By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Monday, December 31, 2012

Powerful Pipe And Pulverizing Percussion

Underlining the fundamental fact that the natural setting for naagaswaram music is the open air, I had told an interesting story (Dec. 29) about a concert I had heard in a New Delhi hill temple in 1986.  Now let me take you back another 15 years, to a concert organized in a Madras wedding hall in 1971, which I had reviewed in one of my earliest exercises in music criticism:

The Indian Express, Madras
24 July 1971

Outside the limits of loudness

Attending a concert at 6-30 p.m. on a weekday is not exactly a picnic for a white-collar worker .  He must rush to the concert hall after a taxing day in the office, and his condition generally is worn-out, if not quite jaded.  If the music happens to be overloud,  or overloaded with percussive effects,  his nerves do run the risk of being shattered.  Naamagiripettai Krishnan's naagaswaram recital at the Sahrudaya last Thursday evening was no tonic to my tired nerves.

The naagaswaram and the thavil are open-air instruments, which must have been devised by our ancestors of the pre-mike era specially to achieve a very high degree of volume and reach.  They sound at their natural best when performed in the streets to herald a ritualistic procession, or in the open courtyard of a temple or wedding venue.  If these instruments are to be concertized, a lawn would be a far better place than a hall;  and if the venue does have to be a hall, the least one would expect is that there are no microphones and loudspeakers.
The low-roofed Hema-Malini Kalyana-Mandapam on Lloyds Road, where Krishnan's recital was held, has a certain compactness about it which preserves the sound well in spite of the hall's wide-open sides.  The naagaswaram and thavil would have sounded too loud for comfort in this hall even without loudspeakers.  I was therefore surprised to find that Sahrudaya had arranged for amplification.

However, so loud was the direct sound transmission itself from the dais that I couldn't be quite sure whether the loudspeakers were actually functioning or not. . . .  The recital was not only overloud, but was also unduly weighted in favour of the percussive element. 

Accompanying Krishnan was star thavilist Valayappatti Subramaniam, who was extensively assisted by Tenchittoor Sundaram.  For the best part of the concert the accent was on rhythm rather than on melody. . . .  The marathon tani-aavartanam [solo session] of the percussionists, which lasted a full hour, was a serious distraction.

The tani, I must say, wasn't wanting in artistic touches.  But . . . .  hearing the bulldozer beats of the thavil exclusively for an hour can be as oppressive as standing close to a Boeing's engines in full blast!

In fairness to the artists, I must admit that there were many persons (including some prominent musicians) who seemed to relish the tani from beginning to end, enthusiastically keeping time and earnestly responding to every scholastic variation.

My point is not that the tani was  bad, but only that it was irrelevantly and discordantly expansive from the ordinary music-lover's point of view.  It was an excellent rhythmic exercise  --  comparable to a Pancha-vaadyam session  --  and would have been a fitting enterprise in the Music Academy's annual conference or in the Trichur Pooram.  But it was just far too heavy material for a mid-week city concert, that's all . . .

The wind instrument never came into its own after the pulverizing solo of the percussionists.  All told, the naagaswaram did not unfortunately emerge as the dominant factor in this concert, in spite of Krishnan's obvious competence and authority.  The cause was a costly strategic error on the part of the performers, which was no doubt occasioned by Valayappatti's towering reputation as a thavilmaster.

In the course of the concert I saw a conspicuous music critic pick up his chair and carry it to the breezy open space adjoining the hall, and sit down for a more subdued impact.  Many are this critic's opinions which I would like to dispute, but for once I couldn't help appreciating his thought and wishing that it had occurred to me first.  I soon followed his excellent example, and thereafter managed to stay within the limits of loudness.

Postscript, 2012
Over the 40 years which have passed after I registered that strong protest, the naagaswaram and thavil have  progressively acquired a status and niche as indoor instruments, usually with full amplification.  I do understand the compulsion of very highly accomplished artists to adopt the concert mode and gain great distinction as virtuosi. and I have nothing against concertizing naagaswaram music.  But I do insist that the organizers must adopt a single basic criterion which isn't negotiable, which is just that there should be no amplification of any kind.  Whether they are able to organize the performance on a lawn  or other suitable open-air space (which would be ideal), or must resort to some indoor venue or semi-outdoor space,  microphones and loudspeakers should be absolutely forbidden.   And that's what seems to be getting overlooked usually, with the inevitable result that the pipes and percussion merrily continue to pound and pulverize!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hearing From The Hill-top

Talking about the spiritual élan created by the soulful music of South Indian woodpipes and drums in a Madras temple festival (Dec. 27), I couldn't resist tracing an essay I had written in 1986, describing a very similar musical experience in a Temple setting in New Delhi.
One of the thrills of writing on both Carnatic and Western music in a prestigious newspaper in the Capital of India was that I could consistently explain significant aspects of both South Indian and Western music systems and traditions, for the benefit of an international set of intelligent readers.  That's perhaps why, after so many years, they still seem to be worth circulating to an international set of Internet readers!

In the beginning I used to get so carried away by my unique status as 'Carnatic and Western music critic' in New Delhi that I would discuss contexts of both kinds in the same article even if they had no connection whatsoever.  But I soon found that it wasn't a very effective way of attracting better response from readers on either side, and gave up the experiment.  So let me just omit the second half of the following article here!

THE HINDU, New Delhi
14 Nov. 1986
Naagaswaram, trumpet and flugelhorn
October and November constitute the season when many events of devotional music and music-laced religious discourses are organized in the South Indian temple circles in Delhi. . .

In the first week of November came the celebrations associated with the Skanda Sashti festival at the Swami-Malai temple in South Delhi.  Among the musical programs. . . .  was a naagaswaram recital given by the Mambalam Brothers from Madras. . . .

The naagaswaram and thavil are extremely loud outdoor wind and percussion instruments, which are traditionally played in processions or in open-air venues on religious occasions and Hindu weddings all over South India. 

