Friday, December 23, 2005

Our languishing music heritage

India has an astonishing wealth of music. Besides the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions that we all have heard of, there are a number of lesser known ones such as:
  • Panns: The Tamil region since ancient times has had a well-developed music system, mentioned in the Sangam literature and extensively discussed in the 2nd century epic Silappadhikaram. The Tamil bhakti texts (circa 7th century AD) such as the Thirumurai and the Devaram were set to panns (ancient ragas). Unfortunately, large parts of this music was lost after Malik Kafur's raids in the south. Whatever remains has been assiduously preserved by a dwindling number of odhuvars, who traditionally sing these hymns in temples. The panns are believed to have had considerable influence on the development of the Carnatic ragas.
  • Abhang, the bhajans of the Marathi saints, Namadev, Jnaneshwar, Tukaram and others, who were bhaktas of Vitthala. To this day, their itinerant followers, called the varkari panthis, celebrate the names of the Lord in these songs of intense devotional fervour. The abhangs even spread to the Thanjavur region (which was ruled by Marathas) and were merged into the divya-nama tradition of Tamilnadu.
  • Vachanas: In the 12th century, a Shaiva movement was founded in Karnataka by Basaveshwara. A revolutionary, he fought caste, glorified manual labour and condemned ritualism. The ideas of Basava and his followers (cutting caste and gender) are expressed in Kannada poetry, called vachanas. The original melody of the vachanas are probably lost; they are now sung in the Hindustani style.
Such wonderful, but little known, music deserves a wide audience, but unfortunately there are few recordings widely available.

Recently I met a gentleman who has recorded such music, but is unable to find anybody willing to market them. He has produced the Thirumurai sung by an odhuvar in the original pann system, abhangs by varkaris as well as basava-vachanas. Marketing people expect a well-known name on the label for reasons of commercial viability, but the authentic sources of such music are unknown and poor persons languishing in remote villages or temples. The gentleman I met is very commited to such an undertaking; he has set up his own studio for this purpose; he also has a keen attention to detail evident even in the aesthetically created jackets for the CDs.

Do readers have any suggestions as to what could be done to market such productions? I was thinking along the lines of setting up an e-commerce site. Probably Yahoo! Store is an option to consider; does anyone have experience with such stuff? Or better ideas?


Suraj Kumar, a Carnatic enthusiast and guitarist who works at Amazon, suggested:
I talked to folks. Seems the Amazon Advantage Program will fit you right. BUT... are you trying to sell only to India? or Will this include global audience as well?

The good thing is the kind of systems that we have in place that would help you as a seller. Firstly, when you decide to sell via most online stores, the route is quite long. You as a publisher / producer will have to go to a distributor and the distributor would place your product on a lot of different places (amazon, barnesandnobles, etc.,.). But you end up paying up a lot of cuts. This would be advantageous if you expect a whole lot of audience purchasing your product (like you are selling iPods).

This is why the amazon Advantage program is beneficial for small sellers.
More suggestions from Shivku and Sivaram in the comments below.

Thanks a lot everybody!

Update 2: The details of the pann recordings: (These were produced by him for Kosmic Music, not for his own fledgling company.)

1. Pann muraiyil Thirumurai (3 volumes - audio cassettes)
2. Pann muraiyil Pasurangal (2 volumes - audio cassettes)
Both by Muthukandasami Desikar, the odhuvar at the famous (Rock Fort) Thayumanavar Temple, Trichy.

The panns covered are:
Nattapadai (Gambhira Natta), Sigamaram (Malavagowla), Thakkesi (Kambhoji), Kolligouvanam (Navaroz), Megharagakurinji (Neelambari), Pazhamthakkaragam (Arabhi), Vizhakurinji (Saurashtram), Thakkaragam (Kambhoji), Nattaragam (Panthuvarali), Sevvazhi (Yadukula kambhoji), Kausikam (Bhairavi) and many more. (I am too lazy to type all of them.)

These cassettes are also listed on the Kosmic Music site.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Panini couldn't write? - Sanskrit scholar answers

"Was there no writing in Panini's (the famous Sanskrit grammarian's) time?" I had wondered sometime back, and if the phonological ordering of the Sanskrit letters was his contribution.

Sunil, the blogger at the wonderful Balancing Life, was extremely kind to take up these questions with his Sanskrit professor, Dr Richard Salomon, an expert on ancient scripts. Dr Salomon's responses reveal rather interesting facts. A lot of thanks to Sunil!

Read Dr Salomon's thoughts here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rain and Cricket in Madras

The water scarcity of Madras is world-famous. The last time the city had a normal monsoon was when K. Veeramani organised that grand annadānam at the Triplicane Parthasarathy temple.

The people as well as their benign rulers in the government tried all they could, but the drought never really came to an end. Jayalalitha sent up airplanes to seed clouds; the pilots sighted the first cloud only after reaching Cherrapunji. After this incident, Amma stopped smiling. Karunanidhi set up rainwater harvesters to catch water from even light showers; however, the sun blazed away without any break. This is when, in protest against the sun, the Kalaignar took to wearing goggles.

