Chennai music season 2016 – final missive

December 29, 2016 was the last day of the season for me and for my wife. We were returning to Singapore on December 30. We had packed the day with programmes to attend. It ended up as a day of attending lecture-demonstrations rather than performances. Overall, no complaints about the programmes but about the venues, yes.

First, thanks to light traffic, we reached Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha earlier than we thought. So, we caught more than half of Dr. Radha Baskar’s lec.-dem. On Thiagarajar compositions. She was assisted by two good and young singers. Dr. Baskar was an accomplished speaker.

From my notes, I find three interesting things to mention here:

(1) On ‘Sankatis’ – note the difference between ‘Ada Modi Galade’ vs. Marukelara, O! Raghava. Her singer Sangita did a good job of differentiating the Sankatis in both the kritis.

(2) Entharo Mahanubhavulu – begins in the little finger (not that I know the significance)

(3) Saint Thiagaraja composed one Notu Swara based Kriti – just to show that he was capable of doing so, too.

She kept saying that one should not belittle Shri. Thiagaraja Swamigal by calling him a saint?!! She wanted to say that he had a very good aesthetic and artistic sense and that he had not renounced those as saints do. One gets the point. But, to say that one should not belittle him by calling him a saint is a bit ludicrous. ‘Sainthood’ is not a demotion. It is an exalted state. One should prepare the script carefully to avoid such bizarre statements.

Next, in the same venue, was the topic, ‘Vainava Abhimana Sthalangal’, jointly presented by Dr. Sudha Seshaiyan and Ms. Vasundhara Rajagopal. Last season (December 2015), the singer, Vasundara Rajagopal had offered a great programme ‘Nava Vidha Ramanayanam’ with Sri Srinidhi Swamigal. It was a memorable programme.

Dr. Sudha Seshaiyan is very knowledgeable, thorough and accomplished. Her diction and delivery are flawless. But, she lacked a bit of life. The programme was about Vaishnava Temples not sung by the Azhwaars. The duo took us through Bhadrachalam, Udupi, Guruvayoor, Mannargudi, Puri and Pandaripuram.

Most of us know of only the Sri Udupi Krishnan Temple. Well, I was referring to myself. Dr. Seshaiyan told us about the Sri Chandramowliswarar Temple and the Sri Anantheshwarar Temple there.

About Mannargudi, she mentioned that the temple had an area of 36 acres of which 23 acres was the area of the Temple tank! The Temple has 16 towers, 18 Gopurams, 7 Praharams and 24 Sannidhis.

Then, we had the choice of attending Shertalai Shri. Ranganatha Sharma at the same venue at 4 and Sri. Ramakrishnan Murthy at the Music Academy at 6:45. These were the two musicians who impressed me in the 2016 season and it would have been an apt finish to the season for me. But, we chose to attend the three-hour long lecture-demonstration by Shri. R.K. Shriramkumar on those who inspired saint Thiagaraja. 2017 is the 250th year of his birth.

Shriramkumar had done meticulous research. He was assisted by three good singers – Amrita Murali, Nisha Rajagopal and K. Gayatri (was there a fourth one?) and Arun Prakash on the Mrdangam.

I may not have taken down notes meticulously. But, this is what I have. The songs that accompanied the commentary are in brackets:

  • St. Thiagarja considered sage Narada as his Guru. (Shri Narada- Kanada – Rupaka Talam)
  • His second influence was sage Valmiki (Maa Janaki – Khamboji)
  • His third inspiration was Bodhana who translated/re-composed Bhagavatam in Telugu. A copy is available in the Sourashtra Library in Madurai.
  • His inspiration came from Tulsi Das Ramayana (Giripai – Sahana)
  • Influence of Sri Purandaradasa on Thiagaraja (esp. for Nindastuti)
  • Influence of Bhadrachala Ramadas was substantial. He praises Ramadas in several compositions.
  • The influence of Sri Narayana Theerthar (the author of the Sanskrit opera, ‘Krishna Leela Tharangini’) was evident in the two operas that Saint Thiagaraja composed – Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauka Charitam.
  • Next, Shriramkumar mentioned Sri. Upanishad Brahman also known as Sri Ramachandreswara Saraswati. He was a close associate of Sri. Thiagaraja’s father.
  • I do not know if Shriramkumar said that he was the inspiration for Saint Thiagaraja to compose Divyanama Sankeertanams for congregational singing. But, it is there in my notes!
  • RKS mentioned that ‘Rama-ashtapati’ of Upanishad Brahman was set to tune by Sri. Muthuswami Dikshitar but that the tune was lost.

