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“Break a Coconut” ….
“It will relieve the stress..”
These words echo in my mind almost 18 years after I heard them from Mrinalini Sarabhai “Amma” at Darpana in Ahmedabad.
There was an issue with a copying machine; and these were the words that Amma used to assure the person dealing with the copier that everything would be all right.
Yes, “Everything will be alright” was the reassuring place that she came from. There was no issue hard enough; it would all be resolved. I still think of her words any time I find something stressful.
Amma then was almost 80; just a few years younger than my grandmother. She was from that generation that had been born in the pre-electricity era. She was in the big league along with folks like Lakshmi Shankar; a South Indian who had made a name for herself all over India and the world, outside of the world of Karnatic Music and Bharatanatyam – very strongly grounded in her native art form. She had built institutions and had taken art forms to new dimensions.
And she radiated simplicity and majesty at the same time; elegance and poise were the words that came to one’s mind when you saw her. She was part of day to day affairs of the Institution, yet she was a transcendent Goddess in her Office – a space that was full of iconic images depicting the history of her art that had broken barriers for about half a century.
There was majesty, calmness, artistry, wisdom, unbounded love and hospitality and of course Godliness. To her Krishna and Shiva were not abstract and distant entities but ideas that she could relate to in everything that she did and in everything around her. Even the pair of Katputlis (puppets) sold in the Law Garden area were “Shiva and Parvati”.
Grounded in her native art and sound wisdom she experimented and encouraged experimentation. She told me once: “I tell my instrumentalists – not to exude the machine-like sugar coated perfection; I like spontaneity; an occasional apasvaram, even an intentional apasvaram is what makes it interesting”.
I remember the 79 year old danseuse performing ‘Krishna nee begane baro’ with grace on the Natarani stage for a video shoot that was happening during my stay there with every sign of freshness and no hint of exhaustion. I also remember her condolence speech at the passing of Kuchipudi Guru CR Acharyulu; a speech that commenced with the words ‘Acharyulu is still with us’ and a smile that transformed the pall of gloom into a state of peace and celebratory acceptance.
Her words urging you to break the proverbial coconut and get rid of stress echo in my ears almost two decades later. Her life ended three years before her centenary. But her legacy will live on for ever.
(Article by Dr Kanniks Kannikeswaran published in the Sep 2015 and Oct 2015 issues of Sruti Magazine. Reproduced with permission)
An oft repeated quote in musical circles is ‘tradition should never be violated’. Another one is, ‘We purists cannot accept these experiments. The purity of Karnatic Music should never be compromised’.
These quips and more lead us to certain fundamental questions. What is tradition in Karnatic Music? Or for that matter what is Karnatic Music and what is tradition? What constitutes purity?
I have posed the question ‘What is Karnatic Music?’ to several practitioners and students. The answer that I get is invariably along the lines of the following. ‘Karnatic music is South Indian Classical music; it is all about the rendition of kriti-s with manodharmam and the creation of an aesthetic experience for the rasikas”.
All the answers that I got pointed to the kucheri paddhati of Karnatic Music.
However, Karnatic music as we know it is much larger than that. It is actually a wide umbrella encompassing the Kucheri paddhati, the music that accompanies dance forms such as kathakali, bharatanatyam, kuchipudi and mohiniattam, the bhajana sampradaya, the tevara singing in temples and more. Despite the fact that the repertoires of these sub-genres do not intersect what is common to all of them is the system of ragas and talas. Conservative traditions such as Tevaram are limited to a small set of ragas while the kucheri and the bharatanatyam music repertoire embraces a wider range of ragas and talas. At the core of the Karnatic music umbrella is the theory that underlies much of the lakshya.
As it can be seen, the kucheri is only a subset of this wide umbrella. In fact the word kucheri is not a Tamil or a Telugu word; it is not even a sanskrit word. It is an urdu word that means ‘a court’ where disputes are decided. The phrase ‘court kucheri’ is commonly used in Tamil colloquy. How did the word ‘kucheri’ come to describe a music performance? It is possible that the fact that performances happened in ‘Courts’ of kings (especially Thanjavur, Pudukkottai etc.) led to the usage of the name ‘kucheri’ to denote a performance itself.