The sign was clear - the gods were unhappy.

One day it really seemed like it would rain. The sky was grey; the sound of thunder was booming; lightning was falling all over the place. This was the result of the Varuna Japa conducted (like this one) at the Kapaleeswara Temple: Priests stood in waist-deep water (obtained from distant villages at a great expense) praying for so many days to propitiate God Varuna. R. K. Narayan got inspiration for his novel Guide from this ceremony.

Finally, there was... ah, no rain. The priests had got their vedic gods wrong. Varuna may indeed at one time have been the bringer of rain. But later, as this article tells us, his stock fell and he was supplanted by his rival Indra, who was now the True Rain God. The varuna japa was a gross miscalculation - it was akin to greasing the palms of the official at the Public Works Department, when you should have been bribing the one at the Central Public Works Department.

So, you may ask why is it that everytime a cricket test or one-day international is scheduled or staged at Chepauk it pours in torrents. What, haven't you heard the crowd at the Chidambaram Stadium chant "Ind-ra! Ind-ra!"?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Book times are here

"Why buy that book when you can get it from the library?" my parents would say. In accordance with their advice (now, also approved by a Nobel laureate), the bulk of my reading came from my school and neighbourhood libraries. And guess what I found in my (software) organisation's library - The Penguin History of Early India!

Having started earning and all, I let myself more leeway these days on buying the stuff. My choice tends to be:
  • Nonfiction on subjects that interest me or
  • Fiction I don't tire of after a single read. The first read would come from a library of course!
And it's a good time for book-lovers in Bangalore. Just a couple of weeks before was the Bangalore Book Fair and now there is the Strand Book Sale. For the former, booksellers from different parts of the country came together at the Palace Grounds. I got a couple of Telugu books that I would not have normally found outside Andhra; the History of Tamil Literature from the Sahitya Akademi stall at a 50% discount; and a Sanskrit primer from Motilal Banarsidass.

As I was going around the place, I heard a recording of Purandaradasa compositions in the Tanjore Namasankirtana style, which immediately took my fancy. The sellers turned out to be Giri Traders of Madras.

The Strand Book Sale that I visited yesterday offers (the Sale is still on) considerable discounts, starting at 20% and going upto 80. I bought a P.G. Wodehouse (Uncle Fred) omnibus at 25% less. However I could not find the collection of Somerset Maugham's short stories that I was looking for, or anything much on Western classical music.

Still, if you are in Bangalore and love books, don't miss the Strand Sale!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Our metrosexual pantheon

Ages ago, my friend Vijayanand asked me something for which I still don't have an answer:
Why do our gods look so feminine?

Is it Ravi Varma's legacy?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Our ancients couldn't write? (Updated)

The traditional way in which Sanskrit letters are arranged in the varamālā has a phonological significance. A subset:

Labialpphbbh m


In an interesting post, Dr. Kerim Friedman says:
The sounds are listed in order of where in the mouth the sound is produced: gutturals (produced in the throat) first, and labials (produced by the lips) last, with a steady progression in between[1]. I am curious when this ordering became standard.
In response, I referred him to a Hindu report, where one Dr B. S. Ramakrishna attributes this scientific arrangement to Pāṇini, the famous Sanskrit grammarian.

However, Dr. Ramakrishna errs when he makes a reference to Devanagari:

[Pāṇini]'s well-researched arrangement of the alphabet of Devanagiri (sic) script was a unique effort.

The Devanagari script, used these days for Sanskrit, Hindi and Marathi, came into existence pretty late - in the 13thcentury A.D. There is no way the 5th century B.C. grammarian could have written in this script. Even the earliest known Indic scripts, Brāhmi and Kharoṣṭhī, are attested only from the 3rd century B.C. So which script did Panini employ?

Or rather, could he write at all?

[Panini] anticipates much of the methodology of modern formal grammar: his grammar is generative and in some respects transformational. It cannot, however, be compared very directly with modern formal grammars, since its form is geared to the needs of oral transmission, and Pāṇini could not avail himself of the mathematical symbols and typographical conventions of the written page. The work was so brief that it could be recited from beginning to end in a couple of hours. [2]
[Emphasis mine.]

It is not known whether Pāṇini himself used writing for the composition of his work. Some people argue that a work of such complexity would have been impossible to compile without written notes, while others allow for the possibility that he might have composed it with the help of a group of students whose memories served him as 'notepads.' [Wikipedia]

We know that the oral transmission of texts was emphasised, but does this mean there was no written form of Sanskrit till the 3rd century B.C.? I think it improbable.

So when Vināyaka broke off a part of his tusk to transcribe the Mahabhārata, to write in which script did he break it off?

* * *

Update: Dr Richard Salomon, via Sunil, provides the answers:

On the phonological ordering:
This is an interesting, but not simple question. The "ka-kha-ga-gha" order, or better, the "varna-samāmnāya," is hard to date precisely. Panini (who himself is hard to date) doesn't use it as such, but his own technically devised special ordering, the Siva-sūtras, is usually understood to presuppose it. It actually occurs as such only in relatively late technical texts such as Prātisākhyas. All of this suggests that the varna-samāmnāya ordering principle goes back well into the BC period, but no more specific or definite answer can be meaningfully given.

