11th January 2010

I got a frantic call from Nagaraj this morning to say the elephants have trashed our bananas. It was so unbelievable that all I could think of is how come he’d only noticed at 11.30 am. Turns out there was no electricity to charge his phone and he could only call once the current was back. The long and the short of it is that they had a field day with my bananas and have left just 15 trees standing. They’ve also broken the bore well pipe, and about 10 fencing chappadis. The most remarkable thing is that they’ve been right up to our cottages and have left footprints all around the oven and next to the compost pit. I bet they were drinking out of the pond as well.

They seem to have come in from Rame Gowda’s farm and then wandered all over. Near the El, in the togri field, through the banana field, next to the outdoor kitchen. They’ve even eaten the banana trees next to our cottage! And Nagaraj never heard a thing. Silently in and silenty out. In the morning, the only evidence that they’ve been around – the felled trees, some dung and footprints. Nagaraj describes the footprints as being 2 feet in diameter.

About a month ago, around the time that Rame Gowda was visited by elephants, the forest department had sent an alert to the surrounding villages. Every time we went up the hill, either Nagaraj or Nagamma would warn us to not go into the forest as there was a rumour flying around about a woman having been trampled to death. But I never thought they’d come so close. While I knew bears come by, I never dreamed we’d have elephants on the farm.

I remember a news report last year about elephants having destroyed the banana fields of one Rangappa of Nayakanapallya near Savandurga causing him huge losses. And yet another report about a young Hakki Pikki boy being trampled outside Bannerghatta Reserve. Here is an extract from that report:

“Wildlife experts and members of the Institute for Natural Resources Conservation, Education, Research and Training (INCERT) point out that decades ago wild elephants foraged regularly for food and water in and around Bannerghatta, which was part of an elephant corridor. Herds of elephants migrate from Bandipur towards Bannerghatta and from there to Hassan via the Savandurga forest.

There are six villages within the park and 236 villages surrounding it with a population of nearly 50,000. Illegal grazing by nearly 10,000 head of cattle, goat and sheep is a permanent feature in the park. These animals compete with the elephants for fodder.

Sugarcane, coconut, banana, papaya and pineapple plantations and ragi crops around Tataguni, Bannerghatta, Toorhalli, Kaggalipura and near the Agara dam tempt the elephants to leave the safety of the forests to forage for food near human habitations, they say.

An INCERT member says the trenches dug by the Forest Department to prevent elephants from crossing the boundaries of the national park have proved ineffective. The villagers fill up the trenches to take their cattle for grazing.”

We are just a few kilometers away from Savandurga and at the base of a range of connected hills and reserve forest. While 6 leopards have been recorded here and it is very much bear territory, elephants haven’t been recorded here. As mentioned in an earlier blog, the last sighting was 11 years ago. But it is very plausible corridor terrain as it sort connects Kanakpura, Savandurga, Kollegal and Bannerghatta. Also, the increasing loss of habitat thanks to burgeoning Bangalore city and illegal mining in the area are hard realities. Zui made a small film about the leopard that strayed into a gated community on Magadi Road recently. This was several kilometers before Tavarakere, no forest anywhere in sight. Can you imagine how far the leopard had to stray from its natural habitat in order to get there?

So…what can I say, you reap what you sow, no? Serves us jolly well right for sowing bananas (albeit just ½ acre) so close to elephant territory.



Prashaanth (circa 2008)

On May 13th 2008, a very sweet young man died. His name was Prashaanth Davidson and he lived just off the flyover in Lingarajapuram. He was a musician and, as a lady in his home told me, he loved his guitar more than anything. If you were to google his name you’d learn that he was “the most sought after bassist in Bangalore”. He was 31 years old.

Prashaanth came home many years ago to play bass with Konarak’s band. Wearing a blue sweatshirt, he’d occupy a tiny corner of the studio, taking up hardly any little space between the spread of the drums, all the amps and acres of wires. We talked of Joni Mitchell and planned to learn some of her tunes together (was it “Night in the City”?). Later I sent him mail asking if he had my Charlie Mingus CD. Once he wrote us in the early hours “Sorry for not being in touch…it’s so selfish of me…I love you guys from the heart”. Another time he wrote “I’ll come meet you when I get back ... if your free and in town. I’ll be getting my fretless and plan to do some serious practice in 2006.”

Anyway, the point is this: Prashaanth was an unusually kind human being with the gift of deep sensitivity. At the funeral a friend of the family spoke about him and said “Prashaanth was a very soft person. He loved small insects and animals and would watch them so intently and care about them.” All around there was a dense feeling of desolation. We had lost more than a musician. With Prashaanth, it seemed like we had also lost a feeling, an instinct, a vibe. I watched other musicians, all friends of ours, their faces at once spent, bereft, uncomprehending.

What is happening to us in Bangalore? What do we valorize and what do we so knowingly allow to slip through the cracks? In the Deccan Herald today there is news of another group of young men, dependant members of an elite club, who got into fisticuffs and beat each other to pulp. But that seems to be the order of the day. Machismo, jingoism and scrambling competitiveness. In keeping with the values we foist on young people – get ahead, climb, kill if you must, but make it, make it, make it. Make bloody what, one might well ask. Really, tell me, as a community, what do we hold valuable?

