A letter to the Indian Prime Minister

This was first published in MINT on Jan. 4, 2016

Respected Prime Minister,

In October 2012, at the height of gloom and despondency about India amidst growth challenges, corruption charges and collapse of governance, Shankkar Aiyar, the author of Accidental India, wrote the following about leadership: “Leadership is not about pickled intellect. It is driven by imagination, a willingness to reflect, ability to inspire, to listen and to have the courage of conviction to embrace risk.”

Indeed, leadership has many dimensions as he has pointed out. But above all, it is about credibility. Credibility starts with truth and realism. For example, economic optimism ought to be founded on economic realism. The previous government took economic growth for granted. It paid a political price for it, but the country might have paid and might still be paying a bigger economic price for it.

Recently, the former finance minister cited the mid-year economic review of the finance ministry to proclaim the delayed arrival (or the non-arrival) of Achhe Din. He failed the credibility test because the bulk of the blame for India’s economic travails falls on the government he was part of. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s biggest mistake has been the underestimation of the challenge of reviving growth in an economy left in a complete mess by the previous government. It is not the only mistake, however.

The commerce ministry is brave to counter the export pessimism of the mid-year economic review of the finance ministry. But it is certainly not being realistic. For India, growth will be hard to come by in a world riven by conflicts, geopolitical ambitions and fading economic growth prospects. Hence, the role of leadership becomes that much more critical. Indeed, it can be argued that strong, effective, competent and enlightened leadership may or may not have been necessary for today’s developed economies because other factors were vastly more favourable to them. East Asia became rich when America was willing to do anything to stop the spread of communism. China prospered when globalization was fashionable. India, on the other hand, faces climate change hurdles, de-globalization and trade protectionism. A growth rate of 7-8%, properly measured, is far from assured.

Leadership is a popularity contest but with a twist. It is about appeasing the current generation versus courting the goodwill of future generations. Successful leaders bet their future on the uncertain goodwill of the unborn. To its credit, the NDA government has not concentrated its energies on appeasement as the previous government did. Moreover, it is fighting the cronyism that flourished under the previous regime. That might explain the private sector investment funk. However, states where the Bharatiya Janata Party has not fared well in local elections have resorted to irresponsible measures to woo back the electorate.

Further, the Union government is guilty of many errors of omission. It has not been able to persuade the nation of the merits of amending the land acquisition bill, of labour reforms, of privatization of airports and of raising the standards of Indian education. Higher pay for government workers is fine, but the nation needs a quid pro quo in terms of productivity and accountability—not just from bureaucrats but from ministers too. Even now, the University Grants Commission makes news for restricting educational institutions rather than liberating them. Several well-known institutions have received notices for operating off-site campuses. In short, the government has been ducking hard choices more often than it has embraced them.

Reversing this would require the government actively seeking expert advice that is not afraid to deliver the truth to the leadership. The initiative has to come from you. Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar had dedicated one chapter (10 couplets, from 441 to 450) to the idea of surrounding oneself with wise men who would keep kings grounded and ensure that they rule the kingdom well, in the interests of all the subjects. I share the translation of four of them here:

A king wise enough to have men of greater wisdom than he to advise him shall be a powerful ruler. (Kural No. 444)

Where the king’s counsellors possess the courage to reprove him when necessary, nothing on earth can bring about such a king’s ruin. (Kural No. 447)

Without courageous counsellors to point out his faults and so protect him, a king will ruin himself, even without foes. (Kural No. 448)

It is foolish surely to incur enmity of many foes, but 10 times worse to lose righteous friends. (Kural No. 450).

Finally, successful leaders eschew coercion and embrace persuasion. Communication is the difference between persuasion and coercion. After all, in the age-old fable, it is the sun that gently bears down that removes the cloth from the itinerant traveller and not the fierce wind that threatens to snatch the cloth from him. The sun succeeded because it made the traveller feel that it was in his interest to let go of the shawl, whereas the wind threatened to snatch it away from him. Success comes to those leaders who share it and who make others feel that they were in command of their decisions.

Wishing you and the nation more glory and prosperity in the new year.

Sincerely,

Anantha Nageswaran

Manjul Bhargava in Sanskrit College

thewire.in had published excerpts from the speech given by Manjul Bhargava, winner of the Fields Medal in Mathematics. Here are some extracts from those excerpts!
India has to be its own cultural ambassador. It has to bring alive all those beautiful works of the country that are not yet known to the public at large. But it has to be done in a scientific manner and it has to be done in a correct manner. That’s why it’s important for institutions like this to do correct translations. It’s very important to have these works available in an accessible form in various languages. Whatever your skills are, please help bring alive these texts in an accurate and correct manner.

My basic point is that there are a lot of treasures in the ancient languages of India. These treasures need to be preserved. Slowly people are forgetting these ancient languages, and it is the responsibility of those who do know those ancient languages to bring to light those treasures to the public.

These treasures are in every area – philosophical treasures, poetic treasures, story-telling treasures and then scientific treasures. And all of these things – they should not be forgotten.  We need to do our best to keep it all alive. That’s why I salute the students of this college.

I always find it a shame that the interest is greater outside India than in India, when this is India’s contribution. India shouldn’t be afraid to own, study, and recognise this contribution. You’ll notice that some textbooks in India go out of their way to call it the Arabic system and not even mention that it was invented in India. It would be nice if this kind of culture was changed.