Given that the ‘kucheri’is the de facto face of Karnatic music, when we talk about tradition in Karnatic music, do we only talk about the generally accepted tradition in kucheris?
Kucheris of today present a blend of manodharma and kalpita sangitam. The sangati as we know today is an integral element of a kriti rendition in the kucheri and otherwise. The sangati falls in the domain of both the kalpita sangitam and manodharma sangitam. Certain singers take pride in demonstrating fidelity to their guru parampara by faithfully reproducing sangati-s each time they render kritis in a kucheri exactly as taught to them by their guru in conformity with tradition while certain others leave it to the moment to improvise sangati-s.
However, are the sangati-s of today the same as those conceived by the composers who lived 200 years ago? By conforming to the sangati-s practiced by our guru parampara are we honoring the intent of the composer who created the same kriti 200 years ago?
The kriti Vatapi Ganapatim for example, as composed by Dikshitar was bereft of sangati-s; it was Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer of Thanjavur who created the practice of singing this composition at a higher tempo along with a volley of a dozen sangati-s. Every karnatic musician is proud of these sangati-s no doubt. However, was Vaidyanatha Iyer’s introduction of sangati-s thanks to his creative license a violation of tradition? It is said that Dikshitar’s nephew Subbarama Dikshitar was not happy with Iyer’s transgression of the original composition that he even excluded him from the Vaggeyakarakula charitam (biographies of Vaggeyakaras) in which he had included many of his contemporary vaggeyakaras.
Thus by rendering the multiple sangati-s in Vatapi Ganapatim whether in a solo rendition in a concert or in a congregational rendition, what is the tradition that we are honoring and what is the tradition that we are leaving behind?
Here is another example from the world of Dikshitar’s compositions. The kriti svaminatha paripalayasu is well known to all as a madhyamakala kriti with an eduppu offset by 3 matras from the samam and is enjoyed as a brisk composition that sets the mood in the beginning of a kucheri. Little do many of us know that the kriti Svaminatha as it is etched in our collective cognition is the result of an innovation in the 1900s where the original chauka kala sama eduppu kriti was popularized into this current form by none other than one of the greatest performers of the past century GNB himself. The late vidushi Lakshmi Shankar has stated that she remembers her mother who had learned the ‘then traditional’ version of this kriti from TL Venkatarama Iyer had cried foul at GNB’s clever transformation in the early 1900s. In today’s world, the chauka kala rendition of this kriti would probably be frowned upon as a ‘violation of tradition’ by rasikas and critics alike.
What constitutes tradition in the field of ragas? It is the later day kanakangi/ratnangi mela system that holds currency today as opposed to the more ‘traditional’ raganga raga system followed by the Venkatamakhi parampara all the way from Ramaswami Dikshitar through Subbarama Dikshitar (and even Ambi Dikshitar). Do we construe the usage of Ganamurti (or for that matter even the raga names from the relatively modern kanakangi/ratnangi scheme ) for instance as an affront to an older tradition? A rendition of ‘Ganamurte’ in the raga ganamurti rich in sangati-s would receive vehement nods of approval today as conforming to tradition. However it is not commonly known that ‘Ganamurte’ is allegedly a composition created by the sishya parampara of Tyagaraja. By attributing it to Tyagaraja and performing it which tradition are we honoring and what are we violating?
The question of tradition slips into grey areas when there is an intersection between liturgical music and the kucheri paddhati. The Tevara singing tradition was codified during the era of the monarch Raja Raja I by the Saint Nambiandar Nambi. Teveram singing is confined to a limited number of panns. We see the occasional presence of Tevara hymns in the ‘‘traditional’ kucheri paddhati with the text tuned to modern ragas of the 18th century. While the tuning of the ancient text from the 11th century to ragas that didn’t exist is considered to be a transgression of the sacred music tradition by some in the Oduvar community, the kucheri paddhati does allow this liberty without batting an eyelid. Again, are we violating tradition by singing 11th century verses in 18th century ragas?
What is tradition in Karnatic music? Should there be limits and constraints on interpreting music?