The thousands of exponents who play these auspicious instruments with remarkable skill in the temples and elsewhere are generally conservative in their orientation, and they make a very valuable contribution towards preserving the purity of the Carnatic music tradition.  Remaining by and large anonymous, these innumerable musicians are like the strong invisible roots of a magnificent tree.

Being specifically designed by our ancestors for the open air, the naagaswaram and thavil are not truly effective as modern concert instruments.  Some attempts have been made to concertize this music, but they have not succeeded widely , and very few concert artists have emerged in the scene.

When amplified by artificial means inside a concert hall, the sound of these powerful instruments does become extremely strident.  In a shamiana [spacious tent], with its roof and walls made of cloth or canvas, the effect may not be so negative;  but even in principle, the naagaswaram culture and amplification are quite incompatible.
The [event in question] was organized inside a decorative tent, with amplifying arrangements.  Moreover, there is something seriously wrong with the old set of microphones and loudspeakers currently in use in this temple. . . .  [and they were] malfunctioning . . . .

An electrician tinkered with the equipment for quite some time, but he couldn't locate the source of the trouble.  The situation would have improved if the sound system had simply been switched off, but this wasn't done.    Unable to appreciate or even withstand the music purveyed in such a jarring manner, some of us went out and climbed up the small adjoining hill and sat on the parapets of the Swaminatha Shrine, under a clear sky adorned by sparkling stars and a six-day-old moon. 

Somehow distance and elevation seemed to dissolve the impurities in the sound, and wonderful music wafted from the shamiana below to the listeners on the hill.  Possessing the authentic classic quality which generally characterizes naagaswaram recitals, the music enabled one to meditate deeply and experience a spiritual thrill.

After a while an idol of Lord Swaminatha was brought up in a slow procession to the hill-top;  and the musicians went ahead of it and performed in the open air, which was their natural setting.  The procession was halted for some time mid-way up the hill, and the worshipful mood was greatly enhanced by the mellifluous music which flowed from the twin naagaswarams.  It seemed as if one had almost gone on a pilgrimage to some ancient village temple in South India! . . .

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Timeless Music in Madras Temple

In my note posted on December 25  (Chritmas Cameo In Calcutta), I had recalled an article I had written just before Christmas  in 2008 --  from Portland (Oregon) where I was staying  --  for my column Musicscan in THE HINDU, telling a soulful story of how I had been transfixed by a recorded version of Handel's Messiah played in a magnificent church in Calcutta exactly 50 years earlier. 
A few weeks later I was back home in Madras (as Chennai used to be called  earlier, a historic name to which we senior citizens still tend to cling on!) --  and in a religious spring festival, stood transfixed by the powerful spiritual music which reverberated inside and outside a splendid Hindu temple.   How could I resist recording my reflections in my column?

13 March 2009
Music in worshipful spirit
As the sun sets on the Western sky, earnest devotees begin to arrive on the scene in a steady stream.  And by the time the lights are switched on, hundreds of people have assembled in the very large auditorium which serves as a place of worship as well as a concert hall.  On the high dais, a splendidly decorated image of the Deity radiates great beauty and magnificence, illuminated by good, old-fashioned petromax lamps.
A dynamic team of a dozen musicians, who are seated on a low dais near the entrance of the hall, begin to play the naagaswaram and thavil, the classic open-air pipes and drums of South Indian temples.   This creates a truly worshipful spirit which pervades the whole atmosphere.  The music pauses for a while as a set of priests briefly recite sacred Sanskrit verses over the public address system.

Then, as the imposing Deity is carried on a grand palanquin across and outside the hall and is taken on a slow-moving procession along the streets adjoining the temple, the pipers and drummers resume the reverberating music, leading the procession. And true to the ancient tradition, they remain anonymous — or almost so — even though they are all highly accomplished and achieve great excellence as performing artists.

This could well have been a scene in a South Indian village a hundred years ago!  But when and where are we actually?  In the 21st century, in metropolitan Madras, during the annual Brahmotsavam prayers and music festival at the Anantha Padmanabha-Swami Temple in Adayar!

Not even the profusion of video machines, digital cameras and camera-phones in the hands of the devotees can take away this senior citizen’s forceful impression that he has been transported back to his grandparents’ village in Kerala State 50 or 60 years ago!

Is it not amazing how strongly anchored we South Indians are to our ancient spiritual traditions and practices, no matter how well we get along in the ultra-modern world?
And isn’t that one of the main reasons why Carnatic music goes on passing the test of time through many successive generations?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Cameo In Calcutta

Four years ago, I happened to be staying in North-West America during a bitterly cold Christmas season, and I had vivid recollections of a bitterly cold winter night in North-East India exactly 50 years earlier, when I had a truly memorable musical experience in a magnificent church in Calcutta.  So I e-mailed a nostalgic article about it for my Friday column Musicscan in THE HINDU (in Chennai, South India), which I always  try not to miss even if I am on the other side of the world.  But the freezing weather in Oregon disrupted some marvelous musical soirees in the churches on Christmas eve.  And here I am in Chennai on Christmas Day in 2012, soaking myself  in those indelible memories of long ago and not so long  ago!
26 Dec.2008 
 Christmas in Calcutta, long ago
When Chennai (good old Madras!) is being immersed in the warm tidal wave from the Ocean of Carnatic music at this time of the year, here I am at the other end of the world, in the thick of an unusually severe snowstorm sweeping across North America from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic. It is being described as an ‘Arctic blast’ by experts in the media.
I find myself far away from home when many earnest lovers of Carnatic music who live here (and in many other foreign countries) are actually enjoying their annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of Carnatic music! . . . . While I do miss the wonderful Maargazhi music  season in Chennai , I have the great compensation of being able to closely watch the dramatic developments in the political scene here at a crucial time, when a majority of voters have not only just elected the first African-American citizen as the next President, but are also looking up to him as a Messiah who will restore the nation’s image in the international arena.
Rare occasion
Talking in the same breath about the ice-cold weather and a charismatic leader, somehow I am strongly reminded of the first and most memorable time I heard a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ on a bitterly cold evening in Kolkota (Calcutta then) just before Christmas exactly 50 years ago. That was the time when tape recorders and audiotapes were imported. They were rarely seen even in metropolitan India. And though 33-rpm long playing records of Indian music as well as a limited range of Western music were being manufactured by HMV’s factory in Calcutta, they were rather expensive, as were the imported record players. And live performances of Western music were very rare even in the metros. The main source of Western music for the earnest music lover was the radio, particularly the shortwave stations abroad.
In Calcutta, the Philips show-room on Park Street used to have a nice weekly soiree of recorded Western music, which attracted a small and regular niche audience. But it was a very brief and stylish gimmick, which didn’t greatly enhance your musical experience and vision. As a young man keenly interested in Western music, I used to feel quite frustrated.

