Sunday, December 22, 2013

Where is the Carnatic Music in a live show?

This has happened many times to me. I plan to write an article or a post on a topic and someone else beats me to it. This was one of them, Sushila Krishnamurthi's article "Sober dress for soulful musc?" that appeared in "The Hindu" on January 6'th, 2013 (yes, early this year) under the "Open Page" section. A week later, on January the 13'th, V.Kalidas responded to Sushila Krishnamurthi's article and titled his article "Clothing soulful music in colourful format".

To summarise the two articles in brief here goes. In her article Sushila had pointed out how today's artistes particularly women were making such an ostentatious show of themselves in live classical music performances that Thyagraja's "Bhakthi" marga and Dikshithar's "Moksha" marga (devotion and liberation) the very foundations of Carnatic music were completely lost.

In Kalidas's rebuttal he talks about artistes (including MS) who took pains to dress immaculately during their performances and that a certain amount of ostentation was not a bad idea and that it only added to the personality of these performers.

So what's my take on this?

Obviously I am going to go with Sushila's article although I am not saying that Kalidas does not have a point. It is just that Kalidas is either oblivious to several things or pretending to be oblivious to things just to contradict Sushila. I also think Sushila was also limited in the openness of her article due to the bindings, restrictions and censorship from "The Hindu". Luckily for me, on my blog I am more free to voice my thoughts.

Let me get straight to the point and explain. Around the end of 2012 and when the "sabhas" in Chennai were overflowing with carnatic music concerts I made a visit to one of them after being invited for a performance. On that day several concerts were scheduled. On arriving at the venue I was actuallly surprised to notice the sparsely populated hall. An instrumental performance was already in place. Among the artistes that evening, the famous Ranjani-Gayatri duo were also to perform.

After meeting with one of the performers (who incidentally had invited me) I was introduced to another performer who was to perform later that evening. After exchanging greetings it took me a while to identify her. This was the same lady I had been watching on the internet for several months and I couldn't even recognize her.  She looked as though she had walked straight out of a movie-set. No one there could avoid noticing her just-been-to-the-parlor-straightened-hair, gorgeous sari worn sensuously, make-up on her face and eyes and lips done seductively. When did carnatic musicians desire to be titillating to other senses besides the aural?

It is not just a "certain amount of ostentation" (as Kalidas has written) that goes into the attire and make-up of several of today's artistes but hours and hours of preparation and that includes time spent shopping for saris, costumes, make-up kits, jewelry and sessions with their beauticians.

When seated in the audience I can easily hear "maamis" commenting and discussing on the singer's "mookuthi", chain, necklace, sari and I wonder whether this what they came to see in a concert. Not to forget receding lines of blouses and constant adjusting of the saree on stage.  Sure our artistes need  not drape the saree around both shoulders but they can still dress modestly and avoid embarassments for themselves on stage and for the viewers watching them.

When I see undue ostentation as this, that artiste's music to me instantly flies out of the window. I try sometimes to look away (mostly down) and focus on the music but the moment I look back at the performer or the ostentation my focus on the music just goes away.

The worst is with twins, particularly ladies where diamond for diamond, colour, dot for dot on their costumes is matched. There are patterns too. Readers will instantly recognize who I am talking about. One sister's sari color matches the color and pattern of the blouse of the other and vice versa. And how many such combinations of saris and blouses do you think this duo may have, just a few? One wonders then, how much time and laborious pains have been undertaken to facilitate such attire and their accompaniments. Kalidas mentions of how MS had a well stocked wardrobe of Kancheepuram silks. Now here is where Kalidas has completely missed something very important. For a non-violent and devotional form of art such as Carnatic music why should it involve so much of violence? Wondering what I am writing about? Read on...

Most of today's south Indian classical musicians come from Brahmin families (by the way, this goes out for non-Brahmin classical singers too) who according to the Vedas and Hindu Culture epitomize non-violent living. Many or most of them are vegetarians and they abhor animal killing and yet in their wardrobes are stacked dozens and dozens of saris and "pattupavadais" and other attire, made from silk, that is produced by killing tens and thousands of silkworms. The killing is actually very tragic and graphic in that that the silkworms that generate the cocoons are killed by drowning and scorching them in boiling water. On an average 10,000 silkworms are killed to make just one silk sari. It is for this very reason that the Maha Periyava of Kanchi refused to wear anything made of silk and refused gifts such as the "Ponnadai". I am told that he even refused to grace functions that involved felicitating him with the traditional silk shawl, just to discourage the use of silk. Unfortunately his followers don't seem to pay any heed to this non-violent attitude of his. You can imagine the wardrobes of our popular singers and can also picture the mass-killing of silkworms that had to be done to fill their wardrobes with items made of silk. Ironically, one of the very popular singers in the Carnatic music scene was even modeling for one particular brand of Silk sari (you know who).

With all this ostentation, in my opinion, the genuine music I long to hear in a live concert is certainly taking a back seat.

Since both Sushila and Kalidas left their email addresses in their articles, I will be writing to both of them to take a look at my article and comment on the same.

Friday, November 29, 2013

When Shakuntala Devi visited IIT Madras

Shakuntala Devi passed away in April, this year. I wanted to post this article then but as it has been happening of late, it looks like I always have a post about IIT Madars around the Saarang season and boy do I have a story to tell, when Shakuntala Devi visited IIT Madras in the 80's.

The Indian born Mathematics genius and child prodigy who was named the Mental Calculator was even mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records for her unbeatable feats with numbers (which I assume stand unbeaten till date) but at IIT Madras something happened that I wonder if she was ever aware of. Sounds odd? Read on... (By the way this is no urban legend, because I WAS THERE.)