So here’s the truth: that story about Pythagoras that is shown in Indian textbooks, the fact that he discovered and proved the Pythagorean theorem – well, there’s no shred of evidence that he ever proved the Pythagorean theorem. Nobody has any source on that. It’s just a legend.

On the other hand, there is a concrete source in India – namely, Baudhayana’s Sulba Sutra – that is before Pythagoras, and that has the Pythagorean theorem stated absolutely clearly. And, that goes back to around 800 BCE. The Pythagorean theorem is clearly stated there, with an interpretation in terms of areas that leads to a proof, and in other Indian works as well.

How will the world make a judgement if India doesn’t begin to be its own ambassador about the things that happened here?

Please make it your duty to contribute accurately to our knowledge base while helping to preserve the treasures of India.  I wish you great success in your future endeavours!

Who is a ‘Liberal’?

http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/who-is-a-liberal/

Who Is A ‘Liberal’?

(V. Anantha Nageswaran)

V. Anantha Nageswaran is an independent financial markets consultant based in Singapore

An ideal Liberal is open to new ideas, and yet has a few immutable core principles and values. He has convictions but is aware of the imperfections of his knowledge and the limitations imposed by his ignorance. But is it possible that human beings with all these qualities exist?

Indira Parthasarathi is a veteran Tamil writer. He is in his late Seventies or perhaps in his early Eighties. He lives in Chennai. In the 1970s, he wrote a serialised Tamil novel titled ‘Maaya Maan Vettai’ (hunting the imaginary deer). The story was about how the system swallowed the idealism of a well-meaning non-resident Indian returning to India to serve his country. A line from the story is still fresh in my memory: “Too many ideals have been mindlessly frequently spouted and have lost their meanings.”

I recalled that line as I surveyed the Indian public political and intellectual discourse over the last several weeks in the run-up to the Bihar elections. Charges of intolerance made by several individuals – some well-meaning and some not – against the Indian government met with responses from many individuals sympathetic to the government in social media. The government, for the most part, presented the image of a hapless spectator. The timing and the intensity of these ‘liberal’ outrages before elections rob them of much of their credibility and legitimacy. Now that the next election is sometime away, we have an opportunity to assess what ‘being Liberal’ and ‘Liberalism’ are truly about.

We examine the ideal liberal stance and the reality at three levels next.

Universal principles and values

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At one level, liberals stand for values and principles that transcend narrow national, group or sectarian considerations. If it were true, then liberals would uphold principles without taking sides. Typically, within countries, liberals would switch sides between different groups depending on the issue at hand but not switch principles depending on calculations of political and personal interests. If their values and principles were not confined to national boundaries or borders, then their support for liberal causes and concerns over and criticisms of illiberalism would transcend borders too. Illiberal thoughts and practices would meet with their opprobrium and condemnation regardless of their source. Even a casual and cursory overview of the situation tells us that this seldom prevails in practice, either in India or outside. Liberals search for social roots of heinous crimes perpetrated by some groups while, in the case of some other groups, they are plaintiffs, prosecutors, jury, judge and executioners. The selection of causes that liberals take up for espousal and the causes that they ignore betray considerations other than liberal principles at work. Selective liberalism is, then, bigotry in an intellectual sheath.

In theory, a liberal is at the opposite end of bigots. A bigot is one who is intolerant towards those who hold different opinions from oneself. However, selective intolerance is yet another form of intolerance. In the Indian context, as many were hyperventilating after the dastardly murder of a Muslim in a village in Uttar Pradesh, I wrote the following in an article in this magazine:

Selective outrage at bigotry is bigotry. It incenses the bigot who is being selectively targeted because he is being selectively targeted and because it emboldens the bigot who is spared. So, one bigot is incensed and another bigot is encouraged. This is the seminal contribution of India’s self-styled liberals to the cause of good governance. In other words, they are guilty of growing the national stock of intolerance, hatred and bigotry.

Subsequent non-reactions from liberals to murders of Hindus in other parts of the country only reinforce the perception that what passes off for liberalism in India is not to be confused with the literal meaning of being a liberal or what constitutes liberalism. Latent and manifest contradictions of the Indian liberal have not been more thoroughly exposed than in this brilliant piece by historian and Indologist, Michel Danino.

Support For The Underdogs

At the second level, liberals are champions of the less privileged, in contrast to conservatives who prefer the status quo or the established order. In this framework, liberals hold themselves above notions of fairness, democracy and freedom of expression simply because they identify with causes that are widely perceived to be in the service of the underdog – the materially poor, religious and racial minorities, in the main. That places them above rules – consistency, evidence, facts, fairness and symmetry – that are meant to regulate the conduct of ordinary mortals in their pursuit of causes that are less noble than these. The presumption that they know what is best for the world underpins most of their arguments and methods. There is no place for other views or other persons holding different views. The illiberalism or the intolerance that characterise the methods of who consider themselves liberal has been both an eternal and universal paradox.

 

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The most recent manifestation of this is playing itself out in American university campuses. In recent weeks, there has been plenty of debate over incidents of political correctness in American campuses from Yale to Claremont McKenna College to University of Missouri. The issues are varied and yet, those championing the causes of the excluded, underprivileged and racial minorities have forced administrators to resign for daring to suggest that there could be other ways of looking at the issues. This prompted a following tweet by Patrick Chovanec, a well-known China analyst and a former academic in China:

“An increasing number of people in the US seem to believe they are so self-evidently right that they shouldn’t need to persuade anyone.”