So you can imagine my thrill , when a substantial programme of recorded music featuring a complete version of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was organised by St. John’s Church, near Dalhousie Square, in North Calcutta.
Authentic and awesome
The 19th century Church, built in Greek architectural style during the British regime, was very spacious with several hundred seats for the congregation. It had a very high ceiling and an enormous dome. The whole structure had been built with huge stones and there was a magnificent stained-glass window. The setting was perfect for sacred music of classical vintage.
The acoustics turned out to be very effective — the recorded sound being amplified powerfully and producing reverberating echoes. The music couldn’t have sounded more authentic and splendid even if it had been a live performance by an orchestra, chorus and solo singers. I had never heard any music so awesome before and I literally sat transfixed and immobile.
There was, however, a problem. Christmas was only a few days away, and the winter was intensely cold by Indian standards. There was no air-conditioning, and as the evening progressed, the place became extremely cold and uncomfortable. The gathering, which was very small to begin with, thinned out so steadily that in the last half hour I was the only person left in the congregation!
I was even afraid that the Reverend Father who was operating the tape recorder might wind up the programme prematurely. But he seemed to take no notice whatsoever of the amazing exodus, and went on playing the music till the end. And when it was over, he walked up to me, took my hands in his, looked into my eyes and said: “Thank you, my son! You are the only true Christian who came to this Church today!”
“But Father, I am a Hindu!” I said. And he replied: “That may be so, my son! But still I say you are a true Christian!”
(For more on Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ see Musicscan online March 21, 2008)
Postscript:   After e-mailing the above essay on Tuesday night, I woke up on Wednesday morning to find the following news item in The Oregonian: “With more snow coming today, churches (in Portland), including the ones that closed Tuesday, asked the faithful to call or check Web sites before heading out to Christmas Eve services and midnight Masses... Augustana Lutheran Church... will probably repeat the musical services at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday if today’s weather keeps the pews empty...”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Www : Wet Weather Woes

What I find so rewarding about some of the articles in my column Delhiberations, which I had scribbled in the evening paper in New Delhi so long ago, is that they still seem to be so fresh and readable!   There must be several reasons why they've survived the test of time.  An important one was that successive Editors had set no limits to my freedom of expression or style, and had encouraged me to view even very ordinary situations in a conceptual light,  often blurring the distinction between reports and reflections.
Thus, a routine rainy day could turn quite romantic in my scheme of things!

Evening News, New Delhi
15 July 1977

A rainy day

Early this morning I looked at the sky and got the impression that it was the worst day of the year.

The atmosphere was saturated with mist, and though it was only drizzling, it looked as if it was going to be the  rainiest day of the season.

There were large puddles on the road, some of them more than ankle-deep.

My 8-year-old son Vimo was facing a moral crisis  --  to go or not to go to the school.

In a few hours I was going to face a crisis of my own  --  how to reach my office in time.

When it rains like this, we think the hottest summer day or the coldest winter day would be far better than this.  But on those days, of course, we do think that the wettest day wouldn't be so bad!

When we have a tooth-ache, we think a head-ache would be much better;  but when we have a severe head-ache, we feel we could put up with a tooth-ache far more easily!

When I was a schoolboy, we kids had no moral crisis when it rained hard.  We knew the school would be closed down, and we just stayed home.

In fact, we knew exactly how much rain was required for the headmaster to call it a day  --  we didn't need rain gauges to know that! 

But nowadays we never know whether our children's school would be closed down when it rains, and if so at what stage.

So my wife Raji and I argued the point for half an hour, and finally decided that Vimo shouldn't miss the school.  And sure enough, the school bus came and picked him up.
But within an hour he was back home, saying there was no school!

I find that as the end of the twentieth century is approaching, things have a way of getting more and more complicated.  Matters which used to be quite simple are becoming highly complex subjects for debate and analysis.

Home-made remedies with which our parents used to look after the day-to-day health of the family are practically unknown to us, and we are always knocking on the doctor's door.

The simple joy of just not going to school on a rainy day and thinking no more about it is not available to our children, as it was to us.

Even the school has become a fiercely competitive world. where the rat race of life begins.  My son has no school today, but we don't dare to let him play in the morning.  We tell him to do some school work.

On my way to the office in this awful weather, I can't help looking back with nostalgia to the time when I was a little kid, and could tuck myself  away in the attic on a day like this,  just pottering about and crunching some crisp home-made snacks.

Which reminds me that we no longer make crisp, crunchable snacks at home for the rainy day  --  we are always at the mercy of the market-place!

