Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I just wanna play my music…

Jonas brothers were speaking for my entire generation and the generation before us when they sang-

“Turn on that radio
As loud as it can
Wanna dance until my feet can't feel the ground (feel the ground)
Music's in my soul
I can hear it everyday, everynight
It's the one thing on my mind
Music's got control
And I'm never letting go, no no
I just want to play my music”
                                 (From Disney’s Camp Rock)

Oh yes, we just want to play our music, our way. Every morning while coming to office, I and my chauffeur go through a silent tussle. The point of difference is in the choice of music to be played in the car. I prefer old songs and using my remote from the backseat change the channel to AIR-FM Gold playing songs of 1960s. The moment car stops for a red signal, Ashish comes back to Radio Mirchi or some such noisy FM channel playing current numbers. After almost a month of this war – we declared truce. So on Monday-Wednesday and Friday we play my choice and on others, I let Ashish have his way. Interestingly on one of ‘my days’ I found him immediately taking out his mobile and put ear plugs to listen his channels privately. It was a revolt. But I have to admit - a smart one. Next day I followed suit with my Mp3 player and listened to my ragas while he enjoyed his Punjabi pop. So now, travelling in the same car, every morning we listen to two different types of music. After all, music is very personal in our times. We like to carry it with us in gadgets of various shapes and capacities. But look around, how easy it has become to carry your music. It is not unusual to find parents entertaining their babies in trains or public places by playing portable DVD players. Or joggers running with iPod or office workers playing mp3 in the desktops or fliers tuning to favorite music in-flight. Times have changed indeed.
Most people have their specific likes and dislikes when it comes to genres of music, musicians and way they like to listen. But till very recently, music was not portable. After our wedding, when my hubby called on my grand uncle, he was told that the eldest member of my family had visited Kolkata sometime back( actually in late 1930s) .My hubby politely asked if he visited the Howrah bridge and the Victoria Memorial ? With a mischievous grin my grand uncle replied that he was more interested in visiting Kananbala’s house in those days. Well, the love and craze for musicians is nothing new. We all have music icons of our generation. In my grandparents generation the only way to listen to music was live performance. People used to travel for days to listen to their favorite artists. Then came gramophone and brought the music close to its fans. It took some time to get popular and it was not so easy to find records. I remember we had a gramophone in my childhood. It was used to play records on birthdays and special occasions.I still remember how we used to dance on those old tunes. It was fun when long playing records came to the scene. We had such craze of listening to film music on them. Of course radio was our staple. Tuning different radio stations for different types of music was like following a class schedule. In school days transistor was my all day companion. Discovering a new radio station was like a favorite game. I will not repeat much about my craze for radio listening as I have already written on that here.
But in our teenage, the way people listened to music changed dramatically with the coming of tape recorders. Two in ones- as they were called popularly. A must have in a hostel room. An inevitable companion in a showroom. The tape recorder made it very easy to record and play voices from our dear and near ones. It might sound retard to today’s generation but it was thrilling to hear your own voice coming from the tape. Earlier one has to go to a recording studio to get a record made. I believe this was the time when music turned personal. We were no longer waiting in front of radio for the program to play our favorite song. We could play and replay it any number of times. Still tape recorders were bulky and not very easy to carry and cassettes were neither cheap nor durable. First factor was changed forever in India by the advent of Gulshan Kumar’s T Series – suddenly all cassettes were 29 rupees (as against Rs 120 or more of HMV), some were priced even lower at 17 rupees – it was almost liberation for young music aficionados. Then came walkman- how dramatic it sounded that you can walk and work while listening to music. An entire generation was plugged to it immediately. This was the much coveted gift which my elder cousins aspired for . It was very cool to have one. Parents, of course, thought it is incarnation of devil to ruin their children’s ears and mind. But to be fair, their parents had similar views about gramophone.