If there was writing in Panini's time:
The other question is whether Panini's system presupposes or requires writing at all. This has been quite controversial, but most scholars nowadays would say no; it can be, and probably is, a purely oral/mnemonic system. (Some European "armchair" scholars of earlier decades thought this was impossible, but direct acquaintance with Indian pedagogy and oral traditions have convinced later generations of western scholars that it is quite possible.)

This does not however mean that there was no writing in Panini's time; this question remains open, especially since we don't know exactly what his time was. Most reputable scholars nowadays tend to think about 5th or 4th centuries BC. Writing systems that might have been familiar at the time in his area (Saalatura, now in NWFP, Pakistan) include Greek, Aramaic, and Kharosthi. But since the earliest actual specimens of Kharosthi and Brahmi date only from the time of Asoka (3rd c. BC), it remains uncertain whether they had developed yet by the time of Panini. This is still quite controversial, but the tide of opinion nowadays is that Brahmi, at least, was invented quite late, i.e. in the Mauryan period. A better case can be made for an older date for Kharosthi (5 or 4th century BC), but there's no firm evidence.

These are questions I am very much interested in and have written/am writing about... You can also check my Indian Epigraphy book (esp. ch. 2) from 1998--but it's already out of date. Interesting developments are happening these days in the study of the history of writing/literacy in ancient India.

On writing and the Mahabharata's Vinayaka legend:
[T]he legend of Vinayaka is a late accretion. But then the date of the Mahabharata is--here we go again--a big problem. Most scholars would put its final form to a relatively late date, sometime in at least the early AD period.
[Slightly reformatted.]
- - - - - -

Other posts on language: One, Two.

[1] Palatal consonants are articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate. Retroflex consonants are articulated with the tongue placed behind the alveolar ridge.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Toothsome links is a "social bookmarking site," used to maintain what bloggers would call a link-blog. I find it very useful to store and share interesting links I find during the course of my surfing at work and at home (in Madras).

You can view the links I have stored by clicking on "My Bookmarks" on the sidebar.

(I was directed to by my friend Gokul's post.)
- - - - -

Wish you all a wonderful Deepavali!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Bangalore Diary

Some thoughts after a month in Bangalore:

With young people from all over the country converging here in large numbers, Bangalore resembles a university town. However, this may not be very evident during the weekdays when people are mostly in the workplace.
- - - - -

I have developed a strong liking for idli in these few days. Though I come from Tamilnadu, the home of the idli, it was far from a favourite. The reasons being:
  • When made in a pressure-cooker (as is usually done at home), idlis are a bit harder than they should be.
  • I usually had them with molagāi podi, which I realise now is not a great combination.
But these days if I am able to drag myself out of bed in the mornings, it is only due to my longing for the soft sambar-soaked idlis from the nearby Udupi "hotel."
- - - - -

What the name Karthik is in Tamilnadu, Manjunath is in Karnataka. If you hop onto a bus here and holler "Manjunath," you will find at least half the people responding.
- - - - -

The Bangalore traffic has already gained country-wide notoriety. These cartoons are popular email-forwards:(If the words are not clear: Politician - "We have found a permanent solution for the traffic on Hosur Road." Industry representatives - "Wow! Fly-overs? Six-lane Roads?" Politician - "Make the entire road a wi-fi zone, so that people can work from their company bus.")


Before I moved to my present accommodation (close to my workplace), I used to take two buses to work from my friend's flat. If I did not catch my first bus by 8am, I would take it only after 9:30 to avoid the peak-hour traffic. Thank God for flexible work-hours.
- - - - -

Talking about transportation, I seldom have had to wait at the bus stop for more than five minutes, owing to:
  • Private buses (there are quite a few).
  • Chauffer-driven private vehicles, operated on the sly.
Often when I return home late (after 11pm) when the buses are less frequent, it is the latter that would come to my rescue.
- - - - -

Kannada, it seems to me, is a combination of Tamil and Telugu. Take, for instance, the numbers:

Kannada Tamil Telugu
3 mūru mūnru mūdu
4 nālku nāngu nālgu
5 aidu aindu aidu
6 āru āru āru
7 ēdu ēzhu ēdu

This resemblance is, of course, not surprising.

There are a couple of things, however, that one should remember to do while trying understand Kannada words:
  • Change H to P (a lot of times).
  • Change B to V (sometimes).
So when you hear the sentence "Hālu kudibittu hogi," you now know:
  • hālu -> pālu: milk (Telugu/Tamil)
  • kudi: to drink (Tamil)
  • bittu -> vittu: after (Tamil)
  • hōgi -> pōgi: to go (Tamil/Telugu)
"Go after drinking milk."