It was the early 80's. I am not sure in which class I was studying but just as I reached home from school that evening (I was studying at Vana Vani, inside the IIT Madras campus) my neighbor "Ammu akka" tells me that Shakuntala Devi is scheduled to arrive at around 6:30 PM at the CLT for the Extra Mural Lecture. We had all heard so much about Shakuntala Devi and her super-human skills at computations and numbers and I just couldn't wait to see her. I don't recall if  I took Sathish (my brother ) along but after washing up, changing clothes and taking a quick bite I pedaled to the CLT from my home in Velachery with all the energy and speed I could.

Outside the CLT was a huge crowd as if a "free Amitabh Bachchan" movie was being screened inside. There was no way anyone could even get near the doors of the CLT. All chairs inside were filled and the rest were standing on whatever standing space they could find. I even wondered how Shakuntala Devi was going to make it inside. In the air was this feeling as if some God was going to appear. IIT M Students, Professors, Lecturers, and school students from Kendriya Vidyalaya and Vana Vani were there waiting with bated breath.

Meanwhile the management pro-actively fearing such a turn-out to the show had the prudence to wire the stage with CCTV and had a T.V monitor (luckily with a big screen) positioned outside the CLT so that everyone outside could watch the proceedings going on inside. Knowing that there was no way I could get inside the CLT, I managed to get a vantage position near the T.V monitor.

What a feeling it was when Shakuntala Devi walked through the doors and onto the stage. All of a sudden we became little children looking forward to an awesome "Magic Show" and a "Magic Show" it indeed was. After a formal and brief introduction including details about her feats and Guinness records, Shakuntala took over the mike like the host of some modern day "Reality Show". For the next one hour or maybe more, she swayed the crowd like no other. It was entertainment par excellence. We just wished it would go on forever. It was not with just numbers that Shakuntala was good at. She could easily get the crowd into raptures with her irresistible humour, most of the time she would use numbers and mathematics in them as well. It looked like the audience just couldn't get enough of her.

The best was yet to come and it can only happen in a place of geniuses, as IIT, Madras. Shakuntala picked up two IIT students from the audience. She insisted that both be poor in mathematics. Obviously, how can that be, right? Unknowing to her and to the audience one of the two guys that volunteered was no ordinary math guy at all. Remember this was a time when "aam juntha" were only into calculators, maybe college students had scientific ones. Meanwhile Shakuntala was spitting numbers and answers for math questions from members in the audience like a Gatling gun. Every time someone was asked to give her numbers to calculate her assistant would write the numbers on the blackboard behind her so that the audience could see and probably do the computation on paper or on their calculators. The assistant would also write down the answer as Shakuntala would say it. For the audience's sake Shakuntala would repeat her answer only slowly.

Oblivious to Shakuntala (because she was facing the audience) something was going on behind her, and not many very noticing. Every time Shakuntala was giving the answer to a computation, the assistant was tryring to beat Shakuntala by trying to write down the answer before she could finish. Sometimes the assistant would get a few of the numbers wrong in his answer but sometimes he would get it right. Amidst the applause and the focus of attention being on Shakuntala not many were paying attention to what the assistant was doing but to the people who were observant it was a double delight.

Then came the multiplication of two 12 digit numbers. We were told that this was the one where Shakuntala beat the Omega Computer (I may have got the name of the computer wrong). Not only did Shakuntala beat the computer but she also indicated that the computer  had generated a wrong answer. Anyway, two random 12 digit numbers were sourced from the audience and the answer obviously was going to be a long one. Now comes the best part. Believe me, even before Shakuntala had read out her answer,  the assistant had already WRITTEN HIS DOWN. As I had written earlier,  Shakuntala was indeed reading the answer out slow but watching this guy outsmart the legend was something unbelievable. This time though several people watching the T.V set took notice of what had just happened. As Shakuntala read out the numbers of her answer the assistant did change a couple of numbers in his answer but the amazing part was that all along Shakuntala was oblivious of what was going on behind her. It's a pity she left the show without knowing that. I wonder if she ever did.

Once back at home while discussing the show with "Ammu akka" I mentioned the assistant but she had no idea of what I was talking about, but for me and several others that day who took notice of the volunteer, it was a sweet icing on the cake.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Another Delhi trip in the offing and more of Hansi

If things go well I could be visiting Delhi again in September. I still haven't forgotten my previous trip to Hansi (Haryana), Delhi and Agra early this year though.

Will I be lucky and be able to visit The Taj a second time this year?

Meanwhile here is more of Hansi.

Like the cattle up North their feed also is big. Cattle feed is transported in the wee hours of the morning when there is less traffic on the roads. Got this picture of the rear of the vehicle at a Petrol station.

(Click the pics to view them in their original sizes)

And naturally the cattle dung is of much bigger size too. The dung in some places is stacked in the shape of a small hut.

Food in Hansi - Food is a delight with good quality water and milk. Probably the best panneer I ever had was here. Awesome Panneer Pakoras are available on the streets. Hansi is famous for its "Milk Peda". We got some but what really blew my mind away were these coconut pedas sold in shops. I got an entire bottle of them. Once you've had one, I'll bet, you won't stop with one. By the way, they are made in Panipat (yes, that infamous place we studied in History where the three famous and decisive wars were fought).

This peda also comes in a brown oval shaped coin like disc which is similar in taste and very good too.

At home my cousin's home-made biscuits were a treat.

These salty mini samosa's with hardly any oil were great too.

The best Sugarcane juice I ever had, was in Hansi. To the sweet mix they also add a greyish powder which I was told was powdered rock-salt. This particular vendor had a mobile unit which was also mechanized.

Pickles being sold. Never tried them though (not a pickle lover anyway).