Prashaanth, who brought my daughter fishes for her tank, taught himself to play John McLaughlin’s gorgeous Belo Horizonte, made a living playing bass with different bands and was excited when our dogs littered – what place is there for him in the Bangalore that we are making? If anything, Prashaanth lacked the following – malice, aggression and a desire to “get ahead”. And that cost him. Because we’ve come to equate those qualities with survival skills and mere survival has been privileged over love, loyalty and generosity.

In an age when news is created if some people sneeze, I’d like to pay homage to Prashaanth Davidson for he embodied something on the verge of becoming vestigial in Bangalore. A gentle young man, who walked with laconic ease, equally at home eating kebabs at the corner stall or talking to a child. Unimpressed by trappings, not seeking himself to impress others, just quietly going about following his heart.

His sister told me that a host of butterflies rose up from a nearby tree as his coffin was lowered. How singularly appropriate! In church during the service, there was legend that read, “Come, let the spirit transform you.” Indeed, your spirit does transform us Prashaanth. So here’s to you. Keep practicing!


The Feldenkrais Experience

Yesterday evening two lovely ladies from Wonderful Beast Theatre (www.wonderfulbeast.co.uk/) were at home, drinking beer and apricot nectar respectively. They asked what was coming up next at Infinite Souls and I said, “Well, there’s a Feldenkrais workshop end of January…you know, Feldenkrais, the technique that Peter Brook used with his actors?” They hadn’t heard of it, so wrote it down and will soon be investigating this marvelous method for their own actors.

I seldom know what to say to say about this method because it is so simple, so natural and so effective…that it seems ludicrous that we’re not practicing it all the time! Brinda Jacob-Janvrin first told me about Feldenkrais and introduced me to Michel Casanovas, who is an accredited Feldenkrais instructor. I attended his improvisation class along with a few of Brinda’s dancers and just loved it. It reminded me of Butoh; the seeking within, the belief in one’s own movement instincts. And this was still on the level of aesthetics. Then Michel facilitated a full-on, residential Feldenkrais Workshop at Infinite Souls sometime last year, and it was during this that the therapeutic aspect of the method blew me away.

Did you ever dream of a method where the smallest gesture, the circular movement of your wrist for instance, could improve mobility in your neck many-fold? Did you ever hope for an exercise that didn't require you to do 4000 stomach crunches and leap about like a robot on uppers to feel fantastic? Then this is it, baby! Non-aggressive and sensitive, it allows your body to find the right way for itself. Like returning to baby-hood and feeling that the world is indeed your oyster and the pearl is within reach and it’s not all grit and sand.

OK, so here’s an example: Three women who attended the workshop came in with acute back and neck aches. I mean, like really crazy pains. One (let’s call her Thurman) was in so much pain that she refused the bus and had her driver bring her in. By lunch of Day 1, Thurman was turning summersaults and all three were dancing like there was no tomorrow. Oh, and we would all be in the large rehearsal space, beneath the thatch, ya? Within a minute of the first instruction, one participant, let’s call him Barton (arre, don’t ask why, just…) would relax soooooo deeply that he’d snore his way through the rest of the exercise. Very chilled, the birds twittering, Michel’s dulcet French accent and Barton.

Anyway, back to why Peter Brook had Moshe Feldenkrais work with his actors. In Brook’s own words “The very base of the work of every actor is his own body, and nothing is more concrete… In Moshe Feldenkrais at long last I have met someone with a scientific formation who possesses a global mastery of his subject. He has studied the body in movement with a precision that I found nowhere else.”

As an actor, I feel this to be beyond true. So often we are dictated by text alone or by directors with only an external understanding of the acting process – how the stage looks, should one move from left to right, raise an eyebrow, drop a hand etc. But are ill-exposed to the possibility of truthful and passionate response from the body. Were an actor to train and prepare for a role with great respect for the innate knowledge of the body and it’s responses, how seminal the outcome could be.

There was just something about that first workshop – perhaps it was the complicité of the participants, perhaps it was fact that they all stayed in tents (this was before we built The El at Infinite Souls) and chilled wine in the pond, perhaps it was that hill-top meditation – but everyone felt fantastic at the end of it. Perhaps it was Michel and Feldenkrais – the fact that it demands just a little from you, physically, but rewards you so much.

So Michel will be back at Infinite Souls for The Feldenkrais Experience between Jan 29th-31st. This time we’ll be working with movement and music. Food, as always will be vegetarian, largely local and organic. Everything from idlis and groundnut chutney for breakfast to melanzane alla parmigiana and lemon sponge pudding for dessert. There will be a bus pick-up and drop off from St.Mark’s Road. Do call 9845213857 or email to register.


Sex and Sexability in Hindi Cinema

“Every where and in every thing. In the sky, in the rivers, in the plants and trees and even in a particle of dust. An enigma. In many things at a time and is many things at a time. Visible as well as invisible. Is here and is there. Above and below. With form and also without form. Speaks and speaks not. The self and also the not’ self.”

- Hindu description of God

The oddest thing happened. I began this essay with certain notions about the treatment of sex in Hindi cinema as compared to European cinema. (I should have stopped short right here for the former is a language and the latter is a continent, but the mind scuttled on.) European cinema was far more edgy, honest, and realistic. Hindi cinema relied on fountains, doves and song & dance in lieu of Eros. Sex and sensuality in Hindi cinema, I wondered. Is there even such a thing? For when I thought about great sex scenes the first to come to mind were not scenes from Hindi films, but rather Juliet Binoche and Daniel Day Lewis in Unbearable Lightness of Being. John Malkowich in Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Skies. And so on.