Though I know very little Kannada, I have so far not encountered any communication problems. Most autodrivers and shopkeepers also speak Tamil, Hindi and Telugu. How they manage to do this, is beyond me to understand.
- - - - -

If I have to mention one thing that I like the most about Bangalore: The climate. What more will a Chennai-ite ask for?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Hexal System and the Mela-karta Ragas - Essay

An old essay of mine, just uploaded:

While doing my bachelor's degree. I was introduced to the mathematical concept of Number Systems. When this is applied to Carnatic music, there emerges an interesting association between The Hexal System and the Mela-karta Ragas.

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Previous posts on music: One, Two and Three.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Word Verification and its Usability

Great post! By the way, I have a blog on california home loan mortgage refinance and related stuff that you may be interested in :-) Do visit it!
- A comment on one of my posts
Most blogs are being plagued by the nuisance of spam comments. Apart from giving one the pain of going and deleting them, they also mess up the whole comment section:


  • This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
    By Anonymous, at 3:59 PM

  • This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
    By Mike, at 7:18 PM

  • This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
    By jon, at 11:45 PM

  • Actually [...].
    That aside....looks like you're being spammed, and i'd recommend turning on word verification (from the template).
    By Sunil Laxman, at 2:47 AM

  • This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
    By TS, at 11:04 AM

  • Hi Sunil
    [...] Yes, I am getting spammed. Maybe I do the word verification thing but for now I just delete, delete, delete.
    By 7:56 PM

  • [...]
    By Charu, at 10:19 AM

  • This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
    By Admin, at 3:14 PM

  • Hi Charu
    Yes, Indeed. [...]
    By Michael Higgins, at 5:26 PM

Now, Blogger provides a mechanism to prevent these auto-posted comments: Word Verification. There is a price to be paid for this though: by the genuine commenter, having to fill in one more field. If the pain of doing so is too much, it is likely to dissuade him (or her) from commenting, or annoy him even if he does comment.

While the Blogger Word Verification is a good idea, I feel it has made it a little to bad for the commenters by giving a random sequence of letters (RSL) to type. Why:

People type on their keyboard in one of two ways:

1. Type by sight: Look at the keyboard while hitting the keys.
2. Touch-type.

If you belong to category 2, you can read the RSL and simultaneously type it. No issues. However, the general user is not a touch-typist. Which means, he has to read one letter of the RSL, lower gaze to type it... repeating the process for every letter. A pain in the neck -- literally.

There is a simple solution to this: Instead of the random sequence of letters, use a (random) word from the dictionary. One can read the word in one go and type the whole thing out. Alternatively, let the blog owner choose his word of choice, that can be used every time -- as in Sepia Mutiny. I know I need to type "mutiny" and don't even have to spend time reading it.

I had word verification on for a brief while, but no longer do. I just delete the spam. But some popular bloggers are flooded with too much spam to afford to do this.

Usability is an important consideration for any software or website. Wonder how Blogger/Google overlooked this aspect of it.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A new job

I landed a job at a software organisation in Bangalore early this month. And till yesterday I had no machine or Internet access. Hope that explains my silence.

This being a new (and my first) job, there is a learning curve. And I need to hunt for a flat too. So blogging may be light for sometime.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Mouse or Rat?

Strange things happen in this city of Bombay! One morning, I am on my way to the office... Suddenly a swirl of crows appear like a black dust devil over Flora Fountain... A massive rat comes scampering along the pavement. People run helter-skelter. The bus queue scatters. I see all this and decide it is safest in the middle of the road; traffic has been halted at the signals. The rat deprived of its human shield makes a dash across the road. Thr crows follow it like a swarm of bees. The rat turns to me for protection. It seeks shelter between my feet, then tries to clamber up my trousers. I yell and leap into the air like a dancing dervish. Rat falls on my foot, fat and clammy like a snake. I scream some more and run through speeding cars and buses back to the pavement.

"Arrey, what kind of Sardarji are you? You get scared of a mouse!" taunts a fellow back in line for his bus. The entire queue bursts into peals of laughter. I am very angry. I want to tell him it was not a mouse (chooha) but a rat. I scour my memory for the Hindustani word for rat. Hindi word for rat. Punjabi word for rat. There is not Indian word for a rat as distinct from a mouse. I resume my journey.
- Khushwant Singh (from the essay "Murdering English," India without Humbug)

On this auspicious occasion of Vinayaka Chaturthi, let us spend some time pondering over a pressing issue: Does Ganesha ride a mouse or a rat?

The best of us bloggers thinks it's a rat. As does the Mumbai corporation.

I am confused. In Tamilnadu, Ganesha has always had a moonjoor (Tamil for mouse) and not an eli (Tamil for rat) for his vahana.

Sadly, Sanskrit does not come to my rescue: mooshika can be translated mouse as well as rat.

This question has been left unresolved long enough. Let's settle it once and for all today.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Bible Mahābhāshya

Conservative Christians of the US believe that life is too complex to have "evolved" and so was created by a Superior Being. They are carrying out a campaign to propagate this theory, known as Creationism, by introducing it in Science textbooks. To this, there have been people crying hoarse in defence of Darwinism by employing elaborate logical arguments.

