How to give

Loved writing this piece

How to give (or how to clear out your closet)

Give gifts, get things done. Shoba Narayan on essential barter


Last night, my 84-year-old father called me at 9:45 PM. The lateness of the call told me that he was mulling over something serious.

“I have reached a momentous decision,” he said. “I have decided to sell my NSS policy, which is worth about six lakhs.”

My father got his National Savings Scheme (NSS) policy from the post office about 20 years ago. I was the beneficiary. He wanted me to accompany him to the post office to “do the needful,” he said.

“Do you have one of your books to spare?” he asked meaningfully.

I nodded with a sigh.

Ten years ago, in a fit of authorly pride, I bought over 100 hardcover copies of my first book, “Monsoon Diary.” I regretted the decision within a year.

I began complaining to my parents– rashly in retrospect– about how these books were taking up space in my tiny storage area. I couldn’t keep extra provisions because boxes of books lined every available space.

My parents—as parents do– came to my rescue. Or so they thought. Every time somebody did them a favor, they decided to hand out one copy of my book as a reward, much like the princesses of yore handed out pearl necklaces; or Paari, a Tamil king giving up his chariot to a creeper that was struggling for a place to climb, so much so that he became known throughout Tamil Nadu as “Paari-Vallal” or “Generous Paari.” Well, my parents were going to be generous book-dispensers.

I first learned about their scheme in Chennai when we visited my father’s old haunt, Mercy Electronics, where he bought everything from a splitter to a slide rule. The proprietor was usually clad in a resplendent red shirt that stretched tightly over his paunch and a matching red cap.

One day, when I accompanied my Dad, the proprietor beamed at me genially. “Your father gave me a copy of your book…ummmm….Moore Market Dairies, isn’t it? I gave it to my granddaughter. She is trying to read English.”

“Moore Market burned down years ago, uncle,” I replied, glaring at my Dad. Why was he giving my book to a man who didn’t want to read?

My dad coughed apologetically. “He helped us so much when the toilet at home overflowed,” he said.

This became a pattern. Some months later, my parents’s ophthalmologist peered at me from behind his magnifying glass and said, “I was very happy to get your book, “Monsoon Wedding,” even though I am not much into cookbooks.”

I started to say that it wasn’t a cookbook and then kept my mouth shut.

“He helped us so much with my cataract removal,” said my dad.

When the local Chettiar store proprietor made an exception and home delivered all their provisions, my parents handed them a copy of my book as thanks.

A few weeks later, I discovered the book with my inscription to “Chettiar,”at Blossom Books, Bangalore’s famous secondhand bookstore.

I decided to put a moratorium on their habit. What was the point of giving away my books to people that didn’t appreciate them, I asked.

My parents point was simple. “Wherever we go, people put us old folks at the bottom of the pyramid. When somebody does us a favor or helps us, how else can we thank them without having them misunderstand it?” asked my dad.

Put that way, my books were doing more than their job. They were helping my parents get things done.

IMG_1639This time, I didn’t protest when my father told me to carry along a copy of my book to the post office. There was a pleasant young woman behind the metal desk. Behind her was a Godrej almirah with a pile of files inside. On the metal desk was a stapler with a string attached so that nobody would swipe it. Two calendars hung on the wall. One contained an image of Gandhi with the caption: “Truth Laboratories: India’s first independent forensic science laboratory.” The other was a calendar from the Nagamma Temple across the street. A man named Doddayya–literally Big Boss– now that’s a name– stood in attendance.

The procedure was actually painless even if it took two hours. The woman walked us through all the forms that we needed to fill and sign. My father had brought his PAN card and other documents in triplicate. Once the procedure was done; once the lady assured us that my dad’s money would be returned to his bank, it was time for the thank you gift.

“My daughter is an author,” my father began. He had told me in advance that he wanted me to do the deed; to offer the book. “Tell her that the book is Saraswati Kataksham: a gift from the goddess of learning,” he said.

