Culture and Specificity

Nice response to the piece below in Livemint website. I wish The Skeptarian, whoever she or he is had said some more. I don’t agree with her or his notions about culture as talking to sweeper. That’s my milklady version.

The Skeptarian • 7 hours ago −
This article just re-articulates a certain sameness in our thinking, a tired view of culture that equates it with the arts. Culture is not that at all. In its truest sense, culture is about a certain catholicity in one’s sensibility. It is the ability to let go of one’s identity; in fact, it is the disposition to rise above one’s human identity. It gets reflected in such things as the ability to notice an ant struggling to hoist its grain across a small crevice in the floor. It is not surely about nursing a single malt, it is more about being able to muse about the origins of our universe when drinking a glass of water. Walter Susman wrote that the decline of American culture began in the early 20th century with the shift of emphasis from Character to Charisma. Culture is the ability to reject charisma, it is that of appearing less erudite than one actually is….where, it is the reverse that is mostly true today. Culture is about rejecting the notion of power in its entirety. It is about being able to live life on the razor’s edge always….therefore, it is surely not about reclining in a cane chair listening to Mozart’s clarinet concerto, it is more about going out into the street and watching the municipal worker sweeping the road and conversing with him or her. Culture is what you will not find most of India’s middle class and rich.

Why you may not be as cultured as you think
Being cultured denotes more than just having the expertise. It’s who you are
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Sep 21 2013. 12 31 AM IST

Vocalist Girija Devi performing at the ITC ‘sangeet sammelan’ in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Bhatia/Hindustan Times
It’s something that most of us grew up with; part of the Indian zeitgeist, seen in Satyajit Ray movies and stories passed down the generations. It involves characters such as the proverbial Uncle (Moti chachu or Goli mamu, call him what you will). He is in his 50s or early 60s; clad in a soft white dhoti and a loose white baniyan; lounging in the early evening as he usually does on one of those cane “easy chairs” with two sticks that swing out like wings. There are dark pillars and a cool mosaic floor. Light streams in through the window, producing a shimmering golden glow—like a butterfly’s wing—often seen in old havelis or Chettinad homes.
There is music. Have your pick, depending on the region. If it was Kolkata, it could be Rabindrasangeet or opera. If it was Mumbai, it could be Vishnu Digambar Paluskar singing Raga Durga or Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. If it was Delhi, it could be Allauddin Khan playing Raga Jaijaiwanti on his sarod, or Urdu couplets. If it was Goa, it could be Gonzaga Coutinho singing Tambde Rosa, or C. Alvares and Rita Lobo singing Molbavello Dhou, or jazz. If it was Chennai, the uncle would be listening to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar singing Bantureeti in Hamsanadham ragam, or Rudram chants, both of which he would know by heart.
These are stereotypes of course, and they aren’t the real point of this story. The point of painting these scenes is this. As this uncle sits reading his newspaper, his two nieces are arguing over the particular raga that is playing. They can’t decide whether it is Bhairav or Bhoopali. “It is neither,” says the uncle, still behind the newspaper. “It is Maand”.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up surrounded by such uncles and aunties. They knew stuff about Indian history and culture; they were soaked in music, art, literature and dance. They could spot mistakes in the mudras (hand gestures) at a performance. They could compare the khayal singing styles of Girija Devi and Kumar Gandharva and deliver detailed expositions about why one was superior to the other. They could nurse their single malt and hum Vivaldi’s Four Seasons under their breath and break into an Omar Khayyám couplet in the next instance. They could make comparisons between Kalidasa and Shakespeare. They were—and I don’t know a better way to describe it—cultured. They were also simple and fairly specific with respect to attire, food and lifestyle. They wore the same clothes that their neighbours did and ate their regional food, whether it was Goan fish curry or meen moilee or mutton biryani. They were unpretentious. There is a great line in one of my favourite movies, The Birdcage. In it, Robin Williams, who is gay, confronts his son who wishes him to pretend to be straight for the sake of his visiting girlfriend. Williams refuses with the line that goes something like this, “But I know who I am, Al. It has taken me 20 years to come to it.”
These cultured uncles and aunties knew who they were. Their knowledge of the arts was both exquisitely local and profoundly global. Travel writers do this for a living. They plumb the local for granular details to illustrate the global. My point is a version of Gandhi’s motto of simple living and high thinking. In times past, it was specific and regional living that led to a depth of culture and heritage. Today, it is global living and what writer and journalist Aatish Taseer calls, “deracinated” culture.
In an interview with The New York Times magazine, conductor James Levine once described the difference between opera recordings from the past and current performers in this way: “At whatever level of expertise or inexperience, the performance (in the past) demonstrates a digestion, a confidence, an attitude, an absorption that is lacking today”.
Notice that he doesn’t use the word expertise. Rather, he calls it “digestion”, and “absorption”, which are words describing a milieu.
Are you cultured? What does that word mean to you? The word connotes expertise, but it is much more than that. What it really means is immersion: In what you read, wear, sing, listen to, talk about, offer advice about, and dream about. Culture is who you are.
Hindustani and Carnatic music today are replete with superb singers. They have melodious voices; they take their riyaz seriously and spend hours everyday practising. Their voice exhibits perfect sur (note) or shruti (tone). They have laya or rhythm. Their voice can transcend the three saptak or octaves easily. They research the compositions that they sing; learn Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit or Telugu to understand the meaning of the words; they learn music history and occasionally create books, articles or nowadays, podcasts about past masters. Technically, it is hard if not impossible to fault them. Yet, today’s musicians lack that “digestion” and “absorption” that Levine is referring to. This is not about accomplishment or artistry because today’s musicians have that in spades. What they lack is the ethos and all-consuming identity that came naturally to musicians in the past. This is because, today’s musicians, dancers and artistes try to be all things to all people; changing their identity and art according to audience or collector. The art suffers as a result. Paluskar or Chembai weren’t musicians by professions; they were musicians by identity. It infused everything they did. It was who they were.
Are you cultured? If you think you are, you may want to dig deep—and specific. Conjure up an aesthetic and identity that is close to your heritage and who you are.