To these hoarse-cryers (HC's) I have to but quote Scott Adams, that Messiah of all cubicle-dwellers:
By definition, people with bad ideas cannot be swayed by logic. If they were logical, they wouldn't have bad ideas in the first place - unless the ideas were based on bad data. If... the "exhaustive research" option looks good for you [for thwarting an illogical idea], you have way too much time on your hands. Plus, it can only work if you're dealing with [one] who is logical and willing to admit error. (Source: The Dilbert Principle.)
Logic is the wrong weapon to fight the Creationists with. (And why do they think they are always correct? Because they are the right-wingers, that's why. Duh.)

I invite the HC's to abandon their Trinity (the God of Logic, His son Darwin and the Scientific Spirit) for some time and try out the practice we Indians have perfected to reconcile science with religion -- the art of interpretation.

Some examples:
  • Initially physicists thought light waves required a medium for propagation, and required Huygens' idea of an æther "gas" permeating all space. In accordance with this, the Sanskrit ākāśa, one of the pancabhūtas, used to be cleverly translated as "ether." Later, due to Einstein, the existence of æther was disproved. At this cynics would have thought we would be disconcerted, but (ha!) we responded appropriately.

  • The gunas - sattva (purity, goodness), tamas (stolidity, ignorance) and rajas (passion) - correspond to (guess, guess) the three atomic particles, the positively charged proton, the neutron and the negative electron, respectively.

  • According to the theory of evolution, life originated in water and later moved to land. To find evidence of this in Hinduism, we are asked merely to turn to the Daśāvatāra. Starting with the matsya (fish), proceeding to the amphibian kūrma (turtle), next the quadruped varāha (boar) and finally the biped human avatāras.
By a proper interpretation and translation, we can read any scientific theory in our scriptures. I am surprised nobody in America has tried this approach to counter the anti-science elements. "See, friend, it's all there in the Bible. QED."

Though my knowledge of the Christian texts is negligible, I shall try to illustrate the approach with some examples.
  • "The Earth was created by God [only] a few thousand years ago" rather than a few billion years as told by science: When the Bible says a thousand years, it means a thousand divine years, which may not equal the same number of human years. (Just as one Earth year is different from one Moon year.) Actually 1 divine year = 1000,000 human years.

  • In the garden of Eden, note the significant roles played in the apple-eating sequence by the apple and the snake. Which means the plant kingdom and the reptiles were there before humans came. Ergo, evolution. God may have planned out the process of natural selection and other details of evolution, though.
These are probably simplistic, but you get the idea.

The other way is to go back to the "original" Bible to resolve issues. The American right-wingers may be using some derivation of the first English translation (King James'?). Go back to the Hebrew or Aramaic texts. This would give us enormous flexibility, as these are ancient languages and the meaning of words may have morphed over time. Question the current interpretation of the words and argue that the correct ancient meaning actually bears out the scientific fact.

Sanskritists have been doing this all the time. Michael Witzel of Harvard University adopts this approach to counter right-wing historian David Frawley's proposition of a maritime rg-vedic culture. Witzel argues that samudra (translated as ocean by Frawley) is actually sam+udra, the confluence of rivers. That debunks the maritime theory for good.

In conclusion, all ye defenders of Science, look to us Hindus for help. We have perfected the very skill you require. Come to us for enlightenment.

Or better still, outsource the job.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Sunil's Bharateeya Blog Mela

Do check out Sunil Laxman's well-presented collection of the best blog posts of the last week. Lots of great reading material.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

With Masters of Melody

Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer

'There was again a world of difference between my guru and Mahavaidyanatha Iyer in the care they took to preserve their voice. The latter went to extremes... [H]e was afraid that the tiny flame of the magalārati would cause excessive heat in the body and a spoonful of teertha would bring on a cold! He stuck to a strict diet of rice and pepper rasam. He scrupulously avoided midday naps and practised brahmacharya.

Patnam Subramanya Iyer

'My guru was exactly the opposite, "Why on earth should one learn music of one has to starve like this?" he would argue. He ate... sumptuously without bothering whether the preparations were cooked in oil or ghee. He slept whenever he liked and as long as he chose to! He would go for his concert in the evening with absolute confidence and return victorious! He would ask with a smile, "Vasu! Who should dictate terms, the singer or his voice?"'

Carnatic music, like any other Indian tradition, suffers from a lack of reliable accounts of its composers and performers. And one of the greatest of Carnatic composers, Tyāgarāja's life is shrouded in legends. In such a situation, Nā kaṇḍa kalāvidaru, Mysore Vasudevacharya's collection of short bios of his contemporary musicians (set in early 20th century), is a wonderful surprise. I read its English translation, With Masters of Melody.

Himself a well-known performer and vāggēyakāra, Vasudevacharya's bios are filled with delightful anecdotes and peppered with a gentle humour. The quote given here at the beginning is his contrast of the rival musicians, Mahavaidyanatha Iyer and Patnam Subramanya Iyer (Vasudevacharya's guru and a famous composer). Also included are accounts of the great veena vidwāns from the Mysore region, Veena Seshanna, Subbanna and Padmanabhiah. Of violinist Tirukkodikaval Krishnaiyer, undoubtedly the Paganini of Carnatic music. Of 'Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar (and his gargantuan appetite) and of 'Tiger' Varadachariar (and the tiny cap that he wouldn't take off his gigantic frame). And Bangalore Nagaratnamma, the lady who undertook the construction of Tyagaraja's samadhi.