And, of course, there's no such thing as an attic in our home any more  --  an attic is as alien to our children's way of life as a castle is to ours!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mystery Of The Missing Magyars

When I started writing a weekly column in the Hindustann Times Evening News in 1973 under the playful title Delhiberations, the Editor and I had visualized it as a purely humorous running commentary on whatever was happening or not happening in the cosmopolitan Capital of India. 
But New Delhi, with its diplomatic corps and other international connections, had many open windows through which one could obtain close views of life in foreign countries, particularly in artistic and cultural contexts; and I found it exciting to enlarge the scope of my column by often commenting on my impressions of alien environments, And sometimes I even gained amazingly clear insights into very distant and unfamiliar settings. 
The following comments on a Hungarian art exhibition (which was apparently on a world tour) were meant only as the response of a fairly ignorant foreigner living far away from Hungary. But I did somehow stumble on the significant fact that this collection of historic dimensions did not truly reflect the social, cultural and demographic character of Magyarland -- and also identified the main reasons why this was so!
Evening News, New Delhi
26 Oct. 1986

Impressions of Hungary

For quite some time I hadn't gone to see any art exhibition, for want of interest as well as time. But when I saw a notice that there would be an exhibition of 100 years of Hungarian paintings in the National Gallery of Modern Art, I couldn't resist the idea, and I found the time to go and take a look.

Hungary has always fascinated me, ever since I saw a photograph called 'Hungarian cafe' in a book entitled 'Hundred Best Photographs of the World', which my father had bought in 1940 when I was a little boy. 
The black-and-white picture showed some typical Magyar men with chiselled faces, high cheekbones and drooping moustaches, playing cards in what was described as a characteristic cafe scene in Hungary. The milieu had powerful romantic appeal. Though I lost the book long ago, this picture has never faded from my memory.

In 1949 or '50 I saw a Hungarian movie called Mrs. Dery, in what was perhaps the first-ever international film festival held in Madras. I don't recall the details of the film, but I do remember that it reinforced my fascination for Hungary.

And whenever I tuned to Radio Budapest in my student days (with a fabulous superheterodyne wireless set made in England which my father had bought before the second world war), I was thrilled to hear the dashing sounds of the Hungarian March, which had been adopted by the radio station as its signature tune.

In 1958 I bought a few LP records for the first time in my life, and one of them was an album of Hungarian gypsy music known as Czardas and Hora. Though I gave this disc away to a friend of mine ten years later, I've never forgotten the whirling and accelerating dance tunes, which I can hum or whistle in a fashion even today.

I had an opportunity to visit Budapest for a few days in 1980, and the first thing I did after checking in at my hotel was to rush to the nearest roadside cafe (known as 'eszpresso').
The place was as intriguing as I had hoped it would be. There were small, red-topped round tables on which stood bulky bottles of beer with the labels 'Hongaria' and 'Budapest'. There were tall, pretty waitresses wearing black aprons and knee-high leather boots.

Among the people who sat round the tables I found some men with chiselled faces, high cheekbones and drooping moustaches, confirming the image of Magyar features entrenched in my mind. And I saw many more of them every day during my stay in Budapest -- in the tramcars and busses, in the parks and shops... everywhere.

Of course, I was equally impressed by the beautiful vistas of the city, with its historic castles and Danube bridges. and the views of and from the hills of Buda.
* * *

When I thought of seeing the exhibition of Hungarian paintings, all these memories came flooding into my mind, and I went with great expectations of seeing a lot of gypsy dancers and musicians, cafes and castles, and men with gaunt Magyar faces.

There was, however, a surprise in store for me. My first impression was that I must have gone to the wrong place, because it looked like an exhibition of paintings by West European artists. 
On show were 65 paintings dating from 1935 to 1971, by 52 Hungarian masters, from the collection of the Hungarian National Gallery. I looked and looked for something which would be distinctly evocative of Hungary, but couldn't easily succeed.

The portraits looked either Oriental or West European. The mountains could have been in Switzerland or Germany. Some of the woodlands resembled the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. And the high-life scenes looked very, very French indeed.

Not a single Magyar face could I spot among all those works -- no chiselled features, no high cheekbones, no drooping moustaches! A solitary painting of a Hungarian folk dance (1858) showed a man who actually looked like Tippu Sultan!

And not a single picture showed a Magyar cafe, which is so much a part of urban Hungarian life and culture. Nor did a single view of beautiful Budapest figure in this collection. The only things which evoked Hungary in my mind to some extent were a few 19th-century paintings showing a farm, a village and a couple of gypsy camps.

I couldn't understand the reason for this at all, till I carefully went through the excellent catalogue provided by the National Gallery of Modern Art.

The bio-data of the 52 painters featured in the exhibition showed that most of them had their roots in Western Europe or Austria, and not in Hungary at all. They had either studied art or stayed for a long time in Munich, Paris or Vienna, or some other places in France, Germany ot Italy.

I am not an authority on art, and I don't know what exactly are the criteria by which a representative collection of a country's paintings must be evaluated. All I can say is, I've seen and felt more of authentic Hungary in that single photograph which had fascinated me when I was a little boy, than in this whole collection of more than a century of paintings by the leading artists of Hungary!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gengappa's Generation Gap

A couple of days ago (Dec. 15) I had recalled an essay I had written in THE HINDU in 1991, in which I had visualized the concept of  'generation cycles', as an extension of the well-known phenomenon of generation gaps.  As I was keying in the 21-year-old text, I spotted an error of omission; so I wrote a postscript at once, introducing the elusive idea of 'parallel generation gaps/cycles'.

But logic is such a coiled labyrinth!   Remembering and reading a humorous article I had written on the generation gap in the evening paper in New Delhi in 1975, I noticed a still more intricate point  --  that an almost identical turn of phrase I had used in the two articles (with a 16-year interval between them) had very different connotations altogether.  I wouldn't call it an error, or even a flaw;  --  rather, it's just a fascinating aspect of  grammar.

In the 1991 article I said:  ". . . . In many cases yesterday's rebel happens to be today's conservative, and may well turn out to be tomorrow's  fossil. . . "  --  here, although 'rebel' and 'conservative' aren't plural expressions, they actually signify a whole set of persons belonging to the same generation;  and the conflict is between groups of people belonging to different generations, and not between an individual and the prevailing norms of his own generation.