Then began the research. Pillows were plumped, tea was brewed (oh the travails of work) and stacks of films were watched. Everything from Basu Bhattacharya to Vikram Bhatt, Fellini to Bruno Dumont. Some were lust-inducing, some vaguely erotic. But strangely, I soon tired of the bonking in European films and began to long for something else – call it romance or the possibility of more. But by the time I had reached Pakeezah (my viewing was not chronological); nothing seemed more erotic than Meena’s Kumari’s bejeweled foot. And I wasn’t, apparently, alone in feeling this way! One friend told me that he thought the scene where the three protagonist’s race through the Louvre in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers was far more erotic than all the graphic sex it contained.

How then does one write about as explosive a combination as sex and cinema? Some would say that cinema is sex, in a manner of speaking. Seductive and reductive. And that film is ultimately a visual medium and sex and sensuality are mediated by the way a film is conceived. And films are conceived by writers and directors, performed by actors and the dots are joined by editors. All human beings, yes? With unique and often divergent ideas about depictions of sex.

To begin with, one can’t take Bombay out of the Hindi film industry. So much in the news for the recent terrorist attacks, Bombay is our beloved dreamscape, our multiple city, our notion of modern India. Syncretic traditions, a polyglot culture, reckless, romantic and yet holding together one way or the other. The film industry is a microcosm of Bombay and into this, many years ago, was born a girl called Mahjabeen Bano who was later re-named Meena Kumari and fell desperately in love with one Kamal Amrohi. But more on this later…

Back to the huge difference between a sex scene in say, Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay. Both are films of the 70’s, so how do you explain the gap? Perhaps the answer lies in the two great treatises that impact our cultural and critical traditions. While the Western performance tradition has been influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics, we in India are guided by Bharatha’s Natya Shastra. Interestingly, the essence of Poetics has to do with the content and the Idea. Unity of Action, Time and Space are emphasized, thus paving the way for a practical, logical approach to performance. On the other hand, the Natya Shastra’s theory of Rasa and Bhava is all about emotion. If the performer displays Sringara rasa, the bhava of Rati must be evoked in the audience. So there is a strong focus on the intention of performance built into our aesthetic decisions. Performance can’t ever stand alone; it always seeks to evoke a feeling in the viewer.

The other influence is Polytheism. Bombay revels in its public celebrations of religious events. From Id-ul-Fitr on Mohammed Ali Road to Navroze in the Dadar Parsi Colony, to Ganesh Chathurthi and Christmas all over, the city has seen it all. And Polytheism in turn, breeds a glorious circuitousness. Neither this, nor that… and yet, everything - goes the Indian axiom. They could well be talking about sex! Ask an Indian why they are late to work and no doubt you’ll hear about their father-in-law’s gout, thus explaining the oblique approach to sex in cinema. My argument is that this round about approach has a grace to it and further, lends itself to hope. And what can be grander than Hope, sweet challenger and opponent of nihilism?

Therefore the first thing to be cast aside will be comparisons between Hindi films and Cinematheque favourites. It’s as chalk to cheese. We could not have made a Last Tango in Paris in 1972, just a decade and a half after Independence. Nicholas Roeg was British and heir to the Kitchen Sink theatre tradition. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, who played what has been called one of the greatest sex scenes in cinema, were the products of the Western 60’s and an all together different, realist sensibility. It is therefore not meaningful to compare the genres.

Let’s begin instead with a 1972 release in Bombay. This was the year that Meena Kumari died after a long battle with heartache and alcoholism and her love, Kamal Amrohi, finally released Pakeezah. It was incidentally the year that Bertolucci made Last Tango in Paris. When I think of Pakeezah two cinematic details are indelible. The first is the image of Raaj Kumar being seduced on a train by the sight of Meena Kumari’s foot. He walks into her compartment by error. She shifts in her sleep and her lihaaf moves, revealing a single foot wearing a heavy anklet. He looks down at it and eventually places a love letter between her toes. “Don’t place this lovely foot on the ground” it says “for it will be sullied.” Why her foot? Why would Kamal Amrohi select this unlikely body part to construct a scene that has to do with sexual attraction? Furtherest from her heart and yet, think about it, so…ticklish! Go no further than Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex to learn that in fact the foot is a “primitive sexual symbol”. You do the math!

The second detail is in the lyrics of Inhin Logon Ne, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri.

In our first meeting with the adult Sahibjaan, she is dancing in the kothi. In the background are other verandahs, hallways and courtyards and we see other courtesans dancing as well, thus establishing the large and public nature of these performances. And Sahibjaan sings “Inhin logon ne le lina dupatta mera”. It is a scene about professed or felt shame, the disturbing of modesty. Inherent in the song is also a playful, or again, perhaps a professed reluctance. These people, not I, have removed my veil. Thus they have shamed me. My actions are involuntary.

“Hamrii na maano bajajva se pucho, hamrii na maano saiyya.
Jisne ashrafi gaz dina dupatta mera.”

If you don’t believe me, ask the merchant who sold me this cloth.
Or ask him who dyed it pink.
Or he who ripped it away in the bazaar.

Thus a series of men have contributed to Sahibjaan’s metaphoric unveiling. Knowingly or unwittingly there are two things at play in the construction of this scene. They are:

1. References to codified tradition – in order to keep things under control
2. Folk style sexual innuendo – in order to loosen them up

It is made clear to the audience through cultural codes such as the usage of a classical mukthai early in the song that the actions on screen have been given the green light by the authority of tradition. Having absorbed this subliminal information, the audience feels free to enjoy the folk aspect which follows, namely the sexual innuendo of the lyrics.