Another academic, reacting to these incidents, wrote that “inroads to authoritarian behaviour, even in the service of a noble cause, always lead to the use of authoritarian behaviour against the people who first look to it as a line of defence.”

Role Of The State In The Society

At the third level, liberals have a particular view of the role of the State in societies and in economies. They prefer the State to stay away from legislating on matters that are for individuals to decide on. Group and societal norms and conventions cede ground to individual preferences. On the other hand, on economic matters, they want the heavy hand of the State to intervene and make decisions. Conservatives on the other hand assume that there are universal and eternal values and principles that are binding on all members of the society.  On economic matters, they prefer the State to stay away, leaving it to individuals in the market place to sort things out between themselves and figure out the most appropriate way of engaging in economic transactions between themselves at the appropriate price.

Both sides are inconsistent in their own ways. Clearly, it is about some groups considering themselves to be eternal economic underdogs such that the State must come to their rescue, redistribute and alter the material and power balance while leaving them free to do what they want, with their personal lives. Other groups prefer the State to enforce social norms but not economic rules such that the existing power and material balance are preferred.

At all the three levels, the theoretical and the desirable qualities of a Liberal and what obtains in practice are worlds apart. It is unsurprising, therefore, that TCA Srinivasa Raghavan defined a Liberal as such:

“So who is a liberal, then? A liberal, by my reckoning, is a person designated as a liberal by other liberals, usually on a single communal sub-criterion. As a result, the most liberal person can be labelled illiberal by liberals and the most illiberal as liberal…. Most Indian liberals are wannabes. They are anxious to ‘belong’ and see selective liberal-certified illiberalism as the entry ticket to a certain type of social acceptability.”

Who Then Is A True Liberal?

In his description of the ideal economist, Keynes perhaps defines a liberal individual too:

“The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts…. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher — in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard.

He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.”

A Hindu philosopher explained the concept of Sthitha Prajna as described by Lord Krishna to Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita. Among other things, he/she is one who does what is necessary for the betterment of humanity with a completely tranquil mind, unperturbed. A person whose mind is tranquil will not react to situation in a way that causes harm to others because he sees everybody as his own self.

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The discussion above gives us clarity on the ideal Liberal. He/she is open to new ideas and persuasion and yet has few core principles and values that are immutable. He considers facts and his assessment is fair, consistent and symmetric, unbiased by situations and personalities.

He is grounded and yet capable of reflection and contemplation of the particular, the general, the abstract and concrete. He understands that prescriptions for a stable and well-functioning society and economy are more a function of the context than they are of eternal theories. He serves humanity with humility and with a tranquil mind. He has convictions but is aware of the imperfections of his knowledge and the limitations imposed by his ignorance. Hence, he avoids hubris.

Is it possible that humans with all these qualities exist? It is not possible because humans are not cognitively wired to be Liberal. There are at least three reasons.

Can Humans Be Liberals At All?

One is loss aversion. Humans feel intense pain when they lose something. That is why, scores of psychological experiments have shown that humans experience pain disproportionately more when they lose something that they possess than when they forego a gain. That applies not just to possessions but also to opinions. Once formed, opinions are owned. That is why humans are loathe changing them or letting them go. Changing one’s views or opinions is akin to the experience of losing something. So, liberal or not, humans are prone to holding on to views much longer than desirable. Ideally, however, liberal attitudes imply a degree of detachment and lack of certitude that are necessary for mature debate.

Second, liberty and liberal attitudes are all about empowering humans with choices and the freedom to make those choices without any coercion by others – groups, communities and the State. ‘Choice’ and the absence of coercion figure prominently in the discussion of liberty and liberalism. But, that flies in the face of pervasive consumer marketing and advertising. They are all about persuading us to want things that we do not need, converting them into needs and then making us purchase them. Human cognitive limitations are not only well documented but well exploited by marketing companies. The most obvious human frailty is succumbing to framing. Framing the same issue in different ways elicits different responses from humans. Second, when presented with decisions that are less than straightforward, humans lean towards the choices that are chosen for us. In a provocative and insightful TED presentation, Professor Dan Ariely asks us to think about the question of the extent of control we have over our decisions. Professor Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ is all about how little we know of our how minds work and hence how little influence we have over it.

Third, there is the impossibility of constructing counterfactual scenarios. In real life and in real time, it is impossible to conduct counterfactual experiments. Controlled experiments are all about counterfactuals. The impossibility of being able to do so is an inherent feature of social sciences and economics. Ceteris paribus is impossible as other things never remain the same or stay constant. Closely related to this impossibility is the context-specific nature of most of the rules and norms of society. They evolve over time and with the contexts as they evolve. Very few are immutable. Indeed, that is what Raghuram Rajan alluded to when he told the graduating class at IIT Delhi recently that they should identify their core personalities with very few ideas, holding a vast majority of them open to challenge and revalidation at all times.

Recognising And Acting On Our Flaws

Awareness of our cognitive limitations is the first step towards taking ego out of the equation and taking a truly liberal stance in a given situation. But, it is only one of the necessary conditions and not sufficient at all to becoming a Liberal which is either a lifelong quest or a quest that is spread over many births, if you are a believer in reincarnation as I am.

