book called, “Birds of every kind with every mating call in every species in every corner of the earth.” That was the plan anyway.  This attempt brings to fore two contradictory impulses. One theory, which I shall call the habitat theory, suggests that things like bird watching and music are learnt young. People grow up with birds all around and if you haven’t taken the interest or effort to figure them out when you are young, there is little chance that you will as an adult. The opposite theory is based on neuroplasticity–that you can learn anything at any age simply by setting your mind to it. For purposes of my experiment, I chose to believe in the latter. Armed with a pair of binoculars and a bottle of my favorite Indian red, I ventured forth into my balcony–and was promptly overwhelmed, not by the cacophony of noise but by the camouflage. Horns bleated like cows; urban cows with their mouths tied together sounded like rattling scooters; a random bird sounded like the dug-dug-dug of a construction machine which makes holes in road; squirrels screeched like parrots; and dogs wailed like death was coming. Ten minutes of this shit, and I beat a hasty retreat. IMG_4691  The next morning was better, perhaps because I was drinking coffee instead of wine. Right away, I could identify three species of birds: parrots, crows, and Brahmini kites. I ate some chocolate as congratulations and continued looking. It was then that I encountered my first problem. You see, birds don’t wait in one spot for you to identify them. They make these beautiful singing noises from somewhere within a large tree, and you cannot spot them. Heck, you can’t even spot the exact tree inside which they are hiding. How was I going to start? After a few days of sweeping my binoculars back and forth like a flailing ship capsizing mid-sea, I happened upon a Millingtonia tree. Called Chameli in Hindi, it has one key virtue: it is tall and has white flowers as a contrast to the green all around. I trained my binoculars at the top of the Millingtonia tree and experienced my first victory in bird watching, which led to my first concept note for my future book: If you are patient, you will notice that birds come to flowers. You don’t need to chase them–figuratively speaking–with your binoculars. IMG_4690 Over the course of several days, things improved. For a non-birdwatcher, or a nouveau birdwatcher like me, who engages in the activity, not necessarily out of intrinsic interest, but because she believes it is good to do so, certain elements are key. Limit the bird watching to 15 minutes every day; but do it every day, preferably in the early morning or at dusk. Try your best to capture an “aha” moment every day; a moment of joy; a point of pleasure. For me, this came when I was training my binoculars at a distant tree as usual and discovered a Kingfisher sitting quietly on a branch. At least, I think it was a Kingfisher because there was some blue in it. This then is the next obstacle in bird watching: how do you know what you are looking at? Books help, but I have found that Wikipedia is my best resource. Type in “Birds of Bangalore” and there is a helpful page dedicated entirely to species that I can see around my garden. It is using this page that identified the birds with the sweetest sounds as bulbuls. They have a little tuft on their head and after listening to them carelessly singing one morning, and racing through the house to find them by looking out through every window, I discovered them on top of the tree with giant red flowers. By typing in “tree with giant red flowers in Bangalore,” I learned that this is the elephant apple tree or Dillenia indica. Mother nature has bestowed beauty on every species, but to birds, she has been exceptionally generous. Watch a bird–any bird–soar in the sky, and I guarantee that you will feel joy, and envy. The freedom that birds seem to experience is uplifting and you wish you could lift yourself up. IMG_4693 Here are some things I learned. Pigeons can fly great distances, and I find them to be the most efficient flyers. They streak through the sky, following the same rhythm, without veering off course, as if they were focused on a goal. Crows are whacko, particularly if they are flying in pairs. I have seen crows fly and then suddenly dip ten feet as if they were funneled downward by a wind current, before lifting themselves up. Parrots fly well, but not for long distances. As for the Brahmini kites, I have not made up my mind if I like them. What will you do when you retire? I have thought a lot about this and come up with certain qualities that retirement activities need to have. Portability is one, particularly for those of us who love to travel. Bird watching fits this paradigm, because no matter where you travel, you will always find birds. If you educate yourself on birds, you can travel the world and remain engaged in your interest. When you get too old or feeble to travel, you can stand in your balcony and look through binoculars. As I have been doing. Shoba Narayan is stalking a pair of Brahmini kites that are roosting on her roof.

