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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.
Getting back to this blog after a long time. Much going on in Chennai on the foodie scene. Crowds throng restaurants and eateries at 9PM for the late dining hour. A few places that caught my attention and my palette this time were
1. GRT grand – a fabulous buffet for grand indulgence
2. Accord Cosmopolitan – for an impressive array of starters and a reasonable buffet – all vegetarian
3. Little Italy – for page after page of vegetarian Italian dishes – particularly great appetizers
4. l’amandier in RA Puram – I was impressed with their Ratatouille – it seemed to match the gastronomic expectation created in the irresistible pixar movie Ratatouille.
5. Kaidi Kitchen – A new restaurant near Woodlands again, a vegetarian restaurant with 100s of dishes to choose from – and tremendous variety
6. Then you have Saravana Bhavan the McDonalds of Chennai – with its prices increasing every year – quality being consistent – although people say that the dosa circumference keeps coming down with time. The Mini lunch in A2B is pretty good too.
7. There is also an impressive array of ‘Sweet Shops’ which double up as restaurants. The masala poli at Krishna Sweets has stayed consistent over the years.
8. There was no way you could get into Woodlands on a Friday night
What I learned in Chennai this time is that there is so much of centralization of operations in restaurant chains that the batter, chutnies, side dishes are all made centrally and shipped to various locations in order to maintain consistency in quality. Freezing, thawing, reheating is all common – in contrast to the days where fresh sambar boiled in front of your eyes.