Tag Archives: music

The Venus Flytrap: Locked Down, Longing

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Someone I haven’t touched in years emerged again in the shape of words, after a night through which fear and worry had not let me sleep. Sapped of circumspection, I had sent a simple message. Dawn had still not diluted the darkness, yet he replied immediately. He’d just been thinking of me. He too had been restless all night. He’d woken mid-way, he said, and seen the constellated sky through a parting in the curtains. The stars had coaxed a memory of another night under the same sky, of us in other chapters of our lives, of me. He asked me what I remembered.

We’d been back in contact for some time, without meeting, and an ease had returned to our acquaintanceship. But not this much, not yet.

He expected he’d be in my neighbourhood after the lockdown lifts. I offered lightly that we could meet – but not hug. “We could fist bump, with gloves,” he said. Everything and nothing is hypothetical now. The only gloves I own are fingerless lace ones. What could they possibly keep me from? Before I finally slipped into sleep at that swiftly brightening hour, I sent this: “Talking to you as the sun came up reminded me of some mornings long ago. Don’t disappear on me again. I don’t know if I will forgive you next time.” He responded; but not with words.

Days pass, in a calendar that seems to loop on itself. Hours upon hours. Do you keep count? How do you measure this strange and revealing circumstance? A healer told me once, after everything had changed for me, when I wept that the world was like it had never been before: No, the world is exactly the same. It’s you who has changed. Now the reverse is true. I believe we are closer to our truer natures, while what is beyond us has altered. We choose: guile, doubling down, mirroring, or to behold ourselves whole.

One afternoon in my own captivity, a transformer burst and quietness descended. No fan blades whisking the air, no electrical thrums, no traffic or construction anyway – then, I heard a voice. I’ll never be certain, but I hope it was the neighbour whose own words are always soft, and can’t counter her grown son’s frequent and miserable scoldings. She was singing “Poongkuyil koovum…”, with its lyrics about encountering divinity in nature, in a seaside flower grove where a kuyil opens its throat in seduction.

It’s the bird’s mating season now. I thought of a kuyil I’d watched for a year, in a house I miss every day – a house where this confinement could have been more bearable, where I would have observed a courtship unfolding on the boughs of a crow-nested tree. The woman’s voice faded away, perhaps because my imagination overwhelmed my listening. I didn’t catch my favourite line – “Thanimaiyil inimai kannden…” – but I felt it, felt it like the vibration created by stroking upon the rim of a resting prayer bowl. In solitude, I saw sweetness, the woman sang, even if I could no longer hear her – those words reaching through the ether to touch, and to touch again.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 30th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: To Whom The Song Belongs

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Every time I hear the original “Masakali”, I think of the first time I heard it. A friend had sent me a video in which the melody was overlaid on a black and white clip of slapstick comedians Laurel and Hardy dancing. Something had upset me, and he’d sent it to lighten my mood. I’ve long forgotten what I was miserable about, but I’ve never been able to listen to that song without thinking of him.

Many popular works of art have such a mnemonic effect on us, conjuring everything from teenage summers, indelible loves, special trips and more. “Masakali” must mean a lot of things, to a lot of people. So, how many seconds of “Masakali 2.0” did it take for you to recognise that the remix was a dud?

The song’s composer A.R. Rahman criticised the rendition on social media, in a departure from his congenial public image. Playback singer Mohit Chauhan, who recorded the original, also expressed his dismay. All this is not just drama fodder. It reveals the seedy underside of being an art-maker within capitalism.

Shortly afterwards, playback singer Neha Kakkar spoke up about being insufficiently compensated for her work in cinema; she said that concerts provided better income. It bears remembering that the iconic Leonard Cohen was forced to resume touring in his 70s to evade bankruptcy.

Many of us are guilty of falling for the notion that music, or any art, is free. It’s nice to think that a beautiful song belongs to everyone; and in a sense, it could. It’s just that someone made that song. More than one someone, sometimes. To create a thing of beauty or meaning and to give it away is very different from losing it, or losing one’s claim over it – or never being paid enough for it, literally.