Absence of certitude and the willingness to hold very few immutable and non-negotiable ideas and principles suggests an attitude of humility that avoids the dangers of hubris. Hubris is an affliction shared by intellectuals with leaders in positions of power. Lord David Owen, former Foreign Secretary in the British Government, had started a trust called Daedalus Trust, to examine symptoms and afflictions of hubris among corporate and national leaders. He practised psychiatry medicine before he joined the British government. Among the various symptoms of hubris, listed in the site are:

  • Display of messianic tendencies;
  • Excessive confidence in one’s own judgements and contempt for others’ opinions
  • Unshakable belief that they would be vindicated
  • Accountable only to history

Most leaders – the autocratic and authoritarian ones included – would be tickled to know that they share these four symptoms (among others) with today’s Liberals.

How should Liberals avoid becoming bigots, assuming it is not already too late for some of them? The following can help:

  • Having a sense of humour;
  • Willingness to indulge in self-deprecation;
  • Ability to laugh at oneself;
  • Awareness of one’s insignificance in the context of the history of Evolution and of the Universe itself; Willingness not to take oneself too seriously beyond a point and
  • Surrounding oneself with critics who would keep one’s feet to the ground.

Gillian Tett wrote in FT that Roman Generals, returning victorious from war, used to have slaves running along with their chariots repeatedly reminding them that they were not Gods.

In India, the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar had dedicated one chapter (ten couplets from 441 to 450) to the idea of surrounding oneself with wise men who would keep Kings grounded and ensure that they rule the kingdom well, in the interests of all the subjects. It is not hard to extend the logic to all human beings and particularly to those who are in positions of intellectual leadership too.  Here are two samples:

தம்மிற் பெரியார் தமரா ஒழுகுதல்

வன்மையு ளெல்லாந் தலை (Thirukkural No. 444)

Its meaning is as follows: A King wise enough to have men of greater wisdom than he to advise him shall be a powerful ruler.

For Liberals and Intellectuals, we can state that a Liberal wise enough to befriend those with greater wisdom than he would go on to become a true Liberal.

பிழைத்துணர்ந்தும் பேதைமை சொல்லா ரிழைத்துணர்ந்

தீண்டிய கேள்வி யவர். (Thirukkural No. 417)

Its meaning: Persons who have acquired their knowledge by deep study, marked by deep enquiries and by listening to other learned men, will definitely have an intuitive diffidence about their knowledge (and awareness of their ignorance), will be aware of where they could possibly be wrong or uncertain and hence will avoid making a fool of themselves.

Indirectly, the great sage counsels lack of certitude. Humility will follow naturally from that. How does one achieve this? Like everything else: by practice.

Men At Work On Becoming Liberal

Two men, who are still with us today, adopt a unique practice that shows their heightened state of evolution. One is Professor Daniel Kahneman. He simply seeks out those who disagrees with his views and collaborates with them. His collaboration with Gary Klein whose ideas on intuition differed profoundly with that of Daniel Kahneman resulted in several papers being published together. In the process, he and Klein had ironed out most of their differences managing to advance the field in the process.

Daniel Kahneman is not the only example.  There is another. He is Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University. He is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. Republican Presidential candidates consult him regularly. Yet, his best friend is Professor Cornel West, who is to the extreme Left. Robert George arrives at his answers by befriending Cornel West and others who disagree with him. This is what he says:

“The best thing that’s happened in my academic life the past decade is that I regularly teach with Cornel West, who is as far to the left as I am to the right, but we love each other, and he’s got exactly the same attitude I have” about the inherent value of discussion, “and the same fears I have, that he’ll fall in love with his own opinions. It’s the best thing in the world, because you have these two cats who want to get at the truth.”

The advice he has for students is this: “Cultivate friends you disagree with,” as well as those with whom you agree, because together you’ll locate the soft spots in your own thinking and find common ground to build on.

Can Indian journalists and academics on the so-called Right and the so-called Left collaborate? Well, they can as long as they are not in ‘it’ for ego but for national interest. A big ‘ask’, perhaps.

Among journalists who questioned his own Liberal instincts, in recent times, was Rafael Behr who writes for ‘The Guardian’. In his piece published on September 8 2015, he conceded that death penalty by drone strike was a challenge for all liberal minds. It was about the killing of an ISIS terrorist – Reyaad Khan, a young British citizen – by a drone strike. He concluded that all his liberal scruples made him crave a better way if only he could find a better way. That was an intellectually open and honest piece. It would have been easy for him to denounce his government and its methods as inhuman, taking an unrealistically loftier, moral high ground. He resisted that temptation in that piece. Intellectual laziness is harder to resist than the laziness that instigates us to avoid physical labour.

So, where do we start? The best way to start is to remember what Aristotle said:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

This article was carried in the December issue of the (‘Swarajya’) magazine.

Chennai music season – Part II

Mylapore Mafia

On the morning of 25th December (Friday), my wife and I with her cousin set off fresh and early at 7:30 for Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha.

A nice breakfast of fresh idlis, Pongal, Vadai and Filter Coffee was served by ‘Mountbatten’ Mani Iyer’s canteen at the Sabha.

The lec.-dem by Dr. Pantula Rama and her violinist M.S.N. Murthy was on emotions in Raagams. Mr. Murthy fancied his voice more than he should have. His knowledge of the structure of the keertanas and the places where emphasis should be made and not, etc., made eminent sense. He said that the Chittaswara in ‘Raghuvamsa Sudha’ was the benchmark for all Chittaswarams!

