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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently enjoyed the chance to perform alongside the Australian writer and cellist Kevin Gillam, who interweaves his poetry with the magnificent timbres of the instrument. Far from the city which I soften daily with Bach’s suites, I made two discoveries: firstly, the music evoked no Pavlovian responses in me, no memory of that which needs softening. And, these celebrated ouvertures may have been written by the other Bach – his wife.
Gillam spoke of research by the conductor Martin Jarvis that proposed that Anna Magdalena Bach had composed the suites; their pacing and sensibilities differ significantly from Bach’s larger body of work. This stayed with me. The unaccompanied cello suites accompany me everywhere, and now this thought did too. History remembers us as it will. We cannot influence its remembering. Our work is not to contrive the echoes we leave, but to live life’s opus with operatic feeling. It matters not whether we survive in song or in silence, but only that we deliver our clearest cadence.
I had been introduced to the baroque suites by a musicologist I had befriended while travelling in the Thanjavur district. A year later, I returned to that part of the country, and again, what I took back with me resonated for a long time afterward.
Pilgrims to a music festival, we had travelled out to the village of Thirupughazhur for a meal and to see a certain house, an excursion within a longer one, and after an extraordinary banana leaf lunch – the best vegetarian South Indian meal of my life – were on the backyard portico, napping or talking in the somnolence of the first few weeks of real heat since the rains had ended. A temple tank faced us, the view tainted only by the telephone towers in the near distance. Thirupughazhur literally translates to “town of the praise-song”; it is sacred to the legends of the poet-mystics Appar and Sundarar (not all poets are mystics, but I think all mystics are poets, even the ones who do not speak).
Among our party was the Indologist David Shulman, who spoke of the Tantric concept of the vibrating universe. As in string theory, the world is always singing. God, perhaps, is eternally humming. In stages, this supreme vibration becomes audible. From an intensity impossible for us to hear, it devolves into speech, noise, melody. The urmani is the moment of epiphany: the moment when silence turns to sound.
By April, months later, the rains still had not returned. I soften the city with cello suites, I wrote. A few days after I sent it to him, another friend – yet another soul who blesses the orchestra of my life – told me he had set the poem with this line in it to music. I was surprised; much as I have an interest in multidisciplinary art, my writing, like a cello suite, is almost always imagined unaccompanied. I listened to a rough cut of the piece, and in the silence after the song’s ending, I thought of the urmani. I thought of when it might have been when, reading the page, the words became infused with sonority. In my friend’s head, a harmony had formed. In mine, it had happened backwards. The world is always singing. I am always only trying to write down its songs.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.
It was my pleasure and privilege to travel with the Prakriti Foundation last year to their Festival of Sacred Music, and I am delighted to have been able to do the same again just this past weekend. This was published in today’s The New Indian Express.
The experience of travelling with the Prakriti Foundation to the Festival of Sacred Music at Thiruvayaru, now in its second year, is a multi-faceted one. The nights are electric with open air concerts in marvellous “found” locations in this muse-kissed small town; the days are filled with sightseeing to nearby monuments, discussions on aesthetic sensibility, genuine camaraderie and long scenic drives that cut through rural heartlands and Tamil sacred geography – the Cauvery river, the fields, the shrines in every grove.
This year’s Festival featured three incandescent concerts, beginning with Vidya Rao’s Hindustani thumri recital at the Husoor Palace. The soft-spoken Srimathi Rao shared an elegant series of thumris that spanned the gamut from Meera bhajans to Sufi poetry, taking pains to explain the lyrics to the audience. As with all the locations, the lighting and stage design was inspired, with diyas settled in the nooks of pigeon nesting towers.
The following night, contemporary-looking palm leaf floral arrangements hung upside down in the tent under which a jugalbandi showcasing the talents of Pandit Krishna Ram Choudary on shehnai and Pinnai Managar Shri. Dhakshinamurthi and K.M Uthirapathi on nadaswaram resounded at the Pushya Mahal Ghat. The competitive-collaborative dynamics of the jugalbandi format reached a crescendo with the solo performances by drummers on both sides, who stole the show with their prowess.
The Festival concluded on an incandescent note, with Aruna Sairam’s powerful voice rising under a glorious full moon at the Panchanatheeswara Temple. Srimathi Sairam selected her repertoire astutely, sharing both complex, rarely performed padams as well as livelier pieces chosen particularly for the many Carnatic music students in the audience. A certain darkness in her delivery greatly enhanced the phenomenal nature of this performance.
As with all Prakriti Foundation projects, the Festival of Sacred Music is founded on visionary principles: it is not kutcheris alone that are the objective, but also heritage preservation and rural tourism. To this end, Prakriti Foundation works in close collaboration with Dr Rama Kausalya’s Maribu Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), taking as a fulcrum the revival of and renewed respect for both the sites and the ethos that made this part of Tamil Nadu so culturally affluent. It is a labour of love that has already been many years in the making and will require much effort yet – but some of its rewards are immediately evident. The concerts themselves, of course, but also the sense of magic that hangs in the air for the duration of the Festival. For the second year running, I looked up at the stars after dinner as friends of the Prakriti Foundation shared poetry and songs at the intimate Husoor Palace, and whispered a thank you to the muses that continue to kiss this ancient land.