His accounts paint a bygone era - when the gurukula system was still in vogue, where learning was more by listening and osmosis than direct teaching; when the artists depended on patronage of kings and zamindars for their survival; of royal performances and the attendant palace intrigues:

Kuppiah and Appaiah were brothers who [...] once went to Tanjore seeking royal patronage. But, it was not to be as easy as they had thought, for the jealous musicians of the court kept a vigilant watch over those who came from outside lest the King's grace should slip through their fingers.

It was also the age when the artistes had to go against their families' preference for vedic studies and disdain for the pursuit of music.

Reading this book, I was also reminded of Semmangudi Srinivasier's reminiscences, tinged with his characteristic wry humour. I wonder if they have been preserved for the future, as they well-deserve to be.

If you are a Carnatic music aficionado, Mysore Vasudevacharya's With Masters of Melody is something you should not miss!

Friday, August 19, 2005

On doubts and unselfconscious cultures

My professor at CMU once pointed out how Indian students differ from Americans when asking a question during lecture: we express a "doubt." I had never noticed this difference in phrasing - We do not "question" a professor's point, but just wish to have a "doubt" clarified.

This observation came back to me when I recently read about Amartya Sen's latest book, The Argumentative Indian:
Amartya Sen in dhoti
...As a high-school student he had asked his Sanskrit teacher whether it was permissible to say that Krishna [in the Bhagavad Gita] got away with an incomplete and unconvincing argument.

“My Sanskrit teacher told me that maybe you could say that, but you must say it with adequate respect,” Sen recalled.
* * *

On the flight home, I was reading Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams. While discussing the factors crucial for generating good ideas, Adams says,
[The United States'] is a self-conscious culture. New religions, forms, social movements and styles in dress, talk, entertainment and living crop up
continually. Age and experience are venerated only if "relevant"... A very high value seems to be placed on innovation. Yet strangely enough, many individuals value tradition more than they do change. This is probably good... However, as far as good conceptualization is concerned, such an attitude has negative effects.
Unlike the Americans, we Indians carry a rather huge baggage in the form of a long history and hoary tradition. We have, what Adams calls, an "unselfconscious culture," where "traditional forms and ceremonies are perpetuated, and often taboos and legends work against change."

Our politicians are mostly fighting (alleged) historical wrongs. A large percent of our population is still hemmed in by archaic social laws. How much has such a culture actually cost us?

Things are changing now, thanks to various phenomena like the Internet and our students encountering new cultures while studying overseas. People are re-examining their baggage, trying to identify the rotten apples. A Good Thing.

This, however, we should hope to do (as was suggested to Amartya Sen) "with adequate respect."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Moved back to India

My apologies for the long silence.

End-of-program evaluations kept me preoccupied. Once I put these behind, it took time to wind up stuff, shop, pack, etc. Not that I had absolutely no time for blogging (which would be a lie): but once I took a break, inertia kicked in. I needed to force myself to muster up the escape velocity to overcome my laziness.

Now that I am back home in Madras, I shall attempt to make amends.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Bloated prices for boating pictures?

Last weekend, I went white-water rafting on the Youghiogheny river with six friends. It was exciting without being dangerous, and for the five hours I spent I had good fun. The company that runs this also had someone take photographs at certain rapids, which we could later purchase.

It was a rare experience for me, for there is hardly any water in the Indian rivers to permit rafting (unless one goes to the Himalaya), and I went to buy the photos as a souvenir and to send home. I asked the person at the counter the price. And was flabbergasted to hear this:
  • $30 for 10 photos, and
  • $15 for 1
Well! [Multiple exclamation marks]

On the way home I was musing about this pricing scheme... No doubt, the objective was to maximise profits. The more photos you sell, the merrier. So make 'em buy more. Getting one at $15 is outrageous; one would rather buy them @ $3 per, by shelling out 30 bucks.

If one can afford 30 bucks, that is.

So what about students? Or the poor? Or, what-the-heck all 10 of them look the same, and I want only one. Which is why the second option exists. The technical term for this, I believe, is market segmentation. Still as I said before, you would rather buy 10 if you could, for it is better deal.

And one more thing: They sell digital photos, duplication cost of which is practically zero. There are atleast 6 people in every raft. If they are clever enough, they will buy one CD of 10 photos and make copies for everybody, thereby splitting the cost ($0.50 per photo per person). On the other hand, if a single photo were more reasonably priced (say $5) the group might now buy only one photo and copy. Why would they buy only one? (1) As I told you, all 10 of them are similar. And (2) anybody would try to spend as little as possible.

Therefore, by arranging the price thus, the seller is happy (sells more) and so is the buyer.

