Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Music of Life

A wet, rainy afternoon. Pitter-patter, nay, the beating down of large, heavy raindrops. Blazing disc of the sun, meek, against the invading army of dense, dark clouds. Ferocious wind surging in and out of the house, rattling frail window frames, flaying hapless curtains. The monsoon war rages on…

Oblivious to all this, I am at complete peace with myself, with the world – transported to another plane altogether by the lilting tunes of Bhimpalasi flowing like nectar from the mellifluous voice of Gaan Saraswati Kishori Amonkar – drowning me in the melodious ocean of the seven swar's  – the saptasur. As she meanders through the raag, light-footed here, a heavy step there, I am transported back to my childhood, to the commencement of the journey, my musical journey through life.

I remember waking up every morning to the strains of Hindustani classical music in the sonorous voice of Pandit D V Paluskar. I recall seeing father meticulously going over his collection of old and new gramophone records, choosing the appropriate one to play, depending on the time of day/night and the mood. His gentle humming as he affixed the record onto the player, the sparkle in his eyes and the childlike eagerness with which he awaited the first notes of music to issue forth as pointed needle met revolving record. Eyes mist out at the thought of the days gone by, but the smile plays on, to the music that never ceased…

Throughout the day, there would be music all around – the sound of birds chirping, water gushing, leaves rustling, animals frolicking, even snakes slithering and lizards crawling! I would climb up my favourite mango tree (or the guava, or the neem!) and sit still for hours together, fascinated by the wonderful sights and sounds of nature. The growling of an empty stomach was the only sound that would induce me to step inside and head towards the kitchen.  And then, the kitchen sounds – the vessels clanging, the mortar-pestle thudding, the grinding stone grinding, the masala and seasoning spluttering, and in times of the harvest, the threshing outside and the winnowing of grains inside! Oh, the joy of playing in the rich harvest of pearly rice, golden dal and earthy wheat, as mother and grandmother cleaned, winnowed and stored them, all to the humming of some old folk song handed down from generation to generation – I was the richest princess on earth! :)

Come evening, and the chirping of the crickets signalled the time to light the oil lamp and recite the evening prayers and tables. Evening prayers in grandmother’s firm yet melodious voice is a memory treasured by not just me, but the entire family. The calmness that her rich voice brought was akin to the application of a cool, soothing balm onto the hot, stuffy tiredness of the day’s toil. We all sat down to dinner in a much pleasanter mood after that. After shatapauli in the shimmering moonlight, we came back inside for a sweet dessert of night raags. As sleep took over the child that was me, mother gently gathered me into her arms and rocked me to sleep by singing sweet lullabies in Konkani and Marathi. Mother and mother tongue, simple and unassuming, yet leaving a deep impression on one’s mind.

Music continued, and music training too, not just in a music class, but by being taken to night long concerts at the community hall and even to Nashik city. Every Saraswat household is blessed with atleast one vocalist, instrumentalist and several connoisseurs of music. Visits from relatives would invariably turn into impromptu maifals with everyone wanting just one turn to display his/her talent, and getting several – one fuelling the other – unending music, unending fun! I especially remember one such family gathering when I was all of 3 years old, in which Sriram bhaiyya sat down with my harmonium after the afternoon meal and doled out dish after dish of delicious bhaav geets, bhakti geets and natya sangeet. Enthralled by his mesmerizing voice, I didn’t realize when I fell asleep, only to be wake up in time for the evening tea. Not one to let beauty in any form remain unappreciated, I promptly went up to him and innocently said “Bhaiyya, you sing so well! I slept so peacefully after hearing you sing!” As bhaiyya picked me up and gave me a hug, I wondered why he and everyone else in the house were roaring with laughter! To this day, Sriram bhaiyya maintains that it is the best compliment he has ever received for his singing! :D

