Lilla on the ‘Liberal’ leela

Closely related to the previous post on the matter of James Damore vs. Google, is a long piece by Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University. It is an extract from his book being published today. It is long but it is time well spent. Google’s conduct exemplifies what he writes below:

It is time to admit that American liberalism is in deep crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the wider public. The question is, why? Why would those who claim to speak for and defend the great American demos be so indifferent to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust? Why, in the contest for the American imagination, have liberals simply abdicated?…..

Other sentences from his piece that are worth pondering over:

As a teacher, I am increasingly struck by a difference between my conservative and progressive students. Contrary to the stereotype, the conservatives are far more likely to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas and principles. Young people on the left are much more inclined to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other Xs and those issues touching on X-ness. And they are less and less comfortable with debate.

Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X…This is not an anodyne phrase. It sets up a wall against any questions that come from a non-X perspective. Classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. What replaces argument, then, are taboos against unfamiliar ideas and contrary opinions…..

We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals for solidarity—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles that everyone can affirm……

Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. By publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But its decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and demand a confession of white sins and public penitence only played into the hands of the Republican right.

Frank Bruni’s article in the New York Times (‘I am a white man; hear me out’) is a good read too.

Viruses on campuses and in the American society – great weekend reads

(1) The Media Bubble is Real — And Worse Than You Think [Politico].

The only quibble I have with the article is that it concludes that journalists respond best when their vanity is punctured. But, far from trying to figure out why they were so vain as to miss what was happening to America, their vanity is making them tilt at the manifestation of their failure – Donald Trump. So, they are pitting their vanity against his and are directing their energies at getting him out. Russia is their trump card (pun intended). If they succeed in removing him, they think that they can exculpate themselves of the failure to anticipate his rise. Then, it would be difficult for the authors of this wonderful article to come up with another explanation as to how the media could do worse than they did in 2016.

(2) Professors moved Left in the 1990s. The rest of the country did not. Great read although it is from 2016.

While the data confirms that university and college faculty have long leaned left, a notable shift began in the middle of the 1990s as the Greatest Generation was leaving the stage and the last Baby Boomers were taking up teaching positions. Between 1995 and 2010, members of the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left. Moderates declined by nearly a quarter and conservatives decreased by nearly a third.

What is it about the boomers that they turned so irredeemably Left? Is it their success or is it guilt conscience that they achieved so much success at so high a cost to the world at large, to Planet Earth, etc.,?

(3) Heather Mac Donald’s experience at Claremont McKenna College in April 2017. It is positively scary and despairing. David Brooks is right to call it a tale of ‘chilling intolerance’.

(4) A great title: ‘Freedom from speech’ and a great line (George Will – Nov. 2015):

Campuses so saturated with progressivism that they celebrate diversity in everything but thought [Link]

(5) David Brooks is unfortunately likely to be proven right here:

These days, the whole idea of Western civilisation is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it. [Link]

(6) On a hopeful note: this video has more than seven million views on YouTube

(Most of the links above were picked from the Twitter handle of Jonathan Haidt)

How to listen to Carnatic music?

I have a simple suggestion for the header on this Buddha Purnima day. List the very popular musicians today, go back, and listen to their concerts 10 or 15 years ago. That should, mostly, make for a very satisfying listening.

You will commit Type I errors. That is you might waste time listening to those who do not satisfy the null – ‘if an artist is popular today, he or she would have been a prodigious talent when young’. That is Type I error – accepting the null when the null is false.

You would commit Type II error too – rejecting the null, when the null is true. That is, you might reject a good artist because he or she is not popular.

You would not even be selecting them because they may not be popular today. You may not identify such artists.

But, the difference is that you would not know that you are committing a Type II error. The impossibility of the counterfactual in real life, real time!

Of course, you can choose to minimise one of the two errors as with most quality control settings. If you recall your high school statistics, you may not mind good pieces being rejected but you might be particular that no bad one seeps through.

