Thursday, November 29, 2007

Why the “Vs”?

Why do we not feel satisfied unless we are able to compare? Why do we always need a “vs”? Why do we find it difficult to celebrate the absolute value in things easily?

In the Diwali weekend that just went by, two big banner Hindi movies were launched. ‘Om Shanti Om’ and “Saawariya”. In my view, both were good movies – but completely incomparable and belonging to different genres. Made with almost opposing creative & art direction sensibilities and I think made for different audiences as well.
However, it was extremely irritating to see the media (and even the so called critics) completely ignoring these differences and evaluating the films on common parameters like, box office collections and random responses from the man on the street. Even the critics generally have been very superficial in their evaluation of the absolutes and focused more on comparisons between the two movies. The conclusion of most parties essentially was that “Saawariya fails because it does not have the energy, the humor and the style of Om Shanti Om”. As if these were the "only" criteria to make “a” movie.

Om Shanti Om is a good movie because it has the best of what the commercial Indian Film Industry has to offer. It has great art direction. The sets are great and the visualization is sometimes highly inspired. The story is pacy, there is a villain, there is the drama of rebirth and the joy of revenge - It is a film made by intelligent people for the least common denominator. Smart product ! Smart marketing !

Saawariya has none of this. It is a beautiful experiment. And the experiment is at various levels. There is an experiment of new type of relationship emotions. The emotion of a prostitute being in love with a boy, but who still gets him beaten up, the emotion of a guy being in love with a girl who loves some one else, the emotion of a girl being in love with some one and at the same time falling in love with some else as well. The experiment continues into the art direction, the fictitious sets, and fictitious characterization and into several other areas of filmmaking. The Music is great, albeit in a more conventional sense. The movie has a theatrical style yet unseen in Indian cinema - Is it an experiment that has failed in India ? Failure has to be defined to answer this question, by my take is "NO WAY" !

I hope the media (which I guess is a reflection of all of us as well) gets rid of the “vs”, especially while evaluating objects, especially creative objects. I hope we as a nation can learn to celebrate the beauty in things standalone and enjoy things as they are and assess them on what they stand for.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Piano Tuner - By Daniel Mason

Just finished reading the 'Piano Tuner' by Daniel Mason. When I saw that the author is only 26, American and a medical doctor I was quite unsure if I even want to consider buying and reading this book. However, looking closer I saw that it was set in 1886 and had something to do with the British Empire attempting to overcome the resistance of a Confederacy of local Shan tribes in northern Burma. This seemed a very unusual subject and did not seem to fit my stereotype of what a 26 year old American first time author doctor should be writing about. Expecting the unexpected I picked up the book.

Having just finished the book, the first expression that comes to mind is 'WHOA". Daniel Mason can write !! The manner in which the book brings alive the journey of the protagonist Edgar Drake (a Piano tuner who is commissioned to tune a Piano in Burma) from London to the Shan hills in Burma is classic stuff. The treatment is mystical and exotic to say the least. The author is clearly well travelled and the initial impression of the stereotype seemed almost laughable when I finished the book.

I am still amazed that this is a first book by a 26 year old. His style of writing is a bit like Ishiguro, where the literary content of the prose is matched only by the intrigue and mystery that the Novel manages to evoke in the reader. The mystery and a feeling of "what will happen next" starts right from the beginning when Edgar Drake after deciding to take the Journey to Burma pronounces, "and Burma is Far" till the last page of the book.

Overall a remarkable debut by a very promising young writer - Hurrah !

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Long Live the Conduit!

The Music Room and its author achieve some thing very important. In the context of the post liberalization India and the changes that are happening all around us, this achievement becomes even more significant.

The predominant feeling one gets in India these days is of mind-boggling change. The rate at which we are exposed to new influences and their adoption into our lives is nothing like we have ever seen before.

India is a country, which takes in outside influences on its own terms. We take a food habit from the west, say Pizza, and then we add Paneer, kebab and Keema as toppings and create some thing very unique and different. We take Chinese food and create the famous Manchurian. The character of the Chinese food has changed so much that it is now referred to, as “Chindian” and most Chinese people would not even recognize the food. In various areas this trend is visible and Indians love it - we almost take pride in it.

However, if you look carefully, this trend is visible more in popular areas of culture. It’s visible in the Indian film Industry, (the name Bollywood itself is an indication of the trend), its visible in food, fashion, pop music, pop dance and so on.