Control vs. the lack thereof. I let go, I hold back. I want to, I don’t. This is an oft used device in depictions of sex. Thus tradition, poetry and innuendo come together to create a scene suffused with playfulness that still foregrounds its sexual intention.

Oftentimes, while sex is the subject of the film, it need not necessarily be a sexy film. Basu Bhattacharya’s Aastha comes to mind. In a departure from allusion and innuendo, the film-maker uses a realistic approach. The film is about a wife and a mother (Rekha) who decides to prostitute herself to earn money to buy little luxuries for her family. The first time she sleeps with a client, the scene is quite graphic. We see how he touches her in close up and then her face as she is brought to orgasm by him. Here again feet play a part in a purportedly sexy but in actuality comic toe-sucking sequence. She then repeats all of this while making love to her husband and he enjoys it. He asks her where she learned to do this and she says she watched a film. (An irony that is worth noting!) The only actor in the film to appear comfortable with the sex is Rekha. The others appeared to want me, the viewer, to feel that sex is illicit, dirty and furtive. And this wasn’t just the case with the illicit, furtive bought sex; even the marital sex had that quality. I don’t enjoy Rekha’s cutesy acting style, but she is unfailingly authentic during the sex scenes. She just looks sensual, and happy to be so. Something that even Om Puri, who plays the husband, couldn’t manage. Just can’t seem to escape the combined impact of belief, custom and upbringing. Add patriarchy to this cocktail and it’s probably best to stick with poetry and allusion.

Much has been said, mostly disparagingly, about the great Indian habit of cutting to a gushing fountain as bodies approach each other on screen. Sure, it’s cloying and annoying. One wonders, why the hell we can’t we get past it and learn to snog with lusty abandon. Yet, after many hours of film viewing, I’m beginning to think it’s a fatal flaw that eventually works in our favour. How so, you may well ask? OK, look at a movie like Red where Aftab Shivdasani applies himself to Celina Jaitley’s mouth like a limpet. Why doesn’t it work? Is it the fault of the shoddy script or is it something deeper and more misogynistic? Jism is touted as being a landmark in the depiction of man-woman relations in Hindi cinema. It was better than Red, but not by far. The film was so much to do with the look – photogenic Pondicherry and the allure of white and turquoise costumes. But beyond that I was unaware of any real chemistry between the actors, not even in the imitation 9 ½ weeks scene, and eventually it became a film about proving that a sexual woman is perforce a murderous schemer. Given this scenario, that is of patriarchy and latent misogyny, elaborate song and dance routines are much more respectful and in some cases, more erotic.

For eventually what is it that is sexy or sensual in a film? Is it the fact of sex taking place or is it the possibility, the potential and the probability of sex? Is it coquettishness or freedom? Urmila Matondkar’s dancing in the opening credits of Rangeela is one of the sexiest scenes in Hindi cinema. Her utter abandonment and that fact that she is reveling in the dancing make it so. She harks back to women like Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi who were happy to be sexy sans coy glances and disclaimers. They were a hard act to follow. They radiated the spirit of the times (70’s Bombay, Cellars, Osho) with their long hair and unabashed bodies. Watching Zeenat Aman dance in the 1980’s Qurbani was some kind of wonderful. Similarly, I used to wonder why my mind retained the memory of Helen’s dancing to Mehbooba while unable to recall Basanthi dancing on glass. The one was sexy and the other was …well, some sort of martyr/hero sexy-baazi that I don’t get. Give me possibility and freedom any day.

Talking about landmark films, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara is one such. Besides being a stunning adaptation of Othello, it has terrific sex scenes. The scene where Kareena Kapoor (Dolly) has learned how to sing an English song, Stevie Wonder’s I just called to say I love you – from Viveik Oberoi (Kesu Firangi) and in turn sings it to Ajay Devgan (Omi) is gorgeous. Kareena Kapoor performance in that one scene marks one of the best seductions I have seen thus far. The awkwardness of her singing, Omi’s jealousy, their subsequent playful love-making that ends with her pinning him down on a haystack with a gun and asking, while sitting atop him, “Now tell me why I am a witch?” The song “O saathi re din dube na” is the cherry on top of an already lovely scene.

And when Omi and Dolly finally make love, it is believable and remarkably sensual. When I watched Omkara, I felt herein lies the future. We’ve found our own Natya Shastra-driven way to the realistic Indian sex scene. The woman is into it, the man isn’t behaving like a perv, it’s visually indigenous – who can forget Dolly’s hands on Omi’s back with his sacred thread visible – and we the audience are drawn in and not made to feel bereft.

Regarding nudity, it should be a non-issue. There is something lovely about watching a body on screen. Further, a nude body doesn’t always have to be a body engaged in a sexual transaction with another. Bathing, dancing, swimming, cooking…all perfectly viable naked. The boys jumping into a woodland pond in Ismail-Merchant’s Room with a View is an example of that faun-like playfulness that nudity can evoke. It’s all in the director’s head. He/she can make a cringe-worthy scene that has exploitation written all over it…or not. It’s all directly proportionate to the directors understanding of, and experience with sex, and substantially, how they look at a woman. Ditto for the actors performance of a sensual scene. It’s pretty black and white. Do they in their most honest self, think that sex is sly, devious and that women like sexual violence? Or not. As Tanya Krzywinska in Sex & the Cinema compellingly writes “Cinematic sex is intricately interwoven into a matrix of industrial, economic, social and cultural factors.”