Again, I got a range of answers from a number of practitioners. However the answer that really struck a chord in me was that given by Dr Balamuralikrishna in an interview to Sruti in 1984. ‘Tradition is nothing other than the basic grammar around which a superstructure is built’. He goes on to say that anyone is free to innovate and that only those innovations that ‘are good’ will secure the approval of rasikas for sustained periods of time and continue as traditions; and anything that survives the test of time is a classic regardless of whether it is a composition featured in a film or whether it is an innovation within the kucheri paddhati.
Thus the sangati-s of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer on an accelerated version of the rather stoic kriti Vatapi Ganapatim that have survived the test of time constitute tradition so much so that a vilamba kala rendition of this composition bereft of sangati-s as notated in the Sangita Sampradaya pradarsini (1905) could be construed as a violation of tradition!
There are several such innovations that we take for granted as tradition. We only have to look back at history to get an idea of the innovations that have led us to where we are.
The violin was a colonial instrument that entered the fold of South Indian Art music perhaps in the early 1800s thanks to Baluswami Dikshitar and the Thanjavur quartet. Thus, about 200 years ago, the violin was not part of the Karnatic music tradition while it is an integral component today. Not only have various banis of performing the violin come into being today; there are competitions and benchmarks that place the various players of today. The violin came to India during the lifetime of Beethoven. Its natural sound range and tuning (E/A/D/G) was altered to suit the vocal range of Indian performers; even the strings are tuned S/P/S/P much like the Sarasvati vina of South India.
The harmonium came to India with the missionaries; the pedal harmonium was a substitute for church organs. The hand bellowed harmonium was an innovation which gained popularity in Hindustani khyal music, thumri, bhajan and kirtan renditions, the bhajana sampradaya and other karnatic music sub-genres of yesteryears.
Playing Karnatic music on instruments alien to the South Indian soil in a solo setting is just an extension of the existing paradigm of Karnatic music; however, bringing alien instruments into the fold of a vocal performance of Karnatic music, is certainly an innovation of the past two centuries that has now become a tradition. The violin which only accompanied vocal and flute music in the 60s now even accompanies the vina.
Tyagaraja was an innovator, the first to develop sangati-s to the extent we admire and appreciate today. Dikshitar created new kriti formats, totally different from those of the existing norm. He also created a new genre of nottusvara sahityas with sanskrit lyrics fitted to colonial tunes, thus conforming to the definition of an ‘inferior vaggeyakara’ as described in the vaggeyakāralakṣaṇamu section of the Sangita Sampradaya pradarsini! Although he was rooted in the orthodox Venkatamakhi paramparya and the Srividya Tantric fold, he was easily able to step out of his shoes, negotiate with alien tunes brought in by the East India company and create a hitherto non-existent genre of Indo Colonial music.
There has been innovation in the content of kucheri-s. The word ‘tukda’ is of urdu origin (it means ‘a slice/piece/part of the whole’) and it is no secret that the ‘tukkada chapters’ of certain artists are more popular than the purva bhagas of their kucheris. And while hindustani styled non-kampita prayogas are occasionally frowned upon in kucheris, the tukra section of a kutcheri is often replete with bhajans and abhangs and an occasional tarana.
Today is not the end-all be-all state of karnatic music. After all the kucheris of today have little resemblance to the performances of yesteryears. The microphone, the hall sizes, the accompaniments, short listening spans have created a performance culture that is probably vastly different from the high pitched long span recitals of yester-centuries. An Indian Rip Van Vinkle from the year 1800 woken up from a 200 year slumber today would probably shudder at the sight of a western violin being used to play ragas such as ananda bhairavi and the drop in sruti of the male singers and the overt dependence on amplification.
The (live) audiences of today are all in concert halls, the sabhas in whom the very act of singing is condemned by none other than Saint Tyagaraja. It is an irony that the very words that he uses to condemn musicians singing ‘to mortals in sabhas’ are being sung to 21st century mortals in sabhas today for a fee!
The Karnatic music world today has a number of conundrums. The orthodox karnatic music community holds the kucheri-dharma as sacrosanct and begins the day with Kumbhakonam degree coffee regardless of the fact that the word kucheri- a word of Urdu origin means ‘a court’ and it doesn’t even have anything to do with music. Every bean that is used to make the filter coffee cherished by this ‘tradition bound’ world owes its origin to the Muslim Sufi Saint Baba Budan who smuggled a lone coffee bean into India from the Middle East.