In front of my eyes the audio tapes turned into all powerful CDs- sleek and compact with immense storage capacity . First time I saw them at AIR Lucknow- I thought what can be better and sleeker than this. I found the answer soon enough. In a matter of years DVDs revolutionized the quality of music. Then technology took another step forward and came digital music. First time I heard music on computer (on winamp) I thought- this is it. In a matter of days- most of my CD collection was copied on the computer and I learnt a new lingo of music listening. Winamp, Real player, .wav format and of course .mp3 . It was a matter of minutes to find your favorite song, copy it online and play it on computer. Napster made us realize the power on Internet in very tangible, very musical way. Till the famous lawsuit made it illegal, it opened the floodgate of music for everybody across the globe. But by then, there were thousands of sites providing access to music online. It was around 2000 that I learnt all this and in just 10 years – this music is everywhere. Now, you don’t even need a computer to play it on. A small mp3 player would do for many thousand songs. Now every day I share music, download it, edit it and record it. Play it at my own convenience, at my own choice.
Of course, there is a school of thought that says that the magic is lost in this control freak environment of music listening. You no longer wait for your favorite number, no longer send request to play it- its so much in your hands that the craving for those sounds has gone forever. If you ask my mother, the sense of listening it together is also lost in this personalized way of listening to music. May be there is some truth in that. A CD of shehnai playing at a wedding can hardly replace the charm of live performance. Similarly the sound and energy one feels in a classical performance on stage can never be felt through a mp3 player. But then, convenience has a cost attached with it.

As I said earlier, music is very personal. I have people around me who listen to almost anything from Bollywood numbers to Buddhist chants on iPod, on mp3 players and many such gadgets. This morning I found that even my chauffeur has his playlists made. Come to talk of it, last year when I bought my first car, I made it clear that in my car my music playsI see people engrossed in their music while travelling by crowded buses, metro or even walking on the streets, almost every day. If you ask me, though live music will remain charming in its own way, it’s great fun and great convenience to have your music your way at your command .ok you can’t have the charm of live classical performance in other formats but come to think of it - how many more can today listen to a great musician - who 200 years back would have remained limited to only a single raj darbar. How much more music is available to the yearning ears crossing boundaries of money, geography and politics. Really, as the taglines goes, there is actually so much to hear .

So here I end this post and go back to my music :

“Don't you feel it growin', day by day
People gettin' ready for the news
Some are happy, some are sad
Oh, we got to let the music
What the people need is a way to make 'em smile
It ain't so hard to do if you know how
Gotta get a message-
Oh, oh, listen to the music
Oh, oh, listen to the
Oh, oh, listen to the music baby
All the time .”

(from Listen to the music by-Doobie Brothers)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Languages-lost and found

I have always been surrounded by storytellers. My parents were excellent storytellers, so were my two sisters and even my husband.  No wonder on most important issues of life, I cannot think without thinking of a parable. Today when I plan to write about the languages, their purity, their extinction and use…some of the most memorable tales of my childhood come to my mind.

I will narrate the one I love most . Gunadhyay was a minister to satvahana king Gautamiputra Sātakarni (also known as Shalivahan) in first century AD. One day young king was playing in water with his wives. The queen pleaded with him not to throw any more water on her (modaikah), which the king in his ignorance of laws of verbal conjugation in Sanskrit took for request for sweetmeats (modaka). The queen laughed at his ignorance . King’s ego was badly hurt and he decided to master Sanskrit at the earliest. Gunadhyay promised him desired proficiency in 6 years but Gunadhyay's rival Katantra came with a proposal for 6 months to master the language. Overconfident Gunadhyay vows not to use Sanskrit, Prakrit or any vernacular ever again if the deed is done.  But the King masters Sanskrit language under Katantra's tutelagee and Gunadhyay leaves the city of Pratishthan (present Paithan) and wanders disconsolate in Vindhyays. Later he meets Kanabhuti and learns a lesser known Paishachi language to write his stories. He sends a collection of his stories to his king. The king , now a master in Sanskrit, insults the language in which it is written and sends it back without reading . Heartbroken and insulted , Gunadhay started reading his stories to the animals and then burning them . The legend goes that the animals listened to those stories and were mesmerized, they stopped eating and moving . The news reached the King who rushed to save the stories. By the time he found Gunadhyay, 6 lakh stories were lost in fire . The remaining today forms Vrahat katha- a compilation which inspired katha sarit sagar and many such compilations. As a child I wondered how powerful this Paishachi language would have been. Today Paishachi - a form of prakrit , is an extinct language. It is mentioned as a medium of debate and literary expression in various Theravada Buddhist sources, and in Prakrit and Sanskrit grammars of antiquity. But still, we lost it , perhaps forever .