“We would like you to have a copy of my book,” I said, handing it out.

“Thank you very much, Madame,” said the post office lady.

“We live down the road,” said my father. “If you pass by our house, why don’t you drop in? You have our address.”

Was this what my father was doing? Was he inviting strangers to his house simply because they had given him good service? We spent the rest of the time with me lecturing him about how old people were getting their throats slit by strangersand then feeling bad about the whole thing later.

While my dad’s arsenal of choice was books, my Mom preferred clothes. She handed her old saris to the fruit vendor, cobbler, knife-sharpener, garbage-cleaner, gardener, and the lady who sold fresh greens every morning. When she accompanied me to renew my driver’s license, one of the clerks was very kind and helpful to us (which by the way is not so uncommon as people think—the much maligned Indian bureaucracy works and people do go out of their way to help hapless strangers).

On the way back, after renewing my license, my mother asked, “Remember those free pajamas that you used to get in airlines? Why don’t we give them to the man who helped us? He is large and that large size one that is sitting around the house will fit him.”

“Ma, the job is done. The license is renewed. Why would you go all the way to Yeshwanthpura to give a clerk a pair of pyjamas?”

“You never know,” said my mother. “It is best to have a good relationship with everyone.”

This then is the long view of life. I view interactions as transactions. My parents view interactions as relationships. Post office personnel get invited home for festivals; and the man at the RTO gets new night-wear because he complained that his joints were aching in Bangalore’s cold weather. As for me, I have a lot of spare room in my storage closet these days.

Shoba Narayan has stopped complaining about her books occupying space in her house.

Love Chennai. Had fun writing this piece.

FRI, JUL 10 2015. 03 44 PM

Anger management at a Chennai cinema

How Shoba Narayan queued up to watch the latest Tamil indie and dished out multi-coloured combs to aunties


I tried my anger management technique when I was standing in line for tickets to “Kaaka Muttai,” the new Tamil film.

Kaaka Muttai is a must-watch, even for those who don’t understand Tamil. The story is simple: two slum boys want to taste pizza. How they achieve this goal forms the core of this heartwarming debut. Director Manikandan, who lists Iranian films ‘A Separation’ and ‘Children of Heaven’ as his influences, and Nandita Das as the actress he’d like to direct, keeps the story moving with assured restraint. No over-the-top Sivaji-esque histrionics that mark Tamil films of yore; and truth be told, I kinda miss those. Kaaka Muttai—the phrase means ‘crow’s eggs’ and refers to the crow’s eggs that the two boys steal and eat– has already won several international awards. Hopefully, it will become a sleeper hit along the lines of “Queen.”

For a transplanted Tamil speaker, Kaaka Muttai offers several pleasures. There is the sly Tamil humour— both hurtful and humorous. There is the effortless Tamil slang that fills the film and filled me with remorse. When was the last time I used the word “peela” here in Bangalore, I thought, and how to convey the punch it carried to my genteel Bangalorean neighbours? “Peela” is slang for lying, and it was precisely what the grandmother behind me was doing.

We were standing in a long line outside Thyagaraja theatre in Chennai. I grew up in Adayar, at a time when theatres were named with panache. There was Jayanthi and Thyagaraja theatres battling it out beside each other. You went to Jayanthi for the night shows and Thyagaraja (with better fans) for the hot and torried matinees. You went to Ganapathy Ram down the road if friends dragged you to so-so movies because you could nap in the oversize seats. Eros was for English movies. Each theatre had a distinct character (different from ambience), not like today’s soul-less, identical multiplexes.