School, college, IIT and IISc – I looked for and found music everywhere. In college, I was an active member of the Indian Music Group and helped organize and compere the JanFest that year. As part of the ArtMan (Artist Management) team, I had the good fortune of interacting at close quarters with the stalwarts of Indian classical music. Running around to Anna for hot tea and cool sandwiches for Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, the vacuum sealed thermos that won’t open and was ultimately opened by the handsome and talented Salil Bhatt, being addressed as ‘Mayaji’ by Parthosarathy Chaudhuri, the lightening speed with which Pandit Vijay Ghate’s fingers teased the tabla, the exhilaration at hearing the haunting tunes of the Pahadi played by Pandit Chaurasia late at night even as the police came to ensure the stop of the programme at the designated hour – the memories are many, rich and vibrant! Who can forget the race against time to cover up the green room (which was indeed painted green) because Kishori tai was not fond of that particular colour! How we rushed to the market, bought bales of white cloth and painted a beautiful peacock on it, even decorated it with shining mirrors, and managed to cover the walls only a minute before the lady herself walked in! Dr. Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande so liked our art work that she asked to take it away with her after the programme – we were more than pleased! I also vividly remember the morning of 26th January 2002, when the flag was hoisted by Kishori tai- there was a slight drizzle, and after the hoisting, Father Principal made an announcement that brought the house down – the government of India had conferred on to Kishori tai, the Pada Vibhushan, and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the Padmashri that year!

At IIT too, music greeted me. My roommate, my ‘roomie’ , used to wake up early in the morning for her riyaaz. In order to not disturb me, she would climb up to the hostel terrace and practise there. Her beautiful singing would wake me up and lure me to the terrace too. A golden red sunrise and Hindustani and Karnatic shastriya sangeet being practised by one passionate about it – one has to be blessed to enjoy all three together!

At IISc, music was the solace to my PhD-battered soul. The extremely talented Rhythmica group breathed life into all their performances and into their listeners. How each member of this team could sing well and play most, if not all, instruments, just as pros, is something I wonder about even today. Then there was the time I feigned illness and bunked lab to stay up at an all night classical programme organized by the IISc Marathi Mandal in the gymkhana. After a wonderful four hours of listening to Ashwini tai with my talented, young junior Nishad giving saath, I stood up in the break time to stretch myself, only to find the Boss looking daggers at me from the 1st row of the VIP sitting, right behind the baithak! I immediately sank back into sukhasan, only to rise up with the morning sun the next day! I had to face an altogether different kind of music in the lab that morning  :D

That wasn’t the only time though - history repeats itself, and the Boss soon understood the strong correlation between my falling ill and the probability of a music concert in the vicinity. It had it’s advantages too – once when the Boss was gifted passes to a high profile music concert (tickets to which were too expensive for the torn pockets of a poor grad student), he promptly gifted them to me! So I had the good fortune of not just listening to Ustad Rashid Khan, Aman and Ayaan Ali Bangash and several South Indian Vidwans and Visdushis, but also to witness Pandit Birju Maharaj live, in person! I was in 7th heaven that day!

Life, however, is not always as musical. Sometimes, all there is to hear is empty, soulful music. At such times, I remember father’s words – “Divine music can be created even from a hollow flute that is full of holes. It matters not how hollow or how many holes, but it matters whether there is the will to create music.”

At that, I surrender and let the music of life envelope me. It accepts me in all my emptiness, in all my entirety. When the mind is atune with the anaahat naad, one is at peace with oneself, absorbed in divine bliss. As the nectar of life’s music begins to flow, I begin to live... immortally...

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Racing ahead... wisely

5th of June is proclaimed to be ‘World Environment Day’, the right day I think to shell out my two cents on the recent ‘Turn-Mahalakshmi-race-course-into-green-garden’ political play. For once, I think the politicos have the good of the city in mind, despite the obvious political undertones.

