Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Ode to New York - My Trip to Calcutta part 2

Dear reader, I am surprised if you have returned to this blog – but pleasantly so. This is the second of my posts about my Calcutta trip. This one was inspired while trudging along the streets of New York City right before I left but the writing was finished in the flight from JFK to Mumbai.
I must admit upfront that although this looks like a poem, you will soon realize that it is nothing close to that. My linguistic skills would not permit me to write a poem even if a gun was held to my head. However these are fragmented thoughts and it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to arrange it the way I have done here rather than make it into a long paragraph. Your comments, criticisms, and of course warnings against attempting any such thing in the future in the blog are very very welcome.

An Ode to New York

If I ever fell in love with you
‘Tis cause you remind me of the wrinkled, aged face
I once had in my mind, sharp and clear.

She begged me to go away
And never come back in a long long time.
I wonder if she ever wept secretly
She always seemed such a deceiver.

On an autumn evening I descend on Greenwich Village
And I get her smell here and there
Amongst hookah joints and cheap Mexican jewelry shops,
They beat her, molested her, raped her, disfigured her
But in a rustic long dimly lit Tibetan shop
I found the ring that once adorned her fingers
It cost only fifteen dollars !

In the deep still of the night
The Christmas lit trees on streets and alleys
Are all but a soft murmur
And the odd late-night couple walks along York Avenue hand in hand
I see her with barren pandals and empty cartons on Dashami night
After all had gone to the ghats.

Standing in the middle of Times Square ,
The all familiar feeling of emptiness returns to me
Like it once did at Gariahat Mor,
Drowned in the chaos all around me -
Cold, lonely and starkly alien - like the Boston winter

On a still slate grey Sunday morning,
As I jump out of the twenty-fifth floor window
Flying low on the East River,
The grey engulfs everything around me -
The dull metallic cluster of Queensboro Bridge, the tall towers, the steel colored water
It could almost be her waiting for the first rain of the monsoon,
The wind carries me away like the first leaves blown away before the first storm of the year

Yet right before my head crashes thud against the cold cement of the pavement,
And the bones of my neck jut out like an irregular sculpture
I sense a drop of tear against my cheeks
Is it you crying, or is it her ?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It All happened One Night

This is one of a few (if I get time) posts that I wanted to write about my oncoming India trip. Living away from home for almost a decade now, the 2.5 years sinusoidal reappearance of homecoming is something I haven't exactly gotten used to. So every time, the frenzy builds up from almost a year ago when the nostalgia starts kicking in and the mild queries from friends and relatives turn to emphatic assertion that I have all but forgotten them. Then comes the mad search for the impossible ticket at the lowest price, with the least number of stops and at the most convenient hours - so that you could work in lab, leave in the evening for the flight to exclude the day of departure from your leave, and finally come back by the last flight on Sunday and get out of the terminal right before the airport shuts down for the night. Alas ! the best thing about going home is the anticipation, the expectation and the thoughts about being there. Time shrinks to a mathematical point between the times I land at and leave Kolkata and no matter how hard I try to do a careful accounting later on as to how and where I spent my vacation, I can never successfully do so. So here goes, in anticipation .........

I lay my cheeks on the square-inch of area at Gariahat Mor that none had touched since Job Charnok fell into the lures of three nondescript villages by the side of the Ganges. It was lying await for me all this while and today I impregnated her. The night was cold from the continuous drizzle that had kept the air heavy since mid-evening. The busy junction was almost quiet now, except the scarce last buses dashing by and lifting up the odd passengers, while in motion. Of course, the auto rickshaws were always there, hovering here and there around nooks and corners like flies around dead meat - waiting in wait lest a late-nocturnal showed up. It was a cold night by Kolkata standards and the wet pavement felt stone-cold against my cheeks. Surprisingly, I didn't smell anything particularly putrid. Instead, there was a choking smell of burnt diesel combined with that unmistakable smell of raindrops hanging in the dust of my beloved city. I looked up - my high-school and college skies were now molested by a purposeful, necessary construction of a monstrous over-bridge that seemed to eat up everything around it by its metallic, clustural structure - I have been on it several times in the past three weeks, and thanking for the relief from the horrible, dusty, smoky automobile jungle below. But now, all was quiet; its job being done for the day, the bridge slept tired like a half-dead coal-miner trying to get some respite after the day's work. At any other time of the day, I would have created a stir around me - in spite of being entropically one of the highest points in the metropolis, its not often that a well-fed guy in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers is seen lying flat on the pavements of Gariahat. But now it did not matter much. My raised hip-pocket did draw the attention of a not-so-innocent passer by who attempted closer inspections but on seeing that I was quite aware of my surroundings, fled. Some others must have thought that I was drunk to my lips and still some, a mere possibility of a lot of potential harassment, walked quickly by.