Thyagaraja has become swanky but still attracts conniving Chennai mamis (aunties). This one, with her gray hair and starched Chettinad cotton was angling to jump the queue all the way to the front for tickets. She professed faintness at first. “I am diabetic, you see,” said she. We were unmoved. Then, she upped the ante. Said that her husband was a kidney patient and she needed to see the movie and get back in time for his dialysis. That story was so patently false on so many levels– none of us knew where to poke holes in it. Shameless, I tell you, the depths these people fall to. It was like a story I heard about the French Laundry in Yountville, California, during the time when it was impossible to get reservations there. People would apparently fax letters to the reservation desk stating that it was their child’s dying wish that they should dine at the French Laundry. I mean, seriously? You are going put your child to death to get a restaurant reservation? Or invent a non-existant child and then kill her for a meal? Mind-boggling, I say.

Finally, one of my fellow queue mates took the bull, or in this case, Ambujam-mami—for that was her name, she said on the phone—by the horns.

“Dei, maami peela vidaraa-da,” he said. As in, “Hey, aunty is fibbing,” but this is a ridiculously poor translation.

This being Chennai, tempers got heated. Everyone started yelling in Tamil about how old people were jumping the queue and how slow the ticket office was. That’s when I pulled out my trusty combs (not comb in singular but combs in plural). I had bought them on South Mada street in the street-shops surrounding the Mylapore tank. You see, I am trying a social experiment in anger management.

Whenever there is a scuffle around me, whether it is at the RTO or the movies, I calmly pull out combs in orange, yellow, green, and purple and pass them around. First, it forces the people to pause in bemusement, wondering what the heck I am doing. This pause is all I need. “Why don’t you comb your hair?” I say. “But use your non-dominant hand.”

I have to explain what non-dominant hand is—which is quite tiresome. It is the opposite of the hand you normally use. If you are a rightie, it is your left hand and vice versa.

Eighty percent of the world is right-handed. Scientific–and wild–theories exist as to why this is so. Some say that people are right or left-handed based on the position of their liver, or how they were positioned in the womb. If the right side faced outside, it received at the most stimulation, turning you into a left-handed person. That’s the theory anyway. One consensus is that the right and left brain control the opposite side of the body. The right hand therefore, is connected to the left brain, which is the seat of language, analysis, intellect, and reasoning. The left hand is connected to the right brain, which is the source of creativity, insight, spontaneity, and feeling. Several celebrities and leaders including Narendra Modi, Ratan Tata, Amitabh Bachchan and U.S. President Barack Obama are purportedly left-handed.

Most of us go through life, unconsciously using the hand that we are comfortable with. Using your non-dominant hand however, has fascinating repercussions, according to recent research. It improves your willpower and self-control. It controls your anger against queue jumpers like Ambujam-mami. The effort involved in using your non-dominant hand equalizes the brain hemispheres and evens out your temperament.

“Why this kolaveri di?” said someone.

“Enda saavu-cracki. Vettila sollittu vandhirukaya?” I replied. (Saavu cracki is untranslateable. The next line means, “Have you told your folks at home?” That you are not coming back is the unstated threat.)

Thank God this is an English paper and I can swear in Tamil. After letting loose a spirited string of Tamil expletives, I proceeded to calmly comb my hair.

Try it. If you fly off into a rage, try using your non-dominant hand throughout the day. It may help calm you down. It could be simple things: stirring a cup of tea with your non-dominant hand, opening the car door, or brushing your teeth.

As for Ambujam-mami, she combed her hair all the way to the top of the queue. As for me, thanks to letting the mami pass ahead of me, I didn’t get a ticket to Kaaka Muttai and ended up going to Ganapathy Ram to watch Papanasam, another new and quite wonderful Tamil movie. Remade from the original and superb Malayalam movie, Drishyam, also forthcoming in Hindi, Papanasam features Kamal Haasan and Gowthami. It’s raining good Tamil movies. Just make sure you take some combs when you go to the movies—for anger management. PS: I watched Kaaka Muttai the following day.

Shoba Narayan favorite hair tool is a Mason Pearson nylon (not the boar bristle) brush.

Hum Raag performs at Bharat Kalachar, Chennai on April 11th at 6:30 pm. Please come.