Brooms

The big brooming business

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An acquaintance of mine, Chantal, called from New York the other day with a request: she needed brooms; lots of them. Could I source them from India? Chantal is a gaunt French-Algerian chain smoker. She says merde (shit) a lot; wears Dior rouge lipstick, and lots of moody grey Chanel eyeshadow. She used to be a hand model but now specializes in department store windows. Her job, she says, is to make mannequins “look like models”.
Over Skype, Chantal explained her idea. She would decorate an entire department store with brooms. She had watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York, US. Her current boyfriend is Gujarati and had told her about the “Clean India” campaign. She had seen photos of Modi cleaning the streets. She didn’t care for the politicians but she wanted those brooms; at least a hundred of them. The mannequins could hold the brooms in various poses.
“Think about it,” said Chantal. “Flying Balenciaga clothes with brooms; Sacai on brooms; Givenchy’s Antigona bag surrounded by a chandelier of brooms; Celine in a forest of brooms; Christian’s nail polish (shoe designer Christian Louboutin) dripping red and purple on brooms. The possibilities are endless.”
I told Chantal that I would see what I could do. I knew a person who could deliver on this demand: Nagamma.
As a young girl, Nagamma had worked for my grandparents in Coimbatore. She was now a septuagenarian and had returned to the family business: broom making. She taught me many of the skills that have made me the woman I am today: stringing together a jasmine garland with a thread made from banana fibre; playing “five stones” and picking up three, four, five and even seven stones with one fist; drawing elaborate kolams or rangoli designs on festive days; and expertly parting hair with fingers and catching running lice.
I caught up with Nagamma at her village near Modakurichi, Tamil Nadu. We squatted under the swaying coconut trees with verdant paddy fields on all sides and engaged in an activity that she had taught me as a child. On one side were dried up coconut leaves. We had to squat on the ground and slit the leaves to pull out the spine. It was an activity that was as meditative as tying jasmine flowers or cleaning a lice-comb with a toothpick. For a while, Nagamma and I sat in companionable silence, ripping the coconut spine from its leaves. We both were chewing betel leaves and it was tough to talk over the red juice that was on the verge of drooling every time I opened my mouth. Finally, I tucked the leaf expertly in a corner of my mouth—another skill that Nagamma had taught me—and proceeded to lay out my proposal. I needed 100 brooms to export to the US, I said.
Nagamma leaned forward confidentially. “Kannu,” she said. The word means “eye” in Tamil but is used not as an “eye for an eye” type threat but an endearment. “Kannu, ever since the Aam Aadmi party, our bijiness has been very good. Every politican wants to wield a broom these days. How can I supply 100 brooms for your friend, Shanta?”
“Chantal,” I corrected absently but that wasn’t really the point.
Nagamma corrected my technique: slit in the middle, not the top, she said. That way I could pull the spine out on both sides. Quickly, she tied a bunch of coconut sticks, or eer-kuchi, as we called it, with a coir rope. A broom was done.
“You’ll get paid in euros, Nagamma,” I said.
She frowned. “Can I buy vethalai (betel leaves) with euros?”
I nodded vigorously. She could buy a barnyard full of betel leaves with euros.
That got her attention. Now I had to lay the problem at her feet. Chantal wanted the brooms to be tied with twine of multiple colours: neon, purple, candy pink, red, and turquoise. “We can’t put Chloé on traditional brooms,” she had said. “We need the brooms to have fashion also.”
Nagamma would have none of it. In the past, she said, they tied brooms with banana fibre. Tying it with coir was itself a compromise that she made for city-dwellers. Neon plastic twine was sacrilege. “In our country, we can eat our brooms, Kannu,” she said. “It comes from earth and it goes back to earth. How can I put all this false colours on the broom?”
I consulted Indologist Rekha Rao, who has written several terrific books on therapeutics in Indian sculptures and how they depict healing mudras and marma points (published by Aryan Books International but hard to find in bookstores). “There are objects that look like our brooms in Indus seals,” said Rao. “In fact, Narendra Modi looks like the male figure of Indus seals. With the same type of beard and facial features.”
Brooms in ancient India were used for saucha, said Rao. Cleaning the external space but also the inner negativities. Rao has analysed the sculptures of Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. She said many of the sculptures there held brooms and their uses were somewhat similar to the shamanism that was practised in Tibet and Nepal— where the body was literally swept clean. “We use the chamara for fanning and similarly such brooms were used to sweep the body clean,” said Rao.
Rajiv Sethi, the painter and art curator, once showed me photos of brooms designed and held by tribal women, each of which was hand-tied and decorated in a fashion that was almost Japanese in its minimalism and subtlety.
So I did the only thing possible. I called Chantal and told her that I could provide Harry Potter’s flying brooms in a variety of colours if needed. But the humble Indian jhaadu was non negotiable: take it or leave it. She is still thinking about it.

