Category Archives: Then

Learning with Maestro: Microtones

Chandrika Kamath

Durlabh2 004Guruji (Pt. Rajshekhar Mansur) and I were travelling from Bhopal to Gwalior. I looked forward to a journey with Guruji because he passed on nuggets of insight in music even when we were not in music session. I had been asked several times that why did not maestros of Jaipur Atrauli sing in Drut (fast-paced tempo)? I decided that this might be the occasion to learn the answer to this riddle. Once we had settled down I posed the question to him. Rightly enough, with a contemplative look in his eyes, he said, music is Shravana Vidya (aural art) and it has to be learnt Guru Mukhi (through mouth of teacher). No amount of theory can teach you a raga. Suppose I said the two notes in this raga are shuddha (natural note), how will you know how shuddha they must be? I did not understand and looked askance.

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Indian Poetics — Theorizing the Creative Principle

A. K. Awasthi,
Professor of English & Chair,
Dr. Hari Singh Gour Central University, Sagar (MP)

 

When wise men affirm that spirituality is an experience, they assume that they are dealing with the abstract and metaphysical. They claim that mental activity is only a condition. They also distinguish spirituality from materiality. But what intrigues the rational judgment is that any experience, realization, attainment or becoming happens only in the mind, never outside of it. But mind is a material reality and anything taking place there will carry its property along. However, any production of the mind may contain any degree of fineness but it would be born of material entity nevertheless. Mind is only an enclosure in the material body. The mind feels anything in the form of ideas (dhyan). This is what mental activity is. The question arises, what is that phenomenon, which fills in the mind just to make mental activity possible? What is its nature? Continue reading

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Ins and Out: the Indian Way

Names matter little; still, they serve some purpose. Nouns signify. Thinkers realized early that it was difficult to imagine a shapeless entity as the supreme power, hence most religions have concrete images of divinity. So let us call the gentleman Vivek D. Now approaching sixty Mr. Vivek D belongs to first generations of Indians born in independent India.  It was perhaps this political reality imbibed through practices of a new nation finding itself that after getting a degree in mechanical engineering, Vivek surprised all by choosing to lead his life as farmer.

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Reigns now, Ephemera

It would not have been possible to imagine a century back, multitudinous outburst of activities pushing the world towards chaos. It would not even have been possible to perceive, even if they existed at that level. Like watching a movie at 60 fps is likely to tire the viewer, so does the glut of information whizzing towards its obsolescence drain the languid observer, And if one happens to be an active rider, a major part of it goes into invisibility, with limited  number (and yet too many) dizzily jiffy-ing around.

Innovative Typography: New life to PhrasesThe info-highway demands certain qualities – concentration, constant communication, fluid adaptability – which seem contra-indicated and negates few held previously in esteem: stillness, contentment, contemplation.  It is amazing how despite erosion at individual level, thought survives in a distributed form. Thinking is no longer a privilege available to certain class. It is a 24 hour activity and more — it is collective continuum of thought.

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The Heaven of Freedom

 

What is that method? One, that can ensure, if not partial acceptance, a grudging inclusion in category of rational animals? One, which a Hamlet can display while his mind moves independent of routine consciousness? Well, it is often this quest, which may ensure one’s departure from the coterie. Excessive display of emotion may attract attention of ‘normal’ people as much as lack of any. And undue pondering over this or other idée fixe, is likely to play with common-sense.

Where mind is without fear
… Into that heaven of freedom…
Let my country awake!

As civilization progressed, human beings garnered means of evaluating others. This ability to read others has been held in high esteem. You must have come across such a sentence at least a dozen times: ‘ The guilty would often wilt under the scrutiny / gaze of a king/ judge.’ Even though the great book commands one not to judge, ordinary men conduct everyday business only by evaluating others. It takes a lot of practice to switch off this mental process, at least from being discernible.

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Of the ‘fittest’

Youth today would find it hard to imagine a world without facilities available to them. As a writer quipped that in future, grandchildren would laugh at you, if you told them you could not read Amazon books on Kobo or Sony format on Nook. Apart from ease, what else is it that technology realizes? Empowerment. Which may work both ways.

The sufferer is economically deficient class, community and individuals.  Less, through poverty and more through refusal to get distracted, did a number of communities invite a techno-bias. There is nothing that hurts as neglect. It is an invisible weapon of decay.

Often, perfection in their knowledge-system demanded insularity and Indian sciences survive today only where this rule is followed. Far more blunt than imaginary deductions of physics that lead to uncertainty, is the truth that any interaction between two systems is certain to change them both. To an alloy the touch of gold would bring little change in its value, but the purity of gold gets destroyed at once.