We are so thrilled to be going to Chennai.  Mrs. YGP is a doyenne in the field of education.  She started Padma Seshadri School.  Her son YG Mahendra is a theatre and film actor.  Now, three generations are running the cultural component of the school– called Bharat Kalachar.  Madhuvanti Arun is YGM’s daughter.  If you happen to be in Chennai on April 11th, please come in the evening to attend our show.


16, Thirumalai Road, T.Nagar, Chennai 17; Phone: 28343045/42024304


Cordially invites you for the programme for APRIL 2015



6 30 pm – HUM RAAG by

                       Shoba Narayan (narrator) & Chitra Srikrishna (carnatic vocalist)

                       Jayanthi Keshav (violin) & Madurai B. Sundar (mridangam)


HumRaag – a show that explores the classical roots of Indian popular music, from Abhangs, Bhajans, Ghazals and Movie music. A multimedia presentation filled with Carnatic and classical music accompanied by poetry, story-telling and video music


14/04/2015   – ViSHU CELEBRATIONS

       6 30 pm – “BHARATHA RATHAM” – Malayalam Drama by

                       Kaliyuga Theatres & K.P.Samskarika Vedi, Payyanur

Bharatha Ratham – Through the live visuals of the dynamic characters and main episodes of the great epic Mahabharata, the historic events of India’s Freedom Struggle are symbolically presented in the play ‘Bharata Ratham’. The parallel between the epic and the freedom movement is brought out so convincingly through powerful dialogues and similar events. ‘Bharata Ratham’ was written by the great patriot, orator .and freedom fighter, Sri K.P.Kunhirama Poduval in 1942.


Venue for the above Programmes: Sri YGP Auditorium

                                               17, Thirumalai Road, T.Nagar, Chennai 17



Dr.(Mrs) Y.G. Parthasarathy ; Y Gee Mahendra; Smt. Sudha Mahendra;   Smt. Madhuvanthi Arun

             Chairman                         Secretary                   Joint Secretary                 Cultural Consultant                                                                    

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

Evolution of Music

My friend, Chitra Srikrishna and I are doing a music event together on March 14th. Details here. A happy result is that I am reading a lot about Carnatic music. Ranging from Pantula Rama’s book to Sangita Ratnakara to white papers.

Two chance conversations started this. In both cases, the two music lovers were gushing about TM Krishna’s “musical genius” and berating what he was doing with the concert-format. I found the intensity of responses intriguing. And thus began this series of four parts.

Apropos of nothing, just watching an AMAZING Disney film called “African Cats.” Highly highly recommend it.

TM Krishna: Carnatic music’s ‘stunt’ man
TM Krishna’s experimentations with Carnatic music structure have opinionated concert goers, in a lather
Shoba Narayan


Chennai, the city I grew up in and still call home is in the throes of a creative ferment, at least with respect to Carnatic music. This has caused some apoplexy and bile among many keen ‘rasikas’ or lovers of music, who live in homes where even the pillars sing, as an ancient Tamil poem said about the author of the Tamil Ramayan, poet Kamban’s home.

These are homes in the bylanes of T. Nagar and Mylapore where the home-ground Narasu’s coffee (my father drinks it) is piping hot and frothy; where the pichi-jasmine is pink rimmed and smells of a beautiful woman’s hair—the one described in the Sangam Tamil poem “Kongu ther vazhkai anjirai thumbi,” which legions of Chennai’s students memorized from their trusty “Konar notes”; and where Carnatic music is played from dawn to midnight.