Places in and around Hansi -

A walk to the Fort of Prithviraj Chauhan is worth it. The fort is in such a sorry state of affairs and I am not sure how the article on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the web can one mention that it is in a good state of preservation. There is a notice board put up by the government of India about the do's and don'ts at the place but no one seems to be bothered about it. I saw two cricket teams playing inside. People with pets (dogs) are all over the place and were using it like a recreational park. It was pathetic. You also need to watch out from this hill top as you could also seriously injure yourself if you lose your footing up there or try to get adventurous. No guards or security are present to check any of this.

View of Hansi town and the Amti Thalaab from the fort.         

I  was told that these were the impressions of Rani Lakshmi Bai's (Rani of Jhansi) trusted horse's hooves, located near the entrance of the fort.

One of the gates (two pics) to Hansi, again neglected. It is a sad sight with all the modern encroachments. A road goes through it.


And of course, the statue of Rani Lakshmibai and her horse on one of the main roads in Hisar.

And finally here's the most widely circulated newspaper of Central India (published from Nagpur), The Hitavada, founded by freedom fighter Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1911.


Thursday, August 08, 2013

The amazing Klipsch KSB 3.1

April 26'th, 2013 will go down in my memory as one of the truly God-gifted days in my life. After over a decade, 11 years and 4 months to be precise I got to see and touch my great bookshelf speakers, the Klipsch KSB 3.1's that I had purchased way back in 1998 while in the U.S. It lay in a storage for a year, then at a garage at a relative's place for a decade and then at my friend's place for about 6 months. Finally by God's grace it reached Chennai. I rushed from Pondy to meet my friend who said he would be bringing them. I wouldn't have got a better gift for my birthday in May.

I recall trying out dozens of speakers while trying to purchase a pair of bookshelves in 1998. Some of them I recall were Paradigm and Sonus Faber. But when I listened to just 5 minutes of the Klipsch KSB 3.1's I knew I would be taking them home. When the salesman blew my mind adding a Definitive Technology Powered Sub I took that home first because its beautiful bass just made the Klipsch sound even more beautiful. Production of the KSB  3.1's ceased in 1999.

My setup was complete with the priceless but amazing Marantz PM 57 Integrated amplifier, a Sony 5 CD player and a Technics Double Cassette Deck. The Sony breathed its last in Pondy a couple of months ago. The Technics still lies in the U.S. along with some of my other important audiophile gear which I hope to get to India someday.

When I hooked up the speakers to the Sub and Amplifier (these I had gradually got piece by piece by relatives returning from the U.S. over the years) I was only praying that they sing. How well, I really wondered? One speaker sounded perfect while in the other there was clearly something missing. The treble was particularly out of whack. I was really down. I called Klipsch India and I was surprised how pathetic the service setup in India was considering the fact that their premium speaker "The Palladium" costing several lakhs of rupees for a pair were being sold and serviced in India. Klipsch India refused service for my speaker saying the spares were no longer available for that model. Out of sheer frustration I opened the Horn Tweeter only to find that a wire had come out of its socket. I plug it back in and the speaker performs as perfectly as it can. Considering the loss of hearing due to my ageing all these years, the speakers literally out-perform. KSB 3.1 came with a one of a kind 8'' woofer, a Tractrix Horn Tweeter and front firing port.

Kumba Greenier, CEO of "Sound Wizard" in Auroville (the guys who built A R Rahman's studio and the studio of several other music directors and film stars) was so right when he told me that good speakers were meant to last at least 20 years.

While listening to the Klipsches for the first time, I thought I had a new set of ears. On "Walking on the moon" by" The Police" you can hear a fourth instrument that I never heard before. They and the amplifier are so good you could say a bad recording from a good one. Performers and bands come alive as though playing in front of you and with the amplifier and sub you can even improve upon poor recordings to make them sound just right.

Here they are. I removed the grille on one of them to reveal the woofer and tweeter. (There is some perspective distortion in the pic, of the speakers)

And here's my Definitive Technology 10'' woofer, powered sub that my brother Sathish brought for me in Jan, 2012.

After I purchased the Marantz I auditioned the Rotel and the NAD, both What HiFi products of the year award winners for Integrated Amplifiers in the past but could barely come close to the sweetness of the Marantz. The only amplifier that came close was a Jo Lida tube amplifier. But the Marantz does something that the Jo Lida does not. Once the subwoofer is set at a particular volume (using its built in amplifier) you do not need to tweak it any further. Raising the volume on the Marantz automatically raises the sub's bass too. But while using the Jo Lida I had to increase the volume on the Sub. I have to admit the tube amp was very sweet too. The Marantz PM 57 like most of its successors has a second channel where you can hook up a second pair of stereo speakers. I hooked up a pair of Sonodynes here. It also has a phono input for connecting Record Players.

If you plan to come to Pondy, bring your favourite music and you are most welcome to audition them.

Two other legendary Klipsch speakers that were on display that day were the incredible floor-standers the KLF 10 and the KLF 20. I recall the salesman telling me that if I were to buy them I wouldn't need the powered sub. True, they were probably the best speakers I ever listened to with astonishing bass. Klipsch stopped making the legends in the late 90's but I am sure they are still entertaining those who own them.

Am I hearing "desi" screams of "Bose", "Bose"? I have only two words for you guys, "BOSE SUCKS" or better still, "everytime someone buys a Bose, a sucker is born". More on that later.

Off to listen to some music on them......

Monday, June 17, 2013

guitar-appreciation to go down

My blog that I began in 2008, is going down. The site was compromised a few months ago and not being able to fix it properly and due to lack of posts and lack of inspiration to write posts I have decided to bring it down. Google has already flagged it as a malware-suspicious site.

It will officially go down in November this year.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

So what is the IPL all about?

Again another post long overdue (actually one year) but better late than never. I had planned to write this last year while I watched the IPL match between Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals at the Chepauk stadium and was reminded of the same when a similar match took place this year just a few weeks ago.