I found this on the web:

One of the oldest Mutts in TamilNadu is the Upanishad Brahman Mutt in Kanchipuram, near the Sri Kailasanathar temple. The Mutt derives its name from Upanishad Brahmayogin or Upanishad Brahmendral or Sri Ramachandrandra Saraswathi. He is called by the name of Upanishad Brahmayogin since he wrote commentaries on all the 108 upanishads of Hinduism in deference to the wishes of his father. The commentaries are now preserved in the Chennai Adayar Manuscripts Library. He had written close to 45,000 granthas and two other books covering various aspects of Advaita Vedanta and Bhakti.

(Ref: http://www.columbuslost.com/temples/Upanishad-Brahmendra-Mutt-and-Maha-Samadhi-Temple-in-Kanchipuram/info).

Incidentally, just as Columbus discovered the land of America, I discovered the site, ‘Columbuslost.com’. Check it out!

  • Kshetraiya Padams influenced many Sankatis in O’ Rangasayee and Pakkala Nilapadi.
  • Naada Thanum Anisham is the essence of the Mangala Shloka in Sangeeta Ratnakara.

By 8:30 PM, it had commenced at 5:30 PM, the programme had not ended. We had to leave. RKS has done tremendous work for this programme. His hard work and sincerity were amply evident. With some editing, it would be a good programme to repeat.

Back in Singapore, I listened to V. Sriram’s lecture on Saint Thiagaraja given in May 2016. Naturally, it had many common elements with RKS’ programme. It is available in Charsur.

After listening to that lecture, one could not help thinking that any other country would have nourished and cherished Tanjore city as the cultural capital of Southern India. It would and should have been made the destination city for cultural connoisseurs from all over the world. V. Sriram spends a few minutes on the Tippu Sultan invasion and the havoc and harm it wrought on the Tanjore region, including on art and culture.

Something has to be said about the NGS Mini hall. It is one of the most unsuitable halls for performance. It has only one door to enter and exit.

Our Rasikas are mostly impatient. They keep moving constantly. There is no stillness. Music is for stillness, mostly. The doors make noise. Chatting is going on in the corridor. When the door opens, the chatting drowns out the performance. The air-conditioning is either too cold, when it is on, and it feels too warm, when it is turned off, because there is no natural ventilation. The audio system is too loud if one sits in the front and if one stays back, then these swinging doors and conversations mar the experience.

The experience in most concert halls is more or less similar. There is no satisfying musical experience. From the manner in which the tickets are sold (or, not sold) and Rasikas checked in to the audio systems to the toilet facilities to temperature control in the halls, etc., there is a lot of scope for improvement. I am being polite here.

There is no concept of enhancing the Rasikas’ experience. Despite this, if we are able to glimpse divinity here and there, it speaks to the innate energy and divinity of the art and some of the artists who have imbibed the spirit of the art. The Sabhas can take no credit for it.

But, all that being said, for us, Chennai and its music season remain the biggest draw in December. We cannot conceive of being in any other place at that time of the year. After 12 concerts and 10 lecture-demonstrations, we are still hungry and insatiate. God willing, we will be back for more next year.

Banana and Jackfruit ragas

In Carnatic Classical Music, there are so-called light Ragas and heavy Ragas. At one level, the classification is right. The former don’t require much effort on the part of the singer or the instrumentalist and the latter more so. But, that distinction misses a crucial point. It is more appropriate to call them ‘banana’ ragas and ‘jackfruit’ ragas respectively.

I owe this analogy to Shri. So.So. Meenakshi Sundaram Aiyaa who is a renowned Tamil scholar living in Madurai. He used that distinction to suggest that some of the 3000+ verses of ‘Thirumanthiram’ by Thirumoolar could be called banana verses and some jackfruit verses. The former are a lot easier to understand. The latter have deep philosophical meaning. Interpretations can vary.

Some ragas – Ritigowla, Ananda Bhairavi, Sahana, Sindhu Bhairavi, Hamir Kalyani, Darbari Kanada and even Dwijavanti (a favourite raga of Shri. Muthuswami Dikshitar) could be considered ‘banana’ ragas. Their beauty is on the surface. It does not take much effort to savour them, just as it is with eating a banana. Just peel one layer and swallow. Satisfaction is at hand. All that the artist has to do is not to spoil them. In the case of such ragas, he or she is just a postman, delivering the raga and its beauty to the listener. The artist does not really have to try too hard to embellish it. Their intrinsic beauty is bubbling on the surface. It is enough if the artist does not spoil it. The workload in that sense is ‘light’ and hence the nomer, ‘light’ raga.