Here is a quote from Dr Balamuralikrishna again from his 1984 interview to Sruti. “Those who harp on tradition (and tradition, the way they understand it) should either go along with the traditional musicians to heaven or understand what tradition really is”.
So given where we are with the framework of ragas and talas that constitute the backbone of the larger umbrella of the Karnatic music tradition (above and beyond the kucheri paddhati in sabhas) what are the innovations that we may expect in the future?
1. The present day kucheri and its scaled down versions on radio and television as well as the scaled up 4 hour kucheris are the result of an innovation from the days of Ariyakkudi. Could radical changes happen to the form and presentation of a kucheri? One hears the rumbling of the beginning of these changes and the resultant echoes in the form of rebuke from critics. Further changes are bound to happen. Only time will tell.
2. Other sub-genres of Karnatic music such as the sacred music of the Tevaram or the music that pre-dated the Trinity might gain currency and get featured as period-music concerts with instrumentation corresponding to the period of their popularity. It is only because we view everything through the paradigm of the kucheri that we use contemporary kucheri accompaniments even for the music that came into being before the violin got absorbed into Karnatic music unlike concerts of western Art music where baroque era music is performed strictly with instruments of that period.
3. The term manodharma sangitam refers to the improvisitory component of Karnatic music rendition. Today’s manodharma is exhibited in the alapana, the tanam, the neraval, sangati and kalpana svara renditions. Can this be extended? Can other forms of improvisation come into being?
4. Could ‘on the spot creation of lyrics’ become a feature of concerts? There was a practice during the golden era of dhrupad where singers had to be proficient in the art of creating compositions spontaneously. Could that skill be part of the manodharma component of kucheris of the future? Would that involve a different kind of a training? Would this difference in approach to creativity create a new breed of musicians amongst whom a Tyagaraja may incarnate in our generation?
5. The rasas explored in Karnatic music will broaden in scope to include a wider body of expression; themes will expand beyond Hindu religious ideas and cover a broad range of subjects much like how the freedom movement in the early 1900s spurred the creation of a patriotic repertoire which entered the Karnatic music kucheri and took idols such as MSS and DKP to dizzying heights of popularity. This broadening of subject areas will in turn play a larger role in enabling diverse audiences to enjoy and appreciate the art form.
6. Shorter compositions written by the performers themselves will add an element of unpredictability and a greater degree of creativity in kucheris and will contribute to an enhanced sense of anticipation on the part of audiences.
7. Music moved from temples and Royal Courts to sabhas in Madras. The kucheri and other allied forms of performance may move to other places such as schools. The movement to other non-conventional avenues such as parks and kuppam-s has already begun.
8. Innovation in music education and the introduction of Art music as a discipline in schools may spur the creation of curricula that forwards musical awareness and appreciation, and basic performance skills.
9. Formal curricula in music history, music creation (formal training in building a community of vaggeyakaras), will create career options in music which are beyond the current realm of performance and teaching.
10. The ‘on-demand availability of music’ on the internet and social media is already beginning to ‘disrupt’ traditional models of music delivery and pedagogy. The increased online presence of performers, teachers, students and rasikas will only increase the outreach of Indian art music.
11. Voice culture will play a larger role and will refine the aesthetics of what is heard.
12. Ensemble performances of ‘arranged music’ featuring non-traditional instruments (from all over the world) and choirs as well as manodharma sangitam played by unconventional ensembles will begin to develop new audiences and will become a part of the larger Karnatic music umbrella.
All of the above will create a more erudite base of music makers and consumers, a wider audience base and potentially a more musically aware society.
Dr Kanniks Kannikeswaran
(Published originally in the September and October Issues of Sruti Magazine. Reproduced here with permission).
The raga kalavati in Hindustani music is described as using the pentatonic scale
SGPDNb ; its equivalent in Karnatic music is referred to both as Kalavati and as Valaji. In the Tyagaraja school of ragas, the name Kalavati adorns the raga using the scale SRbMPDS – SDPMGSRbS (attributed to the chakravaga mela (16) ).