First of all, do any of you Chennaites, regret you didn't watch an IPL match at Chepauk this season? If you are planning to go to a match at Chepauk (well this year all matches here are done), it is my humble request that you don't because it can turn out to be one of most horrible experiences of your life, particularly if it is a day and night match. I am sure this is the case with the other stadiums too where the sun is shining hot and there is little cover from the light and heat.

Here is my personal experience. In the blistering heat of the afternoon sun, shooting those hot bright rays straight at me in my seats I almost thought I would faint of a heat stroke. Nothing can be more punishing and miserable than this. Till the match began I kept running out of the nearest exit to take shelter under any little shade that was available. God only knows how many times I did that. So what do you do in the heat? Drink as much water as possible. The stands that supply drinks and eatables are priced exorbitantly. All that pales to the dehydration you suffer. You keep drinking and there will literally be no end to it. The stalls that sell drinks, water and snacks are crowded and they make a killing because everyone is running for water. I must have gulped litres of water and soft drinks that day. Honestly, nothing beats the comfort of your sofa or your cool home for watching the IPL matches on your T.V.

I had been there for my son who wanted to watch Dhoni and Dravid up close. Other than the fact that you are close to them physically it is really difficult to tell if you were really watching Dhoni or Dravid because they are so far away. Many a time you end up looking at the giant screens there to get a better look at things happening on the ground. Compared to that your T.V now captures each and every moment of the game in HD clarity and with enough replays you get to see a match much closer than any spectator in the stadium, though you have to put up with the stale advertising on T.V.

You don't have to get dressed for the occasion (for ladies it is worse) as you do in the stadium. Dress or undress, you will be left soaking in your sweat. In Chepauk, it is a pity that the very seats and stands that hide the afternoon and evening sun remain vacant even for this year due to legal procedures and processes. What a miserable shame!

Here are some pics from last year's match I went to.


 Chaithu, hot and sweating in the seats.

The disputed seats offering shade. That's where one needs to be.

The seats at dusk. Thank God the sun is down.

So what's the IPL all about? If you ask me, it is nothing but a commercially successful sports-business model, imported, obviously from successful sports-models of the west. I am not ruling out that there is absolutely no talent but for those who admired the beauty of stroke play in Tests, the bashing and hitting T20 format offers hardly anything similar.

In 1998, while in the U.S. I went for my first and only ice-hockey game at The Mark, Davenport, Iowa. My boss was a ice-hockey player himself and he asked me to join him and his wife that evening. The local team, The Quad City Mallards were playing a rival team. For me, one thing, clearly, stood-out that evening, it was the voice of the two men behind the microphones who were cheering their team, making comments, announcements etc., Loud, clear and highly motivational these guys made the home-team feel really at home. You can hear this when you watch NBA matches too. The auditorium or stadium resonates with their sonorous voices and the way they pronounce certain words for dramatic effect. For instance while introducting the team they would say something like, "Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcoooome, the Quad City Mallaaaaaaaaards". In the IPL they have a similar person doing this kind of thing though not so dramatically as the guys I head during the ice hockey match. But the "dramatically" part is soon to follow as our folks are only adept at only one thing, "copying" and particularly things from the west. During the break between the first and second halves of the game there were other things going on like someone with a bazooka like gun shooting t-shirt balls into the audience. Then a game with small kids on skates also took place before they got the ice cleaned up for the second half. These kind of dramatic events will soon be incorporated into IPL too.

Slogan singing and shouting and booing which are perfected abroad are soon going to be copied too. Honestly Freddie Mercury and Queen's "We will, We will Rock you" makes me cringe every time they play it for the Chennai Super Kings. At IPL, DJ's play loud music through out the match. Whenever something favourable happens to a team, that team's signature tune or music is played and cheerleaders are up and dancing. Rajasthan Royals certainly had a better tune.

So is there anything good at the IPL? Yes, here they are, 1. If something happens close to where you are seated, it's real fun. One catch, I recall in particular was splendid but for the spectators located far away they are better off looking at the giant screen. 2. The amazing Spider Cam. I reallly loved this contraption and the way it moved all over the place. Note that whenever the spider cam moves closer to the seating area that portion of the crowd is up and cheering. This when cleverly inserted on T.V gives a false impression that the entire crowd at the stadium is up and cheering. 3. Sivamani - At Chepauk it looks like Sivamani the percussionist has an agenda of his own. His meagre drum set is moved by assistants all over the circumference of the ground and sometimes even in the midst of the dancing cheerleaders. He is in a very jolly mood, drumming, signing autographs and waving to the crowds as though they had all come only to watch him. 4. Finally, the cheerleaders. There were 6 of them for each team and in batches of three per dancing deck and therefore 12 in all. Honestly I was not prepared for what I was about to witness. The girls rock. I have to mention the girls of the CSK team. Skimpily attired they just made the place even hotter. One team, though not visible from my seats was located near and below where we were sitting. The other team was much farther away. One girl in that team was gyrating in such a fashion, I thought, only the pole was missing. The crowd located near that dancing three were definitely getting more than their money's worth. Honestly for the torture that you endure in the heat, they offer some respite. Actually I even felt sorry for them.

With all this activity going on the cosmopolitan crowd is euphoric. I was under the impression that for most of the spectators at the stadium there was nothing but a wild sense of Deja Vu.

With spot-fixing and with the current arrest of CSK's owner one wonders if entering the final for a 5'th time was also manipulated.

My advice - go to the venue and sell your tickets. You'll find takers, a dime a dozen. And watch IPL on your television set in the comfort of your home.

So where is cricket headed? T20 has converted cricket into a hitting game. Gone are the beautiful strokes of the Test matches but gone are also the innumerable hours that were taken from our exam study days. T20 has made cricket a much smaller game. Is it good for cricket? Cricket is gradually becoming something else. More on that in my next post.