In 1974, Dolly Parton turned down the chance to have Elvis Presley record a song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You”, giving up the potential for it to be even more popular and lucrative. Presley’s manager had demanded half the publishing rights to the song, and Parton made the painful decision to reject the deal. This was a brave choice, but such a choice isn’t always available to every creator. Especially when one needs the money, needs the door to open, or knows they may not get another opportunity.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have made TV shows, films, music and books an integral part of how people (with the privilege of access) are managing the situation, especially from the perspective of emotional well-being. Most people really are grateful for these entertainment and enrichment materials, no longer taking them for granted. However, this gratitude can be made more meaningful by sparing a thought for what will likely happen to the creators of the same artforms in the near future, economically speaking. This will impact what gets produced, promoted or published at all. Whether as artists or as consumers, we must become invested in dismantling capitalism as it exists today and reassembling better systems – systems which ensure that no one goes hungry, regardless of their profession or background, and also recognise the arts as essentials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Nobody’s Muse

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When the legendary cultural critic Susan Sontag was 17 years old, she married a sociologist around a decade her senior, with whom she had a son. Her husband, Philip Rieff, published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, widely considered a landmark text, in 1959. For years, rumour held that Sontag had such a large role in the work that she was practically its co-author. Now, her latest biographer claims to have evidence that it was her work all along, and that she had signed over authorship out of desperation to keep her ex-husband from gaining custody of her child in their divorce.

History doubtlessly contains more erasures like this. I recall once watching the cellist and poet Kevin Gillam perform Bach’s beautiful cello suites. But which Bach did they belong to? He cited scholarship by the conductor Martin Jarvis that it was Anna Magdalena, the composer’s wife, who wrote them. Perhaps this memory surfaced because I’ve been rationing the final few episodes of the cancelled TV show Mozart In The Jungle. I adore it. It “has blood”, to paraphrase the maverick maestro Rodrigo De Souza (deliciously portrayed by Gabriel Garcia Bernal) at its heart. He is irresistible – therefore, best on screen and as far as possible from in the flesh, please. Please! Brilliant, and potentially brilliant, women spin into disorder following affairs with him. One of them begins to receive visits from ghosts of musicians past, just like he does. But it’s women who come to her, beginning with Nannerl, Mozart’s thwarted sister. Then others: women forgotten because they weren’t allowed to shine. They come as warnings.

And there are those left to wreck themselves, supernovas self-imploding, as the profoundly feminist and beautiful Savitri Ganesan biopic Mahanati (which I watched to avoid finishing Mozart) illustrates.

It’s something I think about a lot in relation to #MeToo. A monster’s art isn’t as interesting to me as the art that they suppressed. Many women went underground, remained footnotes, lost confidence and disappeared with nothing to their names. They only came into the orbits of monsters because they had some spark of talent in them too. There must have been more Sontags who didn’t manage to surface again. Maybe their work was stolen. Or maybe it was never made. It might be better to be celibate than to be someone’s muse.

Actually, to be honest, there’s one more alternative. The much-married Lawrence Durrell wrote (this quote is famously misattributed to his friend and fellow rake – I mean writer – Henry Miller): “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Well, speaking as the woman, let me rephrase. Replace with the pronoun of your weakness and try again: love them, suffer for them, and turn them into literature. I prefer to do it all, do it bleeding, and put my name on it too.

Come to think of it, it’s a sweet irony that Durrell is rarely credited for these words of his either. I wonder what Sontag (or her ghost, appearing to an ingénue on the cusp of a mistake) might say about that.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 16th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Voyeurs & Vultures

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Nobody’s saying a divorce can’t be celebrated – except, that right belongs only to those directly affected, who may feel a sense of liberation or closure. But imagine having hordes of people enjoy the news of your divorce, because they hope you’ll be miserable enough to make art from it. That’s what’s happening to singer-songwriter Adele, whose personal announcement has caused great excitement among many fans. Gleeful reports about how she was spotted entering recording studios, with “sources” saying a heartbreak album is around the corner, add fuel.

Some dug up how she allegedly joked to the press, early in her career, “When I’m happy, I ain’t writing songs. I’m out having a laugh. If I ever get married, it’ll be, ‘Darling, I need a divorce. It’s been three years, I’ve got a record to write’”. As though a carefree statement made when she was both younger and just getting acclimatised to success makes such vulture-like anticipation acceptable.