Our discussion pertains to Kalavati belonging to the older Ragaganga raga system of Muddu Venkatamakhi that the Dikshitar clan tenaciously followed in all their creations. Raga Kalavati here is defined as the 31st raganga raga with a murchana that goes as follows:
S R#GM PD Nbb D P D S
S Nbb DP M R#GM R# S
Bearing the dissonant pairs of R#G and DNbb – Kalavati is a vivadi raga on two fronts (the R/G and the D/N); it occupies the 31st position in the Venkatamakhi scheme of Raganga Ragas corresponding to the 31st position occupied by Yagapriya in the later scheme of melakarta ragas propounded by Govindacharya.
The word Kalavati refers to ‘the one adorned with the arts’; Kalavati here is none other than sarasvati the Goddess of Knowledge/Wisdom. Kalavati here is a modern 18th century raga derived from theory. Dikshitar portrays Sarasvati using a series of adjectives essayed using the contour of this raga – with stress on passages such as ‘PD NbbD’ , ‘MR,,S’ , ‘M,R,P’ contrasted with occasional melodic outbursts in ‘M,G,M,P’, ‘MP,GM,’ etc. in lieu of mere scalar passages.
Here is a recording of ‘Kalavati Kamalasana Yuvati’ rendered by Vidita Kanniks in the compilation ‘Shri Sharadambam Bhaje’ released recently at the Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation – Stroudsburg and at the sacred site of Sringeri itself on Vijayadasami 2015.
Dikshitar paints Sarasvati with epithets such as Kalavati, Bharati, vAg vANi, vINA pANi and Sharada. He refers to Sharada as ‘Kashmira Vihara’. The final madhyamakala sahitya passage in the charanam resembles the one in the saurshtra raga kriti varalakshmIm ‘surArchita padAmbuja shobhanA’ (surArchita padAmbuja vikAsinIm) – where the dvitiya akshara (2nd consonant) is ‘ra’ throughout the composition (the charanam in kalavati also uses ‘ra’ as the second consonant throughout). In the kalavati kriti, Dikshitar describes sarasvati as one who delights the heart of Shiva and Guruguha (as he does in the saurashtra kriti as well as purari guruguha chid vilAsini).
Rarely does one encounter a ‘rishi’ – a ‘seer’ in real life. Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s (1930 – 2015) life story is a source of inspiration for all; his vision – wide ranging – and his ability to translate vision to action without attachment – legendary. His commitment to sharing knowledge without any strings attached and to providing food, hospitality (and knowledge) gratis to any seeker cause him to shine as a living example of what we come to know as the upanishadic teaching tradition of yore.
I had been wanting to meet him ever since I read about him in 2004 – while I was finalizing the music score and the script of ‘Shanti – A Journey of Peace’.
My first meeting with him was during the Labor Day weekend of 2004, 11 years ago at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. I was struck by his sharpness, his presence, and his grasp of everything that anyone uttered and his quick lapse into a conversation on the South Indian Vaggeyakara Dikshitar with me. Above all, I was struck by his accessibility. There was no veneer of protocol that had to be surmounted to even see him. The dress code was casual; the conversation jovial with a profound sense of humor, yet deep. The kids were of course delighted by the 21st century Chocolate prasad that he offered.
I listened to his lecture (titled namaha) on the way back and was just blown away by the clarity of speech – and his razor sharp inquiry into the nature of who we are as human beings – and what our relationship is to all of creation – and our understanding of our interconnectedness with it all.
My second visit to the ashram in 2005 blew me away even more – as he remembered who I was with the comment ‘How is your choir work going? How is your research on Dikshitar’s music?”. This was an amazing feat for a septuagenarian meeting thousands of people each month – to remember after a whole year details regarding a person he had met just once.
My annual trips to the ashram continued and Swamiji always had time for a long conversation with me regarding my research on the life and music of Muthuswami Dikshitar. He even had insight into spurious compositions that pass off as Dikshitar originals.
I was touched and honored by the fact that we were invited to present ‘Shanti – A Journey of Peace’ as the celebration concert at the culmination of fund raising efforts in 2008 and as part of a fund raising effort for Aim for Seva in Houston in 2010. He released the Indian edition of ‘Vismaya – The nottusvara Sahityas of Dikshitar’ that I had recorded with Vidita Kanniks at a colorful celebration at Narada Gana Sabha – with a galaxy of veteran Karnatic musicians on stage and in the audience.