Oh! I actually did in an earlier post. You can read it here.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

A thing of beauty, a joy forever indeed!

Exactly a month ago, on Easter Sunday on March 31'st I was trying to save whatever battery charge that was left on my mobile phone just to make one important call.

At around 3:45 PM I call my sister and ask her, "Suji, do you know where I am?".

"No, where are you?", she asks and I reply, "In front of the Taj Mahal". A "Wow" and an "Oh My God" from her only indicated how she was feeling and missing the moment I was going through that day.

This was my first visit to the Taj Mahal and I cannot fully describe the incredible feeling I had when I saw this "monument of love". After using and hearing the word "awesome" thousands of times, here is one place where I found its true meaning. In fact I could spend an entire day here admiring this beautiful monument that left me speechless.

My first impression is the scale of this wonder. Like me if you are a first time visitor, you might have seen a photo or pic of the Taj on your T.V or movie screen but what awaits you is a scale that is much larger than what you have in mind. The Tamil word "Brahmmandam" is what comes to mind. I have blown up a small portion of one of my pictures to indicate the size and scale of this beauty. This one is near one of the minarets. The monument on the side is on the Eastern side of the Taj. (Click image to blow it up full size)

The Taj itself is located in several 100 acres of space and the area leading to the Taj itself is beautifully adorned with other very impressive work of architecture. Be warned, it takes quite a trek to actually be in front of the Taj from the place autos or cars normally drop you. Once inside the premises you can take battery operated vehicles or camel driven carts to the ticket counters. From the ticket counters there is another good stretch of walking you need to do but this one's easier with the incredible sights of the monuments and other architecture on your way. You go past several other beautiful monuments and tombs of Shahjehan's first and second wife and one of Mumtaz's loyal maid too (courtesy of the Guide's narrative). Chances are, you'll be going past the Great Gate, the Darwaza-i-rauza (pictured below) which is a quite a spectacle in itself.


As you stand outside of this gate you can nearly catch a glimpse of the Taj. Was the foreigner in the pic above, holding her head in disbelief. I almost did the same. As you go by the gate here's the intricate design of the ceiling of the dome.

When you get a glimpse of the Taj via the doorway it nearly takes your breath away and the closer you get the more it stuns you with its beauty.

When I consider how architects, workers and the king himself could spend time and travel this far from Delhi and nearby places to build such a wonder, it is mind boggling. Agra is a three hour drive by car from Delhi but by the time you reach the entrance of the area leading to the Taj it will seem like forever, particularly on a busy Sunday. So you wonder how the King and his men thought of such a location and went about building one of the finest monuments in the world.

Even the world's most beautiful girl will age but the Taj will not. The monument is so beautiful you just want to keep looking at all day long. For me even if the most beautiful girl had been there that day, she would have been ignored in the presence of the Taj.

The other thing that came to my mind is the incredible perfection of the construction or should I say the epitome of beauty and perfection in a building. Stunning symmetry, perfect and flawless geometry are what awaits you. Even small lines and circles on each of the four minarets are the same in size, proportion and position. Then comes the intricate hand work, fine Jali's in marble, inlay work using semi precious stones (several of them scooped out too), and carving done on marble, all there to drop your jaws wide. The calligraphy is the other thing that you will not be able to ignore. It is so beautiful that Shahjahan is supposed to have rewarded the calligrapher. I can only wonder how they made such precise measurements to write the verses of the Koran in beautiful Arabic. I can hardly  imagine how the Taj must have looked when it was in its pristine condition in 1653 A.D, 360 years ago. Shining a light close through the marble (guide's suggestion) you'll notice the high quality of the marble that almost lets the light through as though it were translucent and how the inlay work just lights up.

What always blows me away is the construction of this wonder that took place at a time when there was no computer, no CAD or CAM, calculators, engineering colleges or universities, when even no cement. Most of the fountains that were operational used natural pressure to function, no motors or pumps. The gardens were later replaced or improvised by ones under the British rule.

I also got this rude shock as to what are I was doing with my life. Even the smallest worker on this monument seems to have accomplished something worthwhile in this life. I also wonder what did a day in the life of a worker or an architect or an engineer working on the Taj, felt like.

Honestly, go alone, bask in its beauty and solitude that will make your mind think wonderful things instead of going with big company and wasting a lot of that "thinking time" on chatting. Ideally I would like to spend one full day here. This was my last shot of the Taj as we were reclining in the benches on the lawn.

Take a guide. You'll find many. They actually help you move through lengthy queues and stubborn security folks much faster. Talk to them and unless they sound like quacks, hire one of them. They also fill you with a load of crap but you can ignore them like the Black replica of the Taj that Shahjahan was trying to build acroos the Yamuna and such. Make sure you pick up shoe and slipper wraps when you buy your tickets (Guide's suggestion) because if you don't you will have to remove your footwear when you climb up the Taj.

Cannot wait to visit it again. This time I want to visit The Taj on a full moon day which I believe is when The Taj is at its romantic best and also the most beautiful to watch.

In a recent interview I heard Amitabh Bachan mention how one of his Pakistani friends would tell him that in Pakistan they had everything that India had except for two incredibly beautiful things. One, the Taj Mahal and the other Lata Mangeshkar.

If you are Indian, you MUST visit this wonder before you die.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Some notes on traffic, accidents and transportation in North India

Traffic in North India is not very different from traffic in the South. But there were subtle differences.