Indian artiste is the wrapt most self-situated individual. To qualify this statement, consider his motivation. His art is the medium granted to him to offer his gratitude to creator for having been granted the ability to offer it. Tautology? All forms of art transcend words that concretize thought. Suffice here then, for some incomprehensible reason, he would behave in a fashion that does nothing to weld a relationship between his art and the world that surrounds him. Why? Why, is he not bothered by presence of others besides him, on this planet? Is it not his duty to acknowledge them and do something for them?

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Taxing Music

 

The age of Technology is yet to arrive. For that matter, even industrialization has not come to many parts of the world. Dark ages and middle ages may still be discovered on earth. But human progress is measured largely by new vistas discovered and new possibilities created. It is amazing how this forward movement is not strictly linear; it is multi-dimensional.

Well, amazement is a part of human perception and thought. Alternating between  periods of illumination and darkness, civilization keeps discovering new thought, new tools, new Heroes. Pythagorean efforts surpassed the Herculean; for twenty five centuries mathematics lay in core of all rational thought. In the last two centuries this ‘pure science’ has been beleaguered with numerous uncertainties. Herman Weyl observed six decades back,

The question of the foundations and the ultimate meaning of mathematics remains open; we do not know in what direction it will find its final solution or even whether a final objective answer can be expected at all. “Mathematizing” may well be a creative activity of man like language or music, of primary originality, whose historical decisions defy complete objective rationalization.

It is not surprising then, that while one part of human ingenuity unravels itself in one direction, another may be involved with things in a different dimension. It may annoy the rational mind, but mystery (rising out of multiple action-bits, a few in process, unknown) is the yarn life uses to weave its carpet. ‘Man proposes, god disposes’ is no longer a religious homily; instead, it has become the truth of real life power game. Some of these power-maneuvers result in gain; it is equally possible for them to lead to situations, in which, the differend remains unaddressed. Questioning of authority results less in immediate gain; after losses of all kind, the gain is of truth alone. So, it is not surprising that while the rock-foundation of all science – Mathematics – may contain internal incongruity, all its applications measure up to expectations. Far greater in changing the face of earth would have been its tiniest failure in the complex experiment of  Long Hedron Collider than failure of computing electronics in Y2K.  Yet, none of these possible man-made catastrophes became real.  Mathematics still works. And even when a great part of world lies in differing  stages of development, it is now connected enough for everyone to make sympathetic evaluations. As the night, the day. It is a visible truth, now.

Only our concern for probable loss makes us take a stand that proven, would ensure encapsulation from a present wrong in future. The act may not be easy.  The efficient yet stifling bureaucracy has resulted through several steps accepted out of tiresome debate, deep meditation and vehement opposition. Bureaucracy is a wall – to protect and block. A shield against loss, an obstruction to gain.  In a  lecture delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2010,  William Deresiewicz outlined the need of solitude for developing true leadership. Contemplation grants direction and courage, to write rules for new reality. Giving example of General David Petraeus, he emphasized that even within an institution like Army (which gave foundation to very idea of regimentation), officers need to think flexibly, creatively, and independently. Only then, the mediocrities would yield leadership to excellence.

Civil life is no different. In a world fraught with inconstancies and counter-poised motivations, it is the institution of law devised to grant justice. Democracy runs on the right to disagree with existing body of thought and seek redress even if it means making a change in the law.  Yet, it seems burdensome and counter-productive to a person engaged in an absorbing activity to drop it, so after bringing about a change, he may engage in it again. Everyone knows that you can’t have them both. He who finds the principle valuable than the fruit, alone would strive to set things right. But apart from moral courage, it is immediate necessity that keeps one from standing up.

Yususf Mirajkar and Dr. Mukesh Garg

Yususf Mirajkar and Dr. Mukesh Garg: Role of Instruments in ICM

In a conference on “Role of Instruments in Indian Classical Music”, a seventh generation instrument-maker Yusuf Mirajkar  explained why in near future musicians may not have any instruments to make music with. It may no longer be possible for us to hear the original sounds as getting adequate raw material is becoming difficult. The forest department has regulations to provide forest resources for traditional crafts, but not for commercial purposes. Now a musician is the sole user of the instrument while it remains serviceable. But he needs another artiste to craft it according to his need. Bureaucracy can not be bothered with such fine distinctions. So long an instrument-maker is making a musical instrument not for his own use but for another person, it is a commercial activity and not traditional craft. Secondly, the actual commercial interests cause selective plantation so that plants/ trees used for musical instruments would not be available in future. A true Miraj Tanpura, warned Mr. Mirajkar, would turn into a museum piece so that future vocalists would not be able to sing with one. He said the makers have neither wealth, power or influence; it is artistes alone who may use their influence to safeguard musical instruments. No artiste has taken a public stand regarding this.