In the fine arts, which are less flexible to change and have centuries of history around them, this trend has no impact. Indian Classical Music is an example. Yes, we have some examples of alaaps and taans used in modern filmy compositions, but the understanding, appreciation and popularity of both Hindustani as well as Karnatic Classical Music is certainly on a rapid decline. The decline is so steep that they can be classified as dying art forms. Efforts like the SPIC MACAY have also lost steam I think.

In this context, Namita Devidayal through her book the Music Room makes a valiant attempt to bring alive the romance and appeal of Hindustani Classical Music. The peek into the Guru – Shishya Parampara (Teacher student relationship unique to Indian culture) brings out some aspects of our culture that most young people today are not even aware of. Namita has written a book on a relationship that even the young intelligentsia of today may not even know existed.

What helps is the author’s background. She comes from a fairly westernized background. She is as contemporary as contemporary can get. References to her American education, journalism, late night parties, smoking, the first kiss etc. are aplenty in the book giving her credibility in the eyes of the India of today. Some times, you get the feeling that these have been planted in the book, precisely for this reason. The response that is likely to come from young readers is, “hey this chick is pretty cool she, she seems a bit like me, so this Hindustani classical shit can’t be all that uncool”. I don’t know if Namita has done this consciously or it happened automatically in the process of telling the story, either ways I think it works.

About the book itself, it’s fairly competently written, there are a few inspired pieces as well and technically quite sound. But for me, the masterstroke is that I think we have found a conduit – a conduit that will help us hold onto what we are, hold on to our culture and our values – if we talk to the India of today in the language that Namita does, we have a great chance. People like Namita are our conduit and we need many more of them in different areas of our lives. Long live the conduit!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Munshi Prem Chand - Finally !

In my view, Munshi Prem Chand is easily one of the best known and greatest literary figures of modern Hindi Literature.

My grand father Sh. Dev Narayan Sinha was a man of significant literary achievements. He had a great collection of books on subjects ranging from Poetry, Hindi & English Literature, Literary Fiction, Philosophy and various others. He also had a voracious appetite to read. I guess, my passion to read and collect books comes from him. He is Credited with some fantastic translations to his name as well.

Anyways, he had a fantastic Library and I used to attack it with vigour every year in summer holidays when I was a kid. This happened for more than 10 years and in the process, I managed to read a lot of Hindi Literature and Hindi Literary fiction, which was alien to my world in Bangalore otherwise - all my other friends read was Hardy Boys ! And so did I. But these summer Holidays introduced me to Munshi Prem Chand and I read almost everything that he wrote over the years. I loved it. Munshi PremChand had a very simple and conversational style of writing - he would write about ordinary people and every day situations. What set him apart for me was that he touches a level of emotion which many "so called" great authors do not even come close to. The kind of understanding I have gotten from his writings about Indian Culture, Indian Values, our ethos and Indianness in general I don't think I have received from any other single influence.

The last book of his that I read was in 1989 (18 years ago) - that was the last time I visited Patna to see my grand parents. After 89, they moved to Bangalore to my father's house. The years after that were years of Engineering, MBA, Ciggarettes, Old Monk rum, hangovers, stomach ulcers, deadlines, bosses, power point presentation, Love, Marriage, Jobs, Career, Promotions, Foriegn Holidays, Baby, "managing paradigm shifts", Travel, etc just moved on and on, and has become a thing that my pastr does not recognise. The kind of people that live this life are not known to that boy in 89, neither do these people know that boy !
In this life, there is no role for Musnhi Prem Chand. There can be no lunch table discussions around him, neither can he be discussed meangfully in late night alcohol sessions, while a Vikram Seth easily can be. He had no chance - and hence, Munshi Prem Chand was washed down by the way side and remained only a distant memory from a distant past, till all those memories finally completely and totally disappeared.

Today, I went to a book shop to buy Rama Bijapurkars latest book "we are like this only" and I saw a book by Munshi PremChand on the shelf by chance in the Hindi section (which was one shelf in the 2,000 sq feet shop) . I casually asked the salesman if he has more of these and he said that he has the whole collection. I bought all of them - the entire collection of short stories and Novels written by him. Many memories have come back today. I can clearly see my grandfathers room, with his 3 almirahs - two made of Sheesham wood and their glass covers with a quiant muslim style carving and one much newer one made out of steel with sliding glass doors, the door on the 3'rd shelf always got stuck if you tugged hard at it. I can recall my grandfather resting on his grand chair and us massaging his swollen feet (he had philaria in one leg), i can recall even some of the emotions and feelings and realisations on reading those fantastic books that I felt then.