Shoba Narayan knows how to make brooms. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Train Diary 4

The last of my beloved train diaries. For now.

Train diary No.4: strangers and friends

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert
Shoba Narayan
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There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert. Every compartment usually has both. There are the silent types who stare unblinkingly as you enter their compartment. There are others who smile and make room; and just when you are thinking of them as good prospects for sharing the night’s dinner, they ask you to exchange their upper berth for your lower one. That is when you look at the strong, silent type and wish you’d followed his example.

Indian train compartments are beautifully designed for the most part. There are hooks from which to hang the odd plastic bag filled with fermenting black bananas that are bursting with what seems like pus. There are electrical plugs to charge your mobile device; metal rods into which you chain your bag or suitcase in case midnight robbers make off with your belongings; and seats that fold out into sleeping berths.

Although we like to pretend otherwise, human beings are deeply attuned to pace and proportion. To go from Bombay to Britain in 8 hours is possible by plane, and we do this all the time. We get off feeling groggy and disoriented and attribute it to melatonin and jet lag. What we don’t talk about is the psyche and its adjustment—or lack thereof– to air travel. It is only when you travel by trains that you notice how their speed and size are suited for human beings: fast but not disorienting; cozy but not cramped, at least in the air-conditioned coaches. The one defect has to do with height: train berths are designed for dwarfs. Sit up and…well, you can’t sit up particularly in the upper berth. You have to scrunch in a foetal position, both when you sit and when you sleep. As a teenager, I scrunched so much that I fell off the top berth. True story. Apparently, I didn’t even wake up. From then on, my mother repeated this exploit as if it were an achievement. “She got 97% in her Unit Tests. And you know, she fell off the top berth and didn’t even wake up,” my Mom would say, flexing her muscles in a way that would give the Phogat sisters a run for their medals.

Sometimes the train stops, as mine does– at 9:15 on a dark night, in a field before Dharmapuri. After a few minutes, I walk to the door. There are a couple of men smoking cigarettes. It seems civilized to blow smoke-rings into the great wide open. In contrast, smoking booths in airports look like cages in a zoo. The smokers inside speak on the phone as they hold their lights, as if the phone conversation makes them look and feel less alone. Here, the two men speak desultorily about why the train has stopped. Something about “shunting,” and an inter-city train crossing ours.

Inky blackness envelops the sky. No homes; no lights save for those from the train, and no dwellings. I climb down the steps—the only woman amidst a few men. My family would have had a fit if they saw me alone in the middle of nowhere, with darkness all around, waiting outside a train with a couple of strangers sharing a fag; beside a train that could take off any minute. The thought is thrilling. The light turns green. We all climb back as the train pulls away. There is something about a running train (or bus) that makes climbing in an adventure. Perhaps it is matching your body to a moving object; Newton’s law of physics and what not.

The train picks up speed. The toddler in the next compartment is fussing. She walks down the corridor, anklets jingling, followed by a smiling, adoring Dad.

“She has a cold,” he explains to us.

We make clicking sympathetic voices. “The only thing that works is Waterbury’s Compound,” he says. He pulls out a tiny Johnny Walker bottle, opens the cap and pours the fluid down his toddler’s mouth. Nobody blinks. Instead, we fan ourselves with Maalai Murasu, Dinamalar, and Kalki, Tamil publications all.

At the next station, the gruff pharmaceutical executive who shares my compartment meets his family. They stand away from the crowd milling at the entrance of the compartment and catch up. I know what they are talking about because I have done this so many times with relatives while growing up. Some uncle or aunt would take the time to bring us food at random stations and we would have a few minutes of conversation. But what can you talk about really amidst the tension of a train that could leave any minute? Mostly you ask questions without waiting for answers? “How is Farida/Charles/Baby aunty? How is your health? Did Ahmed/Unni/Fatty write his exams? When are you coming to Delhi?” Connection through questions, as a way of saying thanks. Indians of yore didn’t say thanks. They viewed it as an insult almost. “You can put your thanks in a parcel and send it to Honolulu,” my Mami used to say loudly when we sputtered thanks, thanks to a convent school education. It was easy to imagine a line of thanks winging their way through the oceans to sunny Honolulu. It is these vignettes of life that make travelling on Indian trains a memorable experience. Minister Sadananda Gowda should capitalize on this collective affection that Indians have for train travel by making some improvements: cleaner toilets and stations that reflect and sell local food specialties would be a start. But first, he has to sort out the mess at home.

Shoba Narayan loves train travel.