How does Adele feel about her divorce? The correct answer is: none of our business. Is she going to make beautiful music from it? If she does, let it be for her own catharsis. Let her lock it up and have it be revealed in a hundred years. Because those who think she owes it to them to mine her pain for their pleasure – or as a soundtrack for their own cathartic moments – don’t deserve it. An artist’s only obligation is to honour her own journey, in life and work. The audience is incidental. Honestly, so is the art.

I remembered how disappointed I was in 2005 when Tori Amos, my personal queen of teenage intensity, released a seemingly uninspired (but actually deeply grieving, gently healing) album called The Beekeeper. Like other entitled fans, I thought moving to Cornwall to raise chickens and a child had made her lose her edge.

But so what if she had? Did she not deserve her peace? I understood only once I was on the other side, and felt the exhaustion of being projected upon. A literary author is not a superstar, but in smaller but still prickly ways, dehumanisation happens. It runs the gamut from backhanded compliments like being told at a celebration for a book how someone preferred an earlier one and expected more like it; to disrespect of boundaries because personal interaction was presumed to be an all-access pass; to an ugly experience when readers knew a loved one was dying, and someone still had the malice to send me casual criticism while claiming to usually enjoy the pieces they’d never once dropped an appreciative word for. The equanimity I strive for now is this: knowing both praise and aversion are reflections of the recipient, not the maker.

And you know what? And after all those dramatic years of loving Amos’ dark albums, it’s funny how The Beekeeper is almost the only one I still listen to. And I understand now: it’s not that she had lost her charm, or her edge, back then. It’s that I needed to grow before I could see it, and recognise the grace and fire that had withstood what went into the work.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

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The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dancing To The End Of Love

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When Leonard Cohen, whose legacy will probably live forever, died last week, public mourning was more withdrawn than usual. Perhaps it had to do with all the other news of that week, and how the luxury of emotional reactions seemed futile against humanity’s folly. So people shared songs without musings. And goodbyes without eulogies about when they first heard hello. But even if he had passed away in less fraught a week, these responses may have been the same. His lyrics had a way of saying everything necessary, at once personal and all-encompassing.

Leonard Cohen’s words often found us in intimate moments, or more precisely, led us to them – gently swinging the door open for intimacy to wander in and close it promisingly behind her. I thought over the songs that had imprinted themselves on the corridors of my memory and blushed. There were rooms in low light, there were roofs in moonlight, there were regrets turned rosy by what that poet’s baritone made us believe. There were reasons. And there was no reason to reveal them.

There were other kinds of poignancies too. A new friend with whom “Suzanne” was drunkenly sung, still demurely seated at a just-cleared lunch table in Calicut, who passed away not long after and who the song now always reminds me of. But I can’t write about him without feeling that it would anger the old friend, who is no longer one, the one who he actually belonged to.

But like songs, or like secrets, does anything ever only belong to one person alone? The answer is yes, but only that which rests on a palm, not inside a fist.

There will be many people who know only one song of Cohen’s, and they know it in someone else’s voice. They know it from Jeff Buckley’s dulcet rendition or they know it from Shrek (or one of the hundred and one TV shows or films that elevated any scene at all through “Hallelujah” alone). And to them, I say: there’s so much more. Begin with the ones that feel like you’ve heard them somewhere (you have), but maybe weren’t listening as intently then: “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Bird On A Wire”, “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”

And then – if you’re still interested – find my rare favourite, “The Gypsy’s Wife”, with the wild woman, the Salome-Kali dancing with a decapitated head on the threshing floor in the liminality between light and dark. Go further – chase Cohen’s words from the audial to the page. Read his poems. Read his novel, Beautiful Losers, on the Native Canadian saint Katherine Tekatwitha, one of the last things he authored before a nervous breakdown led him to realise he needed to move towards the stage.