I will now start the love story again, hopefully, I will discover some of the innocence and get back some memories from those hot summer afternoons. Hopefully, I will be able to get that boy from the summer to get too know this man better. I have given a lot to my education and my career and to life in general in the last 17 years. Hopefully, I will start to get some of that back. Hopefully, I will retain who I am and where I come from a bit better so that I can pass some of that to my Children so that they to have a sense of the past and their heritage. I hope with Munshi Prem Chand I have started that journey. I hope I can fill that strange void that I feel some times, I hope this will help me deal with some things better, at least I can hope...Finally !

Ah Chail !

I have been taking driving holidays from Delhi for the last 10 years now. Agreed, the frequency has come down off late, but i still love to get out of the mad rush and get into the hills. Was recently thinking of which place i have liked the most and its an impossible choice when you are talking about comparing more than 60 locations visited over the last 10 years.

Chail (near Shimla in HP, India) stands out for me - not because it was the best, but because it has managed to stay in my memory and for some reason makes me want to go back again.

Chail is different from most hill stations in India, firstly it has no crowds, no crowded mall road, no rubbish strewn on the streets, no jam packed town centre with diesel fume being the primary odor. Secondly, it has at least 7-8 lovely walks and mild treks, it has the world's highest ground (its beautiful - I can only imagine how much the cherry would swing in those conditions) and it has the lovely Chail Palace Hotel where we stayed.

While the Palace hotel is quite nice, and we quite liked it, only after staying there for a night I realised that it has a gem ! About a 1 Km brisk walk from the main Hotel are a couple of log huts that the Hotel controls. Almost in the middle of no where with a fantastic view and a steep fall right in front of the log huts.

I think it is that log hut and the absolute beauty of the surroundings that they are set in have made a permanent imprint on my mind ! Will i go there again, undoubtedly!

Monday, November 05, 2007


A Spanish acoustic guitar is fantastic in many ways. It sounds great, is relatively easy to start playing (not easy to master it though), if you play chords well it can be a great accompaniment to a good singing voice, simple to carry around - most of all it can solve some problems for lonely musicians. Okay- most of my musician friends would raise their eyebrows in harmony if they hear that word being used in my context. (I confess, I am not one. lonely, sometimes, but "musician", not yet!). Lets, settle for Lonely Wannabe Musician.
So here is the thing - When I was in College, we started this light rock band called Dhwni and played together for more than 3 years. All of us still say that those were the best years of life. Yes, college had a part to play in it - but it was the music, the special bonding amongst band mates and the adrenalin rush of performing live was the real stuff - the kind of stuff that can come back to you when you are getting towards mid 30's in your fancy tie and stuck in that traffic jam in your fancy car !
Anyways, I was the drummer in this band and once we left college , while the guitarists and the singers and the piano guys continued to do what they were doing (musically speaking), I was stuck. Wanted to play, but there was no outlet. You cannot sit in your bedroom on a Saturday afternoon and bang away on the drums really, its not that kind of an instrument. At least that's the way it works for me, I need a band to play with and solo was not my deal was never good enough to do a solo.
The above state of affairs has continued for the last 12 years and all along I have thought of taking up the Spanish Guitar. My friend Neeraj Khanna ( A very accomplished Guitarist - Lead Guitarist of Sonic Flare) even gifted me a box guitar - a nice jumbo with a very good hum - which i played for several years. Over the last 3-4 years this guitar was getting very difficult to tune and I began to doubt my own ability - "If I cant even tune a guitar - then I cannot play it". Therefore I stopped when i had started picking up the guitar a bit.
But, last Friday, some thing happened that changed things - I was in conference organised by my organisation and like all our conferences, this one too ended with a session of singing late into the night with much alcohol and delirium. My friend Harsh had got a guitar for me to play and sing. A brand new F Cut beauty. I tuned the completely out of tune guitar in about 40 seconds in a reasonable inebriated state (no it was not the alcohol - i also checked with some sane parties, if the sound was OK) and played it for 3 hours after that. Confidence boost happened and this confirmed that my ear was not really out of tune but the problem was more with my old guitar that had warped and bent with age and cannot be tuned unless repaired.
So, last Sunday, I have acquired a beauty - A brand new YAMAHA Acoustic 310 Spanish Guitar. Cost me a bit - but every sound that it produces gives me a ROI and I am feeling great. Have been trying to play a lot of things and am trying to continue from where I left 4 years back. I just recalled that I was stuck last perfecting the F Major Chord properly. I can play most of the other Chords, their minors, their suspended versions and the works, but I just cannot master the F major Chord. Therefore, the only thing that stands between the lonely musician and his music today is the Major Chord F. What the F !