Another interesting and equally inimical is the move to label musical instruments as devices. Indian musical instruments have a continuous history of evolution for over two millennium now. In his seminal work, Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya, Dr. Lalmani Misra correlates this evolution with Indian music theory step by step, with evidence from contemporary texts and sculptures. The Goddess of learning and music, Saraswati carried the most evolved string instrument of the age as stated by one scholar. It is the Indian classification of instruments that serves as foundation of modern Sachs-Hornbostel system. The Sachs-Hornbostel system classified instruments into four main groups: idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones.  Later Sachs added a fifth category, electrophones, such as theremins, which produce sound by electronic means. (Kartomi, p.176)

All Indian musical instruments, classical, folk and modern ones accepted in practice of classical music at the time of its writing were included in Dr. Misra’s book. It was the year of his death 1979, that first Indian Electronic musical Instrument was made. Evolution has always been technology driven and starting from a pedal harmonium through transistors, integrated chips, the electronic instruments  G.Raj Narayan created were representative of creative spirit. Unless one has been formally trained in rigors of Indian classical music, it is difficult to understand how small was the chance of distilling the vast knowledge necessary into successful creation of these instruments. Befittingly, in the 2002 edition of Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya, analytical description of the electronic musical instruments was included. Since then, syllabi of various universities have granted these instruments due place. The students are involved with these instruments both theoretically and practically.

It is not formal academia alone that vitalizes or enriches life. The innovator of these instruments deserves highest honor that may be imagined for making it possible to  encapsulate Indian music in its essence, undistorted in a life-style soon to turn virtual. Four decades back no one could have imagined that a nation dedicated to agriculture with human activities in complete sync with nature, would one day wake up to Gutka (tobacco-pouch) Pepsi, and China-made cell-phones / handsets with double batteries ( or mechanical charge) that provide them 4 gb of indi-films, pop-songs and Bhajan-s in their villages where their government is unable to provide them with promised 6 hours of electricity for powering irrigation-pumps. The descent of post-modern  has been so vigorous, that Indian society, which assimilated all invading cultures  for centuries without batting an eyelid, is like a charged bull stomping to tear down all fences.

Ever since the quiet fabric of a slumberous existence had finally been torn by the war, partition and the country awakened to its independent existence, music had lost its traditional patronage. In third decade after independence music had turned into an industry. The audio cassette revolution  blasted the control of record companies and music was ‘liberated’ in all senses. Accessible as personal choice to lowest common denominator, quality was no more an essential. Very soon, it was ‘undesirable’ and the elite, cerebral Classical music, difficult to learn, costly to practice that was thrown out of homes, schools and temples. The paltry state stipends and  apathetic broadcasting agencies were not even bothered to drive the last nail in.

Classical music was on its way out when Radel Tabla and Tanpura breathed in a new lease of life. While purists fought over nuances and all others had their backs turned, the blessed children of Saraswati – the ineffaceable reminder of excellence – could with these electronic instruments turn into Aranya-Rishi,  learning and practice music with just a few batteries and their capability for immersion. No longer the need to stay in the house of Guru (the poor man could barely support himself); visit him once a week or month and do the Sadhana, Riyaz at home. Raj Narayan had created the mythical philosopher’s stone, the Paras whose touch would turn metal into gold. Well, almost. It needed pure metal to be turned into gold, yet, it accorded an equal chance to all who wished to practice learning Classical music, even those who may not have received approval of the Guru. On the minus side, many lost or never developed the ability to rely on their ears alone to produce the exact Swar. The reason Raj Narayan persistently went on with innovation was the demand of musician within. He had seen the best of artistes losing concentration, achieving little in comparison to their effort and talent because their instruments would fail them at one point or another. Finally he began creating instruments where the musician would be able to design the instrument according to his own sensibility and render the Raga to fullest of his abilities without finding his instrument a burden or hurdle. If a good artiste could achieve a lot with a limiting instrument, what would he not create let free. It was the desire to liberate and empower the talented that served as his Muse.

It takes times. With scorn, derision, mockery that every inventor faces, acceptance, appreciation and regard came his way.  The Citation of the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award in 1996 admitted,

“Recognising with gratitude your outstanding service in the field of musical instrument manufacture, the Government of Karnataka is pleased to honour you with the Rajyotsava Award for the year 1996.”