After 15 minutes, he handed over the mike to Dr. Pantula Rama. She did a fabulous job of the subject, taking up many different kritis and the emotions that the composers had tried to convey.

One could get a deep understanding of and respect for the composers and their imagination, intelligence and the enormous attention they had paid to detail. Merely learning the kritis by rote and even being able to sing them with ghamakas (a technical skill that can be acquired by practice) is not enough. The emotion behind their phrases and their tonal variations need to be understood and respected. The singer has to relive the times and the context of the kriti to bring out even a fraction of what the great composers had tried to convey. She spent some time on the kriti, ‘Ksheerasagara Shayana’ in Deva Gandhari. Atana, Lalitha, and many other kritis and ragams and the emotions they conveyed were explained well. Lovely to hear that.

The lec-dem started at 8:30. At around 9:20, the crowed started swelling. By 9:30 PM, the crowd had gotten quite big, noisy and the movements were distracting. The artist got flustered and ended her lec.-dem at 9;35 – some ten minutes short.

Later I learnt that the public were streaming in for the 10:00 AM lecture by their local favourite, Visakha Hari. I was quite annoyed at this. The artist present has to be respected. The Sabha organisers should have held them back until 9:45. They were not coming to listen to Dr. Pantula Rama but to disturb her! Their parochialism was breathtaking.

I trooped off to Sivagami Pethatchi auditorium to listen to a thematic presentation by Anil Srinivasan, Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Dhushyant Sridhar. It was nice without being spectacular. Dhushyant Sridhar spoke only briefly but he was good. I had hoped to hear more from him.  He spoke about how good souls who lived a dharmic life would know when their lives would end. They would see a black circle in the sun and they would also see another image in the mirror! Of course, there was the reference to The musical presentation itself was neat and
efficient without being particularly moving.

I came to Music Academy to have lunch at the canteen with a friend! Listened to the excellent alapana of Kharaharapriya by Shreya Devnath. She outdid the vocalist, Subiksha Rangarajan.

Lunch was at the Krishna Restaurant in the Woodlands. Canteen in the Music Academy overflowed with patrons.

Came back from lunch and listened to a confident Kutcheri by Vidhya Kalyanaraman. I do not remember her kritis and the raagams but what stood out was her confident presentation.

From there, it was to Bharat Kalachar to listen to good friend V. Shankar Narayanan. His heart must have sank to see only 8 people when the curtain rose. It was abominable. Clearly, the ‘Mylapore Mafia’ had gone to listen to their favourites at the Academy and Narada Gaana Sabha. Their patronage of talent leaves a lot to be desired. Empty chairs were lucky to listen to Nirmala Rajasekhar on the veena and the same was the case today with Shankar. Chennai audience is mostly a trend-following audience rather than a trend-discovering audience.

Shankar was unfazed. He gave a delightful concert. Begada Varnam, Aparadhamula in Lathangi, Sri Varalakshmi in Sri, Main piece in Thodi. It is not just raining aqua in Chennai but raining Thodi too this season. Shankar’s accompaniments – V. Sanjeev on the violin and B. Sivaraman on the Mrdangam – gave him very good support.

It was curtains for us that day.

On the 26th, we rushed to Vaani Mahal for the 10:00 AM lec-dem by Dr. B.M.Sundaram and his panelists including Suguna Varadhachari and Dr. Abirama Sundari + 1 on the origins of Raagas and their names. The title sounded interesting. But, that was the only interesting or useful thing about it. Barring repeating some catch phrases, none of them said anything of
substance. It was not clear who their target audience was – the theoretical researcher, or the musicians or the ordinary members of the public. Even if they were clear about whom they were addressing – which they were not – it is not clear that they would have benefited in any case. There was no content. I heard the words, ‘Moorchanas, Swara Graamam, Melam’ repeated by all without any attempt to move the discussion forward.

Our day at the Sabhas ended with that as familial duties beckoned.

On the 27th, it was back to the lecture circuit. A panel discussion on  Aaroham-Aavrohanam featured S. Sowmya, Ravi Kiran and two others. It was interesting. Ravi Kiran stressed aural tradition before oral tradition – listening before singing and intellect before intuition. At the same time, intuition must follow tuition.

He spoke about CMCM – Common Mistakes in Carnatic Music. Apparently, some videos are available on Youtube. Ravi Kiran has a good voice and tremendous knowledge. The only problem with Ravi Kiran is that he does not let others talk. Their conclusion was that the knowledge of Aaroham-Avarohanam was not a must to understand and appreciate the Ragams.

I stayed on for the presentation titled, ‘Nava Vidha Ramayanam’ Sri Srinidhi Swamigal and Ms. Vasundhara Rajagopal – the singer. It was brilliant. The last Sunday of the year is earmarked for them at Sri Parthasarathi Swami Sabha. We should make a note of it. He described many situations from Ramayana and she sang a sloka from Valmiki
Ramayana, Arunchala Kaviraayar, Ezhuthachchan, Periyavaachchan Pillai, Giridhar Ramayana from Gujarat, the Bengali version of Ramayana, Tulsidas Ramayana, Gatyam, etc.

It was a day of Punarvasu Nakshathiram. She was very simply dressed and exuded calmness. She sang very well despite being troubled by cough. She herself described the situations in those songs rather well.