I resist from telling other equally fascinating stories about birth of a new Sanskrit grammer or about lust for learning a puritan language – stories of Panini and of Kalidasa. The point I am driving at is about our languages- old and new, changing with the times, losing their original character- developing in few cases, losing identity in most others . How our tradition tells us about people who loved them, preserved them, revered them and passed them on to next generations. Then somewhere we lost this penchant . Our languages world over are losing their strength. Some are lost others are in a process of being extinct.

Languages are much more than just a medium of expression. They tell you so much about the people who spoke them. They are a mirror of people’s perception. In my class of Philology in the University , we learnt about the relations of different languages , their history and development. It was extremely enlightening .

Now that I try to recall , it must have been in middle school that I first  thought about the delicate matter of languages- the impact of not getting them right  . It was when I came to know about Harappan Script and how it is yet to be deciphered . I looked at those pictorial alphabets and wondered what people who wrote them were trying to convey. In all probability, they narrate daily transactions and instructions. This is unlikely that the authors had any intention of spreading their word for  times to come .But then, what is so tough in those signs, those symbols of daily life that we are unable to find meaning behind them . Why we could not try all permutations and combinations to break the code behind these symbols.  It’s not that no one ever fell in love with these undeciphered languages and their mystery. I can think of Iravadan Mahadevan , a former IAS officer of 1954 batch who dedicated his life for study of Indus script and Brahmi. I can also think of one of world's greatest experts on the Indus script, Asko Parpola, who has been studying this undeciphered writing for over 30 years at the University of Helsinki in Finland. But despite some such people , despite our advancement in technology and our power of computing , we are unable to get back the tougues of the past. We are unable to do so, because the link of passing them on was broken. May be no one was interested in knowing them anymore. May be they were tougues of people who lost the war. Of people who do not mattter anymore. Of people whose thoughts and expressions were not considerred important to be understood . And it happened everywhere on the earth .
    Sometimes I feel that my generation is ungrateful. We do not respect what we inherited- be in monuments, skills, traditions or anything else. But then, perhaps each generation was like that ….and who knows how complete our inheritance was in case of languages. Till James Princep conclusively deciphered Kharoshthi in the middle of 19th Century, we knew little about 600 odd years of our history. Many pre-biblical scrolls are yet to be read . Very few are interested in them. Leave aside them, very few care to learn languages just for the love of it.
Once I heard a story of Pt. Sakal Narayan Shastri, an upcountry Brahmin who came to Kolkata looking for employament. Someone suggested him to meet the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University – legendary lawyer Ashutosh Mukherjee . The VC asked him what all he has read. The answer was simple- “Published-I have read all, unpublished- whatever I could lay my lands on.” It took the university administration sometime to decide in which department such a person can be placed. He knew many languages, arts, philosophies and more. One hears about many others of that generation, who painstakingly learnt and mastered the languages .
Then we also know how like everything else the love for languages is also politicised in today's world.Langauges are looked upon as a political tool. They are imposed on people in tthe packaged deal for education, employment etc. While I appreciate the sentiment that people consider language as such an important ingredient of their identity, I can never appreciate why they need to compete .e.g. the biggest disservice to hindi was done when it was made rajbhasha and was imposed on people. IT harmed the language , made more people resist it, made more people against it. It nearly killed the literature of the language. Knowing Hindi become a profession after all. At the end of it - we have hundreds of Hindi Officers, Hindi academies, Hindi Directorates, Hindi Pakhwaras  but very few Hindi lovers. Even those who speak it as their first langauge - do not feel proud of it. Do not know it too well. I wonder how many of us would be able to recall the old devnagari script in which hindi was written just about a hundred years back. And yet, no one learns by this experience. Each regional language and its speakers only think of making institutions to spread their tougues- no one really cares to spread the love for the languages- all of them. Going this way , we might just  turn more people away from the languages - fom the joy of it, the thrill of understanding the symbols and scripts and the history they carry with them.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My gardening genes