Shoba Narayan is listening to Ghana Shyama Sundara and Avicii’s Wake me up. How to get specific with this bandwidth? Write to Shoba at


My main source for high-quality teas is my friend Kishore Mariwala of Bombay.  Kishore is a connoisseur of many things: Hindustani music, tea, single malts to name three.  Our friendship began when he wrote to Mint two years ago, commenting on a piece I had written on coffee.  I have, with his permission, reproduced the letter below, mostly because it gives helpful tips about how to drink fine tea: water temperature and such.

Kishore, as you will see below, has a eye for detail and is perfectionist about his teas– somewhat like my other foodie friend, Stanley Pinto, who runs ragged to orchestrate fabulous meals for The Bangalore Black Tie.

Kishore: you should click the link above to “meet” Stanley.

Every now and then, Kishore will courier me some tea he has found.  To the point where I cannot drink normal milky tea.  I drink Kashmiri Kehwa at my friend, Kavita’s house, and recently, Kavita has joined my pantheon of tea experts by producing a fabulously complext tea.  It comes from a box, and yes, (Kishore’s comment below notwithstanding), it has teabags, albeit pyramid-shaped.  Kavita sent me Lipton’s tea infusions.  I have tried several at her house but the best is Moroccan Mint.  I don’t like Mint tea but this one has all kinds of other spices in it: fennel? cinnamon? I have been enjoying a big pot of it every morning and evening.

Now read Kishore’s letter. He is a chemical engineer.

—– Forwarded by Bhavna/bizpaper/del/htl on 09/14/2009 03:10 PM —–

From: Kishore Mariwala <>
Date: 09/14/2009 02:26 PM
Subject: “Raise a cup to chicory—-“

Hello Shobha,
I am Kishore Mariwala, a regular reader of your column “The Good Life” in yesterday’s “Lounge”.  I particularly enjoyed the yesterday’s column  “Raise a cup to chicory, all ye coffee snobs” . In that article you ask if “chaiwallas” dissect their chai like the coffee wallas who dissect their coffee.  

I am, considered  a “Tea, Coffee and Single malt whisky snob” in my circle of friends and relatives.  I can comment at length on all the three of  my favourite beverages. However, since my name does not even remotely sound like a South Indian, I will refrain from commenting on coffee. The single malts are in  another class altogether so thy also are out!
I will restrict my comments on Tea only. 
Firstly, just as it is sacrosanct to dilute single malt with water and a blasphemy to dilute it with soda, it is blasphemy to dilute tea  with milk, lime  or sugar. 
The only exceptions are

  • a well made cup of  masala chai  on a rainy day, to have such chai  with onion pakodas.

