Friday, May 31, 2013

Being Americanah in Bangalore: Not a Review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest

This post was meant to start in a very different manner. But then, it rained yesterday in the city. Crawling through the CBD area traffic in an auto with a complaining driver, I saw a car registered with in Madikeri. A KA-12 number plate. And it made me miss home more than I ever have in the last 7-8 months or so. The thought of home. The innocence of home. The mythologies of home. 

I borrow that last line from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book Americanah. You know how once in a while you happen upon a book that nearly takes your breathe away? Not just for the sheer brilliance of its writing, but just as much for how timely it is in your life, how much you can relate to it at that particular stage in your life. Americana has been such a book. As was Benyamin's Goat Days, but that book is for another day. 

I have read all of Adichie's books. Found all of them superbly written, but complained that she was getting a bit repetitive in her theme, in her nostalgia, in her meals of warm yam in the houses of Nsukka University. Her latest, thus, did not seem as exciting until I got past the first page. After a long time, here was one book I couldn't put down. I sat up nights, I read on commute, I pushed away work to finish it yesterday. And yesterday, as if to water my own nostalgia for my meals, my land, it rained.

"Nigeria became a place where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil." There was something about reading this line that harked at thoughts I have been trying to not deal with off late. Escapism is a happy enough place. What is home now for me?Where is it? Once you leave, can you ever go back 'home'? Or is it just the memories of home that you go back to. One fine morning it must have been that I woke up to see these questions, lurking by perhaps for a while, suddenly stare me down until I cowered and shrunk under their glare. Then I discovered I did not have to cower as much when I could turn the other way. Not now, I don't have to answer them now.

In the light of this sense of  uprooted-ness, of questions and conflicts, it stung a bit to read Americanah. Adichie's story of Obinze and Ifemelu, their loves and lives spans three continents and many years. It is a tale of loneliness, of moving elsewhere, of looking back, of inventing memories and building myths around old times, of loves and losses, of race and African hair. In the end it is a bit of a fairy tale. I would have liked tragedy, much as I love happy endings. It is about being black and different in America. About bad relationships, deadening jobs, conflicts, growing, in all its drama and routine really. To Adichie's unwavering genius, the heavy handed topic of race and discrimination never overwhelms. It is fantastic storytelling. It is also a study into the conflicts and prejudices of countries and people. Somewhere, in different ways, we all face that. Conflicts of cultures, of city versus small town, of man versus woman, of choking control in relationships. 

Ifemelu starts a blog in America to write about race. It becomes a hugely popular blog. The book could have had a little less of her blog posts, I admit to have skipped over a few. At nearly 500 pages, it is a long book and does stretch a bit in places. But such poetry does Adichie infuse in her sentences that you don't mind. For there are passages you want to read again and again for how they sound in your head. You want to find out what happens when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, but you also want to read it slowly, savouring, lingering, pushing the end of the book from coming soon. 

In Americanah, I found many questions I have been asking myself. I found some answers too. More importantly, I found that Ifemelu could well have been me, in parts. We all could have been Obinze or Ifemelu. Americanah is a human story after all. It reminds you yet again why you love language, why you crave stories so much. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Anabhigna Shakuntala: A Review in The Hindu

Another play, another review. This was a play I rather enjoyed. There was an interesting storyline and some good music. Read the review of the Kannada play Anabhigna Shakuntala here or see below. 

What is more tragic than friendship turning into love? So wonders Kali, in the days before he becomes Kalidasa, the celebrated jewel of Raja Bhoja’s court. Sitting by the mountains of Kashmir, the orphan Kali wonders how he could bring himself to be in love with Mallika, his childhood friend, his companion while roaming the hills. ‘She is me, how then can I be in love with her?’ his monologue maintains.

This is the story of Kalidasa, his loves, his travails, his inspirations. While writing Anabhigna Shakuntala, playwright K Y Narayanaswamy employs sufficient poetic license to draw out a tale of speculative fiction, speaking of Kali, before he attains his suffix. The actors of Prasanga theatre group, under the direction of Prakash P Shetty, translate well the imaginations of the poet’s life onto the stage, be it the unrequited love that Mallika feels for him or the vengeful arrogance of the haughty princess that leads to his imprisonment or his own longing for the beautiful angel he meets one full moon night in his beloved Kashmir.