With the so-called heavy ragas – Todi, Kalyani, Kharaharapriya, Sankarabharanam – they are technical and intricate. They are like jackfruit. The artist has to help the rasika by peeling off the thick external layer before the rasika can savour the delight. The artist is not a postman here. He or she is actually a cook. The raw material is there. But, one needs to be an expert cook to create the everlasting taste, the bliss and the delight, etc.

That is the difference between the light Ragas and the heavy Ragas.

Objections welcome!

Studying natural stupidity

Read the ‘New Yorker’ Review of Michael Lewis’ book on Kahneman and Tversky. The review by Sunstein and Thaler offered glimpses into the relationship between both the men than about the book by Michael Lewis – whether it is readable, worth reading, its strengths and weaknesses, etc. In passing, yes.

Some lovely glimpses into Tversky’s personality:

He was an optimist, not only because it suited his personality but also because, as he put it, “when you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.

When asked about artificial intelligence, Tversky replied, “We study natural stupidity.” (He did not really think that people were stupid, but the line was too good to pass up.)

From the review, it does appear that it would be interesting to read the portions of Michael Lewis’ book after the duo – Tversky and Kahneman – moved to America. Even the most perceptive scholars and students of human minds are not exempt from the common afflictions of human minds, it seems.

I do have a personal anecdote to share. I shared with Professor Kahneman my review of his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. He replied:

Thank you very much for sending me these very perceptive notes.
Best wishes,
Daniel Kahneman

This was on 21st August 2012.

New Year Greetings

Absolute wishes:

May the Almighty wish you all a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

Relative wishes:

May the Almighty bless us with opportunities for more self-doubt, more
reflection and more of less certitude, from time to time.

A friend responded:

Absolute wishes:

May we abandon all wishes!

Relative wishes:

May the Almighty’s and our wishes coincide from time to time!

For those familiar with Tamil Nadu politics and names:

Wishing you

Paneerselvam’s luck,
Sasikala’s wealth,
Karunanidhi’s longevity and
Stalin’s patience in this new year

Enduku Peddala

Yesterday, a friend visited us and she was talking to us about the 10-day Vipaasana programme she had attended. My wife asked her about the benefits or what she discovered from the programme. I am not going into what my friend told her. The question set me thinking about the possible benefits from the programme which involves no talking, no reading, no writing and no eye contact with anyone for ten days.

Your only company is your thoughts. I can see the benefits of the programme. It can lead to an intimate awareness of oneself. All thoughts hidden deep within the crevices of one’s mind and memory will come gushing out – the good, the bad, the ugly, the profane, the gross, the sublime, the perverse, the straight, the generous, the mean, the narrow, the vicious and the magnanimous. One is bound to be surprised, startled, alarmed and repulsed and even scared by some of those thoughts.

But, the idea is precisely that. To become more intimately familiar with one’s thoughts and learn over those ten days to accept them, to see them for what they are – mere thoughts – and not to take them too seriously.

So, the programme has to be eventually about becoming more familiar with ourselves and not taking ourselves too seriously. In the course of the ten days, we realise that we do not miss the outside world and perhaps, more importantly, the outside world does not miss us either! Thus, it is also about coming to terms with one’s own insignificance and dispensability in the overall scheme of things.

Sure, this can happen without attending the programme or one can attend the programme and not achieve any of this too.

That should remind us of what Saint Thiagaraja meant in his kriti, ‘Enduku Peddala’:

vEda shAstra purANa tattvArthamu dElisi bhEda rahita vEdAntamunu dElisi nAda vidya marmambulanu dElisi nAtha tyAgarAjanuta nijamuga

Meaning:

In spite of me being aware of the profound meanings of the Vedas and Sastras and expounding the Bheda Rahita philosophy and the subtle secrets of Nada Vidya (knowledge of sound), yet real wisdom which transcends mere intellectual awareness you have not blessed me with! Why? [Source]

The purpose of liberal arts education: an examined life

A conversation between Professors Robert George Cornel West of the Princeton University (ht: The Heterodox Academy). I have extracted some portions that made me think and I am presenting them in this blog post. You can find the full transcript here.