Only, in this case, you would do the opposite.

You would probably list popular, moderately popular and mildly popular artists and listen to them from the past. You would rather listen to over-hyped talent and then reject them than let go of good talent without listening to them.

Why this sudden ‘enlightenment’? Well, today is Siddhartha Jayanti. That is probably one explanation. Ok. The real explanation is that I had bought a one-year subscription to Charsur digital archives during the Chennai Music Season 2016-17 at the NSG Mini Hall in Chennai. I was listening to Sanjay Subramanian’s ‘Shubha Pantuvarali’ from a concert in 2002. It was fabulous. That explains this blog post.

Of course, needless to add, this is not the only way to listen to Carnatic Music.

Justice A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture

A good friend had forwarded me the full text of Shri. A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture. You can find it here. The PDF of the speech is here.

Overall, it is a good lecture. I understand the need for someone of his stature to raise his voice against nascent signs of intolerance and suppression of dissent in insidious ways. That is very much needed too.

However,  I do have some differences – big and small.

How then did M.N. Roy understand nationalism? In Roy’s view, nationalism was representative of the desires and ambitions of a group of people within a certain geographical area, as opposed to people uniting on the basis of class. Nationalism thus emphasised the placing of one’s country’s interest over the interest of the rest of the world. There was a time in the 19th century, when countries were still isolated from each other, when nationalism was a historic necessity, under whose banner people came together and humanity progressed. However, he believed, it had now become a selfish, narrow-minded “antiquated cult”, and the world should progress towards internationalism and international cooperation.

Nationalism in the context of the rise of China and Pakistan, the manner of their rise, their systematic and persistent hostility to India combined with their use of the social media and other pecuniary motivations, is not outmoded. Unfortunately, that is also going to give rise to inevitable restrictions on the concept of ‘benefit of doubt’ to spontaneous, agenda-less dissent.

In other words, Indians have to accept certain (that can be defined) restrictions in their exercise of fundamental liberties. The State machinery will try to take advantage of the situation to place restrictions on domestic political dissent. But, Courts, civil society and the media should and would play the role of ‘checks and balance’. In any case, Justice A.P. Shah seems alive to that risk.

While discussing the declaration made by the President of the Hindu Maha Sabha that “the majority is the nation”, Roy said that it sounds quite in “tune with formal democracy”, but in reality “particularly in the prevailing atmosphere of Indian politics, it means that in a nationally free India the Muslims, constituting nearly 1/3rd of the population, will have no freedom”.

​If some sections constituted one-third and hence had to be accepted as an integral part of India – a very fair point – then it is not consistent with preferential treatment as minorities. The State cannot mandate that they shall have the first claim on India and that they be exempt from RTE provisions, for example. One cannot have the cake and eat it too.

But, the speech does leave a feeling of deliberate incompleteness when it talks of how a group of twenty-something students of a University could be tried for charges of sedition for doing what the students in a campus would do:

More than 90 years later, however, we are still grappling with the fact that the crime of sedition was invoked against a group of 20-something University students for doing what students in a campus should feel entitled to do – raise slogans, debate, disagree, and challenge each other on complex, political issues that face the nation today.

Clearly, the State should have had the nous to separate slogan-shouting from explicit anti-national activities. At the same time, the learned Justice should have noted that the shoe is on the other foot too when it comes to the charge of intolerance. The students prevented and still do prevent alternate points of view.

If nationalism cannot be compelled – and I agree with that without qualification – then is it justifiable that anti-nationalism can be compelled on national soil as some sections of the society want?

If voluntary groups of people – like students – can resort to violence (in America, now left-liberal students even consider words as violence) to stop alternative points of view, then it becomes that much more untenable for critics to blame the State alone for resorting to violence on which it is supposed to have a monopoly!

The speech would have been more complete had he also acknowledged the special circumstances that India finds itself in – an assertive and threatening China and its poodle Pakistan, the global rise of Islamic terrorism, Naxals and Maoists and the exploitation of these fissiparous tendencies by Christian Missionaries – that places the State and the army in a uniquely difficult position, etc.