Anabhigna Shakuntala is not about Shakuntala and her journey to be united with the forgetful King Dushyanta. That though is the premise the sutradhar wants to work with, when news arrives that Kalidasa the poet has been murdered when he was reading the play Shakuntala to a large gathering. A woman has been accused of and arrested for the crime. The sutradhar, in a bid to understand what really happened, attempts to talk to the woman accused of the murder. Two other women arrive at the scene. What transpires there is an intriguing narrative of Kali in different stage of his life.

As each of the three women talk of how and at what stage they loved Kali the wonderful poet, the other side of the stage heads into flashback mode. With smart play of lighting, stories from the past and their repercussions on the present are revealed. All along, the probable contexts under which Kalidasa must have written his celebrated works are speculated upon. There are subtle applications of Shakuntala’s despair to the author’s own life. The ring that was Shakuntala’s husband’s token of love is weaved into Kalidasa asking his lover for her ring, something to remember her by. Like in his play, the ring in his life creates much havoc and tragedy. It is his longing, his misery, his yearning for his land and his love that inspires him to create his plays and poems. These creations leave a trail of jealousy, revenge and politics behind.

Anabhigna Shakuntala’s jewel on the crown is the music by Narayana Raichur. Each song enhances the complex ideas and emotions of human lives.  All the boxes for dance, drama, romance, tragedy, comedy and the rest of the navarasas are quickly checked off. What emerges is an intriguing, entertaining performance by the Prasanga team.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On the Bengaluru Karaga: Written for The New Indian Express

I was at Bengaluru Karaga recently. And wrote about it for The New Indian Express. An edited version of the story was published here today. Read it here below.

With a population of ten million and some more, Bangalore, not yet officially Bengaluru, is a sprawling metropolis with glass façade high rise buildings, many symbols of new money and the chaos that comes with the job description of being a city. Yet, if you peer behind the sanitized campuses of MNCs, there are plenty of vestiges of the small town Bangalore used to be, before it suddenly found itself to be a city and didn’t know what to do with that novel idea. There are plenty of lanes too narrow for a man pushing a bicycle to pass through, labyrinths of roads and precariously placed old houses above shops which require you leave your footwear outside.

It is in these lanes that Bangalore continues to exist as if somehow time has never moved on. It is in these lanes every year at the famous Bengaluru karaga that a village fair wakes up with a yawn for a few days before and after the first full moon of the first month of the Hindu calendar. There are cheap toys and joy rides, snacks served with dirty hands and fake jewelry, plenty of noisy children, harassed mothers and entourages of extended families. There are bright lights, some neon signs sneak in here and there as well, it is still the city, after all. There are fortune telling robots and shiny paper swords. There are chants that rent the still balmy evening air. Taking this opportune distraction, the street hawker demands an extra rupee for the balloon that the little girl has set her heart on. There is haggling but the parents have other things to see and do before the crowds bulge some more, so they grudgingly give the hawker that extra rupee.

There will be, over the all night procession, some lakhs of people overflowing into the narrow lanes of Thigalarapet, Sunkalpet and the other old ‘petes’ (towns) of Bangalore. Yet the famous Bengaluru karaga never shakes off its small town look and smell and feel. This is a side of Bangalore that is comfortable with itself.

The Bengaluru karaga is famously amongst the oldest community festivals in the city, pretty much up there with the famed Mysore Dasara, though not perhaps as international as the latter. It is lead by the Thigala community; descendents as per legend from an army of Veerakumaras that Mahabharata’s Draupadi is said to have created to destroy a demon. The community has historically been known to be gardeners from Tamil Nadu who were invited during Hyder Ali’s time to help lay out the gardens at Lal Bagh in Bangalore.

In a retelling of the feminine narrative, a man, in a role that has come to him hereditarily, dresses up like a woman, complete with an overflowing jasmine headgear and a mangal-sutra and walks the night in procession; for that night, after weeks of penitence and rituals, he embodies Goddess Draupadi. “The procession first goes to Mastan saab dargah and then to the temples in the area, following the route of the original precincts of Kempegowda’s Fort. While the karaga carrier is always from the Thigala community, the other duties of the festival belong to other castes,” says Chalakari Narayana Swamy, spokesperson at the Dharmarayaswamy Temple, where the festival is held.

Forty-three year old C M Lokesh carried the karaga for the fourth time running this year. His turn comes every alternative year. “During the year, I go and do many rituals at the Dharmarayaswamy Temple every day. For six months of the year before the karaga, I live in a purified room within the temple and can go home only to see my two young children,” he says. On the night of the karaga, he dresses up in a saree, embodying Draupadi. After that night, his wife gets her husband back. “We are chosen by the community for our abilities,” he adds, refusing to elaborate further. The rest of his time is spent in running a printing press in neighbouring Nagarathpet.