Secondly, Blended teas to be avoided except under special circumstances (described below).
Tea Bags can not enter my house!  I consider them obscene! 

Over the years I have categorised Teas on the undermentioned scale:

Top rung:   Undoubtedly Single estate First Flush or second flush teas. 
For mornings, Second flush (or autumn flush). It has a little stronger flavour, good to wake up with;  for afternoons, first flush which is milder but  distinctly aromatic- touch of floral- 

Source: After many many years an trying out many sources, I have zeroed in on: “Tea Emporium” at Darjeeling. 
When I see my jar(s) running out, I call up Sanjeev Mitra. We discuss the merits or demerits of the last consignment. 
He then  who rattles off a list of latest arrivals with his recommendations.
Having known my taste for many years now, he knows exactly what I would like. At times he calls up on his own if he thinks that he has struck quality gold, he calls up immediately to inform me that he has despatched a packet to me. 
To any one who agrees with my assessment of Darjeeling teas I recommend him strongly. 

Second rung (far below the first one) : Nilgiri, High Range, Sri Lanka. 
No match to Darjeeling but tolerable. Some tea from Tata Estates in Munnar are good! come close to Darjeeling but not very close. 
Chinese: Good for green teas but have not yet come across a black tea comparable to Darjeeling. 
Assam: Low on flavour, heavy liquor. Has a special use described below.
Kenya, Kangra etc. ; Not to be considered! Good for Russians. 

Japanese make a lot of sense in evolving the institution of “Tea Ceremony” ! It has to be a ceremony if  you want a real good cup of tea!
Tea leaves: my proportion is 1/2  tea spoon per cup but varies depending the flavour strength of a particular variety, which flush it is from.
Water:  Water: has to be very fresh; soft; salinity below 200 ppm. Heat it just to boiling. Stop heating, letit cool for a minute or two and add measured quantity. 
Brew for 3 to 5 minutes (depending on taste) .
Never use metal tea pot. Has to be glass or ceramic. I prefer clear glass since I like to see the liquor and the beauty of the leaves as they unfold and assume their original shape and colour! 
So that is how it goes. 
Now let me talk about the Masala Chai ceremony to go with Onion Pakodas in monsoon. 
Tea: a blend of 1/3  to 1/2 Assam Tea. 2/3rd to 1/2 Darjeeling tea (need not be the most expensive one)
Other ingredients: Freshly grated fresh ginger; some leaves of lemon grass chopped into 1/2″  to 1″ length and including some thick portion from near the roots; a few mint leaves (avoid stems)
Boil in water for about 5 minutes. Strain out all the leaves, ginger Add  required prpoortion of sugar..
Add skimmed milk . (Skimmed to ensure that the cup when offered does mot have that unsightly skin often seen in chaiwalla’s chai. Proportion of milk to water: 1/2 & 1/2  or personal choice. 
Bring the milk-water-sugar to boil on high elame. When boiling and rolling, add 1 Tea spoon of the Assam- Darjeeling leaves mixture per cup.Stie it in. 
The concoction will foam and try to come up. Just as it approaches the top edge, lower the flame and let foam subside. When it subsides, restart high flame and let it get another boil over. When it reaches the top edge, switch pff heating and cover the cessel with a lid. Let it stand for 3 minutes and strain it out in a cup or a preheated pot, Enjoy with onion pakodas. 
This masala chai does not belong to the category of Darjeeling tea. For me it is another beverage altogether !
So Shobha, that is the discourse from a Chaiwalla !
You may have found it a little too long but then I was talking about my Goddess! 
*********END OF KISHORE LETTER*******

I have preserved this letter because it has two of the three things necessary for good op-ed writing: deep knowledge on the subject and strong opinions.  The third neccessary thing, of course, is the desire to write and be published and the polishing of your craft, which Kishore doesn’t have time for mostly because he is sailing his yacht on Bombay harbour.

I am going to email this post to Kishore Mariwala and Stanley Pinto: connoisseurs and dictators both.  May their tribe increase. Oh, and will email Kavita too: my latest tea connoisseur.