The Citation of the Karnataka Kalashree Award for 2000-2001, presented by the Sangeetha Nrithya Academy says:

“For the invaluable service in the field of instrument manufacture, Karnataka Sangeetha Nrithya Academy honours Sri Raj Narayan, Radel Electronics, with the ‘Karnataka Kalashree’ award.”

So, he was not awarded or honored for creating a musical Paras, but for a musical instrument. After all bureaucracies do not admit legends and myths; they deal in reality. But these awards did indicate that his service to unknown enthusiasts, virtuoso and stalwarts was now visible to the collective mind. Unmindful, the genius was busy in his Sadhana and continued discovering greater depths.

The Techno-Classicist was soon overtaken by the techno-economist. If the people had accepted an invention that benefitted them, was not it their duty to pay tithe to Caesar? Only, in this case it was more than a tithe.  Commissioner of Commercial Taxes, (Govt. of Karnataka)  ruled with reference to these:

“Such electronic gadgets which are run on electrical / battery power without any human intervention can by no stretch of imagination be construed as musical instruments. These are not Indian musical instruments or even musical instruments but electronic devices that automatically produce similar sound; therefore they have to be taxed at the rate mandated for electronics gadgets, which is at present 14% from April 1, 2011”.

It is very clear that this ruling is not about collecting revenue alone. It seems to reflect a bias of the collective against the loner, the genius, the thinker. True to the reductive attitude of the post-modern age, the statement deconstructs the possibility of  any  quality beyond average in creation of product in question. That there can be a possibility of the product going beyond its immediate utility and contributing to a larger ideal or goal is obviously beyond the logic-system which subverts it. It does not matter that delivered in garb of detached objectivity, such statements are qualified, making value judgment by proxy. In the heat of moment, they exceed their limits and decimate the power of very ideal they purport to act on behalf of.

In an age where realization has percolated to the very top, so that to safeguard Intangible Cultural Heritage practices from insatiable acquisitiveness and destruction of unbridled commercialization,UNESCO  Convention 2003 was ratified, the very institutions created to support and protect need to evaluate each action so that they may not subvert their function.

India was home to thinker Chanakya who prescribed taxation – to be collected as bees collect nectar from flowers. Taxation has also been practiced as deterrent – in modern India sometimes on foreign goods, almost always on alcohol and tobacco. It is more perhaps because of insularity (again a political canon from the Sage) than intention that a benevolent bureaucracy shows a stranger aspect.

Taxation is materialization of the abstraction that a government is. When  Thoreau wished to register his protest against the government, he refused to pay his due and sitting in prison wondered about the concept of freedom. If through its actions, the abstraction does not manifest a benign face even though it wants to, then it should reexamine the mechanisms that manifest its will.

The order of the tax department also shows that Technology is still an alien in many nations of the world. Why else, should a musical instrument functioning on principles of Indian music, invented by an Indian musician-engineer within India for musicians practicing Indian music be denied the label of being Indian or musical or even instruments? Calling them electronic devices is not scientific classification but an intended denigration based on their (partly-comprehended) function of ‘automatically produce(ing) similar sound’.

Take a look at the headlines, the feed on your pod or adverts inviting you to enticing products, alluring services. You can not only talk, but send text, book tickets and authorize payments with your cell phones. Google wallet will not only change the way individuals handle money but affect the whole system of finance conceptually. The world eagerly looks forward to technology changing the way we work or relax, at times wary, but never with derision. If it is not good, it will cease to be. The choice is clear: celebrate or be unconcerned.

That a machinery should be celebrative is perhaps too optimistic; at best we may request its unbiased concern. In this case, determine the ultimate point where deterrent would take effect. An increase in price is certain to decrease the sale and therefore reduce the use of electronic music instruments. Consult a cross-section of users;  or just look at the sales record and examine its function most superficially. It will be clear that these instruments are used not by advertising agencies, nor commercial service-providers but by students and musicians who use it for their learning, practice and satisfaction. Raising its cost is certain to reduce the number of users, which in turn means that number of people espousing Indian Classical Music would fall. One more method of expressing individuality would wither away.  This is the goal of uni-polar mono-cultural economy that connects good with largeness of numbers. As representative of the largest parliamentarian democracy respected throughout the world for fairness of its constitution, is it right to act against the essence, the spirit that directs its culture, which is also world’s heritage? Is it even fair to the current divinity of Technology to hold its achievement against itself? When shall we mature to express gratitude open-heartedly, to find power in empowerment and joy in making others smile? It is only then we shall like Wordsworth, carry the music in our hearts.