Entrance of my house (Jan2009)- nasturtiums,calendulas and Sweetpeas

My favorite memory of my father- the way I often see him in my dreams , is he looking after his favorite flower beds on a summer evening. It was a daily ritual as long as I remember that my father will step out of his car- tired from a usual day in a office and would head straight to check out on his plants, roses, shrubs and creepers. His weekend activities necesarily included pruning and cutting, planting and maintaining his garden. Even with two or three full time gardeners - he believed in Kipling's saying that Gardens are not made by singing “Oh how beautiful” and sitting in the shade. So he would get down to work himself. 
Visits to nurseries and to flower shows  are very important childhood memories to me. Papa devoted himself almost full time after his retirement , in looking after his garden. In my family, I inherited the gardening-genes from both sides. The love for gardening is so much ingrained that even now my mom would remember a particular house they lived in , by remembering the trees, the hedges ,size of the lawns , the flowers and the fruits. She can go on for hours telling you about the guawas we had in our Allahabad house and the Litchis trees at Pantnagar. Despite shifting homes every 3-4 years , my parents never lost their love for ‘ farming’ . Both of them , by the way , had no farming genes, as they came from urban backgrounds and  yet loved gardening so much. In fact a lot of my gardening trivia came from my father’s extensive reading e.g. he taught me names of different variety of roses and dahlias , the stories of famous gardens and gardeners and the tips on growing best plants.I use to take pride in knowing names of plants in three or four languages but like most others in north India, we  normally used urdu/hindustani names of plants . I have already mentioned in this blog how my parents used to shift on transfers with their favorite plants in tow .
Within days of landing up in a new place , my father would start planting banana and papaya trees. Within a year or so the fruits were ready for the family and neighbours. His another favorite activity was growing vegetables like bottle gourd (lauki), bitter gourd and ridge gourd(taroi). If the space was available, he will experiment with other fancy vegetables like beans, carrots and cauliflowers too , but these three were staple. God…how much we kids hated eating these on a regular basis . But the pride with which these were presented was unparalleled . Even comparing notes with neighbours on size of rose or vegetables was part of the gardening tradition of the family- sometimes to the embarrassment of us kids.This vegetable growing was improved further when Papa  went for deputation to Pantanagar Agriculture University ( a very appropriate choice for him!!) Mom was no less. She would find a particular flowering shurb in somebody's house and would immediately ask for a branch and next day mali would be ordered to find it out in nurseries . Once she developed a fad for all colours of Canna and hibiscus(gulhad) and within days our backside garden was full of these two in most unusal colours. Even in my mom’s parental house at Agra, gardening is a passion, a topic of discussion on dining table and a skill much valued . My uncle is a proud gardener with a ‘ vision’. He will design his garden in one way and would get bored with it after a while and believe it or not , overnight the garden would be ‘shifted’ to another design ….with hedges and shrubs and all -intact ! How he ensured that none of the plants die in this shifting is a mystery to me but he did it with such skill that it looked like magic .

Many of these plants travelled with us from one house to another and some others , we left flowering for the new occupants . No wonder,when my parents built their own house one of the pre-condition was existence of a lawn and place to grow vegetables. They did not mind settling down slightly far away from the city,as this requirement was non negotiable. It was difficult not to learn something about gardens and plants in a family like mine. Though the most talented of us sisters is my elder sis, I too realized off late that I cannot live without some plants and flowers to look after . It was however  difficult for me to find a niche area to specialize in the family. Father was all for flowers and specially roses , mom experimented with what she called useful plants – tulsi, chillies, mint leaves, coriander, tomatoes and the like . My sis loved the decorative greens - crotons and ferns, African grass and money plants .Now thanks to her efforts, our Lucknow house looks like all green - with creepers and climbers covering the front .

For some reason I was always partial for the scents . With the help of our gardeners,I carefully planted scents like harsingar(shefali), ratrani, kamini, malti, juhi, chameli and my most favorite - bela . Those who are familiar with these can imagine how fragrant the house would be when all of these are on bloom(usually around rainy season). In the early winters and again in summers , collecting the delicate and fragrant flowers below the tree was my favorite morning activity
Anyways , I was struggling with my gardening genes for past few weeks. I shifted to a new house last January and left my ground floor house with garden full of winter blooms for the next occupant. Now this new house on the first floor , has limitations for gardening . Still, I managed to gather about 40 potted plants .

Pride of my last year's winter bloom. My biggest Dahlia in a pot
Now with the winter approaching, I almost ache for the familiar sights of pansies, dahlias, cinerarias, sweet peas and marigolds. I told myself to resist this urge this year . I mean I hardly get time these days to pick up my gardening trowel and Pruning shears to look after my plants. But the funny part about genes is- you can’t resist them for long. So here I was this afternoon , standing in a nursery missing my lunch , picking up plants and fertilizers for the winter flowers . Now that I am again ready with my gardening tools ,let’s see how my winter 2011 collection goes. After all, the best thing about gardening is the anticipation and hope it provides to a person.