I had already mentioned about two accidents, one on the day we were driving to Hansi, Haryana from Delhi and the other in Hansi. The first involved the Toyota Innova we were travelling. On one of the Highways just outside of Delhi a traffic cop stopped us. As the driver was slowing down I knew he had something on his mind. As the cop was being mislead that the vehicle was going to stop the driver suddenly stepped on the pedal and sped away. The cop was just able to tap the vehicle with his lathi. I was wondering if there was a chase ensuing. A short while later the same vehilce scraped against a small pick-up truck. The sound was so loud I thought damage was done. Fortunately there was only a small scratch but the rear bumper on the left side seemed disconnected from the body. The left rear-view mirror though knocked and folded-closed from the impact also only had a minor scratch. However the best part was that the driver of our car didn't even step outside to inspect the damage. He continued to drive on. On enquiry I found that the Innova we were driving was also his. Strange and unbelievable.

The other accident took place in Hansi when a two wheeler hit ours and as if nothing happened the two parties just went about their ways. I was dumbfounded. I have been in accidents in Chennai and I know the aftermaths of such events.

Share autos are interesting. They have an additional seat at the rear for rear-facing passengers. Certainly not safe and for those who have problems when seated in moving vehicles going in the opposite direction they are facing. I know one friend who just cannot sit that way.

One sad observation is that cycle richshaws are very much in vogue up North with more of them being used near train and bus stations. In Chennai they are almost extinct and their usage in Delhi and Haryana seemed odd and a little disturbing too. I am happy I didn't see any hand-drawn ones. I believe they contunue to be used in Calcutta.

P.S - On the way to Hisar I saw two white limousines parked in an open area. I believe marriages these days use them.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


My friend Rajeev Ramanujan used to tell me that if one wanted to celebrate Holi and see its true colours, one had to be in the North and was he right about it.

My cousin Latha with whom I was speaking on the 24'th of March asks me, "Do you know what is on the 27'th of this month?" and when I am blinking stars she yells, "Holi". From Delhi to Hansi, Haryana it is a 3 hour ride (4 max if the traffic is bad and it is) and we were surprised to find young kids throwing water-bags and packets at moving vehicles who had their windows down. These kids had already begun celebrating.

And if you thought Holi was only celebrated outdoors you are dead wrong. Early morning on the 27'th I am doused in colour powders, red and pink inside the home. I repeat, "inside the home". For Mother, it was a rude shock, with marble floors covered in pink and red colours. Up North, this is considered absolutely normal. Then comes pouring of freezing cold water. I would have certainly enjoyed if the water was tepid but freezing cold water was literally sending shivers down the spine. To my surprise my brother-in-law was throwing color powder on my cousin in the Kitchen. I never expected that.

We rush out and there is colour mayhem outside, with kids using buckets, water guns and pumps. I was warned not to take my camera and cellphone outside and particularly not to take any pics. I was also warned to stay away from colours (these are an oily type) that take much longer to wash away from one's skin. I still managed to snap some quick ones. Here they are.

Ladies are spared but passers by, particularly guys on bikes aren't. Best part, you don't even need to know your victim to douse him in colours. I was surprised when some teeny thing from next doors suddenly walked in and started applying color on my face greeting me with a "Happy Holi" and she was expecting me to do the same which I had to oblige. Such things are unheard of, down south.

I was only wondering what a beautiful festival it was for kids considering the brotherhood, camaraderie and good will it promoted among them during their growing-up years. Foreigners who visit North India during the festival indulge and have a field day while in the South, there is hardly any real Holi and it remains confined to small groups.

A few days after Holi, at Rajguru market in Hisar (yes these are the common names, Rajguru was one of the three to have been martyred along with Baghath Singh and Sukhdev) I could still see colours on people that hadn't washed away yet.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Every girl and every woman is beautiful. Post for Women's Day, 2013

Every year hundreds and thousands of beauty pageants are conducted all over the world. While I am not arguing that the participants in these pageants aren't beautiful, to accept the winner of a pageant as the one single and most beautiful lady in the world (universe/earth whatever) for that year is sheer absurdity. What if there were many girls and women who simply did not choose to participate in the event and those who were more beautiful (by the standards of the pageant) than the winner? Can beauty pageants then, really define and judge the beauty of a woman? I am not advocating a ban on beauty pageants but it is commonsense that such events can never fully appreciate the beauty of women let alone cover all of her beautiful virtues. Also what one woman lacks, another has. Every girl, every woman has something beautiful in her. One woman may have more beautiful things in her than another. How can a pageant gauge and judge all this?

I recall at school my classmate Sarayu (name changed), always being scolded and punished by teachers for not faring well at her exams. The system in those days was harsh towards students who did poorly in academics and like pageants that decide beauty in women, was a poor yardstick to decide how bright a student was. I was made to sit next to her once and while she was out for recess, out of sheer curiosity I took a look into her "rough note book". I just couldn't believe what I saw. Unlike the mundane math sums and English words and games in my "rough note book" Sarayu's book was filled with drawings of  pretty flowers, trees, birds, butterflies and nature. It was alive like an "Amar Chitra Katha". Her handwriting was almost art. Today's schooling systems would have promoted her into an artist but unfortunately in those days the frequent scolding and punishments only took a toll on her. She was already a senior and repeatedly failed several years of school and ultimately withdrew into a shell but come drawing competitions and she took the top honours. Another girl Arya (again name changed) would be the first to volunteer to sing whenever there was a free class. She was such a sport that I cannot recall her in an unhappy mood unless it came to studies.  If teachers were unhappy with the academic results I only wondered if they ever considered Arya's singing and Sarayu's art as their real talents.

Mothers, Grandmothers, sisters, cousin sisters, aunts, teachers, girl friends, girlfriends, wives, even ex-girlfriends and ex-wives all have several beautiful things for which they have been admired. Some of them are endowed with an abundance of beautiful things that are either ignored or simply taken for granted. With a little patience it is not difficult to find at least one very beautiful thing in every woman. In fact there are almost an infinite number of ways girls and women can be beautiful. It is just beyond the scope of this post or this blog to document and extol all these beautiful things.