 “The temple is unique too, for there aren’t many other places of worship in the country dedicated to one of the Pandavas,” Swamy continues. The festival and its origins are, like most things in the country, shrouded in the unwritten years of history. But banking on archaeological records and oral history, he estimates that the festival goes back over 500 years. “It is the oldest festival in the region and is instrumental in bringing together people from all castes, classes and communities,” he insists.

Buddhist antecedents?

Dr Taltaje Vasantakumara, a Buddhist scholar has proposed, rather controversially, that the festival might have Buddhist origins. “Dharma is a word that is at the base of Buddhism. The rituals and the act of karaga itself may have originated from the idea of dharma. Over time, thanks to the act of myth making, it got associated with Hinduism and attached to the epics to form a new history,” he says.

As with all community activities, the politics of religion isn’t too distant here either. But for a week or so, Bangalore slips back to how it started out once upon a time, a smallish town that used to be dazzled by the city lights.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Agam the Band: A Profile for The New Indian Express

The fish --gasp, gasping for breath-- is back in the water. And does it feel good or what!? The New Indian Express (TNIE) was where I started my career as a journalist. It was where I worked seven days a week for a long time so that I could take my weekly offs together and go home. It was, as anyone who has worked there will vouch for, the best place to work at. 

For a thousand stories in those years of working there, of being young(er) and passionate and curious and all that, it meant a lot to be asked to write for it again. So here I am, writing for one of India's finest newspapers.

*Touchwood* for all the beautiful days and wonderful things happening right now in life.

The first of the articles in TNIE is on Agam, one of my favourite bands. Here below is a version of the story. Alternatively, read the rather oddly titled (I thought) profile published in Sunday Express here.

Photo courtesy: Agam

You have expectations, however misplaced. When you wear black, have flowing hair and hit the drums with a head bang, strum the guitar with a certain panache or embrace the microphone on stage with a meant-to-melt-you voice, the clichés of the world nudge you towards having certain expectations from rockstars. These are performers after all; their subscription to clichés is part of the act. Or so you think. Finding the contrary, you are happily disappointed almost.

Agam is a Bangalore-based band consisting of seven Tamil-speaking (mostly) techies, that generic word that applies to anyone who works in a large IT company. There is Harish Sivaramakrishnan on vocals and violin, Ganesh Ram Nagarajan on drums and backing vocals, his brother Sivakumar Nagarajan on ethnic percussions, Swamy Seetharaman on keyboards- he is also the lyricist- T Praveen Kumar on lead guitar, Vignesh Lakshminarayanan on bass guitar and backing vocals and Jagadis Natarajan on rhythm guitar. Fusion is a sexy word to describe a new sound that cannot be strictly boxed under any one category. Agam doesn’t use ‘fusion’. They prefer to write Carnatic/Progressive/Rock on their website. An eclectic mix.

On stage they are rockstars, they have standard theatrics that comes with the rulebook. Off stage, they are the sorts who will invite you over to a jamming session in a small room on someone’s terrace and let you listen to the birth of a new song. The band members aren’t too sure how a song is born. “One of us might get a spark and we take it from there, says Harish Sivaramakrishnan. Akin to how they changed Malhar Jam completely for a Coke Studio session, Agam might play a song for a year a certain way and then change it. The final cut is one that all the seven men have to like and agree upon. “We are very clear about that,” Harish says.

In the course of a three-hour jamming session, Ganesh, or GNR as they call him, is helping Vignesh get the notes right. Not all of them are formally trained in music. It takes a while, each member has a way of understanding and remembering the counts; there is much unlearning that happens as well. The camaraderie is peppered with das and ras, in typical Madras street style. While they allow themselves micro breaks to rib each other, once the notes are hit, each has a look of concentration about them. This particular song is only just taking shape, they don’t have the lyrics yet, they are not sure how it will turn out. They don’t give themselves a deadline.

These new sounds will possibly become Agam’s 11th song. Ten songs for a popular band isn’t a big repertoire but then they have been around for just 2.5 years. “As friends, as musicians though, we go back ten years. All the members are batch mates from college, colleagues or close friends and we all have, in our individual capacities, been writing music and strumming guitars for a long time,” explains Vignesh. “We became ‘Agam’ in July of 2010”, that is GNR clarifying.

