Friday, November 30, 2007


The stage is minimally decorated. A few flower garlands are placed alongside a plain banner that simply states the purpose of this event - "Annual Fine Arts Festival - 2003" in a school somewhere in Tamil Nadu. In one corner are two plain-jane ladies with giant square spectacles, well-oiled hair, sandalwood teekas on their foreheads, sitting cross legged on the floor, each facing a microphone. Two men in equally big spectacles and even bigger teekas are sitting next to them, one tuning a mridangam (a tabla type precussion instrument) and another a violin. The audience is murmuring and a few children are screaming and running around in aisles playing pakdaa-pakdee. Everybody seems strangely at peace with themselves; not hard to comprehend considering the total lack of sexual tension in the atmosphere. No show-baaji like garba or bhangra.
Then, she enters the stage. A girl, about 14, draped in a bright purple-yellow-orange colored silk outfit that looks like a combination of a tightly wrapped saree on the upper half and a snug salwaar on the lower. The colors are bright but they blend well. The dress is tight but not vulgar. Multiple golden ornaments adorn her face, her feet, her arms and her hair. Her hair is jet-black, just like her giant eyes, tied in one long plait embellished with flowers and clamped to her dress at the back. A lot of attention has gone into ensuring that she remain as flexible and aerodynamic as possible and at the same time look femininely delicate. The audience immediately takes notice. Most of the kids return to their seats, some don't. Parents of those unruly kids order them to get back promising, with angry hand gestures, great spankings if they didn't.
With almost a violent jerk the bored ladies and men on the stage erupt into a loud musical recital. No one would've imagined that these quiet-looking people could make this loud a noise. At precisely the same instant, as if they were synchronised electronically, the girl springs into an energetic but tender dance. The plain-janes seem to have just discovered what they were born to do. They sing effortlessly and in perfect sync with each other. They are loud but strangely pleasing to your ears. They are not afraid of their voices and present every variation within their infinite vocal range vividly to the spellbound audience. Its almost as if they don't care about anything anymore. They seem to be narrating a story which you strain to understand. Something Vinaayaka, Vinaayaka. Being the dumbass that you are , you don't get it.
The men are not to be left behind. The mridangam walla is vigorously tapping his palms and fingers on his instrument but it does not take over as the dominanting sound in the performance. It only adds to the ongoing harmony. The violinwalla also seems to track the melody with his instrument. Each is doing their own thing but collectively they appear to be one. Like chaar badan ek jaan. Like everybody knows what everybody else is thinking, what their next moves are going to be and then adapting to those moves. The entire ambience is transformed in an instant, like going from 0 to 100 mph in half a second. Many a times these performers don't even rehearse together until they start performing in front of a live audience. Its like years of practice have given them a magical sense of understanding of another musician's frame of mind.
The girl's dance is a whole different phenomenon. Some parts of her body are moving in sync with the mridangam, some with the violin and others with the musical narration. Her fingers, palms, forearms, shoulders, feet, ankles, knees, hips, torso and most importantly her countenance seem to be taken over by the music. Her feet are synced to the mridangam's percussions. The faster the mridangam thumps the faster her feet move. Sometimes your eyes just can't keep up with her pace. Her face shows varied emotions that change with the tempo of the song. She seems to be following the sequence of the story, sometimes acting like a Godess, sometimes a mother, sometimes a flirtatious lover, sometimes a hapless victim, sometimes a mischievious child, sometimes a monster, sometimes a saint, sometimes a human and sometimes an animal. She glides from one character and emotion to another effortlessly. There is not an emotion out there that she cannot present without uttering a single word. She has taken over your mind. You don't matter anymore. Each twist, each action has a purpose. Not a single move is out-of-place or wasted. It all makes sense within the narration. How different parts of her body perform different artistic manoeuvres at any given instant is a frustrating mystery. Heck, you can't even simultaneously tap your head with one hand and rub your stomach with the other.
After a couple hours of vigorous upheavals the music stops, the musicians go quiet, back to their bored idle states as if nothing happened. The little girl gently bows to the audience which is still hypnotized by her presence and exits the stage. You can't help but wonder how many centuries of refinement and education have gone into Indian classical dance and music to have arrived at such a brilliant form. And this is just one instance. There are dozens more, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Odissi, all uniquely different but equally mesmerizing. There is no end to this. When people say Indian culture is great, this is what they probably mean. There is not a single other culture in this world with so much variety, depth and vibrancy. The Chinese come close but not quite.
In the good old days of Doordarshan they used to run classical music and dance performances when there was nothing else to show. You wouldn't wanna be caught dead watching any of that stuff. Just wasn't cool. How ignorant.
For your viewing pleasure here is one of Medha Hari's performances and some random stills from the web.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Desi American Idol Audition