Tonight was the last night. Tomorrow, at exactly the same hour, I will be miles away, sitting inside a flight at Mumbai International Airport that would take me, in a moment, miles away from being actually physically connected to this piece of land that I was lying on now - I would no more be on the sovereign piece of land known as India but dangling in free space ! In spite of being a member of the generation X, or X' for that matter, it still betrays my perception, how we can disconnect ourselves from things so fast - or can we really ? The past three weeks had been exactly what I had imagined it would be like - my coming back to Calcutta (not Kolkata, mind you generation Y's !), thinking I would revive my last days before I left the city and realising that everyone and everything in the meantime had moved on - so that was not practically possible anymore - to the extent that even the room that I had lived in as a college student has been renovated and has gotten a new look since!

I raised my head a little bit - within a mile of radius around me were the houses of friends to whom I had bidden good-bye in the past one hour - I would not see them for years again even if I wanted to, even if I physically felt like being choked without seeing them, life would have to go on - functionally, physically, effectively and it would not matter much to anyone, not even to me after I would have been done with the journey looming large in front of my eyes. All of my college life, I had fantasized about being drunk and all alone in the middle of the streets right in front of Jadavpur P.S., controlling the streets all by myself. However,thanks to the supreme vigilance of my boRomamu, that never happened. And on every occasion I wanted to enact that in the past three weeks, I had failed. Friends who had once seemed very keen on the idea had families now and gave out wry smiles when I proposed the same to them. "Have you gone crazy ?" - is what they would say and dismiss my carefully constructed imageries in a second.

So here I was, all by myself, doing what I had fantasized all my life - lying flat on the pavements of Calcutta on a rainy night. I know that this piece of land was lying virgin all along. Of the billions of footsteps that had marched the faces of the city over the past two hundred years, not a single footstep had ever fallen on this little piece of land and now I was all upon her. But what would you do if you were in the embraces of your lover for the last time in your life ? It somehow felt like I would never come back again ! Would you make violent physical love to her ? Or would you just lie silently side by side trying to pick up the notes that you have failed to, all this while? Bengalees, being lifelong romantics, would probably do the latter and I was no exception. So I planted a kiss upon her wet cheeks - I could taste the salty mud on my tongue and the slimy love in my throat. At that moment, my cellphone rang ad I instantly knew that the old man was still awake with probably my wife by his side worrying about what had befell me . I quickly took a look at my watch - it was way beyond the old man's waking hours - I should have known better, he always had done this all my life I was living in Calcutta. I quickly shook my boozed emotions off - I had to move on, to more serious human emotions and to greener pastures after that - my clothes were all muddy and myself all dirty. I would have to do a good job of explaining myself to the old man and my young lady :-) As I got off, I took a last look at the square inch of land that I was making love to, around the closed shutters of the shops around me, around the rain-wet, brightly lit streets around Gariahat Mor and quickly boarded the next auto that was heading towards Deshapriya Park.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Piloo aka "A Friday Evening in New York City"

Piloo is but a magically haunting raag. It has the feel of casting a longing look around for something that you know you have lost and that can never come back - yet you go on yearning for the lost times in the vain hope that you will catch a scent or two. As Ustadji makes the odd initial contacts with the strings, I travel back in time centuries ago, in the minds of an aged and forlorn Krishna who has come back to Gokul looking for his ladylove but cannot find her. Gokul has become a ghostly forsaken town; all that remains are the ruins of its past self and no one lives there anymore but the lord wouldn't accept it. As he goes to and fro between the couple's favourite old haunts, his eyes roam over dilapidated buildings, deserted cow-huts and broken "jhulas" lest he might catch a glance of some material remnants of "the times of love".

Or I become a middle-aged nawab walking in the middle of the day through the dense "music-alleyways" of old Lucknow thick with the smell of stale garlands, in search of a prostitute that I fell in love with before the lures of the throne took over everything. All that is in sight are a few stray street-dogs and the odd beggar or two; and all that can be heard are a few notes let loose through the crevices of the windows where the ladies are practicing for the oncoming night. Piloo might well be a night raag but I have a feeling that if you listened to it sitting all by yourself in a mid-summer Indian afternoon with nothing but the scorched landscape around, you might like it equally well.