Interestingly the male body has become much the focus in recent times. Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham were the harbingers of this trend. At least the female gaze has caught up with the male gaze. The way that John Abraham has been shot in Dostana can set hetero and homo pulse throbbing. However conventional and stereotypical, it is a nod towards change. For what it’s worth, that’s a step forward. At least the onus of eyecandy-hood is off the women.

In the final analysis, it’s not that Hindi films can’t handle sex scenes; it’s just that we have developed a native, non-western cinematic language with which to articulate sex and sexual arousal. Eros becomes even more finely tuned if one stretches the feeling. The intellectual power of this method is that it acknowledges the beauty of anticipation. Much like an aalap requires the musician to pulls on a single string allowing one to listen to all the possible microtones before arriving. Viraha or yearning in Indian aesthetics is considered more worthy than the actual capturing of or arriving at.

When the stakes are high, and the stakes are indeed high in this, our Post-terror world, one wants emotions that are capable of seeing one through. Through pain, loneliness, life, even. Take my heart somewhere, we plead. Don’t ravage it and leave it hanging. The sadness of most sex scenes is in the empty feeling they leave you with. The Guardian critic, Peter Bradshaw, on reviewing The Dreamers says it was “like drinking red wine on an empty stomach.” How ever seductive at the moment it is clearly going to leave you feeling nauseous.

That’s it then. It’s lovely to be writing an essay on sex in Hindi cinema when western critics are ruing the death of cinematic sex thanks to easily downloadable porn that has taken it into the private domain. So while we still have it, and haven’t entirely succumbed to numbing homogeneity, let’s enjoy the crazy, romantic masthi of sex in Hindi Cinema and join in saying “Viva la Bombay!”

Scenes from a Guitar Clinic

Here is a picture I share with you. 3 buses drive into Infinite Souls on a beautiful overcast Sunday morning. November 15th 2009, actually. The sun is soft on the rocks and the grass, still wet with dew. Nagamma is steaming idlis in the kitchen and Nagraj has made two chutneys – one with fresh coriander leaves and green chillies and one with roasted groundnuts and pepper. And then, out of the buses pour thirty odd….guitarists! Guitars strapped on, black jackets, metal T-shirts, denim, hair of varying lengths. I swear the land smiled.

A few minutes before Bruce and Narayan had arrived in a Scorpio and were now on the verandah. Not so long after, Joshua and Jimmy from Yamaha Guitars called from the top of the mud road and asked to be picked up as they were carrying lots of Yamaha guitars, acoustic and electric. Bharavi off to the rescue. Soon Zui’s verandah was covered with guitar stands and about 20 high end Yamaha guitars.

Kuki passes around a fragment from his Guitar Gita with notes on chord scale relationships, diatonic harmony, intervals, Blues, improvization techniques. What I like best are his gig stories though; so bang-on-the-button whack.Wonder if the guitarists knew of how closely related live music and caberet actually were and of the camraderie among live artists. Fringe folk, all. That’s the rub, innit?

We had organized 3 studio areas: Sandor Szabo www.sandorszabo.com/ in Zui’s cottage, Don Ross www.gobyfish.com/ in the big rehearsal space and Masa Sumide www.masasumide.com/ in the Round. The participant-guitarists too, divided themselves into three groups – one advanced and two intermediary groups - and headed off to the various studios. A round-robin of sorts, so each group got an hour or so with each teacher.

Sandor’s session focussed on classical guitar theory and maqam melodies. He stressed the importance of what Konarak speaks about in Guitar Gita and in general to all Indian musicians – namely, the importance of studying western harmony. Sandor said to the group - Understand the complexity of western music and bring this aspect into your playing, as Indian musicians. It will only enhance the work of an Indian musician who may already be skilled with melody and rhythm, but may lack deep knowledge of harmonies. It often shows when Indian musicians try so-called fusion - their knowledge of harmonies is still nascent, immature. But with harmony, melody and rhythm under one's belt - wow! the sky would be no limit.

Masa's a total rock star on stage. He blew everyone away that first evening. He has a sort of crazy generosity as a player - wanting to give the audience a good time...He brought his unique style and joy of playing to his session. With his very keen ear, he arranges and harmonizes popular standards and picks out the sort of voicing that works beautifully for guitar. He encouraged the group to experiment with alternate tunings such as DADGCD for the Beatles’ Penny Lane & DADGAD for many tunes. He was a very open teacher – freely sharing his finger-style methods. His version of Hotel California was apparently a big hit. I, unfortunately, was cooking or something, so missed it.

Don has to be the  funniest guitarist and best raconteur  I have ever
met. One time, while travelling with Kuki on one of his concert tours in Germany, Teja Gerken (a guitarist from San Fransisco who writes for Acoustic Music magazine) was on the same gig bus and just cracked everyone up. Don too was that sort of fantastic company. Keen to his surroundings, funny, sensitive – and he brought all of that to the clinic. Tapping, alternate tunings, a great sense of rhythm. Participants just wanted to keep jamming with him and he encouraged them to really groove; using slapping and funk techniques to drive the melody along. People knew him in Bangalore, knew his music and were thrilled to have him here.