I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Citations:

Weyl, Hermann. “Mathematics and Logic.” The American Mathematical Monthly53 (1946): 2-13. Print.

Kartomi, Margaret J. “On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments”,  University of Chicago Press, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (CSE), 1990.

“528. Solitary Reaper. William Wordsworth. The Oxford Book of English Verse.”Bartleby.com: Great Books Online — Quotes, Poems, Novels, Classics and Hundreds More. Web. 04 June 2011. <http://www.bartleby.com/101/528.html&gt;.

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Cultural Awareness: Contradictions And Paradoxes

(Courtesy: www. omenad.net)

Rajiv Trivedi

We are truly social creatures now. Man’s dependence on others has reached exponential levels; also his connectedness. The time between one man’s thought another’s benefit is drastically reduced. Also, time is no longer an absorbent or  muffler that might diminish or soften harsh ideas or actions. This “real-time” action takes away any meaningful action on individual level. While it turns life into a queue or a traffic lane with little leeway for self-directed  action (theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die), greatest sufferers are those who dwell in the realm of creativity, imagination and ideas.

Heads, IGRMS

On the Wall -- Gary McHarg

The movement of ICH (Unesco Convention 2003) is directed against the constrictive, regimentation-oriented all-pervading force of globalization. In broad terms it aims to safeguard traditional practices that rise out of and define the life-style of a community but are threatened by socio-economic changes amplified by technology that spell “modernity”, “progress” and “global unification” today.  It rightly recognizes that to ensure continuity of practices involving oral transfer of knowledge the community needs to be empowered so that it may retain its mode of existence.  There is emphasis on the issue of privacy.  In the attempt made by outsiders, to preserve the traditional practice there is fair chance the endeavour turns into “museumification” (relocation of artifact/ practice away from its natural context  through suggested economic measure for self-sustenance) and  “demuseumification” (forced interaction robs people and practice of their original context  and artificially re-places  them for “authenticity”) thereby destroying the very purpose.  The convention reinforces consent, involvement and commitment of the community  in safeguarding a practice.

On first count, intangibility in several of such practices lies in experiential truths gleaned over a period and preserved as racial memory; here, in part, a direct approach might work without absolute dismantling the practice. The other kind is that, which permeates all artistic expressions. This has no substitute. It is an end to itself.  As there is no distinction made between the two, practices of latter kind are certain to suffer by any outside intervention. Situation grows still more complex with realization that most practices involve both aspects of intangibility.

Like the recurring decimal in arithmetic, even when a phenomenon has been explained in all possible manner, there always remains a non-terminating section of sense that eludes language. This indicates that indestructibility is an essential aspect of intangibility.  Intangibility: Transcending Visuality

But for all that, a clear mechanism has not been defined to this end.

The convention further recognizes the urgency “to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned”. As a corollary, it also provides “to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of the importance of the intangible cultural heritage, and of ensuring mutual appreciation thereof”.  Whereas in essence, this is a simple statement of what their practice is to members of a given community; the action  from outside, even when it is to preserve and promote, shall destroy the very fabric. Then, is the whole activity futile? There is a simple and clear answer which translates the noble idea into possible action. The end of all action — at least end of that, which affects the living conditions of the community. With no external distractions the people and practice shall continue as directed by their local habitat. Even if that was possible, would it be advisable – keeping them perpetually under certain conditions and infringing upon their right to change? This is a perfect case for differendas defined by Lyotard. So often, like Eliza Dolittle, the learner complains about the loss of his innocence he was never conscious of in the first place.

Prior to the Unesco Conventionthere never had been voiced such a concern that sought international consensus in a planned manner. A few decades back, when visionaries of a global village were engaged with more tangible matters, it was too early to predict the predatory instinct of this benign utopian force. The convention is a timely answer to developing situation. Like all actions taken in response to crisis, it is to be commended more for its spirit – the essential intangibility – that recognizes the danger. It is justified in its demand to ‘ensure respect’. But only in an ancient civilization being shaken up by forces of “globalization” like India, can one understand how challenging is this demand.

Respect was the manifest most and best practiced aspect of intangibility that despite all external influences and interaction maintained the complex social fabric of this nation. Globalization functions on principle of erosion of intangible aspect of such intrinsic values. Today, within a single decade respect has been chased away from personal, social, aesthetic and vocational areas. Political and legal enterprise succeed in establishing justice for certain idea at the cost of sacrificing older yet still valuable ones. In a sense, in absence of broadening of our understanding, we destroy order to make way for the future one.