And all this happens in the auditorium of a small school right in the middle of the Friday night frenzy of the "hippy"iest part of New York City, moistened by a daylong drizzle. People speak of the power of music being able to break barriers all the time but here I witness it all around me. I am part of a small audience gathered at a concert organized by Virsa Pakistan, a cultural foundation dedicated to promote the art and culture of Pakistan in the US. Right beside us is an Italian couple - the guy sporting a rudraksh garland and the lady primly dressed like you would expect any "proper" Manhattaner to. In front of us are a Pakistani couple and their friend and to their right is an obvious American. But he is no "hippy on a high"; rather, from his erudite nods and properly placed "wah"'s, even with my seasoned ignorance I can tell that he has more than merely a superficial interest in Hindustani Classical Music - he seems to be a trained musician. The center of our attention are the duo, the two pairs of hands to be more precise, who without doubt, are two of the most accomplished living practitioners of music.

I have left home for more than eight years now and as the hope of an imminent end to the journey that began on a September evening in 1999 recedes farther and farther, I find myself grabbing every occasion to replenish the once brimming glass of colours and sounds of India, now partially faded away, with a few drops from here and there. Living in even the most cosmopolitan city of the world, it is quite a treat to be attending a concert of Shahid Parvez. When one adds Anindo Chatterjee to that, it surely adds a few more notches to the levels of expectation and boy, do they adequately make it up !

Earlier, after what seemed to be a long tuning process, Ustadji took a deep breath, a musical breath, before he started the alaap in Rageshwari. It was right at that very moment, sitting there seeing him bringing all of his focus to almost a mathematical point that I realised the immense barrier that an artiste faces before he takes the first stroke of a composition - it almost seems unsurmountable. In Hindustani Classical Music, a raga only provides a framework, a few descriptors for an ambience - the rest is all left to the artist for improvisation. It occurred to me that the situation has close parallels to the kinetic theory of gases. A raga only defines the mean property of an ensemble of molecules, well .... compositions in case of music. However, the individual path taken by a molecule is random and can fall within a spectrum of possibilities. Same is the case with every individual composition that comes out from a true artiste - each is different in its own merit.

I have not heard Rageshwari too many times before but was spellbound nevertheless. Shahidji's control over the pace of his fingers moving almost imperceptibly fast over his strings is all too well known. But what continues to amaze me is his ability to bend the string, the "meend" as it is called, and sustain variations therefrom in almost any way he chooses to. Anindo Chatterjee and he looked and sounded like old pals on stage - naturally comfortable with each other but aptly respectful and duly lowering the tone of the instrument when the other took the leading role in the composition. The concert had started with an introductory piece by Shagird Parvez and Anubrato Chatterjee. Their rendition of Yaman was more than I had anticipated - Anubrato is indeed quite astounding and Shagird though has some ways to go, has all the promise of a talented and skillful young artist. The host, Ishrat Ansari is a wonderfully amicable person and is a gracious host. In spite of being the owner of a very successful venture, Caffe Vivaldi, it is quite gratifying that he and his family find time to organize these delicious nuggets of musical events for us.

However the pinnacle of the evening was the Piloo in the second half. It was close to 11 in the night when Ustadji started and right before he did, someone boldly announced to her friend next to her - " no matter what, I am leaving this place at 12" ! It is quite an irony that Ustadji finished right around midnight but I wonder if the lady could have stuck to her word had he continued to elaborate the composition a little more. As I have mentioned in the beginning, Piloo is a poignant but immensely sweet raga, probably best described by these words from "Ode to a Skylark" -

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

I have always admired Shahidji's fast playing and immense precision but listening to the Piloo that evening, I'd dare say that he has transcended through the final layers of maturity as an artist where speed does not dazzle alone, something else does ! The Piloo that he played had remnants of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar's legendary live performance and of course part of it was borrowed from Vilayat Khan's composition dediacted to Inayat Khan. However, in true reflection of the whole being greater than the parts, Shahidji's Piloo that evening was a masterpiece in its own right.