  • It’s the gospel of liberal arts education. It’s a gospel that is all about interrogating your own assumptions and presuppositions. In an age of ideology, it’s hard to think of what could be more important than the self-critical attitude and the virtues of intellectual humility and love of truth that are at the core of liberal arts learning.
  • As Plato said, perhaps an unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps the wealth and the prestige and the status and the power and influence are mere dross. Maybe the real meaning of life, what it’s really all about is something different, something that can only be obtained through critical self-examination.
  • And to learn how to die is to muster the courage to critically examine yourself, the courage to interrogate yourself so that you must wrestle with a certain doctrine and dogma that may have to die — certain xenophobic prejudice, certain assumption or presupposition you’ve had in your life, you’re holding on for dear life and you have to let it go. That’s a form of death.
  • Spiritual blackout is about the eclipse of integrity, the eclipse of honesty, the eclipse of decency. And once that goes, no matter what our ideological or political orientations are, we’re just on the way to the survival of the slickest.
  • What we don’t want is for higher education across the board to be instrumentalized to the goal of, for the individual, career attainment, and for the society as a whole, simply training our workforce for the new economy or the next stage of the economy.
  • I do believe in all honesty that we’re in a deep moral and spiritual crisis. The liberal arts tries to get us to look at the world through moral and spiritual lens, whatever our traditions are, so that the sense of what it means to be human is not reduced to just money making, status seeking, manipulation, domination. Those are the dominant forces in human history. Human history is a cycle of hatred and revenge and resentment, domination, exploitation, and subordination. How do you interrupt those? That’s what Plato is concerned about. Why is Plato concerned about it? Because his mentor
    condemned — Socrates. He said, I’m going to make the world safe for the legacy of Socrates so every generation will have to come to terms with his example, the enactment of an examined life. And Plato pulled it off pretty well.
  • think the dominant goal for most people these days, or at least many people these days — perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so judgmental — is feeling good. It’s having satisfaction. People find it in different places, look for it in different places, often look for it in all the wrong places. But they’re after a certain psychological status, a certain desirable psychological state….something deeper and more difficult to handle.
  • Why do people want money? Because prestige comes with it. Why do — or status. Why do people want prestige and status? Because you feel good. It makes you feel good. It’s like a drug. It’s the same reason people like applause. It’s the same reason people, including students at universities, are so conformist, so unwilling to cut against the grain, so unwilling to question the campus dogmas and orthodoxies, because if you do, you get criticism, and that doesn’t feel good. What feels good is applause. It’s like a drug. It’s addictive like a drug. And to avoid that drug, you need spiritual strength.
  • What’s our age? Well, it seems to me that our age is the age of feeling,… And the age of feeling — feeling is what slips into the role of governor when faith and reason are abandoned, when they lose their status, when they lose their prestige, when they lose their authority. And that’s what you get — I think what Cornel is calling spiritual blackout. You get spiritual blackout when feeling is the whole thing and what we’re after is feeling good. Some people seek that in very, very bad and dangerous ways: through drugs, promiscuity. Other people seek it in other ways, less physically dangerous but perhaps no less spiritually dangerous: through the status and prestige that comes with wealth or power or what have you.
  • Again, there’s nothing wrong in itself about feeling or desiring to feel good, but if that’s your fundamental goal, then you’ve got a deep spiritual problem. And the last thing you’re going to be looking for is the examined life. You will not see the point of the examined life because what it does is make you feel bad.
  • The examined life is a life in which you’re constantly questioning yourself. You’re subjecting yourself to self-criticism. Intellectual humility is a central virtue because in order to carry out the enterprise of self-criticism, you have to actually deal with the possibility that you might be wrong, and that’s hard, especially if changing your view would result in your being stigmatized, ostracized, isolated on your campus or in your community, whether your community is right, left, center, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — whatever your community is. Seeking the examined life can be a very dangerous thing if what you’re after in life is satisfaction and feeling good. It’s a probe. It’s a prod. It’s a disruptor.
  • People don’t feel as though anything matters, that they’re looking to feel good, something that will make them feel good. People want to at least feel like they matter, something matters. And when they can’t find that, when they’re in the condition of nihilism, you will turn to something else. Now, drugs are just the kind of gross, obvious example for people who are very poor, who don’t have an alternative, although it also affects people who are very rich. But for a lot of people who are very rich, they can find that. They can look for that in a less obviously physically dangerous way. And it can, in its pathological forms, take the form of not just power but domination; not just influence, but narcissism — can take these kinds of forms. And there’s an awful lot of that about.
  • So the call for the restoration of liberal arts ideals is necessarily a call for a sort of spiritual reawakening, a revival, which is at the same time a condition for anybody’s truly appreciating that it’s worth working hard for things, that there are things that are worth having that go beyond how they make you feel, things that are worth having even though — you know, the drug rush is not going to be the reward but, nevertheless, whose value we can perceive and appreciate and struggle for and dedicate ourselves to.
  • So this is not an argument that you have to have a college education or a liberal arts education to be a good person. It’s just that the value of a liberal arts education consists at least in part in its capacity to contribute to our spiritual and moral fulfillment, our spiritual and moral well-being, and there will be a certain number of people for whom, absent that provision, the path is going to be the wrong one. It will be down the path toward seeking wealth and power and status and prestige and influence because there will be a certain number of people who will confront Shakespeare or confront Plato and suddenly realize, “I’m on the wrong path. I’m going the wrong direction. I need to reevaluate my life. I need to assess what really matters. I need to rethink what I’m going, what I’m going to dedicate these next 60 years or 70 years to doing.”
  • My brother David Brooks talks about this in terms of the shift in his own life from being obsessed with his resume as opposed to becoming obsessed with his eulogy said at his funeral. That’s a very different set of stories and narratives and analysis of what’s said at your funeral as opposed to just what’s on your resume. I think what’s said at your funeral is very much about integrity and honesty, decency, love, sacrifice, self-surrender, service, and what have you.
  • On Liberty” — there Mill makes the point that we should value dissent even when we are confident that the dissenter’s wrong because that dissent will enable us by way of defending the truth to deepen our understand and appreciation of it.
  • We human beings wrap our emotions around our convictions, which is not a bad thing in itself, but it can become an impediment to having an open mind. So, you know, I’ve got a lot of stuff against Nietzsche, and yet I read him and I assign him not only because I know that trying to respond to his criticisms will deepening my understating of what I believe to be true, but also because I know that there is a chance — maybe an outside chance, but a chance — that he’s right and I’m wrong.
  • … a true liberal arts education with that openness of mind, with that intellectual humility, that willing to recognize that one might be wrong, that willingness to engage the greatest that’s been thought and said by the greatest minds, the greatest people, it’s like getting on a train not knowing where you’re going to get off and maybe even not recognizing who you are anymore when you get off that train.