The Mahalakshmi Race Course is sprawled over a vast 225 acres right in the heart of south-central Mumbai. In 1914, the land had been leased out by the then government to the Royal Western India Turf Club for a period of 99 years, which expired on the 31st of May 2013. While RWITC applied for an extension of the lease, Shiv Sena supremo the late  Shri Balasaheb Thackeray's son and hier, Udhhav Thackeray, proposed that the huge area be converted into a public garden instead. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra was approached with the ‘blueprints’ of the proposed plan for the garden to be named after the late Sena supremo, which is believed to be an alternative to the unsuccesful attempt at building a  monument in his memory at Dadar's Shivaji Park. Uddhav Thackeray’s son, Aaditya Thackeray, the head of Shiv Sena’s youth wing posted these pictures on his Facebook page –

Aerial view of the Mahalakshmi Race Course as it is today

Aerial view of the proposed garden, believed to be an image of  Monaco, Monte Carlo (http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/1842361/report-aaditya-thackeray-posts-a-vision-of-mahalaxmi-racecourse-on-facebook)

This is what the Sena has to say about it –

"This garden will have open spaces to run, jog, cycle, skate, fly kites.. a water body for boating, relaxing. cultural sites for open air music concerts, theatre, poets and plays.. small gardens of flowering trees and plants."

Whatever the reasons behind the proposal of the garden, political or otherwise, I am all for it. Although I will miss the enigma of the race course, I eagerly welcome the idea to create a much-needed breathing space in south-central Mumbai. 

I endorse the plan proposed by the Sena, adding my own two cents to it –

1. While open spaces for running/cycling/skating/flying kites are most welcome, and so are the small gardens of flowering trees and plants, let the proposed public garden be a real jungle among the concrete jungle. What this part of Mumbai is most in need of is not just a breathing space, but strong, powerful robust lungs that will clean up the heavily polluted air. Planting as many trees as possible is the need of the hour. A beautiful wooded area can be planned out with settees and rustic benches for people to enjoy the cool shade, and a cosy little footpath for the walkers to enjoy a memorable stroll in cool, fresh air.

Left to me, I would plant an entire grove of neem trees. The air-purifying effects of Azadirachta indica are well-documented scientifically and I have experienced it personally too. I would also have a special area ear-marked for medicinal herbs, shrubs, plants and trees – a nice way to make people aware of our rich native vegetation that has untold priceless health benefits too. And maybe a small place for the ‘Rashi’ and ‘Navagraha’ trees of astrological importance. Their significance has been vastly undermined, but more on that in a separate blogpost.

2. ‘Water body for boating and relaxing’… well have boating if you must (generate funds to maintain the garden?). I would counter-propose a beautiful Zen garden complete with water-lily and lotus ponds, bamboo groves (doubt if they will grow in the Mumbai weather, no harm trying though), crystal clear streams of cool, sparkling water bubbling over stony pebbles and wooden bridges. Maybe even a bonsai or two thrown in, and of course green lawns where one could sit and relax or simply read a book.

3. The stands and viewing boxes at the race course can definitely be fashioned out into an open-air amphitheatre – imagine concerts and plays right under the blue sky, or the starry night! (Sadly, dark starry nights are a thing of the past what with all the super-bright ‘diffused’ light in the city. Also, the Mumbai monsoons would necessitate the need for alternate arrangements, but hey, getting drenched while listening to a concert is so much fun too :) There should definitely be a covering over the dias, goes without saying!). While some shows can be free of cost to the public, the theatre may also be lent out for shows to corporates for a reasonable amount, proceeds being used for the maintenance of the garden.

4. Another extremely important issue is, to use the buzzword, ‘Sustainability’. Using rain-water harvesting and composted/ vermicultured soil to maintain the greenery of the garden, using solar power to light it up, providing separate dustbins to segregate waste generated, and informing and educating Mumbaikars (and Indians!) about the significance of all this and how it makes a big positive contribution to our save our environment – these are MUST DO’s! As also hefty fines for littering and nuisance-making!

5. Dedicate the garden to Mumbaikars and hand over its management to the citizens of Mumbai - the residents of the locality and anyone else interested, especially the youth. If one wants something in life, one must work for it. Leaving the management entirely to the government/ corporation would serve to make the garden an entertainment spot. Citizen involvement would generate a sense of belongingness and responsibility, ensuring that the upkeep and maintenance of the garden would be seen to by not only the present, but also the future generations of proud Mumbaikars. (In this respect, a very minimal fee may be charged for entry into the garden. Free things are taken for granted creating indifference in the minds of the people. A small charge will get such atrocious and harmful attitude back in line).

6. Let not political whims and fancies take centre stage. Let this be a shining example of the people and politicians working hand-in-hand for the betterment of the city they love. We needn’t be at loggerheads every time, need we?