I am always inspired by the energy and the air of positivism that pervades the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. Even in his 80s Swamiji was an inspiring leader. He had no fancy titles. He called himself a teacher of Vedanta in the Indian teaching tradition. He sold no product or technique. His vision was one of bringing awareness of this deep knowledge of the self and the Indian cultural heritage that preserved this learning tradition.
And how did he translate vision into action? Swamiji was a catalyst in the emergence of three ashrams (Saylorsburg USA, Anaikkatti – Tamilnadu and Rishikesh in the Himalayas). He has personally taught and trained several students in the Vedantic mold and has created a galaxy of teachers. He was clear in his communication – with a deft command over English, Tamil and Sanskrit; he didn’t hesitate to speak in Hindi or Telugu when the audience needed it. He has lectured tirelessly all over the world; teachers trained by him continue the teaching tradition in such far flung places as Mauritius.
His efforts to sustain sampradaya have resulted in the rejuvenation of vernacular liturgy – The Tevaram in Tamil, the renovation of several temples and the restoration of the community building chariot festival in Tiruvidaimarudur, the building of several educational institutions and the establishment of several student homes all across India to provide access to children to primary education. His Hindu-Jewish summits and his initiatives in creating a body of Hindu chaplains and scholars will bear fruits in the decades to come. All this rich legacy is left behind by a monk without any belonging to call his own!
His childlike enthusiasm and energy are infectious and they belie his depth of knowledge in Vedanta, physics, geography, history, medicine and several other subjects. He was a master of his body and mind. A pair of malfunctioning kidneys and a body that relied on mandatory biweekly dialysis did not stand in the way of his activity.
There are two gifts from him that I will cherish forever. The first is his wholehearted praise of Vidita Kanniks’ rendition (then a 10 year old child) of my composition ‘Santatam Chintaye Sankaram’. The second is his gift of a canvas portrait of the 19th century Karnatic Music Composers Tyagaraja/Swama Sastri/Dikshitar – as reproduced from their family portraits (these portraits precede S Rajam’s 20th century portraits of these composers).
Apart from these, I stand moved by his clarity of expression and the distinctions that he elucidated. For instance he defined faith as “something that you believe in that is subject to correction upon verification”. How much more rational could you get? He stressed the importance of inquiry as opposed to blind acceptance of what is told. I am moved by his non-parochial translation of works such as the Vishnu sahasranamam; his lectures on ‘Upanishads in a nutshell’; his clearcut definition of terms such as Ishwara/bhagawan and more and the non-equivalence of these words to the Biblical terminology of ‘God’ to which they are commonly mistranslated.
His life is to be celebrated. The fact that we got to spend time with him is to be celebrated. We will no doubt miss his physical presence. But we have a lifetime to fathom his legacy and take it forward.
Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran
Aug 15 holds a special meaning for all of the Indian diaspora – the Non Resident Indians (NRIs) regardless of their country of citizenship.
My memories of Aug 15 go back to the 1960s where I remember fashioning a flag out of a ripped calendar page (July 1969), crayoning the tricolor on it and sketching a blue chakra with as many spokes as a seven year old could draw and parading out to the terrace and glueing the paper flag onto a nondescript pole.
1972 was special as well – with the entire city of Madras being lit up in observation of the 25th anniversary of Indian independence from the British with special programs at school throughout the week. I remember my father taking me and my little brother on a taxi ride to Ripon Building where the white building glowed in the light of numerous light bulbs on the night of the 15th of August.
Fast forward to 1997 when I was in a different land – a different hemisphere – celebrating the golden jubilee of Indian independence from the British by joining a parade in downtown Cincinnati hearing Mayor Roxanne Quals clad in saree deliver a namaste and a speech to a doting audience assembled at the city’s principal landmark – Fountain Square. 1997 was topped with the anticipation of a new vande-mataram album from none other than the then new musical hero AR Rahman.
I look back at the past decade and reminisce the numerous July 4ths and the Aug 15ths that I have celebrated as an Indian-American with fellow Indian American adults and their children.
As the years pass – I realize that Aug 15th is a point to reflect on who we are as global citizens and on how we can contribute to our karmabhumi (the land where we live and work) and to our janmabhumi (the land that gave birth to us).