I'll allocate the final paragraph to a woman I admire and respect deeply, my grandmother and particularly on the subject of strength because women for several wrong reasons are addressed as the weaker sex. Blame it on evolution or creation I have even wondered why she is called the weaker sex when it is she who goes through childbearing and labour. And on the subject of strength it is unfair to compare every woman to a Hercules because all men aren't compared the Greek hero.  Anyway here are some of her feats. I call them feats because as a man I am sure it will be impossible to emulate them. Ammumma's (grandmother) life i.e from pre-teens and almost upto the age of 80, when she died, was a life of hard labour. This included cooking three meals a day for upto 8 members, sweeping floors of the two storeyed ancestral home and surrounding areas and also mopping. In the days before red-oxide and later tiles were used for flooring cow-dung was used extensively to smear areas of the home both as an insecticide and for aesthetic purposes. And because of this extensive hard labour she like other women of her times were physically very strong. I am told that Ammumma could extract a coconut from the fruit by tearing out the husk using her bare teeth. Mother would tell me of their large appetites that stemmed from this hard labour - Ammumma and her siblings could consume an entire jackfruit in one sitting. But to top it all was her observance of the fast on MahaShivrathri day. According to grandmother, observing even half a MahaShivrathri fast religiously was equivalent to observing a 1000 Ekadasi fasts. The fasting would begin from the previous evening and would last all through the MahaShivarathri day and the night. Grandmother would even mention that swallowing saliva was taboo on that day. The acid test was the 6 mile walk from Aratupuzha up to Cherpu to the Sivan temple with a tender coconut in hand for "Abishekam". There they would stay awake all night chanting the Divine name and listening to stories and plays. At 3:00 AM the fast is broken with a small intake of the holy water, just a small sip. She would then trek back 6 miles to the Aratupha river, take bath, again visit the Shasthavu temple there and head home, all on foot. I am told that by the time she would arrive at home she would be absolutely frail, famished and weak from exhaustion. After consuming some gruel she would rest. Grandmother would observe this fast every year even in her seventies. Only old age would prevent her from undertaking the fast during her final years.

On mother's day today I bow down to the Divine Mother embodied in all women who are beautiful in some way or the other.

Monday, March 04, 2013

If plagiarists are plaguing you...

Considering that fact that even leading newspapers in India and the U.K have resorted to "content theft" then what to say of petty thieves.

Now if you are considering all hope lost in your fight with these content thieves here's a solution.

While writing articles for clients some of them would tell me not to "lift off"  lines and content from other sites because they would run my work using a software called "Copyscape". Today "Copyscape" has emerged as one of the major tools to fight plagiarism. Though the service is not entirely free you can thwart content copiers with a free warning that says "Protected by Copyscape. Do not copy". The free service may also offer other goodies. It certainly pays to check their website. The paid services offer a lot more protection. Check the video and then the link below.



Monday, February 18, 2013

A kitten with unusual eyes

I always found girls and ladies with eyes of varied colour (other than black) very attractive. I used to wonder why people would call them "Poona Kannu" or "Poocha Kannu" as though having those eyes was taboo.

Anyway here is an unusual pic. I took this picture of a very playful kitten with unusually differently coloured eyes at my friend's house in Kara, (near Kodungalloor), Kerala last November. Looks as though it is using a differently coloured lens in one of the eyes but obviously it isn't. One eye is of a yellow colour whereas the other is a pure grey with a tinge of blue. Click on the pic to view a bigger image. One may even think looking at the pic if the right eye of the cat (yellow coloured eye) was hurt or diseased but it is not so. The kitten is perfectly normal. In fact it was as playful as a puppy. The camera caught the kitten closing up the eye a bit smaller than the other, the instant the picture was taken.



Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kochakan Asan Road, Aratupuzha, Thrissur. What's in the name of a road?

Roads. We come across hundreds and thousands of them, across the the lengths and breadths of our cities and villages in our country. Every city has a Mahatma Gandhi Road, a Jawaharlal Nehru Street, a Sardar Patel Road but we take it for granted whenever we see a name as Dr.Nair Road or a place such as Dr. Seethapathy Nagar. What if there was something interesting behind the name of that road? The story behind one such road is worth mentioning.

Kochakan Asan Road is located in the small village of Aratupuzha, a beautiful green village located by the side of the Aratupuzha river in Thrissur, Kerala. The road was laid about 5 years ago and it was named to honour a music teacher from the village.

So what was special about Kochakan Asan? Our story dates back to the 1950's and 1960's almost more than half a century ago. Kochakan Asan had only one goal in his life - impart his deep knowledge of music to at least "one" worthy student of his to take his legacy forward. So tenacious was he of this goal that he lived his life a bachelor and fully dedicated himself to teaching music.

Kochakan Asan used the "Chavuttu Harmonium" to teach music. This instrument is almost extinct now. A small description of the "Chavuttu Harmonium" will suffice.  It is also called "Pedal Harmonium". It is similar to a normal Harmonium but it is played with both hands instead of one and it sits on a table. So you basically sit on a stool or bench beside the Pedal Harmonium like you would sit at a Piano and move the bellows (rhythmic contracting apparatus that helps in making the sound on a Harmonium) by rhythmically stepping on a pedal with your foot, something like the pedal of the older sewing machines. If you are curious do a search on YouTube for "Pedal Harmonium". I am sure I did find a video.

The most noble part of Kochakan Asan's teaching was that he was teaching music for free. Anyone could join his classes. And because it was free most students took his teachings only lightly. Many would lose interest after a few initial classes and many would also skip classes knowing that Asan would always cover those classes in a later class. And because of this Asan was always on the quest for that "dream pupil". He was seeking just one worthy student who could take his music legacy forward.