In the other article, my imaginary friend Gengappa  (who was presumably my own alter ego) had declared:  ". . . I've been a rebel against my own generation, and yet I feel like a crusty old conservative when I look at the youngsters now!"  --  and here the contrast is between one person and a whole set of others belonging to his own generation.  The difference isn't easily visible  --  but it's there, like the dark side of the moon!

Well, is your head reeling, and getting overheated by all this fuss about logic and language?  Don't worry, just read the hilarious 1975 article and relax!  It was meant to be pure fun and not an exercise in psychology, though it turned out to be both.

By the way,  although 'Gengappa' was an imaginary name, it sounded quite real because it rhymed so well with Chengappa and Lingappa, which are very common names in the Telugu-speaking parts of India.  But then, the artificial names I used to concoct for Delhiberations, so as to evoke the elements of the given contexts  --  like the American spacemen Bill Concorde and Joe Goodfellow  -- always sounded authentic and very real!

Evening News, New Delhi
2 May 1975

Generation gap

"I can understand how  the generation gap occurs in the case of other people," my friend Gengappa said, "But I can't understand how it occurs in my own case!"

"How do you mean?"  I asked. 

"I used to be 20 years ahead of my own generation when I was young,"  Gengappa said.  "And that was 10 years ago.  Which means I should be on the same wavelength as the youngsters today.  But I'm not!  There's such a wide gap between us!"

"In what way were you ahead of your own generation?"

"Well, in so many ways!  For example, I had shockingly long hair. . .  And it wasn't only my elders who condemned me for it!  Even my class-fellows used to tease me and ask me whether I was wearing a wig.  But look at the youngsters now!  Some of them have hair half a metre long!  And such awful sideburns, too !  It shocks even me. . .

"Or take the question of clothes!  I was in Delhi in 1955, and everybody in my age-group was wearing wide trousers with 22-inch legs.  I was the only chap having 18-inch legs made in Madras, and all my friends used to laugh at me.   Ten years later everybody in the world switched over to drain-pipes and I cut my own width to 15 inches.  But look at the boys now!  They're all wearing bell-bottoms which look like an elephant's legs! Man, it's crazy! . . .

"Or take the case of art and culture!"  Gengappa rattled on.  "I used to love Western music when I was young.  When all my friends were listening to Carnatic music or Hindustani music. I was listening to classical Western music, jazz, Russian folk songs, Hungarian gypsy orchestras, Portuguese fado, Spanish guitar, Latin American rhumba, samba, mambo and cha-cha-cha. . .

"I even liked rock-'n'-roll and calypso when they bacame fads in America and Europe in the early sixties.  All my friends thought I was crazy, listening to LP records and short-wave radio stations all night long!   But look at the youngsters these days!  They seem to be crazy  about all the awful things which are called Western music now! And so many of them actually perform on TV or give public recitals or cut LP records!  And they sound so awful!"

"Shall I tell you something, Gengy?"  I said.  "It seems to me your arithmetic is all wrong. . .

You said you were 20 years ahead of your generation when you were young.  But it seems to me you were only 10 years ahead.  That's why nothing which happened till the mid-sixties shocked you, and everything which is happening now shocks you!"

"Well, maybe you are right,"  Gengappa said.  "All I know is, I've always been a rebel against my own generation, and yet I feel like a crusty old conservative when I look at the youngsters now!"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Generation Gaps/Cycles

In 1990-92 I was writing a monthly column called Articulations in THE HINDU, India's most prestigious English newspaper, often analyzing very complex issues.   Commenting on 'cosmic cycles' the other day, I couldn't help recalling an essay I had written in that column in 1991, visualizing the concept of a 'generation cycle'.  So here it is! 

Sunday Magazine
7 July 1991

The Generation Cycle

    Everyone knows about the generation gap.  Parents all over the world are often unable to understand the strange ways of their children passing through the troublesome teen age.  But the question is much larger than a mere lack of rapport between parents and children.  Elders everywhere generally find it difficult to reconcile themselves to the provocative ideas of much younger men and women, and young people everywhere find it equally difficult to appreciate the old-fashioned ideas of their elders.
     This conflict is repeated as time marches on relentlessly.  In many cases yesterday's rebel happens to be today's conservative, and may well turn out to be tomorrow's fossil,  There are bound to be some exceptions;  but by and large even an aggressively unorthodox person tends to be eventually transformed into a conventional character in the course of a long life.

Tempo of change

     There are several factors which contribute to this trend.  Obviously the most important one among them is the tempo of the constant changes which occur in people's working methods and lifestyles  --  which in the modern world depends on the pace at which technological progress takes place during any given span of time.  That's no doubt why the generation gap is always wider in industrial and urban environments than in agricultural and rural societies, and is more conspicuous in advanced countries than in developing ones.

     The progressive changes which occur in the perception and outlook of successive younger generations are not only caused by advanced technology and new work patterns and lifestyles, but they have a reciprocal effect on those very things.  Changes in attitudes go on transforming the environment itself  --  modernizing agricultural practices, making industrial processes more and more sophisticated, seeking less seclusion and more interaction within the country and internationally.  Thus the distinction between cause and effect tends to get blurred with the passage of time. 

     Quite naturally, the generation gap is not a constant factor even within the same society.  Sometimes it expands, sometimes it shrinks.  There's a direct (and often reciprocal) relationship between the speed of technological progress, the tempo of changes in working modes and lifestyles, and the width of the generation gap.

      All these facts are well known, of course.  Still it's useful to articulate these thoughts here in a logical order, as a frame of reference in which we can examine a more intricate and obscure idea which has far-reaching implications.

     What may not be quite  obvious to the casual observer is the truth that such expansion and contraction of the generation gap tend to occur in alternating waves  --  preceding as well as succeeding each other, just as booms and depressions materialize as a trade cycle in a free-market economy.    This doesn't happen frequently or in a regular and systematic manner, which explains why the idea is not well recognized.   But a little careful reflection should convince the observer that the phenomenon is inherent in the very scheme of things which governs human existence.  One might indeed call it 'the generation cycle'.