Any other thoughts?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Engineered for marriage

I did my undergraduation in a self-financing college in Tamilnadu. It is a "Telugu-minority institution," which means that only 50% of its seats need be surrendered to the state-wide admission authority (which follows the government rules like reservation, etc for admission); the college management can fill the remaining seats with the minority students, in this case Telugu-speaking students, by its discretion. Such seats are filled, mostly, by charging money for admission.

My college, therefore, had a large number of students from Andhra Pradesh who enrolled under the minority quota by paying their way in. They were generally those who had not done well in their school examinations and thus could not get a college seat of their choice by merit. These students would seldom attend classes. They would have an arrear of at least 5 papers (some 10) in each semester. I often wondered why they had no inclination to perform well and land a good job.

Then, someone told me the reason. They enroll neither to acquire employment nor knowledge, ... but because engineering graduates command enormous amounts of dowry in Andhra! Large sums of money, lands, car and more would be theirs if they merely pass all exams, so why worry? The degree helps them graduate to a higher level in the marriage market.

[Inspired by Sunil Laxman's post on dowry.]

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Prophecies of Jayabhaya and Sabdapalon

I have always been intrigued by the Indian cultural influence in south-east Asia. I have heard of the popularity of Ramayana in those parts, of the Angkor Wat temple, the Bali Hinduism and the considerable presence of Sanskrit words in the languages (Megawati Sukarnoputri, Bahasa Indonesia, Putrajaya). But I know little more and don't remember reading much in our history books either.

Scoble's (mistaken) mention of Indochina whetted my curiosity, and I turned to the treasure-trove that is the Wikipedia to find out more. Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed.

India "influenced the Champa kingdom in Vietnam, the Srivijayan kingdom on Sumatra, the Singhasari kingdom, and the Majapahit Empire [and their descendants, the Tenggerese] based in Java, Bali and a number of the islands of the Phillippine archipelago. The civilization of India influenced the languages, scripts, calendars, and artistic aspects of these peoples and nations." And it all started way back in 200 BC with the Hindu kingdom in Javadvipa.

And in 1942, when Japan took Java from the Dutch, "Indonesians danced in the streets, welcoming the Japanese army as the fulfillment of a prophecy ascribed to Joyoboyo [जयाभय?], who foretold the day when white men would one day establish their rule on Java and tyrannize the people for many years – but they would be driven out by the arrival of yellow men from the north. These yellow men, Joyoboyo predicted, would remain for one crop cycle, and after that Java would be freed from foreign domination. To most of the Javanese, Japan was a liberator: the prophecy had been fulfilled."

More recently, since 1977, "followers of various tribal and animistic religions have identified themselves as Hindu in order to avoid harassment or pressure to convert to Islam or Christianity."

This is what, it seems, Sabdapalon prophesied in 1478.
- - - - - - - -

Also, check out the Sanskrit (and Tamil) loan-words in Bahasa Indonesia.

If all this is new to you (as it was to me), please follow all the links!

The Prime Minister of Indochina visits Redmond

As I wrote yesterday, who doesn't love a good fight? In the course of my unpardonably long wanderings in the blogland today, I came across a rant by Robert Scoble, the well-known Microsoft blogger, against the remarks of Joel Spolsky, an ex-Microsoftie. To summarise the context, Joel compares Fog Creek (a small software company started by him) to Microsoft, to the latter's disadvantage.

Burning with righteous indignation, Robert enumerates various instances to establish Microsoft's superiority, including the taunt:

"Did the Prime Minister of Indochina visit your offices a few weeks ago?"

Probably not, but the Emperor of Austria-Hungary sure did.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The transition - Newspaper to Blogs

I grew up reading The Hindu. In Madras, if someone asks you, "Have you read Gautaman Bhaskaran's review in the 'paper?" you do not ask back, "Which 'paper?" But pick up the day's copy of The Hindu and look for the Movie section. So widely read (and respected [1]) is it in the city.

The paper is a bit resistant to change, mirroring the conservative nature of the city itself. Till around two years back, it was fully black-and-white, with no colour even in the photos; finally switching because the London Times (upon which it was modelled) did so. I think, of late, it has become more adaptive. [2]

Of course, in my family, we have always subscribed only to The Hindu throughout. Mother (the earliest riser at home) would hand over the day's edition to Grandfather, who would pore over it from end to end, sipping (as per the Madras tradition) the morning coffee. Next, it would pass on to Father who would browse through it before leaving for work. My brother and I would get hold of it only after getting back from school.

The paper had a number of writers I would look forward to: S. Muthiah on the history of Madras, Nirmal Shekar's reflections on sports, Gautaman Bhaskaran on movies, and P.V. Indiresan's guest articles. My favourite was the Sunday Magazine which would feature Gowri Ramnarayan who writes exquisitely on music, theatre and literature, V. Gangadhar's nostalgic slices of life, and Ramachandra Guha's columns.

What I liked best was the discussions in the form of arguments and rejoinders. The most enjoyable being the flame-war on the Harappan horse (or the lack of it), between Michael Witzel and David Frawley. Apart from the debate itself (Who doesn't love a good fight?), I came to know quite a bit about Sanskrit that I was not aware of before.