7. But these are only my ideas! Let us collectively come up with ideas for the beautification and improvement of the garden, see how these can be incorporated practically, make this all happen, continue to keep it that way, and rejoice in the contentment of a job well done! :)

All in all, this is my plan is to convert the Mahalakshmi race course into a dense Indian jungle cum Bangalore’s Lalbagh Botanical Garden cum Mumbai’s Jogger’s park cum New York’s Central Park cum a beautiful Zen garden. News has it that the lease has been renewed and RWITC will continue to hold horse races as it has always been doing and that there will be no garden at Mahalakshmi. Yet, no harm in letting the fertile imagination run wild. I hope this wishful blogpost has led to small, green ideas being planted and taking roots, providing blueprints for future gardens that are/ will be planned.

Happy World Environment Day! Let us be the green change we want to see!

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Soul Kadi - Breaking In, into the Real World

It’s surprising what PhD can do to one. One takes the best and most productive years of one’s life and shuts them away behind the closed doors of a laboratory, researching a topic one hopes would make a difference to the world some day. For grad students doing basic research, this translates into a really long wait wrought with innumerable frustrations, punctuated with fleeting ‘eureka’ moments of joy as they watch their ideas materialize into applications that can finally be put to some good use. But these moments of fulfillment and satisfaction are few and far between and often take more than the graduate life span. PhD life then mostly exists as a dull, monotonous routine of ‘Work- Eat- Sleep(?)– Work– and Work some more’.

Pardon me, but I am of the opinion that (higher) education is meant to enlighten and liberate, not turn one into a mechanical humanoid working day-in and day-out till the thesis is written and the manuscripts are published, and sometimes even after! Where does all the joy and inspiration go, the one with which we start out as fresh PhD students? It is lost somewhere down the line, in the black hole that consumes grad students across nationalities, across the globe. Since this is a universally observed phenomenon, is it right to assume that there is something terribly wrong with our current system of higher education? Some issues definitely need to be worked upon and the wrinkles ironed out from the rest. Or is it the lack of understanding, appreciation and recognition from peers, advisors and/or family that causes this depression? Does the fact of seeing the world racing by as one struggles at the work bench with no clear end in sight lead to all the misery? At the time when peers are settling down into secure, salaried jobs and starting families, PhD students are only just getting started on their dissertations. Or is it the uncertainty over the future that burdens PhD life? By the time the doctoral degree is awarded, grad students realize that they are way overqualified and will be underpaid for most jobs they apply for. That isn’t too bright a future to look forward to, is it?

Whatever the reason, going to grad school is a choice one makes knowingly, a decision to single-mindedly dedicate one’s most productive years in the pursuit of science, for science’s sake and for mankind’s sake (I sincerely hope this is the mind-set with which at least a few people join grad school! All is not lost then!) It is a decision one stands by till the very end – the happy(?) ending when one graduates with a doctoral degree and is ready to make a fresh start, taking the first few independent steps into the ‘real’ world. And that’s when the ‘PhD bubble’ actually bursts.

Life outside academia isn’t all hunky-dory. One dreams, one imagines of settling down, slowly yet surely, taking one step at a time, committing fewer mistakes.  But life has other plans. One crack of life’s formidable whip and all well-laid plans go for a toss! Rumble, crumble, slip, fall! The only alternative is to pick oneself up out of the rubble and get the act together again, not one-at-a-time (no time for that anymore!), but many, parallely. This is the first lesson life teaches. Lessons in life, from life, for life.

Life has its own way of wielding the whip - sometimes gentle, sometimes a little hurting, but most of the times, sheer deep painful. However, there definitely is a positive learning at the end of each whip crack, and looking back, I see that I have shaped up for the better from all the whipping – gentle and harsh alike.

Take for instance, the time when life gently goaded me to go clothes shopping. For a girl, who dislikes shopping (except of course for sarees, shoes, jewellery and farm-fresh fruits and veggies!), it was quite some task. I find it much easier to shop for others than for myself. And when it comes to clothes, God help me! The realization that my PhD wardrobe (read a couple of T-shirts with the institute logo and a pair of worn out jeans) is so totally unfit for the ‘prospective employee’ role I am currently playing, finally made me drag myself out to the stores. So here I am now – all shopped and suited-up, making a style statement of my own – simple, understated, yet elegant (I hope!). There’s scope for improvement I’m sure and I’ll learn on the way.