Carnatic music, for South Indians is not just music; it is a milieu. It thrives in Chennai where most of the top musicians live, but it has a vast cultural network with tentacles all over India. It draws within its fold the bharatanatyam dancers of Matunga, clad as they are in mustard yellow, parrot green and maroon Chettinad sarees. It includes the maidens of Palghat, Kerala, who step out in the morning with dripping wet tresses tied in a loose knot called the ‘aathu kattu.’ It also includes those Delhi army officers with long names like Lakshminarayanan who settle their stomachs with curd rice and piquant vadu-manga pickle couriered from Thanjavur, after enjoying the single malts in Delhi’s swirling party scene. These are men and women, aunties and uncles who can expound on the difference between the ragas, AnandaBhairavi and Reethigowlai; who can snatch a Saramati ragam (which is how South Indians say it—name first and ‘ragam’ next) from the sound of the waves; and who venerate the musicians of yesteryear like Ramnad Krishnan and Voletti Venkateswarulu. It is these ‘mamas’ and ‘mamis,’ the South’s version of ‘uncle-jis’ and ‘aunty-jis’ who froth at the mouth at certain new developments in Chennai’s cutcheri (concert) circuit.

One of the objects of their ire is a musician-singer named T.M. Krishna and the reason for their sound and the fury has to do with Krishna’s “messing with” the traditional cutcheri paddhati or format. Krishna sings varnams in the middle of a concert, for instance. These fast-paced compositions are typically sung at the beginning of the concert to warm up the voice and energize the audience. Krishna has, on occasion, trailed off after an alapana or flight of musical imagination of a raga. Instead of singing the composition that comes after the improvisation, he has asked his violinist to do the job instead. All this has my uncles and aunts who are rabid, devoted and opinionated concert-goers in all of a lather. I recently attended a family lunch where no one could agree on anything including whether peanuts were appropriate additions for a lemon-rice; or the origins of asafetida (it originated from Afghanistan for the record). But they were united in the condemnation of “modern” musicians who mess with tradition. My eldest aunt shook her handkerchief so vigorously while speaking “on the matter” that the rest of us were doused with the Gokul sandal powder that she spirits into her kerchief. My uncle—her husband—was frothing at the mouth and not because he had slurped a large mouthful of coffee. In fact, my uncle never slurps. He pours the hot coffee straight down his gullet, which has over the years developed a kind of acid coating to all manner of hot fluids going down its centre, tainting neither tumbler nor esophagus as far as I can tell.

In speeches and interviews, Krishna has tried to explain why he is breaking the mold. The cutcheri format as it exists today is less than 100 years old, he correctly says. It was formalized in the 1920s by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar to follow a standardized format. First, a brisk varnam; then an invocation on Lord Ganesha; then a few fast-paced krithis or songs without the improvisation; then a heavy piece in a ‘ghana’ ragam or weighty ragam like Kambodhi, Kalyani, or Bhairavi. Then the centerpiece of the concert or the RTP– Ragam, Thanam, Pallavi, which is raga improvisation followed by swara-play followed by the song in a ragamalika or garland of ragas; then the virtuoso “thani avarthanam” display by the accompanying drummers; then the lighter fare called ‘thukkada’ which include bhajans, abhangs, padhams, javalis and the like. This is how a typical Carnatic music concert is structured and most concertgoers time their bathroom and bonda breaks to suit this format. In changing this structure, Krishna has derailed the audience; and put a spanner, or in his case, silence in the works of when they go out to stretch their feet and gossip about sabha secretarys.

I too had a similar knee-jerk reaction when Krishna “pulled his stunt,” as some purists might call it, at a Bangalore concert. After shifting the varnam to the middle of the concert, he explained that there was no rule that stated that varnams had to be sung in the beginning; that he was just trying to innovate with the format.

My view, however is different from the average Chennai rasika who views Krishna’s experimentations as being disrespectful of tradition; and altogether too bold, indeed cocky. I think Krishna is right to experiment. I also think he is not bold enough; not imaginative enough. Read on…. Next week…..

Shoba Narayan is practicing pouring green tea down her gullet.

Why we dance?

I have become interested in dancing recently, perhaps because I have been doing it. This November 17th is Pournami or full moon day. Planning a folk dance in my building similar to what is described below.