One of my friends once mentioned to me about the two different musical philosophies of the two main gharanas of Sitar in Hindustani Classical Music. "Baba" Alauddin Khan's words of advice were "jontro dhorbe ondhe r josthi r moton" - hold thy instrument as a beggar holds his stick dear to him. Ustad Inayaat Khan had very different words altogether, "jontro dhorbe joddha r osthi r moton" - hold it like a warrior lays his hands firm on his sword. While listening to musicians from these two gharanas, many a times I have found myself pondering over these two philosophies which have probably been "mythicized" to some extent anyway ! However I always ended up with the realisation that in the end, these two philosophies are not so different at all. That is exactly what music, in its purest and unadulterated form can make happen - when the warrior becomes the beggar and the beggar becomes the warrior. Sitting amongst a group of friends who I met for the first time that evening that was what Shahid Parvez and Anindo Chatterjee did to me - the divides between New York and Kolkata, India and Pakistan, here and there, then and now, reality and imagination all became blurred - what kept coming though were the poignant notes from the sitar riding on the waves of strokes from the tabla.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Darbari"

At the very first stroke of the sitar,Vilayat Khan begins to draw me away from my surroundings, deep into the abyss of my childhood memories. From where I am sitting, it's a billionaire's view that I get. From below me, the FDR drive is carrying the small but erratically steady stream of late-night traffic to and from Manhattan. What makes the billions however, is the hundred and forty degrees' view of the East River that I enjoy sitting at my desk. On top of it, the sparsely lit Queensboro Bridge hangs loose like a garland. As the Sitar-Nawaz slowly builds the mood of the alaap, my mind starts straying haywards and he lures it thousands of miles away to another city, another place and possibly a very similar view, although I must admit that I never quite had it from this perspective - it only exists in my imagination. Silently I begin empathizing with Ashima Ganguli and cannot but appreciate Mira Nair's insights in drawing parallels between the two images - one from a Calcutta window and the other from Manhattan.

I grew up in an almost perfectly middle-class Bengali family with even more perfected Bengali middle-class values. We didn't have a television set in the house - my father had almost no doubt in his mind about the power of the "idiot-box" to sway his sons' minds away from studies and telephone was still an item of luxury in those days. However, even amidst the typically frugal settings, Bengalees in those days had a few avenues of indulgence where they didn't stint on spending - for some it was travel, for others the performing arts. In our case one of our more cherished possessions, or so I thought, was our record player; a record changer to be more accurate. As you opened the wooden box, the white stylus greeted you, shining in its majestic glory. It was a Garrard, a pukkah Londoner till it found its way across the sinful seas to the small corner in our house sometimes in the 60's. There was only one technician in all of Calcutta that my father ever trusted for repairs, when the need arose; and whenever in my tiny little colourful world, the occasional smell of feuds between siblings spilt over, mostly from watching films, I could not help but ponder who amongst me and my elder brother would my father entrust this priceless piece of property with.

In my mind, it was like Alibaba's hidden cave. All you needed to do was to find out the right record and out came the magic notes ! We had records strewn everywhere around the house. Some of them old 78 rpm's, packed up in dusty boxes, some them tiny 45 rpm's, short and crisp in their content. For me, the most attractive however were the 331/3 rpms. Most of these had some kind of album-art on their covers that you would forever associate the record and the piece of music with. These were mostly photos or portraits of the artists in either jovial or musically engaged moods and of course there were the few occasional ones with vague artwork - the connection with the music a matter of zero or infinity, depending on how extrapolative your imagination could be.

As Khansaheb reaches the climax of the alaap, my mind goes back to my early childhood days. My father picked up his love for Hindustani Classical Music during his college days at BHU in Benares, then quite the haven for North Indian Classical Music. He must have been a rather devout fan of Vilayat Khan because I can recall numerous Vilayat Khan LP's in our collection - one titled "The Genius of Vilayat Khan" and the other one bore the simple and utterly nondescript title "Ustad Vilayat Khan". This latter LP had a rather princely picture of Vilayat on the cover. It was shot from the side - Vilayat must have been in his early heydays since he had a crop of hair combed backwards, sitting straight, eyes on his sitar, gaze lost somewhere beyond it and a black shawl thrown carelessly on his back. Though I did not have any understanding of the technicalities of the ragas (and do not till this day), one thing I was always keen on was knowing what time of the day a raga was meant to be played. I can still vividly recall that after pointing out that Darbari Kanada was a night raga, to be played in the late evening, my father also added that the essential mood of the raga was one of pathos. Funny enough that this particular LP did not have Vilayat's Darbari but for some reason, whenever I heard Vilayat playing Darbari, I thought of him sitting in that exact same posture, oblivious of the world around him.