That’s about it about life’s gentle persuasions.

Life is more of an expert at dealing it out up close and personal. *Slap!* Crisp and tight, smack in the face, shaking you out of your delusional reverie, bringing you back onto hard, solid ground. This happened to me during a discussion about jobs, people and life styles outside academia. I had my set views on how the academic world is a lot more about altruism and working for common good than the big, bad corporate world would ever be; and on how one’s attitude makes all the difference in life. (The right attitude does matter! The Bhagavad Geeta says, one must perform one's duty sincerely, responsibly, and live life in accordance to one's means, position and status. And yet, one must remain detached from the fruits of one's labour, expecting nothing in return. This is the key to true happiness. Also, comparing oneself to others beyond a limit is extremely injurious as it leaves one unhappy and dissatisfied, always wanting some more. This hinders the path of progress to the great heights that one can reach in life. Please don't do that!). As I rattled away in the same vein, my exasperated friend suddenly pointed out that I had been behind closed doors in the research field for too long and was looking at the world outside from the very same keyhole all the while. Said my worthy friend unto me,

*Slap!* Silenced me at that word, it did! Hard though it was to accept this fact (oh, the egoistic “I” gets in the way!), I had definitely not looked at things from any other perspective than my own. Even more shameful because scientific training teaches that no single view be overlooked. I remained silent for the rest of the conversation, giving things a deep thinking-over. Although I still stand by what I said, I am looking at things from various angles now. I am no longer one of the three blind men describing the elephant, each from his own point of view, as the old story goes.

But that's not all there is to life. There are those extremely painful times when life punches one real hard; not once, not twice, but thrice, Hindi daily soap ishtyle! *Punch! Kick! Punch!* Life knocking the life out of you! This is especially true when one tries to get one’s own way in life: life punches back even harder. The only recourse then is to let life take its course.

Does that mean one gives in without a fight? Absolutely NOT! One does not give in! Fighting to get one’s way in life is indeed a very unique fight. Extremely difficult no doubt, but exhilarating to the very core. I quite enjoyed mine (but this is only in retrospect; back then it was very painful). One stands up for what it is one wants, puts up with a lot of resistance from all sides, learns to be soft, diplomatic and firm, all at the same time, trying best to ruffle as few feathers as possible as one treads on sensitive and delicate grounds. One keeps going despite all obstacles, keeping only the ultimate goal in mind. Hurdle after hurdle is leapt over, until the final hurdle is all that remains - the last bridge that separates one from one’s goal.

As one starts to walk across this bridge, one is forced to look back. For some, the road traversed holds very little, the future holds a lot of promise. And for some, it is a lonely route. Although the traversed road has let go of its obstacles, the road ahead doesn't reassure. There are no signs of welcome, no acknowledgements of the efforts put in, not even subtle hints... anywhere. One dips into the past and searches the present, but comes up empty-handed, both times. That is when one stops - and thinks - has it been worth all the effort? Realization dawns. The true path is chosen by the ability to love it, not suffer for it. In life, many-a-time, the hardest and the right decision are one and the same. One slowly turns and starts walking back. The fight ends.

Is one disappointed? Yes, naturally. Hurt? A lot, obviously. Regrets? None what-so-ever. When one gives one’s best shot and does all that can possibly be done, leaving no stone upturned, there are no regrets. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. One rests assured in the knowledge that one has at least tried.

Like they say, " Take risks.  If you win, you will be happy. If you lose, you will be wise."

Post Script: Life is like the ever-popular, much-loved Konkani appetizer ‘सोल कडी’ – आम्शे, तिक्शे, मिट्शे, गोड्शे – sour, spicy, salty and sweet - all at the same time. One must learn to accept, appreciate and enjoy it in its varying tastes and flavours; only then can one digest life’s offerings and let out a satisfied burp. This, I am learning to do.