Go talk to someone else who loved his work so much they ruined some of his songs for themselves by giving them away, and this is what you’ll learn: still, because they are simply too beautiful to not share, they’ll give them away again. That’s Cohen for you: a spiritualist who knew that transcendence was not in renouncing the world, but in taking its hand, reading its open palm.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Beyoncé And The Badass Ancestral Self

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This week, I mulled over a divination card I came across in an interview with the queer indigenous healer Lettie Laughter. It said: “Your future ancestral self is a badass magician of the heart who will never stop loving you.” The conflation of time in the line was what intrigued me. One becomes an ancestor regardless of whether one has progeny, just as one reaches for ancestors, blood-kin and guiding lights both, from the braided branches of the tree of life. One can go back in time to love one’s known younger self, to unsnag that self from something that doesn’t heal. But the idea of being healer-ancestor and unbegotten-beloved at once was so richly textured that I turned it over and over in my mind.

The following day, giving in to sheer curiousity (the kind where the analysis you’ve read is so powerful that you wonder if the real thing will hold water), I watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Here, too, what stood out for me was ancestry. The proverbial sins of the father are only set scenery. The real story is the suffering of the mothers. We mother ourselves – a line you can read as profane or as protective. In this rendering, Beyoncé counts among her mothers the young poet Warsan Shire and the late radical Malcolm X. There is plenty of amazing black feminist political and spiritualist writing already out there about how she consciously channels the goddesses Oshun and Erzulie Red-Eyes, among other mothers.

“Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth,” Beyoncé enunciates slowly, right before the work moves back into the theme of sexual humiliation in a shattering marriage.

I don’t think that speculating about Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z is any of our business. An artist exposes her vulnerability not to have it dissected; her real life is not a circus act. Judging by the ecstatic reactions to it, Lemonade might be the kind of work that mirrors anything the viewer brings to it, which is why the infidelity and betrayal in it have been so resonant for so many.

Is the work personal? Who cares, when it is personal for so many. Truthfully, the spoken word and cinematography were more interesting to me than the music – one needs no embellishment for lines as stark as “[I] plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know…” But Beyoncé’s willingness to be a conduit for collective pain, regardless of whether or not her own is a basis for that exploration, is what I admire.

I must not have brought a particularly wounded self of mine to my viewing of Lemonade. Because what I saw was the artist clearly cast in the mode of Lettie Laughter’s divination card: simultaneously archetypal and in need of healing. This was one way to be a badass ancestral self, for sure. Every creative day of my life, I write mainly so as to make amends for ancestral silencing, and mostly only to console myself. It was glorious to watch another artist do the same, to step into that liminal space and chant to her sistren.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Recent Interviews: Janice Pariat and Christine Chareyon

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The French pianist Christine Chareyon brought “‘Un Argentin A Paris”, a six-city tour of the compositions of Astor Piazzolla, to India earlier this year. Here‘s my interview with her for The Hindu Business Line.

I also interviewed the author Janice Pariat in the run-up to the announcement of the Shakti Bhatt Prize, for which her short story collection Boats on Land was nominated. You can read it here in The Sunday Guardian.

Tamil Mourning Performances: An Essay In Motherland

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Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.

Review: The Akram Khan Company’s Gnosis

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In Gnosis, the first production by The Akram Khan Company to be performed in India in eleven years, the eponymous principal dancer appears in two distinct incarnations: Akram Khan as purveyor of beauty, and Akram Khan as perpetrator of violence. In each mode, he exudes power in completely different, but equally riveting, ways.

We are introduced to the former incarnation during the first half of the show, consisting of three pieces: Polaroid Feet, Tarana and Unplugged. Here, the choreography doesn’t stray far from Khan’s kathak roots; it is the music that modernizes. His movements are informed and counterparted by cello and western percussion in addition to tabla and classical vocals. The result is extraordinary, so stunning a sonic and visual experience that dichotomized ideas of tradition versus experimentation lose their relevance. The synthesis is so perfect as to allow their being forgotten.

In Unplugged, an improvisational section, Khan has a certain ease in the shoulders and a wordless amity with his musicians that give one the impression that above all, he is having fun – like someone in a club, who can’t help but groove. His feet, meanwhile, could be instruments of evisceration in their precision.

In the show’s latter segment, consisting only of the titular Gnosis, he takes off his ghugroos and joins Fang-Yi Sheu in a piece that takes its ethos from the contemporary and its sense of drama from the classical. Here, Gandhari and Duryodhana – who in literal or figurative ways chose darkness – are the crux of this exploration of greed, violence and transformation. A powerful dancer, Sheu has a deadly, almost martial, presence juxtaposed with the vulnerability of blindness. Together, the duo evinces a chilling performance.