The choice of ‘Charukesi’ by Saint Thiagaraja for ‘Aadamodi Galade’ came in for particular mention. It has both Shankarabharanam and Hanumath Thodi Prayogams. The kriti does mention Hanuman. The luck that befell the ‘Paadukas’ for they sat on the throne was mentioned to suggest that we have no control over the outcomes.

It was a very satisfying event and they should be invited to Singapore, for example. I was very glad I attended it.

Lunch with a friend followed by the 90-minute concert of J.A. Jayant with the flute. I remember Saraswati Namostuthe, Sri Varalakshmi Namasthubyam, Raghuvamsa Sudha. I do not remember the main piece. While I bought ticket for the Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna concert, I had to listen to the concert of Ganesh – Kumaresh. Whatever the concert was, it was not Carnatic Classical. The only thing that I took away from the concert was that the brothers sport pony tails now. Sound and fury signifying nothing – literally – was the memory of the
concert.

Kunnakudi M. Balamuralikrishna (KMBMK) has oodles of talent. This is a comeback year for him. He had admirable support from Akkarai Subbalakshmi on the violin and Tanjore Murugabhoopathy on the Mrdangam. I remember Deva Deva Kalayamidhe in Maayamalava Gowlam. I do not remember the main raagam in RTP.

The concert was good but I derived more satisfaction from Shankarnarayanan’s concert. Shankar’s range, voice and his unhurried singing were better on the ears and the senses than the hurried singing of KMBMK. As a knowledgeable friend put it, he lacks ‘Visranthi’. But, as his throat recovers from surgery and as he finetunes his range, he can present a wonderful alternative to other Mylapore favourites now. He is definitely exciting.

That ended a long day on 27th. 28th December was again a family get-together affair. 29-30 are busy too. I have Dec. 31 and Jan.1 to conclude my first long season of listening in five years.

Chennai music season – Part 1

I arrived in Chennai on Dec. 17.

On 18th, I began my attendance at the Chennai Music festival by listening to Tiruchur Brothers for 40 minutes at the Music Academy.

Then, I went over to the Sri Parthasarathi Swami Sabha to listen to Nirmala Rajasekhar play the veena. Despite all the troubles with the mike, she gave a vivacious and memorable concert. Her violinist Padma Shankar was brilliant. Shri ‘Tanjore’ Murugabhupathi was a lovely source of support. The ‘Kanjira’ Vidwan too was energetic. Overall, a wholesome concert.

Next was Malladi Brothers. It was good. Ravikumar’s Kalyani Alapana was nice and deep. They sang a krithi by Nallan Chakravarti Krishnaswami who had served in AIR Vijayawada for fifty years. It was a lovely krithi in praise of the Ambaal, in Sanskrit, I thought.  They praised the man as some one who knew the Sastras well – Meemaamsa, Vyakaranam, Sanskrit, etc.

Still, I feel that the Malladi Brothers need a second wind.

Next morning (19.12), it was the lecture demo by Shri. Sriram Parasuram on the Raaga Thodi. It was fabulous. He is a wonderful musicologist and a great teacher and communicator. Regardless of how ignorant we are, at the end of his lecture, we feel that we have learnt a lot. That is a tribute to his skill, knowledge and communication.

The concert that followed the lec-dem was by R. Suryaprakash. It was forgettable, despite the best efforts of M.A. Sundaresan on the violin and Thiruvaroor Bhaktavatsalam on the Mrdangam. Then, it was time for lunch with friends and a snooze at my sister’s place.

We had a lovely concert at 4 PM by Shri. ‘Shertalai’ Ranganatha Sharma, accompanied by J. Vaidyanathan on the Mrdangam and B.U. Ganesh Prasad on the violin. It was a lovely unhurried concert with ‘O Rangasayee’ as the main piece and before that, was ‘Ennadum Urage’ in Shubapantuvarali. JV was very correct in his percussion support. Never tried to outdo the main artist. I was not happy I had to leave slightly early to catch Ranjani -Gayatri at Brahma Gaana Sabha for a 6:00 PM concert.

They are popular artists and they have seldom disappointed me. But, today, when I left the concert hall at 9:00 PM, I did not have that wholesome feeling. More applause than before and more singing for the applause now. They are at their peak now. It is not the time to go ‘long’.

20.12 was day-off from concerts, to write the MINT column and catch up with other work.

21.12 and 22.12 in Delhi to bring daughter to Chennai. Haze and pollution were too bad when I was there.

23.12 (Wed.) back to the concert circuit. It was V. Shankar Narayanan’s lec.-dem on Vivadi Raagas. He is a personal friend.  We enjoyed his kritis and his witty explanations of Vivadi Raagas and Swaras. Come to think of it, artists use Janya Raagas more than they use Mela Karta raagas (e.g, Needhimathi, Raagavardhini, Chalanattai, Senapati, Soolini). Udupi Srijit was lovely on the violin. He is the third of the three brothers who are into Carnatic Classical Music (http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/pots-of-music/article3892762.ece). The family is blessed.

Then, we stayed back for the 4:00 PM concert solo-vocal by Dr. Sriram Parasuram. It was Pradosham day. Hence, even though the platform was provided by Sri. Parthasarathi Swami Sabha, he started with ‘Thevaaram’ (‘Piththaa Pirai Soodi’). He used Kumadakriya (‘Ardhanaareeswaram’) and the main piece was in Shankarabaranam.