A community gains its identity because of the balance it achieves with external conditions. They sing and dance in a certain way, on such occasions as ‘holi’ or  ‘potlatch’, because their knowledge and belief propel them to do so. It is theirway to attain harmony with universe. Integrity of observation relies on holism. If one were to say that song and dance are elements of their culture but some or the other of their practice being ‘barbaric’ is not, hence the first should be encouraged while the latter decried, it is being judgmental. How can we stop being that? Is not all progress judgmental? Secondly, the moment external conditions change (the presence of alien world intruding through ‘cultural facilitator’) the coherent, integral essence is violated. The foreign curiosity about the dance, song or their head-gear makes the members conscious of these things in a new way; they themselves become agents of museumification.

Preserving Practices: Spindle

Cycle of Innovation -- Gary McHarg

 

Respect demands a certain level of fixity, permanence, reliability in the the tangible world. When the modern conditions reduce life to biological category of production and reproduction, human beings have no control over their lives at most basic level; they shall not be able to understand, uphold and practice such values in their true aspect and bloom. The current attitudes and processes aim at fluidity, flexibility, change and adaptability, in attaining which the traditional definitions are clear impediments. Thus the respect rising out of love and veneration is changed to acceptance of a stern action or confinement  for immediate local gain. The integral aspect of knowledge has given way to practiced expected responses. A traditional world view based on apparent non-change has woken up to dizzying whirl of change and novelty inducing the individual to exchange intangibility for visuality.

This bubble experientiality does not allow organic existence of any idea, discarding the present for a bold shiny one in the offing. Scholars have often expressed their anxiety whether tradition of Indian Classical Music would survive. To learn such an instrument as Rudra or Vichitra Veena one has to go through several stages — learning and mastering Dhrupad singing, playing simpler instruments like Sitar, Sarod and then graduating to the Veena. The whole process was based on unquestioned acceptance of the basics, regular practice and compete dedication to one’s art. The process breaks down to rich availability of time. Learning itself was the end thus establishing again the principle of harmony which communities follow. As all actions are understood to be agents for some material gain, music too is being molded to be an activity of immediate reward. Not only is richness of time no longer a given, the intangible relation between activity and joy has been derecognized. Scholar musicians would use their art to thread pearls of wisdom — the notes of Sam Ved being preserved in Raga Sameshwari — but would such a thing be possible in future?

If only the whirlwind nature of change could be contained, practices would not require safeguarding; they shall unselfconsciously change surely and as imperceptibly as earth on its axis, giving rise to ideas fresh as seasons.

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What is in a (Sur)name

Reading an article by an eminent professor, I was moved by his statement early in my reading: “But in the process, the system also acquired undesirable traits like untouchability. ” In my mind I had some reactions against the apparent connotation of the statement, but further into text I found that he rejected this as a hypothesis based on his experiences of growing up in rural Punjab. He talked about how people of different castes maintained some distinctions and at the same time rejected several unstated regulations/ beliefs to coexist in harmony even while this period was close to partition (years around 1947).

Indeed, the notion of caste is not simple: In case of Hindu caste system, it is the plethora of multi-layered, alien, untutored, self-aggrandizing view-points carelessly (maybe, with deep design) promoted, which turned it into such a monstrosity that by the time I entered teens in early ’70s I had decided to shun it altogether. I toyed with the idea of discarding the second half of my name, that typically in India indicates the caste (in reality it is a far deeper classification) of a person. I had read that upper-caste people had abused and exploited people belonging to lower ones. In my immediate experience there was no apparent example of that; but it might have been true at a certain period. And in atonement, the least I could do was to discard the privilege (if any—I did not know for certain) that my ‘Sir’-name would indicate. I did (and despite everything, still do now) believe in the whole world being a single family without any difference in status. So, to live free of any weighted signifier, ought to be the course for a Citizen of the World. How could anyone aspire to be less?

From that teen idealism (perhaps the most powerful) grew several unconventional acts. One of which was giving my son an identifier (with no inkling to caste) that would make him unique in the world. Google search proves that today when he has crossed his teens, my belief still holds.

The funny part is that I have been made to look foolish because of this act. I requested the officer issuing his passport in India and he assured me that I may well leave the Surname blank, entering the two parts in his Firstname. U.S. regulations also accepted this as F.N.U. — First name Unknown. But beyond that no one is sensitive to the issue. He missed an assistant-ship because between different computer systems his name did not match (one using First part as Surname, the other vice-versa). All his life he will be caught in unraveling the muddle various offices keep creating —  sadly in a country where this was least expected. I know of many people in India with two name-bits (none signifying caste) Saurabh Pankaj, Reeta Madhav, Sohan Bharatiya etc. who are not hassled because of this.