Some law and order excesses would be inevitable in such situations and they should be redressed and addressed. That said, they do not negate nor nullify the need for vigilance by the State. That would be a very naive call.

Kamal Hassan in his movie, ‘Nayakan’ asks the question of who should stop first. That applies here.

M.N. Roy’s so-called and apparent context-free commitment to certain ideals definitely had a context. Anyone who claims that they were not influenced by the context in which they lived is lying. Similarly, any message that does not take into account the context in delivering eternal homilies is an incomplete one.

Indeed, all those who speak pejoratively of nationalism are able to do so only within the sanctuary offered by certain nations. That they cannot do so in all nations is a comprehensive rejection of their rejection of nationalism.

Finally, both at a micro-level – families, small groups and communities – and at the national level, compulsion is usually counter-productive. So, I agree with this part of the speech fully:

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, the order fails to understand a distinction fundamental to liberal democracy – everything that is desirable or makes for a better citizen does not, and should not, be made compulsory. In fact, making something compulsory undermines the very meaning of that action and the respect that is normally accorded to it.

When speech is violence

Jonathan Haidt has a great interview with WSJ on April 1, 2017. But, the matter was anything but a matter of ‘Fool’s Day’.’

Some extracts from his interview:

People older than 30 think that ‘violence’ generally involves some sort of physical threat or harm. But as students are using the word today, ‘violence’ is words that have a negative effect on members of the sacred victim groups. And so even silence can be violence.” It follows that if offensive speech is “violence,” then actual violence can be a form of self-defense.

What are the causes for this shift. He names political polarisation as one of the causes. Campuses in the United States have become overwhelmingly left-leaning. There is no room for Right/Conservative professors on campus except, perhaps in Economics?

The second cause, he mentions, is that justice means equal outcomes now. That is very dangerous. Many developing societies have made that mistake and are now trying, with great difficulty and little success, to move away from equal outcomes to equal opportunity. But, if America is now moving towards or has moved towards equal outcomes, then that is one irreversible downhill slippery road to mediocrity and oblivion, if unchecked.

Jonathan Haidt points to that in his own, understated way:

Mr. Haidt argues, what happens on campus affects the “health of our nation.” Ideological and political homogeneity endangers the quality of social science research, which informs public policy. “Understanding the impacts of immigration, understanding the causes of poverty—these are all absolutely vital,” he says. “If there’s an atmosphere of intimidation around politicized issues, it clearly influences the research.”

Then, there are other causes – not necessarily minor. He points to ‘hyper-parenting’ although he does not use that phrase. Second is the attitude of Universities and colleges that treat students as customers and that customers are always right, in that great language of commerce. I am not sure if centres of leaning and knowledge should treat students as customers or just as students – with a mixture of compassion, understanding, justice and, importantly, discipline.

That is a great finish to the interview:

“People are sick and tired of being called racist for innocent things they’ve said or done,” Mr. Haidt observes. “The response to being called a racist unfairly is never to say, ‘Gee, what did I do that led to me being called this? I should be more careful.’ The response is almost always, ‘[Expletive] you!’ ”

He offers this real world example: “I think that the ‘deplorables’ comment could well have changed the course of human history.”

Well, after the last one week of President Trump’s audacious, unprecedented and dramatic somersaults, we do not know if history is merely continuing or is changing. That is an aside.

Back to Haidt and his ‘Heterodox Academy’. How big his challenge and how long the road ahead is, is underscored by these two stories. In case you had not watched this video, please do so (ht Harikiran). It is downright scary. It is from Australia. The disease is prevalent in all affluent societies. Perhaps, this is how the wheels of societies turn.

In the final analysis, one has to wish Haidt well. He is performing a very important task here with his Heterodox Academy. It is impossible to exaggerate its necessity in these times.

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!