Lunch was ragi mudde, togri saaru with fresh togri from our fields etc etc The weather got even better…

I had no idea how a guitar rosette was made. And found Arul Dominic’s afternoon session really charming. To think that a rosette is made of thousands of intricately inlaid wooden sticks of variously coloured wood that are finer than toothpicks…! What a labour of love and what a fine craft. Lower-end factory made guitars these days just have a sticker slapped on – I can’t think of a decent analogy, but it seems somewhat flawed and tawdry. It’s quite remarkable that we have a skilled luthier in Dominic right here in Bangalore and really hope more and more serious guitarists will turn to him for their instruments.

Late evening… the participants performed under the thatch and received feedback from Sandor, Masa, Don and Konarak. The idea was to try techniques received over the course of the day and not to bother with sounding good alone, but rather to take risks and try things. It was haunting to listen to them as the sun set. Seasoned guitarists, hobby players as well as some really young players all joined together. There was a camaraderie and sharing that made for a magic day’s end. Here’s to Bangalore’s guitarists! And here’s to them changing the face of music all over!

PS - Ruth Padel is in Bangalore today. I offer you a poem by her. It seems synchronous! Oudh, guitar...both string instruments requiring the skills of a luthier.

by Ruth Padel

published in The New Yorker, October 2008

The first day he cut rosewood for the back,
bent sycamore into ribs and made a belly
of mahogany. Let us go early to the vineyards
and see if the vines have budded.
The sky was blue over the Jezreel valley
and the gilt dove shone
above the Church of the Annunciation.
The second day, he carved a camelbone base
for the fingerboard.
I sat down under his shadow with delight.

The third day, he made a nut of sandalwood,
and a pickguard of black cherry.
He damascened a rose of horn
with arabesques
as lustrous as under-leaves of olive beside the sea.
I have found him whom my soul loves.
He inlaid the soundhole with ivory swans,
each pair a Valentine of entangled necks,
and fitted tuning pegs of apricot
to give a good smell when rubbed.

The fourth was a day for cutting
the high strings, from camel-gut. His left hand
shall be under my head.
For the lower course, he twisted copper strings
pale as tarmac under frost.
He shall lie all night between my breasts.
The fifth day he laid down varnish.
Our couch is green and the beams of our house
are cedar and pine. Behind the neck
he put a sign to keep off the Evil Eye.

My beloved is a cluster of camphire
in the vineyards of Engedi
and I watched him whittle an eagle-feather, a plectrum
to celebrate the angel of improvisation
who dwells in clefts on the Nazareth ridge
where love waits. And grows, if you give it time.
Set me as a seal upon your heart.
On the sixth day the soldiers came
for his genetic code.
We have no record of what happened.

I was queueing at the checkpoint to Galilee.
I sought him and found him not.
He’d have been in his open-air workshop -
I called but he gave me no answer -
the selfsame spot
where Jesus stood when He came from Capernaum
to teach in synagogue, and townsfolk tried
to throw Him from the rocks. Until the day break
and shadows flee away
I will get me to the mountain of myrrh.

The seventh day we set his wounded hands
around the splinters. Come with me from Lebanon
my spouse, look from the top
of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens.
On the eighth there were no more days.
I took a class in carpentry and put away the bridal rug.
We started over
with a child’s ‘oud bought on eBay.
He was a virtuoso of the ‘oud
and his banner over me was love.


Stuffin the Oven

Here’s another Tale of my Oven…

Let me tell ya, pizzas ain’t the only thing to come out of her. Fact of the matter is we only make pizzas when the evening yawns ahead of us with absolutely nothing happening and we’re not more than 15 people for dinner. On an average day here is usually what goes in:

Nagaraj lights the fire by around 5 pm so it’s hot and perfect by 7 pm. With a single firing we manage dinner, breakfast and ample lunch. I start prepping the goodies from a cook-list that we make ahead. Which is fine and dandy when you’re merely speculating, usually on an evening in town, while dreaming of being at the farm.

Example of a Cook-List

Fish with saffron, green peppers and tomatoes (Day 1 dinner)
Rosemary dinner rolls (Day 1 dinner)
Baba ganoush (Day 1 dinner)
Sweet potatoes & potatoes with paprika butter (Day 1 dinner)
Pear and almond pudding (Day 1 dinner)
Apricot & Almond Scones (Day 2 Breakfast)
Maki dhal (Day 2 Lunch)
Dum Aloo (Day 2 Lunch)
Shoulder of pork with star anees, ginger and red wine (Day 2 Lunch)

Sounds like an event? You’d be surprised at how easy it actually is when you have a nice, big and hot oven. Just add a salad and you're done. And remember you’re cooking for three meals, not one. The oven cools down very, very slowly. So once you get dinner out, you can add whatever you like that requires slow cooking and feel reasonably safe. The scones I pop in early morning if there is still enough heat in the oven.

Roast Pork – wash and place the 1 kg shoulder in a large dish, fat side up. Add a handful of thinly sliced ginger, 4 sliced onions, 4 – 6 small pieces of cinnamon, 4 –5 whole star anees, 4 – 6 dry red chillies, a table spoon of peanut butter or roasted and ground peanuts, salt to taste and enough red wine to cover the meat. You can use beer instead if you like. Use your hands to mix the marinade together and rub the peanut butter into the mix. Cover and seal with foil and place in oven overnight.

Fish – wash and smother a whole seer or rohu or Indian salmon with chopped green peppers (I also add 1 green chili for some fire), onions, garlic, tomatoes, a good pinch of saffron, salt/pepper to taste, a large slug each of olive oil and white wine. Cover and seal with foil and place in oven. It will be done in about 20 minutes.