I had read about Professors Robert George and Cornel West last year in a Bloomberg article. Their collaboration, despite different ideological viewpoints, was refreshing to read. They reminded me of Professor Daniel Kahneman who had done that too, in practice. This is the original Bloomberg article and this is my cover story for Swarajya for December 2015 (‘Who is a Liberal?’) in which I had mentioned them and Professor Daniel Kahneman.

 

What can Siddartha give?

Since starting his podcast in 2014, bestselling author Tim Ferriss has interviewed well over 100 highly successful people, from Navy SEALs to billionaire entrepreneurs.

He uses his interviews to pick apart the, as he puts it, “tactics, routines, and habits,” that have brought these subjects to the tops of their fields. He’s collected his favorite lessons from these discussions, along with a few new ones, in his book “Tools of Titans.”

Ferriss recently stopped by Business Insider’s New York office for a Facebook Live Q&A, and explained that there is a passage in Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel “Siddhartha” that offers a suitable lens for all of the “tools” he shares in his book.

The novel “Siddhartha” tells the story of a young monk’s quest for enlightenment (the Buddha narrative). Four of Ferriss’ guests included in “Tools of Titans” said it was the book they most often gave as a gift to others, including renowned Silicon Valley investor Naval Ravikant.

Ravikant was the person to highlight for Ferriss the passage in which the protagonist is asked by a merchant how he can offer anything to the world if he has discarded all of his possessions. Siddhartha tells the merchant that, “Everyone gives what he has,” and the merchant replies, “Very well, and what can you give? What have you learned that you can give?”

“I can think, I can wait, I can fast,” Siddhartha says.

Ferriss said that this deceptively simple response is the foundation for all high performers. He explains in “Tools of Titans”:

“I can think: Having good rules for decision-making, and having good questions you can ask yourself and others.

“I can wait: Being able to plan long-term, play the long game, and not mis-allocate your resources.

“I can fast: Being able to withstand difficulties and disaster. Training yourself to be uncommonly resilient and have a high pain tolerance.”

“Those are three very, very powerful tools and they’re very flexible,” Ferriss told us. [Link]

I would add the following:

‘Think’ here includes reflection and introspection.

‘Wait’ here more correctly should mean accepting delayed gratification. Being patient for results.

‘Fast’ here includes being prepared to bear and accept pain as part of the offerings of life.