Agam’s ten songs and their covers, which sometimes they work more for than for their original tracks, are much sought after in college fests, corporate shows and music festivals. Sometimes the band has to let good shows go, for their other professional lives might come in the way. But all of them insist that their bosses are immensely supportive. Music is not their main livelihood, and that makes letting a show go easier as well. With two of the band members based in Chennai, there are logistical issues, but music is a release, a passion and they always find a way to meet and jam often.

While for academic purposes they might all listen to all genres of music, their personal music players would each sound very different from the other. Harish is a huge ghazals fan, GNR will listen to just about anything, Vignesh will hum along to film songs, Indian Ocean and their other Indie ilk, Swami, the most socially conscious of them all, would prefer R&B, Praveen’s choices would mirror Harish’s, Shiva would be the hardcore Ilayaraja film music fan while Jagadis would be head banging to mellow death, trash metal -- higher volume of noise, as GNR teases.

2014 might see a second album, after The Inner Self Awakens, a self titled name in the sense that the word Agam means ‘the inner self’ in ancient Tamil. Their unique sound, classic Carnatic with progressive rock, will see a marked change in the next album, Harish speculates, “for we see ourselves moving toward true progressive metal while retaining the melody of our songs.” That philosophy will not change, they are certain, though like the song birthing process, they will not know what the final sounds will sound like.

Oh, also, this band is a foodie band. They eat out a lot.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Garbage Cityalli Beththale Manushya: A Review in The Hindu

Three weeks, three reviews, not bad, not bad at all! The other day I went to watch a Dario Fo adaptation. It wasn't very good. Dario Fo's The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, adapted into Kannada, was the very first play I had ever watched in my life, a long time ago, in Madikeri. This play, Garbage Cityalli Beththale Manushya, was adapted from Fo's One Was Nude, One Wore Tails. Read the review in The Hindu here or see below.


The constricted lanes of old Bangalore’s Chikpet area had small hills of garbage a few months ago, that people going about their businesses skirted and skipped over. Perhaps now those reeking piles have been cleared and carted off to Mandur, a name that is passingly referred to in Garbage Cityalli Beththale Manushya. That is just one of the small handful of references that the play has to Bangalore’s rising stink in public places. This derived context apart, there isn’t anything that Garbage Cityalli… has to do with garbage in the city.

Instead it has a lot to do with nakedness, of the soul and of the body. Does clothes maketh a man or is his identity derived from his profession? Can you strip off the clothes and give them to another, thus changing what they do, who they are? In Dario Fo’s characteristic satirical style, the play attempts to induce some laughs, some philosophical musings while examining these questions of identity. But in the treatment of Fo’s One Was Nude, One Wore Tails, adapted to Kannada by Dr Prakash Garud, the performance ends up being just a layer above mediocre.

A garbage sweeper and his friend, who dispenses a bit of a philosopher while cleaning up a red light area discuss God, nothingness and everythingness in that nothingness and such like. The first sweeper finds himself having to deal with an naked ambassador who hides in his garbage box while escaping from his lover’s house. It is a minor inconvenience when his lover’s husband arrives and our ambassador is forced to make a dash for his top hat and jump from the balcony. He insists that he be taken home, promising the sweeper much money and a gold watch in return. The sweeper is more worried about the supervisor he might meet. A flower seller is wearing the ambassador’s tail coat, the sweeper struggles to get him to sell it, a prostitute is charmed by the sweeper when he in turn wears the tails and a policeman has to be talked out of arresting everyone involved. All these affairs are conducted with a bit of buffoonery, for the laughs.

The garbage box is rather charming, with fading vintage posters of Kannada films from the 80s and of some adult films adorning its sides. A trash can says BBMP and you are reminded thus, throughout the play, to place it mentally in this city. Bits of flying paper and flattened bottles are everywhere on the stage, helpful when the sweepers throw jibes at intelligent, educated audiences that don’t think twice of littering on the streets.

Garbage Cityalli… tries to follow a line of contemplation and questioning where you are want to mull over pretensions, the masks you wear, extending from the clothes you cover yourself with and of nakedness within and outside the soul. But at times it becomes a tad tedious to look beyond the rather mediocre acting and examine the philosophies of the narrative. Ganapathi Hegde, who co-directs the play with Dr Prakash Garud, plays the lovable, honest sweeper and easily steals the show. Dr Garud as the policeman is wonderful as a public servant who isn’t above minor transgressions. Some of the actors look like they cannot say their lines fast enough and be done with it, leaving it to the older warhorses to hold your attention. Music by Sathyanarayana Gundibail peps the play up in places. The theatre group Oddolaga from Hittalakai in Uttar Kannada district performs this play.