     It would require an elaborate exercise to identify and interpret all the wide-ranging manifestations of the generation cycle in the domestic, social, economic, political and cultural lives of the people all over the world.  We can broadly scrutinize its nature with reference to some specific topic which is of special interest to us.  One might conveniently choose Carnatic music for this purpose. . . . .

    [Here followed a critical survey of progressive changes in the whole environment of South Indian classical music during the 20th century, which I shall quote in some other relevant context]


Postscript, 2012: 
Parallel gaps and cycles

Whenever I dig into my old files and fish out something I had written long ago for reference in the context of something I am writing now, I usually find that I wouldn't like to alter the sequence of ideas as I had expressed them, because I would normally have tied up the text with very tight logic and faultless insights.   
On rare occasions , however, I do come across an exceptional case where there was some flaw in logic or perception, causing an error of omission or commission.  Of course, if and when the mistake is spotted, it does become crystal-clear, and cries out for correction!  And here's precisely such a case.  
Taking a fresh look now at the above essay I had written 21 years ago, I wish to add an important idea, which just hadn't occurred to me at that time or even later. The gap between two successive generations (or even two distant generations) is never identical in different areas of life.  For example, there may be a wide gulf between a given set of parents and children in terms of professional life or their response to technological innovations, but simultaneously the gap between the same generations may be  much narrower in cultural or religious contexts. 
 The generation gap tends to be particularly narrow when it concerns food habits,  because most of us have a way of inheriting the gastronomic tastes of our parents and grandparents which we assimilated just like our mother-tongues when we were children, and they have a way of becoming lifelong addictions.  So when Grandpa, Grandma, Poppe, Momme and the kids sit down together  round the dining table (whether at home or in a restaurant) and cheerfully share a fine meal they all like, there's no great gulf which separates their generations!
Thus, what really exists between any given generations is not just a generation gap, but a whole set of parallel generation gaps.  And what's true of generation gaps must be equally true of generation cycles, of course.
One of these days I shall get back to this extremely elusive concept and explore its intricacies  in a proper essay.  Meanwhile, this is just an aide-memoire!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12-12-12 : Cosmic Cycles

12-12-12 is a visually fascinating date, just like 11-11-11 was last year, and 1-1-1 was eleven years ago. This set of 12 successive years is a unique chronological sequence which will recur only after an interval of 88 years from now.

Of course, this timeframe bears a close resemblance to the cosmic routine of the Halley's Comet, which becomes visible on our skies once in about 75 years. So I was tempted this mathsbound morning to look for it in Wikipdia, which said:

"Halley's Comet.... is the best-known of the short-period comets and is visible from Earth every 75–76 years. Halley is the only short-period comet that is clearly visible to the naked eye from Earth.... Other comets may be brighter and more spectacular, but will appear only once in thousands of years...."

A lot of technical information followed, but I didn't read any further because this simple definition immediately set me visualizing cosmic cycles ranging from less than a hundred years to a thousand years and a million years, and I tried to work out the corresponding cyclic patterns of the triple-one-to-twelve sequence:


12 years:

1 Jan. 2001
2 Feb. 2002
3 Mar. 2003
4 Apr. 2004
5 May 2005
6 Jun. 2006
7 Jul. 2007
8 Aug. 2008
9 Sep. 2009
10 Oct. 2010
11 Nov. 2011
12 Dec. 2012

Centennium Cycle

88 years interval
100 years after 1-1-2001

12 years:

1-1-1                 1 Jan. 2101
2 Feb. 2102
3 Mar. 2103
4 Apr. 2104
5 May 2105
6 Jun. 2106
7 Jul. 2107
8 Aug. 2108
9 Sep. 2109
10          10 Oct. 2110
11 Nov. 2111
12 Dec. 2112

Millennium Cycle

988 years interval
1000 years after 1-1-2001

12 years:

1-1-1                1 Jan. 3001
2 Feb. 3002
3 Mar. 3003
4 Apr. 3004
5 May 3o05
6 Jun. 3006
7 Jul. 3007
8 Aug. 3008
9 Sep. 3009
10 Oct. 3010
11 Nov. 3011
12 Dec. 3012

Millionnium Cycle

999,988 years interval
Million years after 1-1-2001

12 years:

1-1-1                1 Jan. 1,002,001
2 Feb. 1,002,002
3 Mar. 1,002,003
4 Apr. 1,002,004
5 May 1,002,005
6 Jun. 1,002,006
7 Jul. 1,002,007
               8 Aug. 1,002,008
               9 Sep. 1,002,009
       10 Oct. 1,002,010
         11 Nov. 1,002,011
        12 Dec. 1,002,012

Well, what wonderful mathematical insights did I gain by making this strenuous effort? Nothing really, because numbers don't make much sense to me! But I do have a flair for languages, and a passion for playing with words and names. So I was able to coin two brand-new words in the course of the exercise: 'centennium' and 'millionnium'. 
Of course, 'millennium' is a very familiar English word, dervied from the Latin words 'mille' (thousand) and 'annus' (year). But there's no such word as 'centennium', although we have 'centenary' (100th anniversary) and 'centennial' (100th anniversary, or relating thereto), derived from the Latin word 'centum' (hundred).

My question is: if we can say 'millennium' for a period of 1000 years, why can't we say 'centennium' for a period of 100 years? Of course, we do already have 'century' for 100 years -- we can continue to use it in ordinary contexts, but
'centennium' would sound far better in historic, scientific and other academic scenarios!
As regards, the other expression, 'million' has no Latin roots, but 'millionnium' does sound very Latinish! Why can't we adopt it?
In recent years English has assimilated many newly-minted words, especially in scientific and technological contexts, and the Oxford English Dictionary has included them in up-to-date editions. I hope the editors of OED will seriously consider 'centennium' and 'millionnium' for inclusion, and give me due credit for the initiative!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Raving about radio!