Aug 15th is a coordinate in time. It marks the remembrance of the point in time where India ceased to be a British colony. A point in time 68 years ago where India – became a new political identity.
Stepping back however, we realize that India is much older than these 68 years. India is an ancient culture that advocated reason and freedom of thought and placed knowledge as the ultimate goal of human existence.
It is this freedom of thought and the insatiable pursuit of knowledge that enables people of Indian origin (PIOs) to excel in their chosen fields and contribute to their land of citizenship and to celebrate July 4th and August 15th in the USA with the same sense of ownership and pride.
Three headlines that dominated the NRI social networks during the last month standout in this context.
Shashi Tharoor from Kerala, a renowned ex-NRI and now a member of the Indian Parliament argued forcefully in favor of symbolic reparations toward India from the former colonizer Great Britain. While this news been dismissed off as a set of jingoistic rumblings – what has come to the fore is an awareness of the detrimental impact of the British on the Indian economy then. Per Tharoor’s argument, the British damage to India was to the extent of reducing India’s 23% share of the world economy to 4%. The argument, the numbers and the storytelling have certainly caught the fancy of Indians worldwide. While reparations are perhaps moot, the entire debate raises an interesting question.
If the Indian economy constituted a lion’s share of the world’s GDP two hundred years ago -isn’t there a potential to reach such a staggering number in the service and knowledge based economic paradigm of today?
Just a glimpse of this possibility can fill us with nothing but inspiration.
The second headline is the rags to Rashtrapati Bhavan story of President Abdul Kalam whose life is clearly indicative of the heights to one can rise despite adverse childhood circumstances. President Kalam was dear to all NRIs. There is hardly an NRI who doesn’t personally know someone who has taken a photograph with the former President.
What stands out in Kalam’s work is his advice to the NRIs. “Contribute to your country of citizenship and be an exemplary citizen. This is the greatest service that you can offer India”. The story of Abdul Kalam’s rise from ultra humble beginnings to the leadership of the Indian Republic is a constant reminder that despite the scenes of squalor and social injustice so commonly depicted in media portrayals of India and otherwise, there is an innate sense of goodness – a spirit that creates success stories such as the former President’s.
The third story that has been doing its rounds in the last month is that of Fellow IITan Sundar Pichai. Each of us NRIs from Chennai can relate to the various Chennai landmarks such as Vana Vani school on campus at IIT, the Ashok Nagar environs and even mentally picture a two room flat described vividly in the gushing stories that have flooded the media. There is a visceral excitement to see someone you can relate to lead a global organization that anyone would want to work for – Google. Sundararajan’s story is modern Amar Chitra Katha material right away. The take away from this story is again a burst of inspiration upon a realization of the availability of unlimited opportunities in the karmabhumi and its personification in the form of a fellow NRI having achieved it – making the whole journey look simple and effortless.
Aug 15 is a landmark that gives us an opportunity for introspection. To look at ourselves as representatives of a land that placed freedom of thought and the pursuit of knowledge above anything else. It is a a time to be grateful for who we are as the Indian diaspora – for the freedom that was available to us when we were in India – and for the opportunities that came our way in our karma bhumi and the freedom in our chosen worlds that enabled us to achieve and blaze trails in our chosen fields.
It is a time to reflect on the countless sacrifices made by the freedom fighters that stood for an ideal; on the great Indian generation (our parents and grandparents) that educated a whole generation of emigrants – who have created a strong hyphenated global-Indian identity all over the globe.
After all, the sun always rises on the Indian diaspora.
Here is a musical reflection on some of India’s core ideals that have given the Indian diaspora its unique identity.
Swadesho bhuvanatrayam – the entire world is my motherland
nahi jnanena sadrsam pavitram vidyate – there is nothing equivalent to the knowledge (of the self)
vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the entire universe is my family
Happy August 15th to one and all.
As I observe the outpouring of condolence and grief at the passing of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam I realize that his life is one to be celebrated. In life and in death, President Kalam stands out as a towering personality.
Apart from his poverty- to-Presidency story and his tenure as undeniably India’s most popular president, what is it that makes his life so special?