It was the summer of 2001. I was walking home back from school in the scorching dry Texas heat, cursing Mother Nature for inflicting so much pain on poor car-less students. America was supposed to be nice and cold just like in the movies, not like this furnace I was in. The only saving grace was that the heat caused the babes to shed their clothes and emerge almost nangi-poongi. There I was, an unshaven desi, walking on the footpath, taking my own sweet time oogling at the shiny slithering legs, wondering where my life was going. Engineering wasn't as exciting (in terms of the type of work and the quality of girls) as I had imagined. My MS research was going nowhere. I was dreaming of an alternate career. I wanted to be a singer. I had always prided myself of possessing a brilliant singing talent which no one seemed to appreciate. People around me were jealous of my voice. They tried very hard to put me down. They praised other guys for their singing but never mine. The girls went gaga over one particular punk's voice. I will not disclose his name here (you know who you are). But I kept on. I sang. I sang when I was alone. I sang when I was happy. I sang when I was sad. I sang in bathrooms and I sang while hanging out of trains. I even added my own jhankar beats and pelvic thrusts to make it more palatable. Like dhaak-cheek-dhaak-cheek. I dreamnt of a music producer hearing my songs and signing me up for his next album and then making it big. FYI that didn't happen.
Back to the story. Halfway through my journey home I saw a little flier stuck on a lamp post. It read "ATTENTION SINGERS. WE ARE NOW CONDUCTING AUDITIONS FOR THE BIGGEST MUSICAL EVENT. ANY AGE WELCOME. PRIOR EXPERIENCE NOT NECCESSARY....BLAH BLAH BLAH." Somewhere in this loud notice I missed that it was meant for the Choir. If you dont know what a Choir is check Wikipedia. In short its a bunch of prudes, well-dressed, mainly in a church, who go "OOO AAA EEE" in chorus. See photo. There is no place for dhaak-cheek-dhaak here. Heck , who knew it then.

I checked the date. Oh crap the auditions were happening today! I was excited. I saw this as a chance to revamp my miserable life. I ran like a wild goose towards the audition hall although not once losing sight of the nangi-poongis. My happiness knew no bounds. I reached the advertized location. It was calm and serene there. Many well dressed students were waiting in a line outside a closed door, talking in whispers. All that running had made the chappal-wearing desi sweat like a pig. But what the heck, its my voice they want, not my appearance. My competitors were practising breathing, meditation and were reading from some loose sheets. I was silently ridiculing them; who reads before singing? Losers! I knew this was going to be a dhamaka for the western world, an Indian beating Americans in their own songs. For the audition I decided to present them with "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel. It had my kind of beats and low-class mentality.
The line grew shorter. After about an hour of memorising the lyrics I was confident and ready to kick ass. The door opened. The previous guy walked out; not looking very happy. Ha! I walked in. It was a huge hall, draped with maroon velvety curtains, decked with impressive chandeliers and soft lights. Pin drop silence. At the far end of the hall was a royal looking piano. A blonde lady in her thirties was perched behind it, prim and proper. I walked up to her hoping she doesn't catch the whiff of desi paseena and praying that she be one of those who value inner beauty and talent over sickening body odour. She handed me a bunch of sheets that looked similar to what people were browsing outside. It had those high and low musical symbols on multiple lines across the page. Some chords or shit like that. I was dumbfounded. Looking at my bewilderment she asked whether I knew how to read these musical notes. What do I know, kaalaa akshar bhais barabar. I told her no but I am a good singer and I can also add my own beats while singing. She said this is for the choir and you need to know how to read these notes and they don't need any beats. I said I can master these notes in a few days. No big deal. Tu piano bajaa re, teri maa ki. She asked what do you want to sing. I said Uptown Girl. She hesitatingly agreed, not knowing where this was going to lead. I started to sing....
"Uptown girl, dhaak-cheek-dhaak"
"She's been living in her uptown world, dhaak-dhaak-dhaak,"
"I bet she never had a back street guy"
"I bet her mama never told her why."
and I ended the rendition with an emphatic "DHAAK-CHEEK-DHAAK !"
Bam! This was undoubtedly the best performance of my life. I knew I had clinched the deal. The lady looked up from the piano. She looked confused, shaken up and out of words. I knew I had roused her emotions and left her speechless. She thanked me and told me that they will contact me if anything materializes. Just a formality, I thought. I gave her my email address and headed towards the door. On my way out I saw the poor souls waiting in line not knowing that they had already lost the competition.
But its kinda strange that I didn't hear back from them. Its possible that they lost my contact information. On second thoughts, maybe I should just stick to engineering.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The train rolls in