Rosemary dinner rolls – I make these by feel. Place ½ kg of flour (white & whole wheat mixed, or I might use white/ragi etc) in a large bowl. Separately mix 1 packet of dried yeast granules with a tablespoon of sugar and add ½ cup of warm water. When it’s frothing, add to the flour. Mix in and then add just enough water/milk mixture to make a nice firm dough. I then add some fresh rosemary spears, grease my hands with some olive oil and give it a good kneading. Leave to rise for an hour. Knead down and let it rise again and then form into little rolls and place in oven. They’ll be done in about 10 mins.

Brinjals (for baba ganoush), potatoes and sweet potatoes are all wrapped in foil and put in oven. Mix 200 gms of softened butter with a teaspoon of paprika and put aside in order to slather onto the potatoes when they’re done.

Pear-Almond Pudding – Thickly butter your baking dish and sprinkle with a dense layer of brown sugar and powdered cinnamon. Slice pears and place on this. Beat 4 eggs with ¾ cup of ground almonds, ½ cup of sugar, a pinch of salt and a cup of whole milk. Pour this over the pears in baking dish and place in oven. Cover with foil. It will be done in about 15 mins.

Dinner’s done! Of course you have to mush the brinjals for the baba ganoush and add chopped onion, garlic and parsley etc The point is the oven has done most of the work already.

Basically the pork needs the longest time in the oven and the fish and pudding the least. So once I take out Day 1 dinner, I bung the pork, maki dhal and dum aloo in and forget about till lunch the next day.

The Maki dhal and Dum Aloo are essentially one pot dishes. I bought some lovely clay pots, in different sizes and with covers, from a potter in Magadi. I put all the ingredients in with enough liquid, seal the pots and leave them in the oven overnight.

For the maki dhal, here’s what goes in the pot:

½ kg rajma
100 gms whole urad dhal
100 gms chana dhal
2 tetra packs of tomato puree
4 chopped onions
4 table spoons of fresh ginger/garlic paste
3 table spoons of kasuri methi
8 dried red chilli
1 tables spoon of ginger julienne
250 gms of curd
250 gms of cream
Salt to taste and enough water to nearly fill the pot. Then I cover the pot and seal it with some aata/water.

For the dum aloo, here’s what goes in the pot:

1 kg of peeled potatoes in great chunks or if they’re medium sized – leave them whole.
3/4 teaspoon of asfoetida
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp saunf seeds
2 onions – grated
2 chopped tomatoes
4 cups curd
4 bay leaves
2 tsp fresh ginger/garlic paste
½ cup ghee
1 cup milk
Salt to taste and enough water to cover the potatoes with two inches to spare. Then I cover the pot and seal it with some aata/water.

When I unseal the pots for lunch the next day, I just check for salt and add chopped coriander and serve hot with rice, rotis and a cucumber raita - the cucumbers fresh from Rame Gowda’s field.


Being Gregor Samsa (published in Deccan Herald circa 2007)

In November 2006, I saw a production of David Farr & Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis at the Lyric Hammersmith in London.

The evening began badly. We were trying to decide between Metamorphosis (existential angst) and a new fringe production of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (nudity). No guessing how the coin fell!

And so we headed to Shephard’s Bush. It took an hour of walking from the tube stop, past the drunks on the Green, a leery Afghani grocer (“Why are you looking for Bush Hall, eh?”), some Somalian kids on roller blades and at least one porn shop before we found the theatre. It was boarded up! Apparently, the new and nude version closed after 3 shows. Luckily, the Lyric was just one tube stop away.

But first, the challenges. Can a text as dense as Kafka’s Metamorphosis be adapted suitably for stage? How does one communicate, theatrically, the complexities of a domestic situation that cause a young man to shift outside himself and to unravel? How do you perform loneliness and alienation? How do you translate, without artifice, the horror of a man who wakes up one morning only to find he is “transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” when it’s overcast outside? And how does one depict that most difficult of rasas, repugnance? Bhibatsa - the defining reaction of the family to the changed Gregor Samsa.

Metamorsphosis was first adapted for stage by Steven Berkoff in 1969. He wrote Meditations on Metamorphosis to cover the span of his 23 years of rehearsal and musings on Kafka. He played the lead initially, and over the years other actors took over, including Tim Roth, Roman Polanski and finally Mikhail Baryshnikov. Phillip Glass composed music for two separate stage versions. Rene Migliaccio directed a film/live theatre adaptation that opened at La Mama recently and at home, Ajay Krishnan, a young Bangalore writer is currently working on an adaptation.

In the production I saw - The questions above are moot, for we were captivated immediately. The set, designed by Börkur Jónsson, consisted of two floors. A realistic, early 20th century European family room downstairs. And Gregor’s bedroom upstairs, where everything is supra-real and entirely vertical! The bed was nailed to the upstage wall, as were the chair, an umbrella and everything else in it. There was a skylight that I was strangely unaware of, till it opened and was used to perfection during Gregor’s death scene. For Steven Berkoff’s set, he uses a grid and not much else. In this set design, the gothic nature of the furniture, the very domesticity and unquestioned conformity downstairs contributes to an asphyxiating sense of alienation.