His keertana by Akka Mahadevi on Mallikarjuna Swami rendered in Pahadi was moving as was his Abhang that followed. In my view, he has the best Abang rendition. You are swaying spontaneously.

We ended the day with a visit to the Shri. Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore. Lovely to listen to a Tamil discourse, Vedic chanting and the rendering of ‘Siva Puranaam’. We sat down and recited it with them and left for home.

On 24.12, I went for a lec.-dem on Nandi and Percussion. I was left by 75 minutes. I had only 45 minutes. But, I did not have to regret it. The artist, a lovely old man (Thiruvidaimarudur Radhakrishnan) was not really up to it. His vocal support, Vaikom Jayachandran had a great voice but mispronounced நெஞ்சே as நஞ்சே (that means not heart but poison).

Then, I came to Narada Gana Sabha for the 4:00 PM concert by Sanjay Subramanian. He has received the ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ from the Music Academy this year. The hall was full. He did not disappoint. He took some time to settle down. But, once he sang a kriti in Atana he hit full stride. Then, came the main piece in Thodi which was also RTP and then some lovely Tamil Viruththams. Both the vocalist and the violinist excelled in their Thodi Raaga Aalaapana and in the Thaanam that followed. It was quite mesmerising. S. Varadarajan on the violin was more than a match for Sanjay and drew more applause than Sanjay on occasions. Quite deservedly so. Neyveli Venkatesh did not over do it on the Mrdangam. Good for him.

Overall, it has been a good season of listening for me, so far.

I personally think that it was right to go ahead with the season. Kalki magazine has a good lead article on it in its issue dated 27th December. TM Krishna had not been pleased that the season has gone ahead. He thinks that it is insensitive.  I think one could be sensitive and still go about the normal pattern of living. Nothing else has stopped in Chennai. It is a personal choice. The instituions have done well to go ahead.

It was good to read in Kalki, however, that TM Krishna had trained some young children in singing Shri. Muthuswami Dikshitar’s short krithis in Sanskrit.

If you have artists to suggest, I would be grateful. I am told that Bharati Ramasubban (vocal) and J.A. Jayant (flute) are to be watched.

The little we heard of Apoorva-Anahita sisters was promising.

Another update or two later.

Saint Thiagaraja – the musical play

Every day we hear stories – either from within India or outside – of
how Indian civilisation, heritage and Hindu values and traditions are
being attacked. We fulminate; sign petitions and these achieve results
on occasions and do not, on other occasions.

But, the groundswell remains intact. We need to take heart from that.
Today, I experienced one such positive experience.

I woke up at 5:30 in the morning in Singapore on February 1 to get ready to catch a flight to Chennai that left at 9:00 AM. AIR INDIA left ahead of time and reached Chennai ahead of time. Smooth and comfortable ride.

A casual phone call to my good friend ‘Bombay’ Jayashri revealed two
irresistible programmes lined up for the day: the singing of
Pancharathna Kritis of Saint Thiagaraja followed by the Tamil Play on
Saint Thiagaraja for which she had composed music.

She was insistent – almost adamant – that I attended both. Attending
the group rendition was relatively easy. I had no clash of
appointments. But, I had a meeting at 6:30 PM.

So, at 4:00 PM, my friend Kapil and I went for the group rendition of
Pancharatna Kritis. An impressive assembly of artists was there –
Bombay Jayashri herself, Embar Kannan, B.V. Balasai on the flute,
Kunnakudi M. Balamuralikrishna, the evergreen maestro Umayalpuram
Shri. Sivaraman Sir (he has just turned 80), Shertalai Shri Ranganatha
Sharma, Aswath Narayan, Vignesh Easwar.

All these artists had sung or played for the musical-play to follow.

They began with Shri Ganapatini Sevimparare in Saurashtram, followed by
Gurulekha Etuvanti in Gowri Manohari (I think). Then, it was followed
by the rendering of the Pancharatna kritis. It all ended by 5:40 PM
with a Aarati for Lord Rama and the Trinity of Carnatic music.

I left for my meeting despite my friend insisting that I come up with
creative and imaginative excuses to postpone my meeting to tomorrow
and attend the musical play fully.

The meeting was good and productive. I did not rush. I returned to the
Narada Gaana Sabha at 7:52 PM. The play had gone on for about 60 to 65
minutes.

I reached during the scene where Shri. Thiagaraja refused to sing in
praise of the king and his brother orders him out of the house. As he
was leaving the house, I was entering the hall.

Intermission followed for five minutes. Then, I watched the rest of
the play. It was not so much the play – i.e., the acting or the
dialogues (they were good) that moved you. You are moved, nonetheless.
As ‘Jayashri’ put it later, that is the power of the Saint and his
Bhakti.

As he loses the Rama statue that he worships every day, he goes to
many Kshetrams and temples and sings in praise of Shri. Ranganathan in
Srirangam (O Ranga Sayee), Tirumala (thera theeyaga raadaa).

The audience was clapping for every scene spontaneously and there was
standing ovation in the end. The play ended with Shri. Thiagaraja
attaining sainthood and giving up his body to the rendition of ‘Bhaja
Govindam’ and ‘Punarapi Jananam, punarapi maranam’, in particular.