Then finally he had four students who seemed to show a lot of promise. In the batch were two girls and two boys. One of the boys in particular was Kochakan Asan's "apple of the eye". According to sources I know, it is said that the student could never made a false beat. For the other three interest gradually waned and very soon even they started boycotting classes. Now here comes the best part. To make sure the batch came to his classes without fail, Kochakan Asan used to make the traditional "Kerala Puttu and Pazham" thinking that at least to taste them the pupils would come and then eventually attend class. Can you believe such dedication from a teacher?

Kochakan Asan's dream was finally fulfilled. The "bright pupil" from that batch of four, became that elusive student Asan was looking for and eventually took over his master's legacy. He is none other than Vidhyadharan, a music director of repute in Kerala. Coincidentally today, Vidhyadharan lives on Kochakan Asan road.

So how do I know this story? Among the girls in that batch of four and one who would sneak out from her home to learn music from Kochakan Asan was a girl called Lakshmi, who today, is my mother.

P.S - Though learning music was a big "no-no" for girls in those days, grandfather finally came to know of Amma's music classes and got her a regular Harmonium. But then came another problem. How do you play "Pedal Harmonium" style on a regular Harmonium. That's another interesting story I'll post some other time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My latest blog

My latest is a movie review blog, that I had been planning for years. It officiallly went live on Jan 15 though posts started appearing only on the 23'rd.

Feel free to comment.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Changing Rose, you blow my mind!

Above, you are actually looking at two images of the same flower. I repeat "the same flower" and not two species of the flower or the flowers located on separate shrubs or plants.

There are just a few or maybe even lesser than a handful of people who could recognize this flower when I showed them the images above. It is called the Confederate Rose or the Changing Rose. The flower blooms white in the morning, turns pink in the afternoon and a deep red in the evening.

I took pictures of this flower in 2011 in Aratupuzha, Trichur at my aunt's place. It is surprising how nature can overwhelm you. I have been visiting Aratupuzha for decades and how I missed a beautiful flower as this is certainly intriguing.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Beginning 2013 on a Thankful Note

Of the several posts I had in mind to post for New Year, this one seemed the most pertinent.

On Facebook a post is being repeatedly shared about an incident that took place in a MTC bus in Chennai recently. The complaint was made by a passenger to a MTC hotline when the conductor told him that the bus would not stop at a regular stop, where the passenger was to get down. The passengers of bus weren't able to believe the drama that unfolded. In an unusual move and in a never-heard-of-before-fashion a supervisor at MTC hotline talks to the driver and conductor of the MTC via the speaker inside the bus instructing them to stop the bus at the stop that the conductor refused to stop for the passenger.

My story is almost similar and one that deserves to be told.  Late 2012 I realise one day that I have lost the RC book of my Honda Activa Scooter that I had purchased way back in 2004. To make things worse I have lost the photocopies of the RC book as well. So what to do? Apply for a duplicate RC book, of course. So I visit the RTO (Regional Transport Office) at Thiruvanmiyur and I am told I need to submit an application and all that. But when a check is made for my vehicle I am told that the hypothecation on the vehicle has not been removed as I had taken finance assistance while purchasing the scooter way back in 2004 and that the title still rests with the finance company. I couldn't believe this was happening. In 2004 I had cursed myself for listening to that tenacious Ashok Leyland finance salesman who pursued me into taking at least 50% finance when I had the entire cash to pay off for the scooter. A few months after paying my first installments I get a letter saying that one of the EMI's hasn't been paid. With bank statements and photocopies of my cheque that I had sent them I am not sure how many people I had called to fix the problem that they had made on their system. The problem was solved eventually.

But for my current situation the worst was yet to come. Ashok Leyland finance was no more in existence. I went from searching in Chamiers Road and finally to Ashok Leyland's corporate office building on Radhakrishnan Salai (where old the Halda typewriter company used to stand) to only be told that Ashok Leyland's finance division is now IndusInd bank. The lady at the reception gave me a number and my calls began. It didn't take long to get through to the appropriate person and Surekha (name not changed) was kind enough to listen to my story. She was skeptical about finding my loan number in spite of me providing information about my scooter such as chassis no. and engine no. but she said she would still try. Telling me to call after a couple of days I was only wondering if my nightmare would continue as the guy at the RTO emphatically told me that without the hypothecation being removed it will be impossible not only to get the duplicate RC book but also sell the scooter to another buyer. If only I hadn't listened to that Ashok Leyland salesman that day!

Surekha meanwhile was doing yeoman's service. After 3 days she still hadn't located my information but she said she would keep trying. She also told me that somewhere she had come across the names "Sarath Lakshmi", my last name while searching for my info. When I was wondering if I would be lucky, came the call on a Friday saying she had managed to find my information. Oh! what a relief that call made! It had taken two weeks to locate my information. Moving forward I had to pay for the duplicate NOC. Subsequent procedures at the RTO are pending but I am sure the biggest problem has been solved.

Sometimes when you encounter situations where companies cannot extract even a previous month's bill and give you such a hard time here is someone who had dug into old archives and extracted information from 8 years ago. Not difficult in our information age but who is going to do all this diligently?

I am not sure if Surekha or her office or management would read this post but this is the best I could do for a job very well done. It feels good when someone goes out-of-the-way to help you as Surekha did and I am thankful for that.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Can I stop writing?

Never! Not when the new year is bringing so much of promise and joy even when I don't have a proper job! Not when Saarang, IIT M's popular cultural festival is just around the corner. And not when I am smitten by Karan Johar's "Student Of The Year" that I saw on New Year's day and whose songs I have playing non-stop for almost two days and my head is almost going to burst if I don't write about the same. Two years ago this time I recall how "Magadheera" and Kajal Aggarwal had the same effect on me. SOTY has really pushed me to start my movie-review blog which I will hopefully start before Saarang begins.

Yes, I have been through some big ups and downs but that will not stop my writing. So let me begin once again.