Gisli, who besides co-directing plays the lead, makes the abstraction that is Metamorphosis a very real anxiety for any one who bears the sole responsibility of earning and taking care of a family. He plays Gregor in a black suit and tie. No weird insect suits. And then he proceeds to climb all over the set, metamorphosed by the beauty of his actions into a dung beetle. There is a great moment when the invalid mother turns an unexpected somersault on the table in her glee at the Chief Clerk’s possible interest in Grete. But it’s never indulgent. The athleticism of the actors is balanced by the ability of the text to wound you. When Grete stops caring for Gregor, the very Gregor who has cared so much about her violin lessons, you don’t know quite what to do. When his family is equally embarrassed and repulsed by him it’s not at all unbelievable. One could feel Gisli as Gregor palpably shrink, dirty himself (in an amazing theatrical moment of powder and wetness) and fester with rejection. He dies in a swirl of red silk hanging upside down from the skylight, limp above the dining table. In minutes, Gregor is history as winter turns to spring and we see Grete swinging in the animated sunshine of the park. Music plays and her parents applaud her and what is bad and oppressive is forgotten in the brittle optimism of normalcy.

Three of the four leads are from Vesturport Theatre, a seminal Icelandic company who have previously performed Romeo and Juliet and Buchner’s Woyzeck. They took performance to the next level with their vocal and physical skills.

We left the theatre clutching our thoughts very close and trying to keep warm. In the tube going home, past the crazy pinks and greens of neon signs, I heard some school kids talking about the play. “…all alone in a naff crowd……feel out of it…..had to die….BO!” A novel written in 1915: postmodern solutions for 2007. Go figure.

Kafka wrote "This tremendous universe that I have inside my head, how can I free myself and set it free without being torn to pieces? Yet I would a thousand times rather do that than keep it confined or buried within myself. This is what I am here for. I have no doubt whatsoever of that."

And so we do. Unwrap, adapt, deconstruct. Just in order to see a little better. Take another step. Free ourselves.

Masks (published in Deccan Herald circa 2008)

Masks unduly obsess me. The masks we wear to disguise, the masks we wear to protect and the masks we wear to oppress. And curiously, some masks perform all three functions at once. Think of as simple a mask as a stocking stretched over one’s features.

About 12 years ago I attended a mask-making workshop organized by Spandana at National High School and taught by Debu Mahapatra, from the National School of Drama. It was a lovely experience in craftsmanship, watching as he effortlessly made masks out of Plaster of Paris and fibreglass. Years later, during a theatre collaboration with the Trestle Theatre, St.Albans, I learned more about the lure and danger of masks. About why people use masks and then stop using them, about the folklore surrounding contemporary mask-work.

I hadn’t previously given the act of Mask much thought. I thought they were used intuitively, in play. Then I had a transformational experience while performing Shishir Kurup’s Skeleton Dance at the LATC in 1990. We used Butoh for our movement vocabulary, so our bodies were rubbed ash gray and faces masked with red paint. This unified the ensemble of men and women, turning us into something very potent. Later I used mask in My Children who should be running thru Vast, Open Spaces…a play about child sexual abuse. And again, while performing Dario Fo’s Medea, I used giant, white cardboard masks for the voice of the women. And yet again, as a part of a sinister role reversal, I used Venetian carnival masks in Jean Genet’s The Maids. I continue to experiment with masks, especially those of the invisible kind.

Trestle Theatre had built its reputation as one of the foremost non-speaking mask-work touring companies in Britain. In 2002 they experimented with a single non-speaking, masked character in a scripted play. The result was a seminal production of Rudolf Besier’s The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street. Placing a masked father amongst un-masked family members ruthlessly exposed the outcomes of such patriarchal control. If you go into Trestle’s basement workshop, you’ll be quite shaken by the myriad energies that spring out at you. From Neutral masks to Larval masks to hand painted Character masks, there they are, arranged in arrays of skin tones and expressions, these faces!

And therein lies the key for physical theatre training. For an actor, the face is both boon and betrayal. The visual impact of the face is such that it can be quite hard to get away from. This in turn results in “face men” – actors who are dependent on face and voice alone. The body becomes vestigial. Mask is fantastic during training because you are freed of your face thus allowing your body shameless access to your own truths. Losing the face is a step towards, what I call, self-unconsciousness. In fact the three acknowledged pedagogical functions served by mask-usage are that

· It clarifies and refines the actors movement

· It channels expression through the body

· It liberates the actor

But a mask cannot be treated as a toy. As Dymphna Callery writes “By their very metaphysical qualities, masks can possess their wearer.” This is well understood by all ancient theatrical traditions where the “shoeing” of a mask is a ritualistic act and not taken lightly. There is the famous story of Peter Brook’s actors being given Indonesian masks. As long as they approached them as toys, the masks were feeble and mildly ridiculous. The minute they were ritualized, both actor and mask was transformed. Theyyam of North Kerala is a mind-expanding example of this ancient wisdom. During the annual festival in Payannur, we were shooting some artists in their tents, on the days preceding the festival. Broke, in need of a drink, complaining about the state of the world and as lay as you and me. But God-like, transcendent and absolutely invincible once transformed into a screaming, orange, terrifying Kali theyyam.

If you’re curious about the aforementioned invisible masks, they are the one’s we wear every day in order to stay in charge, roll over and play dead, be attractive, be insignificant, be intelligent, be worthy, be honest etc. The ones we wear for survival. These are the most poignant of masks and also the most fragile. Hyper-real theatre and Moreno’s psychodrama make use of these masks to cathartic effect. By wearing the invisible mask and appearing as an archetype, the actor allows the audience emotional entry behind the mask. This opens a whole world of understand and empathy.

To end with something that a Commedia dell’arte stock character might have said, but is in fact a quote by Oscar Wilde “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”