It was only in the 1980s --  when I found that my schoolgoing children weren't sharing my sense of amazement regarding the technical aspects of intercontinental live telecasts which had just become reality in India --  that I became conscious of the fact that I had similarly taken worldwide shortwave radio for granted when I was myself a young student 30 years earlier.   Quite logically, that was the point of time when I realized what an amazing marvel of the  modern world radio was;  and I had recalled my thrilling radio memories  in a lively article I wrote in 1984.
Since then  --  which  means during the next 30 years or so!   --  I've got more and more revelations about things modern and ancient, and I've been endlessly exploring this labyrinth of ideas.  But let my reflections on this follow in due course --  for now, let me just fish out for you that 1984 landmark essay.

Evening News, New Delhi
20 July 1984

Romance of radio

Impressed by the live telecast of the Wimbledon final from London last week, I had gone into ecstasies in this column about the wonder of instant worldwide TV broadcasts  --  and I had complained about the way my space-age children just tend to take it for granted.

Turning this aspect over in my mind during the week-end, I realized I had myself taken short-wave radio totally for granted when I was a youngster.

In 1939 or '40 my father had bought a six-valve HMV superheterodine radio receiver made in England.  In 1952, when I was still a student, he gave it to me as a gift for my exclusive use.

The short-wave capability of this instrument was so impressive that I could easily tune in to a large number of stations all over Europe, Africa and the Orient, though I could never gain direct access to any place to the West of the Atlantic Ocean.

And from many of those remote stations I used to receive broadcasts which were often remarkably free from static, almost as clear as those from the local station. 

Thus arose my obsession with intercontinental radio, which lasted for a long time.

                                   *                                   *                                   *

To begin with, I spent huge chunks of my time listening to the BBC, Radio Australia and the Voice Of America --  the last one through relay stations in Tangier and Manila.  Along with the many Hollywood and British movies I used to see (if necessary by cutting a class or two every week) these broadcasts reinforced and refined my English education. 

It so happened that around this time I started learning French on my own, with an admirable book called Teach Yourself French (English Universities Press).

Though I quickly absorbed the written language, I couldn't learn the nuances of French pronunciation from the book.  But I found that a powerful radio station called Radio France-Asie operating from Saigon (now extinct) was broadcasting lucid French lessons twice a week.

I wrote to them and got a set of slim booklets containing the texts of the lessons, and with this bi-weekly exercise I had no difficulty in getting a good grip on the pronunciation.

After that I systematically listened to every French broadcast I could receive  --   from Paris, London, Moscow, Saigon, Stockholm, Budapest and even Brazzaville in French Equatorial Africa.  

Most of the news would be familiar: about politics, accidents, killings and disasters (as they've always been since, and still are!).  But there were certain items --  like cold-weather reports from Stockholm or shipping news from Paris  --  which were quite unusual for  a listener in India to hear, and were therefore particularly thrilling.

Also, it was with the help of this superb wireless set that I got a glimpse of the whole world's music  --  not only Western classical, jazz, pop and Latin American, but also the national and folk music of many countries.

Among the things which fascinated me were full-blooded proletarian songs from Soviet Russia, enchanting gypsy rhythms from Hungary, meditative music from West Asia, throbbing drum-beats from Africa, the sobbing guitar and voice of the fisherfolk from Portugal, and the lilting  accordion and yodeling of the Alps from Switzerland.

                                  *                                   *                                    *

Short-wave reception was clearest in the stillness of deep night, so I regularly used to sit up till the early hours of the mornings, eagerly devouring anything and everything I could capture.

The remarkable thing about this romantic venture of mine into the wonderland of wireless was that never once did it occur to me at that time to sit down and reflect on what a marvellous piece of machinery my pre-war radio set really was.

The thing was just there, and I could simply turn a few knobs with my fingers and listen to half the world any time between sunset and sunrise.  There the matter ended, and I thought no more about it. 

Perhaps, then, I shouldn't really be surprised by the fact that my children's approach to television is so casual!

Nevertheless, I would like to caution the young ones that instant international TV is still by no means a commonplace thing even in the advanced countries, and the true marvel of it is yet to materialize. 

For the day is still to come when ordinary persons anywhere in the world can nonchalantly gain access to televisual images projected from distant places in different continents without the telecasts being relayed by a TV station not too far away from where they are. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Delhivision : Miracle Of London

In 1975, in my influential column in New Delhi's single evening English newspaper, I had written about the great satisfaction most of us in the capital of India had felt three years earlier when watching motion pictures of the Olympic Games flashed by the local TV station within 60 hours of their being played in Munich, quarter-way around the earth.
And in 1976, I had written even more effusively about the immense thrills we  were getting out of seeing the Montreal Games within 36 hours after the events actually took place on the opposite side of the world.

All of 12 years later, in 1984, when instant intercontinental television had just materialized in India, I wrote an effervescent essay which bubbled with the excitement of watching a live telecast of the legendary Wimbledon final at the same time as it was being played in London.

Leave alone fossilized survivors belonging to older generations  --  even to extremely active middle-aged persons like myself, it looked nothing short of a miracle!  But the marvelous phenomenon had no sensational impact on our children, who were simply taking it for granted.

Evening News, New Delhi
13 July 1984

Live from London

As the whole family sat down in front of the television set last Sunday evening to watch the Wimbledon men's final between John McEnroe  and Jimmy Connors, I couldn't help marvelling once again about the amazing technological progress this ancient world of ours is making in the 20th century.

It was announced that the program was being telecast live from London to more than 40 countries.  I could imagine millions of men, women and children all over the world gluing their eyes to their TV sets simultaneously, in the morning or afternoon, at midnight or midday, soon after sunset or before dawn.