Along the Road

Few bend, some straight as pride

The lesson I learnt is that one should not try to change the course of history without understanding in full. If as an impressionable idealistic child I had not ingrained anti-caste ideas, I might not have committed such a folly. It is not your name but your action that counts — at least in an egalitarian society. And India is truly egalitarian today in this sense. The hospitality industry and along with it, almost all others would not have boomed, if Indians stuck to caste-based untouchability. Sad to say that while sixties and early seventies were devoted to national integration trying to tide up real problems — linguistic division of states, sharing of resources etc. — the evil eighties granted this near-dead abstraction a new lease of life by turning it into a political reality. It was a response to global racialism —  our Indian home-grown version, of fine vintage.
It exists solely because of reservation policy contained within our constitution (again out of best intentions) — some castes are included, some are not. Indian academics should clearly measure out how much benefit people of a certain caste have actually enjoyed because of reservation. Initially, it was getting government jobs; but the current economy rewards people in private sector and in truly positive caste-insensitive way, based on profitability. An upper-caste well-educated boy is often rejected because he can not deliver to match a rustic performer from other caste. In a way, this is fair play and if brawn happens to be in greater demand than brain, it is a case of natural selection. A large part of people provided for by this clause have in reality lead their lives in poverty and misery having received little direct assistance. It is the economic polarization that is responsible for their dire status and not the manifestation of individual frustration misread as expression of caste-based aggression. The sole reason this tainted abstraction is still alive, is that politicians want localized power by fracturing the society.

(#) In US some states insist on teaching Christian theory of Genesis (to counter-act the Darwinian theory of evolution). Is either theory a candidate for rigmarole — they are diametrically opposed!

Often people evaluate an idea from a set of circumstances purportedly brought about by the the idea. The caste-system that we rightfully denounce as being responsible for unpleasant contemporary truth, is not the original design at all. It is like condemning the fruit from its present rotten state, without ever tasting a fresh banana. In India, Jaati was a scientific term along with Varna. Based on what might seem as rigmarole(#) to us now, it nurtured the Ashram system of coordinating individual life harmoniously with the social and political in a placid life-order. The only distinction acceptable were academic in nature: Ih-lok and par-lok, aatma and parmaatma, pap or punya, satya or mthya, dharmik or adharmik. The last brought members of all Varna-s at par: if they were true to their life-style, they were equally Dharmik.(*)

(*) Narad proud of his devotion was disappointed to learn that a butcher was considered the greatest devotee by Lord himself. Vishnu then sent him on a tour of the universe with a bowl full of oil and the warning that not a single drop should be spilled. On reaching back Narad confessed that concentrating on the bowl, he had not remembered Lord even once. Vishnu playfully indicated that while he is at work of killing animals, the butcher constantly recited Lord’s name. [Doing one’s karma in ‘nishkam’ manner is true ‘dharma’. Can anyone today appreciate the subtle finesse of the idea of performance without attachment, when you have to constantly give self-appraisals thus becoming an accountant of your slightest actions?]

If the creators of this whole false, flawed system, the Brahmins were selfish, power-mongers why did they allocate power to Kshatriya, riches to Vaishya, providing themselves to collect Bhiksha from five houses once a day and sanctified the practice of fasting (having to go through it every so often)?

The degeneration set in where Karma associated with any Jati took a backseat and privileges began to be commanded as birth-right (literally so, having taken birth within a particular caste). Further the genetic specialty (if you happen to believe in rigmarole referred above) could not have survived with distinction as races intermingled. Quite likely then, the static people located in center proclaimed, that the fringe or border residents no longer carry the noble seed. Hence, even with a caste, further classification was required.

Sad truth is as 21-May (the DoomsDay) believers recently celebrated the day to be beginning of end of the world, it emphasized that a world order had really ended with last century/ millennium, and if you agree with Ray Kurzweil, distinction between man and machine would vanish by 2045. The debate about Caste-system of India comes centuries after Kabir and other Bhakti period saint-poets had announced its demise. We can never rise to such exalted system of distinction-creation any time in future soon. The current attempts stem from immediate profitability — Stores cater to different segments with distinct Brand names: Banana Republic for the fashionable rich, Gap for middle classes and Old Navy for poor bargain-hunters; at the same time distinctions within same economic strata are done away with — everyone wears the same T-shirt, color being the only chance at distinction. Even that is kept same on special occasion — to celebrate the spirit of being universally the same (consumer).