Its 8.30 am. The peak hour. Nopes, its not some lame Churchgate to Borivli local in the opposite direction with a few smug window-seating aunties enjoying the morning breeze. I am talking about the real deal here. You are waiting for the 8.30 am Borivli to Churchgate local to arrive at your platform. You are standing near the edge of the platform, surrounded by hordes of people, packed to the brim, nudging each other, waiting impatiently. The men and women regions are clearly separated. The office ladies have their saree pallus tucked in. The college going girls have their bagpacks snugly covering their chests because the men in the arriving trains sometimes slap their breasts. Bhen***ds. The macchi-waali has her catch of promfrets in a tokri balancing precariously on her head, dripping a mysterious pungent fluid on a miss-goody-two-shoe's mini skirt. Some men are busy gawking at the ladies, some digging their noses, some scratching their butts, some lazily adjusting their crotches, some reading the latest business news, some catching a quick smoke and others discussing answers to mathematical integration problems. They say that you can see the Great Wall of China from the moon. I say, try focussing that satellite on Borivli station sometime. You will see a humongous black oily mass, moving up, down and sideways, formed by bobbing heads trying to catch a glimpse of the arriving train.
There! You see it appear at a distance. The giant metallic reptile rolling slowly towards your platform. As always, a bunch of people are hanging out from each compartment. The nudging around you gets harsher, the nose digging picks up pace and the crotch adjustments get vigorous in anticipation of whats going to happen next. Every square inch of your body is in close contact with the people around you. I wonder what happens at the men-women border; never been there. It doesn't matter whether you are a college student, a rich stock broker or a mochi. All are treated equally and shabbily. Some adventurous guys take their positions, periliously close to the edge, hoping to catch the window seat. But no window seat today. In fact, no seat only today! The train had stopped at Kandivli earlier and is going to be jam packed with "return " passengers. If you hadn't seen such a massive humanity before you would almost pee in your chaddees. The train slows to a crawl but its still moving. The human mass starts shifting towards the doors. Oh crap, first class dabba aaya idhar! The motorman did not park at the right place. You curse his mother and lunge towards the second class compartment. They used to also have a third class compartment earlier, but travellers complained that third class sounds too derogatory and hence it was removed. I think its probably the luggage compartment now.
The collective mass starts pushing you in. People hanging out of the doors try their best to push you back out. The collective mass wins and you all go in with one big giant push. Some passengers who need to get off at the station (the guys travelling in the opposite direction) cannot do so; serves them right! Some elbowing, screaming, cursing and punching follows and you are finally inside. Oh yeah, baby ! Eventually everybody settles in the compartment like sand settles in a bottle. One fat amateur student is left out and he looks pleadingly at the guys in the compartment who pity him and let him in too. Even air cannot penetrate this compartment now. But not to worry, you have a few other things to breathe depending on the guy attached to your front side. If he is shorter than you , you get to smell the brand of chameli oil he is wearing today. If he is taller you get to smell his armpits. God forbid, if he is exactly of your height the possibilities are endless. That is a story for some other time. For now all that matters is that you are in. Mission accomplished.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Happy Halloween !

Fully grown Indians dressed up in ridiculous Halloween costumes acting as if you are having a lot of fun; totally not cool. You look weird. Take it off. You are not 10 anymore. Even at 10 you didn't dress like that. Take a look at yourself. How low can you go? And please do not wish me Happy Halloween or Happy 4th July. I will slap you silly. And puh-lease, enough with the pirate costumes.
As a side note, we Indians also have our own Halloween costumes. Printed gujju-chaap silk shirts that snugly follow and amplify our body contours (formed by massive amounts of charbee) and loose baggy formal pants with spanking new white tennis shoes. Scared of a gujju? Boo!