After coming to grad school (with the free Internet thrown in), I have now moved on to blogs as the source of news. E.g., India Uncut gives me an eclectic selection of the important and interesting stories from different sources. Other blogs (such as Sepia Mutiny) also host thought-provoking discussions in their comment sections. I have also much profited professionally from the well-written technical blogs, such as Joel on Software, the first ever blog that I came across.

Blogs give a better sense of participation than newspapers. I have seized opportunities wherever possible to flaunt my scanty knowledge, which gives me (atleast temporary) happiness... In addition, being by nature a little shy of meeting strangers, the blog world has made it possible for me to come in (virtual) contact with various people, with novel perspectives and absorbing styles, and be privy to intelligent conversations.

Multiple hours every day, I roam the blogosphere (time I should actually be working), just the way I would be lost to the world reading The Hindu Sunday Magazine for the better part of the weekend.

I have thus gained my third addiction (after books and newspapers) - blogs.

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[1] The Hindu was started in Madras in the 1900's and is (in Indian terms) an old newspaper. Along with its founder (who was one of the early members of the Congress), it played an important part in the freedom struggle. The idea for the civil disobedience movement took shape when Gandhi and Rajaji met in the residence of its proprietor.

To take a recent example of the respect it commands, a journalist who was molested in a train was given due attention at police station (at least partly) because she was from The Hindu...

[2] Madras, every December, hosts the well-known Music Season, when there are scores of concerts everyday. But for some inexplicable reason, The Hindu would carry the concert reviews only once a week, trying to cover some ten performances in a single article! On the other hand, its rival Indian Express would feature a daily supplement covering the Season in detail.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Enterprising as ever

I had thought Indians started coming to the US in big numbers only since the founding of IITs.

But it turns out I was much mistaken.

[Link via Sepia Mutiny.]

Thursday, June 30, 2005

On Senthilnathan and Geet Sethi

I have often heard north Indians wonder, "Why is it that south Indian names have an h after t but none after s?" They refer of course to the Karthik Ramamurthys and Sriram Sundaresans, as opposed to the Rohit Guptas and Shashi Sharmas. I have often mused about this myself, and here is a pseudo-scholarly (note: pseudo) attempt to figure out why.

The letter T in English generally has only the hard sound - potato is always पॊटॆटॊ, seldom पॊतॆतॊ. So whenever the soft T sound has to be represented, an H is suffixed to mellow it down, as in thanks. This should explain Seetharaman and Chandrakanth. The same logic is applicable for the D, which never has a soft sound in English - Distance, sudden, etc. Hence Dhandapani. So the moot question is not why southern names have th (or dh for that matter), but why northern names don't.

Let us consider the French word dame (as in la belle dame sans merci): it is read दाम्, or the word tous (as in a tous egards) which is pronounced तू. So do northern names owe their spelling to French influence? This is unlikely, for, with all their silent letters, French words are far less phonetic than northie names. And of course, French never boasted of much territory in the north during the colonial period.[1]

Probably the first people to render Indian words in English were the British who learnt our languages. Sanskrit was studied by a large number of Western scholars, such as William Jones (founder of the Asiatic Society) and Max Mueller. They must have evolved a standard to romanise Sanskrit words, which could have been adopted for Hindi as well. [2] If they had written त as th, they would have had to represent the aspirated t (थ) as thh, which is rather hard on the eye as well as hand. Hence th for थ and t for त. Probably a compromise for readability. Ditto for d and dh.

This however is not all. There are two other interesting th situations:

The Senthilnathan case (northerners beware): In some Tamil names, th is pronounced as it is in the English words there, the and thus. So, Senthilnathan is actually सॆन्दिल् नादन्.

The Geet Sethi case (southerners beware): Here th is neither as in thanks nor as in thus. It the aspirated hard t (ठ), as in boat-house, a sound for which there is no corresponding character in Tamil.

Phew! Now coming to sh. Why don't southern names have it? Well, in Tamil, the sounds s, sh as well as ch are all represented by the same letter ச. Its pronunciation varies depending on its position in a word, as per this rule: Except in the case when the letter occurs twice (in which case it would be ch), always read it as s. Hence Ganesan, Swetha and Viswanathan. However, the other southern languages do have a letter that is the equivalent of श. But it is still pronounced s, probably because of hereditary reasons -- these languages share the same ancestor with Tamil.

Having thus made a valiant attempt to answer the north Indians, I now have a question for them: Why r, and not d, in Baroda, Chandigarh and Chittore?

[1] I was watching a Spanish programme sometime back, and came to know that as in French, the Spanish T's are also soft. Maybe it is true for other European languages, such as Italian, Portuguese as well.

[2] There are standards for transliterating Brahmic scripts (under which classification fall most Indian language scripts) formulated early last century. One is the IAST, adopted at the Congress of Orientalists in 1912, which uses diacritical marks on roman characters. Such as

(Another is the Harvard-Kyoto convention, which uses roman letters in a case sensitive way. E.g., gIt seThi, sendil nAdan. However this is of much recent origin, so we can ignore it for the current discussion.)

But I feel there must have been something earlier than even the 1912 IAST.