Add a new ingredient to festivities: dance
Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face
Shoba Narayan

It was at Devi Garh resort in Delwara, Rajasthan, that I got my first inkling of how Indian festivals should be celebrated. I was there in October, during Navratri. My room was on the highest floor. Every night, I could see groups of women dance on the terraces of the village nearby. They were dressed in red and gold and although I could barely hear the music, I could see them dance.

Growing up in Chennai, I had a rather poor view of Hindu festivals, save Deepavali (as Diwali is called in south India). Whether it was Ganesh Chaturthi, Ram Navami, or Karthigai Deepam, the focus was on eating the same old sweets, and visiting the same old neighbours, who you saw everyday anyway. There were long rituals and pujas which, for a child, offered little joy. Now, I realize the key difference between festivals in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere: dance.

In Chennai, we didn’t dance. Not at weddings; and certainly not during festivals. Tamil Nadu has a rich tradition of folk dances but somehow they didn’t happen in an urban setting: not in Chennai where I grew up; not in Coimbatore where my grandparents lived; and not in Salem or Madurai. When we gathered in groups, we mostly gossiped and eyed each other’s jewellery. Dance, we didn’t. I learned Tamil folk dances at school, when we performed them for “Annual Day” celebrations. Kolattam (literally meaning stick-dance) is similar to the dandiya; and kummi or gummi is like the garba. One lovely version is called pinnal kolattam, and it involves intricate steps. Pinnal means braid in Tamil. The women stood in a circle. Long pieces of rope hung from the ceiling. The women held a piece of the rope and danced in a way that the hanging coloured ropes were braided and then unbraided by the end of the dance. But these were dances that I saw on stage, not on the street.

How do Indians celebrate festivals like Dussehra, Deepavali and—just ahead—Christmas? If I had to pick one factor that makes our celebrations distinct from other cultures, it would be dance. I don’t mean the Bollywood remixes that we dance to in nightclubs. I don’t even mean Kathak, Bharatanatyam and other classical dances that energize and elevate our performing arts. I mean local folk dances that are native, unique and regional—whether it is the Assamese bihu; Rajasthan’s ghoomar; Madhya Pradesh’s matki dance with an earthen pot balanced on the head; Maharashtra’s very sexy lavani dance; Manipur’s dhol cholom in which the drum plays a key role; Odisha’s baagh naach which takes its cues from the tiger; Punjab’s kikkli which requires more skill and looks more interesting than the bhangra; and West Bengal’s gambhira, which is performed by Hindus and Muslims, all clad in lungis.

Have these dances disappeared, or are they merely absent in the urban environment? Will they disappear as India rushes towards urbanization and is that a bad thing? I have a theory for why these dances aren’t common in our cities. Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face. That is hard to do for us city-dwellers. This festive season, my building in urban Bangalore decided to do Indian folk dances rather than the usual Western music and beats. Although we chose common and popular ones such as a diya dance for Deepavali and the garba for Navratri, what a challenge it was to pull off. South Indians like me didn’t know the steps intuitively so it involved rehearsals before the big day. Coordinating schedules was a pain. No wonder people send out texts and emails in lieu of greetings. Hugging a friend in person and wishing them is incredibly satisfying but also logistically hard.

Dipping my feet—quite literally—into the folk dances of India taught me many things. Cultures use their bodies differently with music. Discovering why it is a fascinating exercise. Why do the Chinese and Japanese move their bodies slowly to sonorous music and why do the Scots jump, hop and skip? How do circular body movements mutate through countries and cultures. Indians, Africans and Arabs all are masters at whirling round and round, but we each use this movement quite differently. Africans squat slightly and use only the pelvic area. I once watched a dance group perform at MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa. They were hired from the local village for entertaining tourists. Their pelvic area seemed to have a life of its own, moving faster and faster with the beat. The rest of us tried it but even the trained ballet dancer among us couldn’t do it with any grace. Yet, the African whirl is quite different from the sensual belly-dancing whirl of the Arabs. They both use their hips but differently. Indians whirl too—in Kathak and in folk dances—but our whirls are more like the Sufi dancers and the whirling dervishes of Turkey and through the Silk Route.