It was the atmosphere, the enthusiasm and the bhakti of the audience
and the ambience that made me feel so moved. Later, I heard that I was
not the only one who felt this way.

Seeing a full house on a MOnday evening that stayed until 9:20 PM with
great enthusiasm was a revelation. The show was not ticketed thanks to
generous sponsorship. But, still, people had to go back home late.
Most of Chennai still sleeps relatively early.

They gave Sweet Pongal and Sundal as Prasadams. I had one in the
evening after the rendition of Pancharatna kritis and again was given
another at the end of the play.

There was more surprise to follow. I jumped into an autorickshaw who
asked for Rupees 150.00 to drop me at the hotel in Egmore. It felt
high but I agreed considering that my day began very early and I was
keen to get to the hotel.

On reaching the hotel, the autorickshaw driver insisted on taking only
Rupees 120.00! He refused to accept 150 Rupees!

Thus ended a wonderful evening.

Endaro Mahaanubhavulu, Andariki Vandanamulu!

Warm regards and best wishes,
Ananth

Adi Sankara and Rational Expectations

Reproducing my weekly column for MINT published online on 15th August 2011 here.  I am also happy that I had touched upon ‘spillovers’ and the compensation for them in other areas.

The cost of West’s mistakes

Adi Sankara did not believe in the rational expectations model and hence he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for anticipating the credit booms and busts, monetary policy errors, Keynesian prescriptions that defy time and context.

Bare Talk | V Anantha Nageswaran

In his well-known Bhaja Govindam, Adi Sankara wrote Punarapi Maranam, Punarapi Jananam to indicate that human beings go through an endless chain of birth and death. Even those with a passing familiarity with Hindu philosophy would know that souls are born into this earth again and again until they have extinguished their vasanas (tendencies) or discharged their karma. In other words, if we learn the right lessons that life has to teach us, we do not have to repeat the cycle of birth and death.

That Sankara thought that we were doomed to go through that cycle means that he understood that human beings were capable of systematic errors. We are capable of refusing to learn from our mistakes. In other words, Sankara did not believe in the rational expectations model and hence he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for anticipating the credit booms and busts, monetary policy errors, Keynesian prescriptions that defy time and context, among others.

In fact, lately there has been a remarkable degree of convergence among some of the prolific economic commentators and academics. Interested readers can easily locate the source of the comments I am citing on the Internet. Simon Johnson thinks that the Tea Party movement’s success in extracting spending cuts from the US administration has meant that counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policies have become almost impossible. Ken Rogoff thinks that the US and Europe should target an inflation rate of 4-6% so that the mountain of public and private debt could be dissolved. Robert Shiller laments the fixation with numerical debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratios. Paul Krugman thinks that the US needs a fiscal stimulus, housing debt forgiveness and loose monetary policy. Writing about Europe, Daniel Gros thinks that only unlimited and open-ended purchase of bonds by the European Central Bank (ECB) could solve the European crisis.

In none of these opinions did Bare Talk come across any discussion or acknowledgement of the uncertain effectiveness and unknown consequences of their recommendations. Now, even if their prescriptions would solve the problems that they are meant to address, we should be aware of other problems that these solutions would create in their wake.

For example, many hold the belief that Asia will decouple from the woes of the West. In normal circumstances, decoupling will have gathered strength and proceeded satisfactorily. Not when both the US and Europe are politically divided and hence, economically clueless. Decoupling will disappear like a dream.

One early example is how the Swiss had wilted sufficiently to contemplate even a peg with the overpriced euro because the problems in the euro zone have pushed up the Swiss franc to such uncompetitive levels that they had no choice but to join the race to the bottom. A similar, if not the exact predicament, awaits the rest of the world, particularly Asia.

If the US, in the wake of promising the rest of the world that it would keep the federal funds rate at 0.0% to 0.25% until mid-2013, achieved ultra-negative real rates of interest, the ensuing liquidity inflows into developing economies will push up prices all around from assets to goods and services. It would exacerbate inequality and inflame latent social tensions in many Asian countries, forcing them out into the open.

If ECB joins the liquidity and low interest rate orgy dragging smaller non-single currency member states along for the ride, then prices of commodities will rise again. Already, the US department of agriculture has warned of the impact of the heat wave and drought conditions on corn production. Saudi Arabia is so ravenously lapping up its own oil production that fewer barrels of oil are available for exports.

All these costs could be at least contemplated and negotiated if the West acknowledged them. Up to a point, there is always scope for internal reforms, efficiency gains and productivity improvements in Asia. But if currencies and other prices rise rapidly, they would quickly overwhelm any nation, especially smaller ones. Their social stability and even sovereignty would be threatened.

There are things that the West can do to mitigate these costs. That first requires an acknowledgement of the external costs of pursuing solutions to problems largely of their own making. Once that happens, compensation can be considered in the areas of climate change, governance in global institutions, among others. However, when the opportunity presented itself to depart from the script in the selection of a replacement for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Western nations closed ranks. That was unfortunate.

So, the paths for the West recommended by academics and pursued slowly by policymakers will lead to conflicts with the East. Decoupling will stall and even reverse. Prices of assets in emerging markets do not reflect these risks. Policymakers and investors are woefully underprepared for the coming tsunami of Western economic policy unilateralism.

(V. Anantha Nageswaran is an independent macroeconomic and investment strategy consultant, based in Singapore. Your comments are welcome at baretalk@livemint.com)