One of my teachers had once pointed out that unless you have imagination, you cannot appreciate statistical thermodynamics. One has to imagine ensembles of molecules running here and there to appreciate the random and essentially statistical character of nature itself. I think the same holds true for almost all art forms. A true work of art builds its own imagery in the mind of the audience - every person's image being very special to him/her but quite different than the others'. Once formed, the images become associated with the work of art itself and adds a visual dimension to its interpretation - well, something like that ! Knowing the little that I knew about Darbari and the fact that it originally used to be played in the courts of the emperors, I created a little imagery of my own. In my mind, Vilayat Khan playing Darbari became the unrequited lover - the court musician. He was playing the last time in the court before the princess who would be married away the next day to her suitor to a distant land. He was playing for the last time, not for fame, not for splendour and not for the much sought after expression of appreciation from the emperor. He was just playing with his lover in his mind - the last music that he would play for her and the one that she would carry forever wherever she went and that would tie them - beyond the realm of space and time. With that imagery in my mind, the Darbari became perfectly suited. Even now, decades later as I listen to that music, the remnants come back and haunt me. One of my wildest fantasies that alas, cannot ever happen physically, even within the realms of theoretical possibilities, has been to hear Vilayat Khan play Darbari in the Taj on a moonlit night.

Sadly enough, I left classical music in latter school days. Like most kids from upwardly mobile middle-class families, my fancies were caught over the years by the predictable lot - western pop of the 80's slowly shifting to 70's and 60's rock, Bollywood music of the RD era and ghazals - almost in that order. I started listening to Hindustani Classical Music again only recently and to be honest, part of it was propelled by the willingness of the generous communities on the internet to share hard-to-find music with each other. However, I have been a listener on and off and whenever I have stumbled on this Darbari Kanada, somewhere deep within, something stirred profoundly. Within seconds, my mind would leave the forlorn lab of the late-evenings and drift elsewhere - be it Boston or NYC. Occasionally I find myself musing that I must have a deeper connection with this Darbari. Midway through the jhalla as Khansaheb's fingers finish casting the last few turns of the divine net around me, in my mind's eye I see my father, a student in Benares Hindu University, having a rare December night free when he could steal a few hours outside a concert to catch up with the late night maestros. As was the norm in those days for students and other enthusiasts who often did not have enough money to buy tickets, he must have had to settle for a place outside the enclosure and fight the bitter December cold while the ustads and the pandits played on. Could Vilayat have rescued my father on one such night with his Darbari ? To rid himself of the chill, as he embraced the Darbari a little more tightly while the notes crept out of the crevices of the pandal, did a few notes made their way into him and got locked up deep within his physical self ? And did they live long enough till 1974 to see the lights of the day, ... and the darkness of the night ?

Research on various different stages of sleep has shown that there is a period of sleep called REM sleep during which our brain is almost as active as normal and this phase becomes longer and longer during the later parts of our sleep. In the wee hours of the night, when the last cab in Manhattan has departed and the sifting arrays of lights from the streets falling on the walls through the shades in my apartment become almost a constant pattern, I enter this phase of my sleep. Slowly stepping through the gates in the dark, I enter the premises of a rather familiar looking building. As my eyes get adjusted to the soft shine of the moonlit night, I recognize the most talked after monument in history in front of me. There is no one else in sight and I slowly begin taking unsure steps towards the entrance. Gradually the outlines of a figure sitting at the iwan takes shape - a rather familiar figure. My pace becomes a little more deliberate and right at that moment, my ears catch a note or two. As I approach nearer and the music unravels itself, familiarity intervenes. He is sitting sideways, straight, with the shawl on his back and with no one else in sight. He knows that I am there but does not look up - he never does. A light smile shows up on his lips as he strikes a perfect chord; he somehow gestures me to sit down although I'm not quite sure how. I had thought that there were only the two of us but is there a third person too ? In the distance across the river, do I catch a glimpse of a figurette covered in white muslin adorning the frame of a window in Agra Fort ? Is she listening too ? As I surrender myself to the engulfing emotions, the Darbari plays on ...

At my age, I don't ponder very frequently about death and the end of it all and what it all means. But I hope that when it does come, one of these sessions never come to an end.