First of all I realize that a lot of my friends (and a lot of everyone’s friends) have either met President Kalam or know of someone who has met him. Yes, Abdul Kalam was a people person; he reached out everywhere.
I have had the honor of meeting him (and having my work performed in his presence) on three occasions; once in Lexington KY and then in Seattle WA where we had a private audience with him and then at a reception held in his honor at the residence of the Consular General of India in Houston.
He was dear to anyone that went in for higher education; he was an inspiration to all school children. He was and is viewed as a man that blazed forth the torch of inspiration – almost leading you to a guaranteed growth path – full of hope.
It didnt matter whether he offered namaaz or whether he read the Gita each day. All that matters is that there is probably not a single soul in India who would utter a word against him. Isnt that a rarity? Any celebrity has adversaries. Not President Kalam who was dear to one and all. There is thus no surprise that every other post on Facebook feed (or for that matter, anyone’s FB feed) is about him.
His love for Art Music (Karnatic Music in particular) was something that has been talked about in the media. Yes; in his speech in Lexington, when he talked proudly of Indian cultural heritage he did make a mention of the Vaggeyakaras of South India – Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri(gal). Yes, in a characteristic Tamilian manner he referred to Sastri as Sastrigal (in a speech in English).
He quickly struck conversation in Tamil with my then 13 year daughter in Seattle when we presented him with a recording of the Indo Colonial Music of Dikshitar (Vismaya). “unakku Dikshitar pidikumma ma? enakku Tyagarajar taan ma pidikkum. ‘yandaro mahanubhavulu”. (Do you like Dikshitar? I like Tyagaraja the most”).
He stands out tall in his death. What an enviable way to leave one’s body behind? No prolonged hospitalization; no illness; no accident. No premature death; he had lived a full life. He was doing what he loved best until his last breath. He was teaching; imparting knowledge. It is an undeniable fact that the body ages – and the death bed images of most people are vastly different from portraits taken in their moments of greatness. President Kalam looked no different at the time of his death than he did during other great moments in life.
In fact, he was never ever past his prime.
Such a life is to be celebrated. His death in fact reminds me of the last section of the movie ‘Dreams’ by Akiro Kurusawa where the death of a ripe old person is actually celebrated by the entire village.
Yes, we are all proud to have been acquainted with this well lived life in one way or the other.
July 27, 2015
I was first introduced to the ‘thepla’ some 9 years ago, by a Tambrahm Mumbaikar cousin who was satisfying her pregnancy cravings with frequent doses of this yellow flat bread with specs of green and black. Its tantalizing smell each time it was heated on a pan prompted me to take a bite of this bread guarded so preciously by the visiting cousin.
Mmm. It was great; had a great texture; was hot, had a tinge of the fenugreek bitterness; it teased your tastebuds; the after taste was semi-sweet. Yes, I loved this dish and came to know that it was from Gujarat and was called the ‘thepla’.
For some reason, it occurred to me that it could be a great travel snack. It didn’t need refregiration; always tasted good when heated; tasted fine even when cold. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the thepla could be bought in an Indian store in Cincinnati; apparently there were suppliers who provided regular stocks of this dish.
Theplas gave us company during our trip to Bethlehem PA for the Shanti concert in 2006 – where the Cincinnati bought theplas were certified authentic by none other visitors from Gujarat!
My next encounter with theplas was at the Swami Narayan temple in Houston – where the canteen sold these thick theplas; I brought them back to Cincinnati and heated one of them and watched the oil ooze out. These theplas a different breed altogether; thick and loaded, each piece of thepla was a complete meal in itself and the house had the characteristic thepla aroma for a day, just after heating one up.
Theplas became my staple during waits in airports and as a backup snack during travels. ‘You must have been a gujjju in your previous birth’ said my friends the Derasaris and the Chokshis in Florida.
But the prize for the best tepla goes to one of our friends here in Cincinnati whose hot teplas and chai served to us prior to the Gundecha brothers concert this year can never be forgotten.
I sit in the wonderful lounge in Terminal E in Paris (CDG) waiting for my flight; the French pastries do not tempt me. The biscottis at Starbucks and the few days old snacks there are not even appealing. I have my thepla from Cinicnnati. And I write this ode to this wonderful piece of bread.