This Deepavali season, along with the festivity, there was a bit of soul searching about how to celebrate our Indian festivals. This could well apply to the coming Christmas holiday. Are we going to be more eco-friendly? Are we going to splurge on ourselves or give to charity instead? Are we going to follow our over-the-top instincts that seek to keep up with the Joneses (or Agarwals and Chaddhas) or are we going to introspect a bit? For all those who are doing this, I have one more suggestion and request: dance a little. Not just at nightclubs which is fine and wonderful, but also at home, within your community and your building complexes. It takes a bit of work, but the effects are magical. To dance in a group is to learn how to express and communicate without words. It is joyous and soul-satisfying.

Shoba Narayan is looking to Goa and Kerala to see if there are any folk dances that are suitable for the coming Christmas holiday season.

Chennai’s Punjabi Envy and Puns

The best part of this piece was the punny-funny response I got from a friend in Chennai, which I have appended below after taking out all identifying characters.

He first sent a handwritten note on the computer, complimenting the piece.

To which I replied.
Thanks. Love, love, love (and am quite jealous of) your handwritten note.
Why can’t the iPhone have a stylus?

My Chennai friend’s response:
Alas. Steve Jobs eternal dislike of all things Scully…hence everything that Newton had had to be dropp-ed…..maybe something will get Cook-ed soon?

Made my day!! My husband is a great punster, something which doesn’t fly in our family. I’ve figured out why. You need wit and the ability to connect disparate dots to pun. It has to do with quick-thinking more than intelligence (as a bad punster, I choose to believe that). And what’s the response to a pun? The punster is thrilled with his clever line and the rest of us listeners are pissed off. This was the story of our marriage for a while. It’s taken me this long to figure out the right response to a punster. Offer another pun. They love it and this competitive sport keeps going till someone tires out. Got to write about puns someday. Ok, people if anyone can “up” the response to Steve Jobs-Scully-Newton- and Cook, let’s have it.

Below is the piece. Almost an afterthought.

Sat, Apr 27 2013. 12 09 AM IST

Chennai’s Punjabi envy

Chennai is changing with the city’s old-new layers becoming more visible every day

A mehendi ceremony before a Tamil wedding in Chennai. Photo: Chitra Aiyer
At a recent Chennai wedding, the bride wore white. “Shiva shiva,” said a guest. “What is the world coming to? White is the colour that Hindu widows wear and this young chit of a girl is wearing it on her wedding day.”
The bride also wore a “half-sari” for the engagement; a magenta nine-yards sari for the muhurtham, and a Vera Wangesque white designer gown for the reception. Multiple costume changes are becoming common in Tamil weddings. As are songs and dances.
Put it down to Punjabi envy. One wedding invitation included “Adalum padalum”, a clumsy phrase which literally means “dance and song”, an obvious rip-off of the sangeet. It also formally announced (or warned, depending on how you look at it) that “madhu and panagam”, or “liquor and non-alcoholic drinks”, would be served at the reception, lest the entire elder population leave in a huff. The groom’s party leaving because the proverbial “poli” (sweet) didn’t have “ghee” is a wedding legend, typically done right in the middle of the banana-leaf meal or “saapad”, after dramatically shaking your rice-laden hand over the leaf.
In lieu of the baraat, we have always had the mappillai azhaippu, or “inviting the groom”, with him arriving in an open-topped vintage car, busting his guts and sweating profusely in a tight suit. All these changes are nothing short of a revolution, given that most TamBrahm weddings involve long recitations of mantras that nobody understands, while guests stare at the dais in a heat- and smoke-induced daze.