Growing Harmony

Blending to please

What wonderful age would that have been when Girdhar (alas, no clear links to this great Indian poet) found that “Gun ke gahak sahas nar” (Thousand of seekers for quality), “bin gun lahe na koye” (None would cherish that lacks merit). Today, in the age of Zuckerberg Social-engineering, it is not your own sense of recognition or ability to evaluate that counts, but what your group of friends seem to be hankering after. As follower of your peer group you might go seek (buy) a thousand times something that is “bin gun” (worthless). Poetry, however lives on, with a little change.

Last week CVS had organized a “free” health checkup ‘sponsored’ by Novartis. I was shocked to read this:
“Exforge can significantly lower high blood pressure in blacks and African Americans.” (From their folder printed in USA 3/11 EXR-1045804)

The two subtle suggestions are: ( Not whites! they do not need this medicine…. probably they are being warned off this medicine, else they have a different metabolic system)

Secondly: Blacks (whatever they may connote) are Blacks and not African-Americans, who have come far from the shared root and due to their immediate past are different from non-American Blacks; not that distant though – same medicine works on. Here is an infographic displaying expenditure made by phamaceuticals under various heads.

Who says Caste-system and racialism are things of past? I did. Novartis proved me wrong. Granted the modern world of profit does not share the philosophy and traditions that a race or caste might hold sacred; also, that living under umbrella of a globalized world the rough edges of certain practices should not prick others. Why is that for mere material gain we bring to life a hollow version of an outdated idea. If we wish to be ideal optimists, let us never admit any difference; as realists it would do well to recognize the uniqueness without the question of superiority, power, revenge or profit. Till we practice such self-control the greed driven distinction would continue to create differentiating labels. We shall never be rid of caste – the self-seeking evil within.

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Safeguarding Culture

There was a time when life had to be carved out of the jaws of nature. The numerous means, tricks and strategies  man developed to safeguard his life in the vast hostile universe got stored in his life-style contributing to creation of a racial memory.

Book released by UNESCO Convention 2003

Precious Art of Life Courtesy: Unesco

Today, when rarely, if at all, we are challenged by a wild beast it is not life that that needs safeguarding. Ah, the joy of having reached a point where threats to mechanisms we devised to secure lives are greater han to actual life itself. This does not forward insensitivity to actual life-threats that still hound us, but is rhetoric used to sensitize people at large to conditions that minimize our freedom to thought (and hence, action) by reducing our storehouse of racial memory.

Unesco Convention 2003 is a strong step in the right direction. The poet’s warning about a ‘world so full of care.. one has no time stand and stare’ has come home. The care is no longer a weariness arising out of huff and puff of a world in toil; it is anxiety propelled by the giant strides of progress. What may get crushed beneath the wheels is least of its concerns.

To encourage individuals, institutions and nations to promote sensitivity to loss of immense human knowledge, contained more in life-styles nourishing these practices than their mere form and passed for generations through oral tradition, UNESCO started a Representative list. Various nations have contributed practices that are gravely endangered and need to be safeguarded, to this list. Some of these have been compiled in this book, which can be downloaded from the website of Intangible Heritage.

Apart from devising consensus, NGOs have been entrusted with the task to apprise the community of ICH practices about possible strategies to safeguard them. Depending on situation, either a practice can be preserved, promoted or allowed to continue without any external impetus. The last is ideal; hard to attain. The great challenge however is to learn to carry out the act of preservation/ promotion, lest through excessive interference, the practice ‘loses its essence its sanctity’ (as pointed out in this article on Omenad).

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Reclaiming Intent

Dr. Rajiv Trivedi

It is said that words profane an idea. As our restricted technological advance commits us to human communication through imperfect linguistic expression, we conduct ourselves thus. It is this elasticity of language that accounts for greater use of fuzzy logic in all human affairs. So while most people use this phrase to describe a process in which the direction of brain-drain changes, I use it as an appeal to change the nature of such a drain.

It all began with quantification of human being. For some time, it seemed a good thing as historically, human being had been treated as less than that. But while in the past, it was a product of instinct-based more-barbaric-than-civilized society; in the twentieth century it was a conscious act to place human-beings at certain pre-conceived levels. More than anything else, this century can be adjudged as being consumed with the process of evaluating man. For the first time in his history, man had focused his eyes away from gods and heavens towards his own tiny but real existence.

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