And it just took my breath away!  Of course, this is a new sensation we are getting in India, but other people elsewhere in the world have been having a taste of it for quite some time now.

I remember that when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974, the encounter was shown live on TV in many countries, and I wished India had belonged to the club.

Now India too is getting in, and we are able to train our tellyscope on such events as the Wimbledon final at the very moment of their happening.

                              *                             *                              *

In my small stock of old books is a volume called 'Twentieth Century Inventions', written by Chas E. Gibson , FRSE, and published in Great Britain in 1913 (Collins Press, London and Glasgow).

Talking about television, Mr. Gibson was quite  optimistic, but extremely cautious.  Here's what he had to say: 

"Many inventors have worked at the problem of seeing at a distance by means of electrical transmission.  The problem is not yet solved, but the solution has commenced, and it may be that before the end of the 20th century television will be a practical success....
"We have become familiar with the transmission of sound to a distance, which was considered an impossible thing only forty years ago....  it is true that the two problems, the reproduction of sound and the reproduction of vision, are not at all comparable, but there seems to be good hope for the ultimate  solution of television...."

But the world didn't have to wait for such a long time!  The first effective television pictures were demonstrated in 1925 by the Scotsman John Logie Baird (1888 - 1946), and the British Broadcasting Corporation started real television broadcasts in 1929. 
I don't know whether Mr. Gibson lived to see the second half of the 20th century.  If he did, perhaps he'd have been as lost in wonder in England as I am in India today!

                             *                              *                              *

A few years ago I happened to stay in Glasgow for a while, and on a Sunday afternoon I went to a place called Helensburg on the Firth of Clyde, not far away from Glasgow.

Helensburg is where Baird was born, and in a well-kept park in this pretty Scottish town there's a life-size statue of the great inventor.

Taking photograph of the statue, I fell thinking about the fabulous newscasts which the BBC and the ITV (Independent Television) were making in Britain every night with satellite-transmitted motion pictures from all over the world.

Watching the Wimbledon final in my own living room in New Delhi last Sunday, I got into the same kind of mood and started thinking aloud about the accelerating technology of this century.

"Shshsh,,,, Papa!"  my sons Vimo and Vijay (aged 15/11) restrained me.  "Let's see the match, please!"

"Fantastic!  Fantastic!"  I insisted, "Live progran from London!  Aren't you thrilled, boys?"

"No, we aren't!" cried my children,  "Connors isn't fighting back!  This match is going to be over in three sets!"

"I am not talking about the game!"  I said.  "I am talking about the telecast!  It is coming live from London!  Isn't that exciting?"

"No. it isn't!"  said the space-age kids.  "Now, Papa, PLEASE! --  will you let us see the match?"

Monday, December 3, 2012

India : Infant TV vs. Instant TV

Unlike mobile cellular telephones  --  which have made amazingly rapid progress in India in recent years in terms of  both physical growth and technological innovations --  television had taken a long time in the second half of the 20th century to take roots in India, achieve impressive growth, diversify its concerns, and catch up with supersystems (like instant international telecasts) which had materialized in Europe and America long ago.

In the 1970s, when Doordarshan (which I liked to call Delhivision in a humorous vein) was struggling to overcome tough initial constraints of resources and organization in the Capital city New Delhi, the new tribe of professional TV critics tended to be rather merciless in their reviews. 

But as an articulate layman writing in the solitary evening newspaper (which, by the way, used to attract the attention of readers of all the morning papers!), I always tried to see things in a sympathetic light, and often raved about the genuine thrill I felt when viewing some of the programs:

Evening News, New Delhi
10 August 1975

TV Strides : Not A Bad Beginning!

I had my first glimpse of television in a Bombay exhibition organized by Philips in 1955.
A man's face appeared on a closed-circuit TV screen and stayed there for a few minutes.  We were told that he was in some other room in the same building.
Millions of Americans might have got used to television by 1955, but the feeling of wonder which that demonstration induced in the educated Indian audience is still fresh in my memory.

So many years later, watching TV for hours at a stretch in my own living room, I don't usually feel moved by any grand technological visions. 
Rather, I tend to feel concerned about such matter-of-fact things as double images and transmission faults, the length of this program and the presentation of that one, or the exorbitant fee charged by TV mechanics. 
Even now, however, there are certain magic moments when I do recapture something of that old feeling of sheer amazement. 
This happens whenever an actuality of national or global significance comes to life on the TV screen almost immediately  --  at  any rate before the newspapers  have come out with their first editorial comments.
Watching the 1972 Olympics day after day in my New Delhi apartment within 60 hours after their being played in Munich, I couldn't help reflecting a little on the marvelous strides which communication media were making in our own country.

Mind you, cameos like those  couldn't have reinforced the mood of the moment if they had been televised a week after the events.

I remember once seeing a full-length, wide-screen color movie on Nehru's tour of Russia a few weeks after his return to India.  But admirable as that film was. I think my thrill would have been far greater if I had seen it in portions within a day or two of the scenes being shot, even if only on a small black-and-white TV screen.

It is obvious that the most fascinating thing about television is its ability to rush you visually to the scene of events faster than any other medium.

In India, live satellite TV is already an experimental reality, with 2300 village audiences being able to have a glimpse of the whole country and its many-sided culture.
I read a news item the other day that India has gifted a direct-reception satellite television set to Arthur Clarke, the science-fiction writer who first dreamed up satellite TV.  Clarke has his home in Sri Lanka where the reception of our TV programs is expected to be good.
Another report says that Sweden has asked for a receiver which will be used in Geneva to tap our satellite TV programs.
All this whets my appetite for the TV equivalent of the short-wave radio.  Maybe some day we shall be able to switch on London, Paris. New York , Moscow or Rome on our television sets, just as we tune to radio stations located in those distant places.
Maybe it will take us a long time yet to bring instant televisual news from far away to our masses, but we have made a beginning and it doesn't look bad at all!