Pure evil emerges in one surprising moment. Sheu is at centrestage. A pinpoint of white emerges in the darkness behind her, grows larger and larger, until Khan himself steps forward – that eerie looming light was the one reflected off his bald head. If the body in dance is inseparable from narrative, this innovative detail – the use of even the top of the dancer’s head to create mood – strikes an extraordinary note.

In the final minutes, Sheu’s mastery of technique is evidenced in a sequence in which she appears to lose control. Here there are no cheap ruses emulating chaos. Her body behaves as though it has been possessed, as though she is a doll being manipulated. The effect is astounding.

Something inexplicably seamless exists between the kathak-based and contemporary segments of this show, and it’s difficult to place one’s finger on what that is. Perhaps it is a lack of pretension. The emphasis is not on philosophy but on sheer performance. Gnosis is spellbinding: a feast that stirs. Don’t think. Just watch.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

 

 

 

Micro-Fiction (With Music!) at Safety Pin Review

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I was holding off on posting this, because there’s another element to being published on Safety Pin Review (i.e. the backs of people’s shirts) but there’s been some delay on that.

Meanwhile, here‘s an itty-bitty story, “Wishing on Stars”, read at intervals throughout this rather cool selection of music on WECI 91.5FM recently.

The Tragic And Talented

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Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.

It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.

So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.

To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.

Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.

The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.

None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

Book Review: Rock and Roll Jihad by Salman Ahmad

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Salman Ahmad was born into a fairly charmed life: the son of a manager at Pakistan International Airlines, he travelled all over the world as a child, and migrated with his family to Tappan, New York, at the age of 12, where he discovered the world of concerts, liberal values, cross-cultural camaraderie and his own passion for music-making. So when he was sent back to Lahore in 1982 to pursue medical studies, the shock of dislocation was compounded by the shock of censorship and conservatism in an increasingly insular society. When the young Ahmad’s precious guitar is broken by a member of the self-proclaimed moral police, his destiny is sealed. He too becomes radicalized, but instead of retreating into bigotry and hatred, he accepts as his personal jihad the spreading of love and understanding, through the power of music.

Today, Salman Ahmad is known as Pakistan’s first real rock star, a musician who brought a message of hope to a politically complex part of the world with the bands Vital Signs and Junoon, and an ambassador for cultural relations whose work has dealt with repairing the divides between Islam and the West, and Pakistan and India. Rock and Roll Jihad, his memoir of his personal journey so far, is an inspiring account by a compassionate messenger of peace.

The book starts out a little awkwardly, peppered with too many parenthetical explanations – take this single line for an example, “Salman mian [young man], you want to become a mirasi [low-class musician]? Your parents have high expectations of you and you want to waste the rest of your life playing this tuntunna [gizmo]?” But as the greater ambition of this memoir – to be a reconciliatory and celebratory bridge between divides – becomes clear, this is forgiven for how helpful it might be for a young, international audience. Told in an easygoing style, brushes with glamour – like taking Mick Jagger to see dancing girls – and brushes with politics – like being banned by the government, and losing band members to ego clashes and religious fanaticism – sit comfortably with an abidingly deep spirituality.

Rock and Roll Jihad is recommended regardless of whether one is a fan of Salman Ahmad’s music – although the accompanying 12-track CD offers a bonus to anyone who is. Best suited for teenage readers, who might see in Ahmad a wonderful example of how rebellion and anger can be galvanized to heal, this simply-worded, tactfully passionate memoir is a stirring read.

Ahmad’s jihad is a beautiful one – inspired by the poets of the past and the peacemakers of the present, he sees himself and his work as a necessary voice in the greater struggle against forces of ignorance, prejudice and restriction. This book, peacefully narrated and with no hint of the ugly anger that colours the work of many activists, succeeds in spreading a message both in support of greater global harmony, and in encouraging the young to take heart as they pursue their dreams. Like all truly enlightened people, Ahmad leads by example.

An edited version appeared last week in EDEX, The New Indian Express.