“Chennai has changed,” says Urmila Sathyanarayana, one of the city’s top Bharatanatyam dancers and my college classmate. Urmila has been performing and teaching for over 17 years. Her dance school, Natya Sankalpa, in the tony Kilpauk Garden area, has 200 students on the rolls. Part of the change is the softening of Chennai’s famously blunt tongue. “When I was learning dance, teachers would say (and this sounds better in Tamil), “You are black (dark), so this costume won’t suit your skin colour. Or they would say, ‘You are fat.’ Nowadays, we don’t talk like that in Chennai. We emphasize the positive.”
As someone who was routinely greeted at family weddings with a “Hey, what happened? You look like a (insert preferred insult, scarecrow being one of them),” I welcome Chennai’s new political correctness.
This old-new layering is more amplified in Chennai because the city has a strong sense of place that almost veers on a cliché. Locals drink “south Indian filter coffee” with milk at home every morning; shop at Ranganathan Street for things that they didn’t know they wanted; visit the Shrine Velankanni church with auspicious turmeric paste on their faces; draw elaborate kolam designs with rice flour on courtyards for decoration and as an offering to ants; prostrate before elders out of respect; and learn traditional Bharatanatyam dance or Carnatic music.

Urmila says that Chennai’s layers are visible every day. “My daughter has a great nightlife. But she also chants slokas at home with my husband. Similarly, her friends are modern young people but they know that we look for rahu kalam and ashtami navami—auspicious hours and times to start anything. So they will say: “Aunty, I am buying a new cellphone. Can you check out that eighth moon thing?”
Lakshmi Venu, vice-president in charge of global business at Sundaram-Clayton Ltd, traverses both these worlds. With her well-cut dresses and stylishly short hair, Venu would fit right into Newbury Street, Boston, where her husband, Rohan Murty, is based. But when in Chennai, she socializes with her school friends from Sishya; talks to her grandmother every day; visits cousins, and laughingly admits to a “family forest, not family tree” of relatives she sees at weddings.
She isn’t unusual among the TamBrahm business families that still rule Chennai, each with a web of cousins and relatives managing different arms. “But the great thing about Chennai is that beyond a point, people don’t care who I am or what I do. People are really genuine in that way,” says Venu. “It may not be the most exciting city for a tourist but it is a great city to call home.”

Chennai is my hometown and I am inordinately, irrationally possessive about this city. Every time I return these days, there is something new; something atypical; something unnerving. The autorickshaw drivers are still rude as I haggle with them in street Tamil (when in doubt, use the swear word savu gracki, whose exact meaning, I confess, I don’t know). But when I ask the autos to take me someplace new, they take me not to a new tiffin-joint but to Toscano and Kryptos. Who eats Greek in Chennai—although I grudgingly grant that it is one cuisine that makes sense in this hot city? The roads are still perfumed with that potent combination of petrol fumes and Madurai jasmine, but now clover-shaped flyovers make the traffic flow better than Bangalore. And who buys the trench-coats from Burberry during the Agni Nakshatiram (fire star)? “The city grows on you,” says N. Kumar, vice-chairman, The Sanmar Group. “Chennai is not hurly-burly like Bombay (Mumbai). People are more relaxed here.”

Relaxed they may be, but Chennaiites are also parochial, somewhat like the American South, sticking to relatives and friends they have known all their life. The city has the third largest population of expats, after Mumbai and Delhi, but expats find it difficult to break in. “My French employee said that it took him six months to make friends in Chennai,” says B. Santhanam, managing director, Saint-Gobain Glass. “But later, he said that he learned Scottish dancing here; went parasailing outside Chennai. There are hidden pockets in the city where the most interesting things happen.”
Interesting is okay; interesting pockets are good. I just hope that they don’t cleave away the Chennai of my childhood. My Chennai.

Shoba Narayan eats badam halwa in Chennai because the heat and sweat take all the pounds off. Or so she’d like to believe.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns