REQUIEM FOR ZOMBIE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

If you are middle aged and grew up liking rock music, then you would be a worried person.

Not only have quite a few talented artistes departed in the last couple of years but it is also a fact that replenishment of talent of that caliber has been slow, if at all there is. You could argue technical aspects can be taught and replicated. What is irreplaceable is heart. That plays a big role in creativity for if creativity was all about technical excellence and little else then it would be as dry as owning the latest gadget and claiming to be cool just by that. Firmly lodged in the grasp of business models, fewer artistes are convincingly sensitive these days. We are left with songs that are like the aural version of packaged goodies with nothing for depth or hook to chew on. To compensate for the coldness in contemporary music, we then have well-orchestrated posts and photos on social media to make artistes seem sensitive. In contrast, many of the departed living in era without exploded media, responded to their times. They noticed a non-digital entity called people, held concerts, sang about prevailing social conditions; they touched a chord. When an artiste notices the times and responds to it, you are left with something to reflect on. And sometimes, although the response may be to artiste’s specific environment, the song bears a metaphorical value that exceeds immediate audience. Lyrics and tunes, they linger.

The recent demise of Irish singer Dolores O’Riordan was a loss at several levels. At 46, she was too young to die. She was the singer behind a clutch of memorable numbers, the best known of the lot being Zombie. That song performed by Dolores and her band, The Cranberries, was a protest song based on the 1993 Warrington bombings carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). However, the way the song worked on me, was different. I live in crowded, competitive environment capable of injecting the battles of the outside into the mind. What hit home were those three words in the lyrics: in your head. Led on, I found the name for my predicament: Zombie. To me, that song is an anthem for life hijacked; when it isn’t your voice that you hear within but the war cries of an aggressive, competitive world outside, colonizing the inner self. In your head they are fighting, in your head they are dying – that’s a MRI scan of brain besieged. Richly metaphorical and sung as effectively as Dolores did, her voice angry and cracking at the utterance of zombie, those simple lines easily cross borders and immediate context. Contemporary Indian music gave me no such balm for the soul. It neither casts deep for inspiration nor does it articulate our state. From a thousand miles away, in an oblique, metaphorical manner, Dolores and her song about an altogether different subject provided words and voice for what I felt.

The beauty of middle age is that it liberates you to embrace what you really like with no need to pretend for belonging to this group or that. The vault of accumulated music in your head receives a churn and you are pleasantly surprised seeing what endured life’s passing phases. From Zombie to Linger and more, Dolores was among those who endured in my head.

Rest in peace.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

MAGIC, 32 YEARS AGO

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Remembering Freddie Mercury

July 1985.

News of the concert had been brewing for a while.

In that time, the newspapers had made Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats names to know. I knew nothing more of them. All-knowing by instant search wasn’t yet in. Google’s birth was another thirteen years away; easily accessed Internet even more. Being curious about universe and welcoming of world, I memorized the names for conversation with musically inclined friends. Geldof was the main organizer of the upcoming Live Aid, a massive rock concert to help victims of the famine in Ethiopia. It was to be held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. The event was to be broadcast live across 150 countries; India was one of them. Some of the world’s biggest bands were heading straight to our living room. Television in India was young those days; colour TV younger still. There was only one broadcaster. Single broadcaster catering to the tastes of 780 million people (India’s population in 1985) meant that something fitting your taste on screen was both fleeting and a household event. Rock concert on TV was very rare. That year – 1985 – had seen the release of Brothers in Arms, the album that made Dire Straits a phenomenon. Thanks to Thiruvananthapuram’s music collectors and the network of the interested, we used to make up for Google’s absence and somehow access the music. I liked Dire Straits; they were expected to play at Live Aid as was Led Zeppelin in a much awaited reunion. D-Day was July 13. We watched the telecast together, as a family.

What I remember best from that telecast is what has since become famous as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. We gazed in amazement at the TV screen as the people gathered at London’s Wembley Stadium (over 70,000 were present that day) raised their hands in the air and clapped in unison to Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Then Freddie Mercury put them through a few vocal improvisations and they sang as he did, note for note. By the time the band was concluding its set with We Are the Champions, the Wembley crowd was swaying like a forest in the wind. On stage, Freddie Mercury was brilliant. It would be revealed later that Queen’s sound engineer may have tampered with the volume limit assigned to speakers, making the band the loudest act of the day at Wembley. If so, the band was unrepentant about it. Unlike many of the other bands at Live Aid who reportedly took their performance casually, Queen had come prepared and rehearsed. They intended to leave an impression. They did just that. Journalists writing on rock music have since compared it to one of those defining moments a lifetime of existence gravitates to. Freddie on stage at Live Aid was in such a moment.

Live Aid is supposed to have reached over a billion people. The world’s human population in 1985 was 4.8 billion. That would put the event’s TV viewership at close to a quarter of humanity, in days preceding Internet, Facebook, Twitter and human swarms trolling to enforce `like.’  Twenty minutes of Queen was Live Aid’s undisputed high point. As many would conclude later, Queen at Live Aid is rock music’s greatest live performance yet. Rock bands connect to audience through the technical proficiency of their musicians and through their front man. Queen was well balanced in this regard. Those writing on Queen have noted that none of its four members – Freddie, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon – could dominate individually, a trend capable of destabilizing bands. Further, each of them has contributed to writing one or the other of Queen’s many hits. Yet as often happens in rock music, the charisma of the front man influences a band’s perception by the public and Queen was no exception. Freddie Mercury was an electrifying act. Born Furrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, his father hailed from Bulsar, also known as Valsad, a town 150 km north of Mumbai. His mother was from Mumbai. Freddie spent most of his childhood in India (he attended school in Panchgani, 240 km away from Mumbai) before moving back to Zanzibar and then in the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution, onward to England. On November 24, 1991, a little over five years since that day at Wembley for Live Aid, Freddie Mercury passed away due to complications arising from AIDS. He was 45 years old. In 1996, at the opening of a photo exhibition on the life of Queen’s lead singer, the band’s lead guitarist, Brian May, would say (video of quote available on YouTube),“ to be truthful I am against recreating Queen in any other form as I think without Freddie it would always be something less than what it was.’’

Live Aid was also an opportunity to see U2, two years before they became a smash hit (and one of my favorite bands) with the album, `Joshua Tree.’ Queen and U2 warmed up to me differently. U2 peaked with my own advent to rock music-loving age, my craving in ever lonelier world for music as companion. I fell in love with Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For the first time I heard it. It remains a favorite even now. Which seeker in the head can resist such a song? Queen on the other hand, took time to connect. Notwithstanding their popularity, I found the architecture of Queen’s music stiff and set in an ecosystem that was very European and British.  They felt like a group hang-out. You bonded over their songs. For example, it isn’t music you seek in We Will Rock You, a song so evocative of tribe; you seek belonging. Long after Live Aid, I had friends who swore by Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. I found Bohemian Rhapsody an engaging mix; it was baroque, operatic and rock. But a sucker for the traveling spirit, I wanted something less rooted. Perhaps something less grand and more portable? As a young journalist in Mumbai enjoying life’s early flush of hard earned income, I also remember sitting in pubs and singing along to I Want To Break Free. I outgrew that. More to my taste were songs like Breakthru and The Invisible Man. But over time, it was another Queen number, A Kind Of Magic, which remained in head enduring life’s ageing process. I love its barreling sense of momentum, soaring vocals and surface-skimming lead guitar; it gives me a feeling of hurtling along to somewhere and nowhere in particular, all at once. Above all I love the unbridled energy that characterizes Freddie’s rendition of this song at the July 12, 1986 concert in Wembley, a year after Live Aid. It is an image of absolute confidence. The video of the performance (available on YouTube) reminds you of Live Aid. It smacks of sensing opportunity. Just past the 45th second as Freddie launches into the song, he looks towards the audience, through the haze caused by the fog machine, tad uncertain of what to expect. A minute and couple of faint smiles later, he looks to the camera and you see that glint of acknowledgement; he knows the audience is in the mood for magic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Twenty five years after Freddie Mercury’s demise, at a book fair near Navi Mumbai’s Vashi railway station I picked up Lesley Ann-Jones’s 2012 biography of the singer. My curiosity for it was the same as for a book on running, climbing, cycling, swimming or any such activity. Why should rock music be seen differently? Its all life; its all universe. Among other details, the book noted that Freddie’s first band was the `Hectics,’ formed at school in Panchgani by a 12 year-old Freddie and his schoolmates. An artistically inclined person given to sketching, he later took a diploma in art and graphic design, in London. His idol in rock music was Jimi Hendrix. According to the book, as successful rock star, Freddie rarely elaborated on his early years in Africa and India. On the other hand, it suggests that prolonged separation from his parents at so early and sensitive a stage in life, thanks to his schooling in distant India, may have impacted Freddie and contributed to the performer and person he became later in life. For long, Queen was a favorite with rock fans in Mumbai. Now a new generation and their music have taken over. Not to mention, Bollywood. The last big act in town was Justin Bieber (he was born three years after Freddie Mercury died). Movies have been made on artistes like Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. In 2010 a film was announced on Freddie Mercury’s life. In the years since, the cast and producers underwent change. When last reported in the international media, Egyptian-American actor, Rami Malek, was set to play the role of Freddie.

Live Aid happened 32 years ago.

Had Freddie Mercury been alive, he would turn 71 years old, this September 5, 2017.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     

RHYTHM HOUSE DECIDES TO SHUT SHOP

Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

For many years, I worked in South Mumbai, close to Churchgate.

Sometimes too much typing on the computer got to me and I would step out of the newspaper office for diversion.

If I cut across the nearby Oval Maidan and its myriad cricket matches, then fifteen minutes walk away, was Rhythm House. It was a shop in an old building at Kala Ghoda, now the city’s art district thanks to the adjacent Jehangir Art Gallery, the pavement artists, the surrounding heritage architecture and an annual festival in the area with roads closed to traffic and open to arts and crafts. Compared to other shops selling music that arrived and closed during its time, Rhythm House was small. But it was packed with music and movie titles in the physical format. What you couldn’t find on the shelves, you ordered at the desk. I would spend some time here browsing through the collection, clear my head and return to work.

One day, I wrote about Rhythm House. The new century had arrived. Businesses overseas had witnessed massive change through Internet and digitization. The world of book shops for instance, was besieged by question marks. As book shops struggled, I wondered what was happening at Rhythm House. Hence that old story written and published in the newspaper I worked for. It failed to capture well the shop and its predicament. Maybe I hadn’t known Rhythm House long enough to tell a story. I acted in haste. But I remember the owners being concerned of what lay ahead in the fast changing market. Still, if there was anything challenging Rhythm House, it wasn’t visibly alarming for the shop was well stocked and it had customers. During festive season, the traffic built up. Besides, sales or no sales, everyone knew Rhythm House. It was a Mumbai institution.

At Rhythm House you met connoisseurs of music. Once in a while as I hung around the racks hosting music relevant to me, I would hear a customer or two ask the salesmen about specific albums or concert recordings. The salesmen would in turn indulge them in talk about the elusive recently sourced or, which can be sourced. The minor details bringing joy to collectors of music are fascinating. It is portrait by passion. You don’t sense these folks as palpably in cyberspace even though the digital side of everything is marketed as bigger meeting place. In the real world and its shops, you meet people in full and a person in full is person believable. I wrote that article on Rhythm House well over ten years ago. I subsequently became freelance journalist and in my less moneyed avatar, continued to visit Rhythm House but rarely purchased. I found relief just being there amid the music and films although I must admit, not being able to afford was progressively becoming a dampener.

Rhythm House; red board announcing Goodbye Sale (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rhythm House; red board announcing Goodbye Sale (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

January 1, 2016. Having decided that a multiplex ticket costing Rs 400-500 to see the latest Star Wars movie wasn’t worth the strain on one’s purse, my friend Latha and I decided to go for a walk instead. Decades ago, I had watched the first Star Wars movie at a theatre in Thiruvananthapuram and returned home a fan of Han Solo. I watched the first trilogy. Then I watched Harrison Ford in all those Indiana Jones movies. Those days you could afford visiting the theatre. Now the question isn’t whether you are interested in cinema but whether you can afford multiplexes. I was a fan of Star Wars quitting at a choke point in the system called costly multiplexes. Our evening walk brought us to Kala Ghoda and the Jehangir Art Gallery, which we wished to visit. I think when you age you realize you are a traveller in the universe and therefore entitled to perspective. You find it in art, that’s why the occasional visit to the art gallery engages. As we left the art gallery, we noticed Rhythm House, distinctly less celebratory in appearance despite the festive season. When we drew closer, we saw the red board on its door: Goodbye Sale. I was shocked. Powered by discounts, the innards of the shop had been cleared out in parts. Latha picked up a rare recording of a Hindustani classical vocalist. Bill paid we got out but couldn’t leave. An institution was shutting down. We had no proper camera. So in the dim light, Latha took a photograph of the shop on her cell phone.

Unknown to me, Rhythm House’s closure had been in the media since November 2015. The articles featured musicians, music lovers, music critics, authors and other residents of the city who shared their memories of the iconic establishment. A visit to the shop’s website showed a message. Excerpts: We are the last of our city’s large format music & video stores to yield to the challenges posed by new technologies and piracy. We are set to close for business end of February 2016. We have been in the music business since 1948 and in the video business over the past 30 years or so and closing down is therefore going to be an emotional wrench for us. Many of you have echoed similar sentiments and we thank you for being with us at this difficult time.

I returned the next day to click the photos accompanying this story.

Mumbai’s art district and its music scene won’t be the same without Rhythm House.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

THE SMART LIFE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When I was young, the media engaged as access to wider world.

Now it sticks crowded world into everything. No quiet moments of solitude anymore. It is an epidemic of others in your head. My old phone has no Internet; I only text and answer calls. No apps, no Facebook, no anything else I don’t yet know of. Not having a smartphone, my friends assure me, condemns me to oblivion. The world’s business, they warn, is being swept into smartphones by a tsunami of money. Being one with the swarm is the smartest option in life reduced to beehive. It puzzles. `Smart’ owes much to apartness. By which yardstick, thinking independently should be smart. Perhaps there isn’t anything called independence in consumerist world. You go where business goes.

Every time I step into a Mumbai commuter train, I feel disappeared. Everyone has a smartphone. I used a cassette player when train commuters shifted to CD player; a CD player when they moved to MP3 player and now, a MP3 player as they do finger tip-magic on their all-in-one smartphone – it takes calls, types, plays music, screens movies, makes payments, plays games. What doesn’t it do? I hang on to my old phone for the relief of what it doesn’t do. “ What matters is the music and how well you listen to it. Smartphone, MP3, CD or cassette – that’s irrelevant,’’ I argued. My friend was unimpressed. “ How long will you be like this?’’ he asked. Working in a bank, he knows the tsunami has started. They are jamming whole banks into the smart phone. When he speaks so, I picture myself in deep space, waving good bye to planet Earth. You have seen that scene many times in movies – the actor reaches out to you like a drowning individual and then slowly recedes, becoming smaller and smaller (all the while reaching out) till he disappears into inky blackness. I am hurled towards Pluto. Cut! Actually, I should be grateful for having a friend who is concerned. What he told me was for my own good. I was thinking of all this when I boarded the train for my daily rendezvous with fading.

Early evening-trains usually bring a rush of college students. This was a Saturday. The youngsters were there but not many. I took my seat and pulled out my MP3 player from the bag. The young man next to me moved closer to the window; he kept his bag between us. Another of the tech-savvy, keeping distance from the obsolescent, I thought. Relax man, I don’t infect and even if I do it is just this harmless disease called hyposmartivity, entirely curable with a prick to the ego – I wanted to tell him. Then he returned his phone to the bag and pulled out a book. That was when I noticed his phone, very similar to mine. Unable to contain myself, I told him, “ you know I thought I am the only one still walking around with a phone like that.’’  He laughed. “ Yeah, I carry an old one,’’ he said tad sheepishly as nerds do when confronted with their lack of mainstream cool. As he spoke, he glanced around nervously at some of the other seats, where smartphone-totting youngsters sat, glued to their screens.

“ I don’t want a smartphone. I am happy with what I have. But they say I will have to upgrade because our money is going to be managed using smartphones,’’ I said. Despite my guard, my cynicism showed through. It always does, for I feel angry that life is increasingly about swimming with one tide or the other. Those who won’t, should seek exile – that’s the emergent logic. Makes me wonder – what happened to interesting people? You know the sort who felt life by exploring the universe alone. Stay positive, stay positive – I pinched myself. The college student smiled – a sorry you lost but don’t tell me you weren’t warned-smile. “ In my case, I know what smartphones can do. But if I carry one, I won’t study. It is a distraction. So I don’t keep one,’’ the youngster said. What? – I was stunned. For a second, I must have looked like Utpal Dutt’s Bhawani Shankar beholding Amol Palekar’s Ramprasad Dashrathprasad Sharma in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s wonderful film, Gol Maal. I looked at the young man, eyes open wide in admiration. “ Appreciate that, your ability to know what you want and choose accordingly,’’ I said. It was as much encouragement to the other as it was discreet pat on the back for my own eccentricities. That evening on the train, I didn’t hide my MP3 player. I let myself be.

I think that young man will find his way abroad to a fine university. He seemed studious, hard working and committed enough to do that. Having dodged the smartphone to study well, go overseas and make his mark, what will he do next? Side with the swarm and sell me a smarter smartphone? To uncle with love – free ticket to Pluto. Who knows? A few days after this train journey, a good friend, concerned about my obsolescence, put her foot down and said I am getting her old smartphone as she is upgrading. God bless her. But the eccentric devil in me can’t help feeling amused – a device with so many functions to manage freelance writer’s paltry income? It is overkill. Still, I will go with it; be smart for a change.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

FORGET, REMEMBER

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

The other day I woke up unable to recall the one song I have loved all these years.

It was a frantic moment; almost as if I had lost myself.

The first time I heard that song, I had immediately fallen in love with it for the journeying groove in which it couched its truth. Everything about it moved except for its core; what’s more, everything moved because its core recognized the futility of staying put.

So I thought. So I choose to continue believing for I don’t usually latch on to songs by their lyrics. I don’t read music. The times I memorized lyrics and sang, I felt surrendered to a purpose. Music, for me, has no purpose. It just, is; much like life. You can snuff out life just as you turn off the music. But when you are alive, can you question consciousness? It is what it is. Similarly, you like music. Don’t try explaining why your atoms and molecules rearranged to happiness, hearing the sounds. Don’t try explaining why you swayed to music. Let it be. And from that, some songs stay. Those that stay long, you may opt to work your way back from musical impression to the lyrics. It is a bit like finding a good friend. You know each other with time. You think you explained the other having unravelled the lyrics. Then, just when you thought you had it all explained, a whole new mystery starts! The cosmos is restless.

“ I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ – the line meant little to me when I first heard U2’s song, way back when their album ` The Joshua Tree’ was nominated for the Grammy Awards. The nominated songs and the award presentation used to be telecast as a half-hour capsule on national television those days in India. I fell for the song’s structure and progression right away. For me, its seminal line was merely a name to remember it by. What attracted was the whole thing.

Years passed. Now working away from home and my room with a music system, music transformed to small portable audio player and headphones. Eventually when I failed to keep pace with technology, it transformed to tunes in the head. I even liked returning from a month of self imposed ban on the media, to my music – hearing it with renewed freshness. My affection for the song was perhaps a sign of things to come, for my sense of life as adult has always been out-of-body, as though peering at passing sights from the confines of a self limiting-shape. Every time that procession of passing sights took hold, the song would fill my head. Indeed U2 was especially talented in creating such imagery through their music; many of their songs possess the feeling of travel. Wind in your hair, self on a comet streaking through the cosmos, the clarity in un-belonging. I could go on.  Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton and The Edge – that’s a trio of talented rock musicians. They build the musical ambiance, the journeying spirit that bears forth the band’s lyrics and Bono’s vocals.

As the years passed, my affection for their music outgrew the one song I loved, to the many embodying that journeying spirit which the band captured in its work beautifully. But it was when one’s failures in life multiplied amid world inspired by media to worship perfection and success that I really understood (in my own way) why the words ` I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ mattered. My daily life had become a clash of two trends – the comet-rider wanted to move on; earthly life, gripped by money, wanted to stagnate so that life’s explained ways can be milked for income.

What is life if it gets explained?

What if we found what we are looking for; what next?

Are we wired to find and settle down or are we wired for the journey?

I remember the first proper length of time I spent camped on a glacier surrounded by snow clad peaks. The remoteness of Zanskar, the whiteness of the peaks in the dark of the night – all stayed in mind. I am a very average climber. Rest assured, if I can do something, anybody can. I hiked, climbed rock, ran and cycled – in everything I did, I was very average. But I came off understanding why I liked doing those things or being in remote places away from people. Life is a quest; I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Equally, if I found what I am looking for, what happens to the quest? It ends? Even the idea that there is no quest and only this life to endure as the wise love to tell you – how would you like it delivered; as a truism at start that denies the journey or as discovery in life lived as a quest?

A lot of people these days emphasize the importance of looking inward.

They have a point. It is augmented by the fact that the ancients advised so, which suggestion I am not a fan of for I like being alive to my times. I am not a yogi to feel rested and peaceful within the walls of my being, universe internalized.

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

I like my journey.

I felt alarmed when I couldn’t remember U2’s song.

My comet seemed stalled.

I spent the next couple of hours listening to U2’s songs and concerts; and in that, my old song.

I shed tears of joy.

Middle aged engine restarted.

I felt a gentle breeze kiss my face as journey recommenced.

So we traveled, till one day something else happened.

Out of the blue, a tune surfaced in my head and kept going on and on.

It wasn’t a song that latched on to my mind the first time I heard it years ago.

But the way it resurfaced, I could sense urgency.

As with U2, I got on to the Internet and spent much time listening to Sting, possibly the most gifted singer-musician out there. The song in question was ` If I Ever Lose My Faith in You’ from his 1993 album ` Ten Summoner’s Tales.’ The funny thing about suddenly having this song in my head is that it wasn’t as imprinted in my brain as some of Sting’s other compositions. But that day, the song about losing faith wouldn’t leave the head. It wasn’t totally surprising for I had been experiencing a sense of loss, something slowly vanishing. I don’t know exactly what I am losing faith in. Like I said before the precise cause for a song’s lyrics don’t engage me. Over analyzed and over articulated, world by technical mind has become boring. Often a song strikes a chord for no better reason than that it did. It is like finding curves in world made monotonous by grids and pixels. I know I am losing faith in something. Don’t ask me to describe it as if my saying so will help you fix it. How can the problem find the solution? In bits and pieces, the song offered imperfect words for the predicament. Above all, it swept me with its swaying music, hinting in its moments of wordless fluidity a refuge for the un-belonging I know is mine.

Un-belonging and universe are the same.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is the expanded version of a piece that appeared in The Economic & Political Weekly.)

HUBLI-DHARWAD: LIFE AFTER THE LEGENDS

BEST WISHES FOR 2014.

HERE’S A STORY, ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN 2011. IT HAS BEEN UPDATED TO PROVIDE LINK TO MORE RECENT TIMES.

Landscape: fields of North Karnataka (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Landscape: fields of North Karnataka (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

End October 2013.

At a concert organized by the Mumbai-based Khayal Trust, Pandit Venkateshkumar took the stage. A Hindustani classical vocalist, he was assertive, subtle, strong and delicate, the discerning use of these abilities making his interpretation of compositions, engaging. I can’t identify raagas; I simply like or dislike music – any music – as aural experience. In the outdoors, I have tracked rivers – from relatively calm flow in the foothills to turbulent upstream and almost inaudible trickle at source – noticing how their character changes. Venkateshkumar’s singing had something of that. He seemed to be singing from a bigger understanding of subject and not merely indulgence in the specific; it wasn’t a section of the river amplified ignoring the whole, it was the whole. On stage, neither was his support crew behaving like sycophants unto him nor was he synthetic in his encouragement of them. A singular chemistry prevailed – chemistry by music. No drama, no playing to the galleries – the proof of the pudding was my brain, soothed to peace; a connection to its home – the universe – made.

This was the second time I heard Venkateshkumar and the first time I was inside the auditorium when he sang.  The previous occasion had been a well attended modest sized gathering in the Mumbai suburb of Chembur. The venue, mere hall and no sophisticated auditorium, was filled to capacity. Chairs outside had also been taken. People stood patiently; listening as attentively as they would, had they been on a seat within. I joined them. Why should anything else matter if the music is good?

The first time I met Venkateshkumar was before I heard him sing.

It was 2011.

Along with good friend Latha Venkatraman, a journalist who has learnt classical music for many years, I was exploring a story in northern Karnataka, way south of Mumbai.    

On January 24, 2011, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi passed away.

With that India lost its most famous voice.

His was a mad, rough edged-reaching out; different from other contenders to be India’s voice and certainly quite apart from that other tradition of Indian classical music – Carnatic. I like to let go (it is also what I find most challenging and what I do the least). In contrast, Carnatic seemed perfect and deliberate, a sort of antidote to madness. Bhimsen Joshi hailed from Gadag, next door to Hubli-Dharwad in North Karnataka. Born there, he was bitten by the music bug, travelled through India in search of a guru and was finally directed to Sawai Gandharva in nearby Kundgol itself. The rest is legend amply conveyed by the great man’s music. What intrigued me was Hubli-Dharwad. Music lovers there sometimes called the place a LOC (Line of Actual Control) between Hindustani music and Carnatic. Yet within Hindustani classical, it is unique for not only being the southern outpost of the tradition but also, a reclusive, defiant, academically inclined ambience that cares more for dedication and purity than the market.

Rajendra Radio House, Dharwad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rajendra Radio House, Dharwad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Geographically the region bridges that portion of Karnataka which is home to the wet, green hills of the Western Ghats and the start of the Deccan plateau with its imposing flatness. To one side, in the rainy season, the lush vegetation is so pronounced that it contrasts crops like cotton and chilli, typically associated with frugal water intake, grown on the other side. The Hubli-Dharwad region, once part of the Vijayanagar Empire, was subsequently in the possession of rulers from both Karnataka and   Maharashtra. Until 1955, it was part of Bombay Presidency. Hubli, the commercial hub of North Karnataka, is a major cotton market and centre for a variety of agricultural produce. At the vegetarian restaurant of Ananth Residency hotel, I asked for North Karnataka food. It wasn’t available; recommended instead was “ Veg Rajasthani,’ something possibly evocative of the region’s place in trade. The leading brands of Dharwad pedha were Thakur and Mishra, neither of them surnames indigenous to the area yet now synonymous with pedha. Hubli was also where the typical motifs of Indian urban life were taking hold. There were shopping malls, stores with walls of flashing TV screens, ATMs and hotels. Then another LOC of sorts divided it from Dharwad, 20 kilometres away. The local transport bus took you through a busy road with 40 kilometre-speed limit. Approximately three quarters of this travel done, at Navalur as people would later tell me, the atmosphere changed to charming old world flavour. You entered Dharwad.

Ramakant Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ramakant Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As pronounced as Hubli’s commercialism, was Dharwad’s conservative, academic tenor. Its prominence in history was as an educational hub, the place where people from North Karnataka, Goa and Southern Maharashtra came to study. According to Ramakant Joshi, Editor-Publisher, Manohara Granth Mala, it was Dharwad’s educational backdrop along with an existing culture of theatre and literature that provided a fertile substratum for Hindustani classical music to flourish. The office of this publishing house founded on August 15, 1933 (those days August 15 signified the birthday of Sri Aurobindo) was lined with Kannada books and located in an old room above Subhas Road. Ramakant Joshi is Bhimsen Joshi’s cousin. Unlike in Hubli, in Dharwad, you found shops that hadn’t changed for decades. You bought classical music CDs at Rajendra Radio House, run by Basavaraj V. Kotur, who informed that the shop started in 1964 had been one of the first four music stores in Karnataka. Only two shops from that four remain. There was also relevant change – the Srujana auditorium, where many concerts are held, had been refurbished with help from Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys and currently chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Dharwad looked peaceful, there was plenty of greenery and the people you spoke to had a conservative demeanour but amazed by their quiet erudition on chosen subjects. Here a musician or music lover might confidently tell you that he or she is known in the neighbourhood. As we discovered, that wasn’t always true but it was a measure of how comfortable you could be, pursuing the classical arts in this town. Neela Kodli was easy to talk to. In between she went to the kitchen to make tea. Like many of us she hummed a tune, except it was a classical composition. Neela Kodli is the daughter of Mallikarjun Mansur. A singer in the shadow of a famous father, she was modest about her abilities.

Neela Kodli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Neela Kodli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

There were few concerts in Dharwad that June. It was the rainy season. Otherwise, we were told, you found one or two every week. The vast majority of these concerts were free. “ There is no problem doing an early morning practice session here. In fact, if they don’t hear me practise, my neighbours ask – didn’t you practise today?’’ Vijaykumar Patil, an upcoming Hindustani vocalist said. With so many singers and musicians around, it was possible for a music lover to strike a rapport and sit in on their evening training sessions even if all he had was a love for music. `Kansens’ (those with good ear for music) have always been as important as `Tansens’ in Dharwad. This coupled with resident music gurus and new music schools helped create an audience for Hindustani classical music. In turn, that made performing in Hubli-Dharwad, a prized opportunity for visiting artistes. You knew you were singing to those who knew the subject. Applause here became highly valued. Raghavendra Ayi, Secretary, Sitar Ratna Samiti, provided an example of how Dharwad responded to music. Following Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, it was decided to organize an eight day music programme from February 27 to March 6 that year, in his memory. Many of the performers were young artistes. With expenditure projected to touch two lakh rupees (Rs 200,000), the organizers made an appeal for contributions. The amount thus collected exceeded a lakh, most of it donated by individual music lovers. “ To survive, any art requires janaashraya. The days of rajaashraya are over,’’ he said. (Jana in Indian languages refers to people; Raja refers to king and Aashraya means dependence or in the context of art, patronage.)

The Vijayanagar Empire had a strong role in the evolution of South India’s Carnatic music. The famous composer Purandara Dasa was born in modern Shivamoga district and spent his final years at Hampi, next door to the Hubli-Dharwad region. His compositions are sung by Hindustani classical vocalists. One version has it that Swami Haridas, teacher of Tansen, was a disciple of Purandara Dasa. Thus music was always around in these parts. Hubli-Dharwad’s ascent in Hindustani classical music happened with the decline of the Mughal Empire up north. As the empire weakened, the singing tradition of its court moved first to princely states in North India. Then as British influence gained in those princely states, the drift to the south started. Abdul Karim Khan was a famous singer of the Kirana Gharana, one of the schools of singing within Hindustani classical music. He was court singer in Baroda state. On his way to the court of the Mysore kings, who were patrons of classical music, he regularly halted in Hubli-Dharwad. In his book `Karnataka’s Hindustani Musicians,’ author Sadanand Kanavalli has particularly noted the role of the Mysore king, Krishnaraj Wodeyar IV. Mysore continues to this day as a major centre for Carnatic music. It was that less known intermediate halt en route, Hubli-Dharwad, which developed into the southern outpost of Hindustani classical music. Through the years music researchers have wondered what worked to Hubli-Dharwad’s favour. In a November 2009 issue of `Sangeet Natak,’ a newsletter from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Tejaswini Niranjana, outlining her proposed research into these questions noted that some of  “ the common and (uncommonsensical) answers’’ included Abdul Karim Khan’s visits, the pleasant weather in Dharwad, the large number of Maharashtrians there who were music patrons, the influence of  Marathi culture in the form of Marathi plays having Hindustani music with Kannada plays subsequently derived from them and even the chillies and spicy food of North Karnataka that cleared the throat. “ The answers are inadequate even on their own terms. If Abdul Karim Khan’s final destination was Mysore and he went there frequently, why did he not teach disciples there?’’ she asked.

Nadgir family house, Kundgol (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nadgir family house, Kundgol (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Among the most important institutions that patronised Hindustani classical music was an old house at Kundgol, once part of the princely state of Jamkhandi. Not far from Hubli, Kundgol and several other surrounding villages used to be under the control of the land-owning Nadgir family, who were patrons of music. Abdul Karim Khan visited here. More importantly for North Karnataka’s music, Abdul Karim Khan’s most famous student Ramachandra aka Rambhau Kundgolkar was born in Kundgol. Later called Sawai Gandharva, he had a pivotal role in the history of North Karnataka’s Hindustani music. His life was entwined with the Nadgir family. He taught music at the old house; this was where Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal learnt. We met Babasaheb Nadgir and his son, Arjun Nadgir, who live there. Every year since 1952, the family has been organizing a music festival currently

Babasaheb Nadgir and Arjun Nadgir (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Babasaheb Nadgir and Arjun Nadgir (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

called the Nanasaheb Nadgir Smrithi Sangeeth Utsav. Hundreds of people turn up to hear this 24 hour-performance, which lasts through the night. The house is as it used to be, so much so that an entire audience crammed onto its many floors to hear the concert has triggered worries of the 400 year-old building collapsing. The architecture is typically old fashioned featuring a courtyard within. The musicians practise in an inner chamber and then perform on stage inside the house, adjacent to the courtyard and below a bust of Sawai Gandharva. It is tradition kept alive purely through family initiative and at considerable cost. The Nadgir family and a few close friends spent up to one and a half lakh rupees (that was the figure when I visited); they didn’t seek donations. Arjun was working on proper institutional shape for the funding so that it self-sustained. The family had dreams of starting a music school. Kundgol also had another music festival in Sawai Gandharva’s memory.  Several noted Hindustani classical artistes – Bhimsen Joshi, Basavaraja Rajguru, Gangubai Hangal, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, Pandit Jasraj, Prabha Atre, Feroz Dastur, Puttaraj Gawai – they have all performed at Nadgir Wada. For many who go to sing there, the very act of performing in a house where legends lived is overwhelming. The artistes are paid for travel cost; they get nothing else. “ The ambience is special,’’ Jayateerth Mevundi, a prominent vocalist from the younger generation, said.  

Jayateerth Mevundi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jayateerth Mevundi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Given Abdul Karim Khan as the historical prompter for Hindustani music’s arrival in Hubli-Dharwad, the region became the southern home of the Kirana Gharana, a style with origins in Uttar Pradesh. But you also find in Hubli-Dharwad other styles like the Jaipur Gharana and the Gwalior Gharana. They co-exist. From Abdul Karim Khan down, we hear of several important names. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories – the legendary performers from Hubli-Dharwad and the great teachers like Sawai Gandharva. For a tradition of music to grow you need both these categories. As you ask around, you realize that great performers were not necessarily great teachers just as great teachers were not necessarily great performers. The great performers were five – Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva (he was born near Belgaum and later moved to Madhya Pradesh) and Basavaraj Rajguru. Of them, one – Gangubai Hangal – was a phenomenon. Her influence exceeded the world of music. In Hubli, we just had to ask for the late singer’s house and the autorickshaw driver knew where to go. Her house had become part museum. Gangubai Hangal had to overcome many social challenges to become the renowned singer she was. In later years, she did not hesitate to be a social activist for causes she believed in. It was exceptional in that, it took a classical vocalist out from the conventional image of exclusivity and singing for patrons, to being one with the masses. Consequently if anyone from the legendary five has become close to an institution in Hubli-Dharwad, it ought to be Gangubai Hangal. There was however one problem. With Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, the last of those five greats passed away. Further, except for Basavaraj Rajguru, none of the others were credited with robust teaching.  They left behind few disciples. That’s why Hubli-Dharwad was suddenly important for anyone interested in Hindustani classical music, like me. The phase of the legends was over. Will the region continue to maintain its strong position in musical tradition?

Veereshwar Punyashram, Gadag (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Veereshwar Punyashram, Gadag (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Veereshwar Punyashram in Gadag appeared a blend of religion, community and music; an official brochure informed that the presiding pontiff was seen by devotees as “ a walking God on the Earth.’’ Looking past its prime when I was there in 2011, this institution was founded by Panchaxari Gawai, a blind prodigy in classical music. Over the years, the ashram accepted many poor, often visually and physically challenged children and trained them in classical music. Basavaraj Rajguru was Panchaxari Gawai’s student. Following Panchaxari Gawai’s death in 1944, Puttaraj Gawai took charge. He became blind through treatment for an eye problem in his childhood but later amazed as vocalist and musician.

Venkateshkumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Venkateshkumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Venkateshkumar – he teaches at a music college in Dharwad and is acknowledged to be among the finest Hindustani vocalists today – was Putturaj Gawai’s student. Born in Lakshmipur village near Bellary, Venkateshkumar was thirteen years old when he was brought to the ashram in 1968. He studied there for eleven years, maintaining a rigorous training schedule and learning 25-30 raagas from his guru. Even after Venkateshkumar left the ashram his interaction with his guru continued till Puttaraj Gawai was ninety years old. Puttaraj Gawai died in 2010. In 2011, across the school and the college on its premises, there were nearly 800 students.       

Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Following their studies, some students of the ashram had become teachers at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya. Begun by Agathe and Mathieu Fortier, a Canadian couple who liked India and its tradition of Hindustani classical music, the school was located almost an hour away from Dharwad in geography that was the exact opposite of the Gadag-Kundgol belt. Here the land was hilly with red earth muddied by heavy rains and densely vegetated to the point of seeming forest. The school was in the woods, a collection of eco-friendly structures with 185 students and 43 full time staff. According to Adam Woodward, Director, the admission process tried to ensure that only the neediest students got through. The students paid no fees. They did a mix of music, dance and formal studies. Many of the children we met spoke Hindi and English (at any given time the school has about a dozen

Students singing at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Students singing at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

volunteers from overseas), something useful to link training in classical art forms to the outside world. Its present location was second stop for the school. Previously it was at a leased farm in Kalkeri. The owner wanted to sell the property. Seeing its good work, the local village authorities granted it the current land. With time and growth, this had become inadequate and the school was looking for bigger, more permanent premises in the region. The Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya is part of a unique organizational structure authored by its founders. Mathieu and his brother Blaise set up Young Musicians of the World (YMW) in Canada. Every year, as of 2011, it managed two fund raising concerts abroad to collect funds for the school in Kalkeri. This aside, the objective was to open similar schools elsewhere in the world; there were ongoing talks in France to start a music school for the Romany gypsies. Another location interesting YMW was, Mali in Africa. The eventual idea was to have music exchange programmes and concerts. To enable this, YMW required the Kalkeri school, indeed any school it started, to slowly become self reliant in funding. Moves were afoot to make this happen.

The third institution we saw was expected to formally start work from July 1, 2011. Named after Gangubai Hangal it was a modern gurukul set up by the Karnataka government on the outskirts of Hubli. It could accommodate 36 students and their teachers. The gurukul pattern finds considerable respect among musicians in Hubli-Dharwad as one of the ingredients separating the performing artiste from the merely trained artiste. As many people pointed out, the music schools and colleges were important to create a learned audience for Hindustani classical. The performing artiste however needed a guru who knew him or her well; understood the student’s abilities, role modelled and confronted them with challenges. It was one-on-one education, an apprenticeship. According to Manoj Hangal, Gangubai Hangal’s grandson, the government announced five crore rupees (Rs 50 million) and five acres of land for the project in 2005. “ All approvals came within three days,’’ he said. Six gurus of different gharanas were each planned to teach six students for 3-4 years. The teachers expected at the gurukul included Prabha Atre and N. Rajam. There would be visiting faculty from other universities. The emphasis was on creating performing artistes; that meant a student cannot enrol for any other academic programme. Total government expense for the impressive campus had touched eight crore rupees (Rs 80 million) and there would be recurrent expenditure of Rs 15 lakhs (Rs 1.5 million) to maintain it. “ We want public access to the gurukul,’’ Manoj Hangal said pointing out how that only fit in with the reputation and legacy of Gangubai Hangal in Hubli-Dharwad. 

Manoj Hangal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Manoj Hangal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

So would these training schools, music colleges and the large number of students, ensure that Hubli-Dharwad continued to generate fantastic performing artistes?

Between talent and recognition lay the market.

Hubli-Dharwad is an intriguing symbiosis of dedicated training away from market forces and giants born from that discipline who became icons in the far away markets of Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. With Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, the days of those legends had seemingly ended. There was a robust new generation in Hubli-Dharwad. “ I am confident we will be able to fill the vacuum,’’ Kaivalya Kumar Gurav, an established vocalist and teacher, said. But for many others, with so much of change authored by not just music, the market loomed in the distance like an inorganic entity speaking a different language. If you looked back to the previous three generations or so of Hindustani classical performers, each generation had found the proverbial wind beneath the wings in factors ranging from royal patronage to the ascent of radio and recorded music. The first now belongs to a bygone era; the latter two are now past their prime. What survives is the impact of all this on the market – better awareness of classical music with the masses and support of music by the `classes.’ Opportunities are available. Question is – who gets them in these years of survival through smartness? Does smartness constitute music and how smart should Hubli-Dharwad be when its beauty, perhaps uniqueness, is that it has been distant from the market?

One problem you hear is how major public performances have got dominated by the same, few names. Sponsors rule the big concerts in the metros (although Hubli-Dharwad has a tradition of concerts organized by aficionados willing to contribute for the purpose, sponsorship has arrived here too). Big ticket sponsors, seek the maximum bang for their buck and it often means, correspondingly less concern for upcoming talent within the music world. Result – they plonk for the established names, setting in motion a vicious cycle of promoting the same names, even their children. Travelling through Hubli-Dharwad, this new age networking and success by successful networking saddened me because North Karnataka not only produced great musicians in the past but some of them – like Gangubai Hangal –  questioned tradition and confronted the social networks and privileges of their era. The citation for the 1989 Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Award, given to Gangubai Hangal, began with this sentence, “ you are among the legendary group of women who braved social scorn and ridicule in establishing classical music as a noble profession for women in modern India.’’ Now as we celebrate the age of the social network and as the social network becomes the new tradition, talent has become secondary again. We haven’t changed; we seem to simply reinvent the old. At Gadag, we ran into young Ayyappaiah Halagalimath who learnt classical music at the Veereshwar Punyashram and went on to complete his MA in Music with top honours. A student of Venkateshkumar, he was guest lecturer at the same college where the maestro worked. Like many who studied at the ashram, Ayyappiah hailed from a poor family. He has performed in big cities. But lacking good Hindi and English, he was hemmed in by his inability to tap the social network. That worry was writ large on his face. Between talent and recognition, there is the market; there is that network. It plagues every field and as the network grows in importance, I wonder – are the best in every field necessarily what the commercial network showcases as the best, the most successful? 

The gurukul named after Gangubai Hangal, in Hubli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The gurukul named after Gangubai Hangal, in Hubli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A common way of introducing upcoming music talent to the market is by clubbing their performance with that of a big brand musician. So you have that half hour or one hour at start by a mid-level artiste and then a performance by the big brand who the sponsor thinks is the real talent. According to musicians, although intended to help, this practice simply institutionalises upcoming talent as secondary to established names. Because it is presented as upcoming talent requiring a walking stick (the established big musician), it reinforces the paradigm of sponsor deciding talent as opposed to the audience doing the same. Differently put, in the name of the market we may be belittling the intelligence of the audience in the age of janaashraya. Why not let the audience choose? But then how perfect are choices by audience? At stake amidst sponsors and the market compulsions of media formats (like reality TV shows) claiming to represent popular tastes, are entire crafts. “ One of my students topped a reality show. Now all his singing is for the channel. Reality programmes make you a success prematurely,’’ a senior artiste and teacher, said. Arguably, all media – including this blog – is imperfect, to the extent that an article or a photograph or a TV programme is usually a slice of something, never the evolving whole or the whole in the context of everything else. And if, for alternative, you choose to merely stream real life as media, you miss intellect – which is a serious drawback in today’s media filled-world. Reduced by media to voyeurism, abject competition and consumerism, we succeed more and more with lesser and lesser dimensions in the head. We become dumb? I suspect so.

Prof Vasant Karnad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Prof Vasant Karnad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A point that frequently surfaced in discussions on what shaped the performing artiste was how the legends became what they were despite few raagas taught by their gurus. The rest was dedicated, hard work. Over eight years, Abdul Karim Khan taught Sawai Gandharva just three raagas. His rationale was – if the student understood those three well, he would pick up the rest. Sawai Gandharva taught Bhimsen Joshi three raagas. Nothing happens without personal drive. “ There can be many students but there is only one disciple,’’ Professor Vasant Karnad, well known musician, music critic and teacher, and elder brother of Jnanpith Award winner-Girish Karnad, said. Legends are not born from a market state of anything. How long will it be before the next Gangubai Hangal or Bhimsen Joshi?

Between the two, the next Gangubai Hangal would be a litmus test for Hubli-Dharwad. It was a question nobody could offer convincing explanation for – why haven’t there been great women singers from Hubli-Dharwad other than the legendary Gangubai Hangal? Some cited marriage, family responsibilities et al. At least one school official that we spoke to confirmed that convincing families in villages of the practical use of an education in music was difficult and within that, getting the girl child enrolled was more so. It seemed the other side of conservative society, which by virtue of its conservatism steels an individual’s resolve to pursue his or her talent but also leaves many in the dust. Finally, there was the concern over where the general drift in the world was headed and what that meant for Hubli-Dharwad. “ With the growth of industry, the cultural milieu will fade. Formerly we used to say that food and knowledge should never be bargained or sold. Today, they have become the most important items of business,’’ Ramakant Joshi said.  

I got back to Mumbai. Freelance journalist’s article was published. In August 2011, Professor Vasant Karnad passed away. He had been a delight to talk to during the brief while we met him. We remain grateful for that conversation, the opportunity to meet him. End-October 2013; backstage in Mumbai, Pandit Venkateshkumar recognized us from the old visit (in 2011, we had gone to his house in Dharwad). We exchanged greetings. Established singers, aspiring ones and students of music had already flocked to him after the concert. I am none of that. I identify with his music thanks to what is at once a restlessness and peace, found in the outdoors. It inhabits many fields and I suspect that the word in English which comes closest to describing the condition is – seeking. A mind cast so finds peace in sense of universe.

Music, the outdoors – it is all One.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the help provided by Latha Venkatraman, journalist and student of Hindustani classical music, towards writing this article. A portion of this article pertaining to the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya was published as an independent piece in The Hindu Business Line newspaper. A slightly abridged version of the entire story was published in Man’s World magazine.)  

A DIWALI MORNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Sharp 7AM.

My hard earned dream crumbled.

A whole film of imagined life stopped playing with that cracker blast announcing Diwali.

Lights came on in the theatre. I stirred in the seat I had snugly settled into, rubbed my eyes and gazed back at the projection room. Despite my best attempts, those shafts of light failed to return. Damn! What had I been doing? Was I singing to the heroine? Was I lone ranger on wild landscape? Was I delivering an inspiring speech? Hell, there was neither memory of where I had been nor depth of sleep remaining to transport self to oyster of imagination. It was all truly shattered.

A second blast went off.

I was now one hundred per cent awake.

I stay on the ground floor. The faint smell of burning chemical – that unmistakable smell of Diwali – drifted in. “ Happy Diwali,’’ I mumbled to myself and pressed my face into the pillow hoping that the harder I pressed my face into the foam, it would become a bomb-proof, puffy barrier shielding me from the nuisance outside the window. A third cracker went off, this one with a hiss and a fizz, a bang gone dud. “ Bet that was a quality certified manufacturer,’’ I muttered, recalling the emergent claim in cracker advertisements.

The kid wasn’t discouraged.

I heard the sound of feet shuffling outside. His movements paused as he focused on lighting the next cracker, lovingly packaged a thousand kilometres away and dispatched here to blow up my sleep. Was he writing: ` to uncle with love’ on it before going bang? Then I heard him sprint to safety. I looked at the ceiling: would it be bang gone dud or BANG? The question mark felt like that infamous scene of Russian roulette from `The Deer Hunter.’ With Indian quality standards, claimed certification to boot, you could never be sure how the next blast would be. I held my breath; counted the seconds. Then I hit the pillow. BOOM! This one shook me. I was now sitting on the bed, my hair on end like Dr Emmet Brown from `Back to The Future.’  I could visualize a piece of burnt paper scribbled ` to uncle with love,’ drifting down from the ceiling in Diwali-smelling room.

I don’t burst crackers.

From the balcony, I briefly watched the proceedings. The kid had been joined by his friends. Against a background score of blasts laced by shouts of appreciation to bangs delivered as such, I made some coffee. What to do? I turned on the computer. In the time taken for it to boot, I recalled a conversation overheard at Chembur station, the previous night. A Malayali man was explaining the scale of Diwali in these parts of India, to somebody back home. “ It is trifle dull this year. I guess common people don’t have money to splurge. Crackers are expensive. But everyone will be active tomorrow and day after, that’s for sure,’’ he said.

In India, a cracker is a frame of mind, like spicy food made hotter with chillies and more chillies. Reason escapes it. Over the past couple of days, Dalal Street, where the city’s stock brokers went, had been doing the same thing. The economy had done badly; politics was lousy, jobs were hard to come by, there was inflation on the streets, elections were due and if they cared – freelance journalist was on his last legs. Yet, Jeejeebhoy Towers, home to Mumbai’s stock exchange, boomed. What was it celebrating? I have no idea. Maybe I should interview the kid. I suspect his reasoning and the market’s would be the same.

The computer booted.

I logged in.

There was nothing on the mail; nobody saying hello. Diwali felt like bang gone dud. Or maybe, they were all busy celebrating and would get down to remembering world, later. Guess you got to be a kid bursting crackers or a trader on Dalal Street to feel BANG! BANG! on Diwali.

From a corner of the mind, `Kill Bill’ and Nancy Sinatra crept in.

Bang bang, he shot me down

Bang bang, I hit the ground

Bang bang, that awful sound

Bang, bang, my baby shot me down

I tuned into an Internet radio station. What should I listen to? Upstairs stayed silent, indifferent. Old faithful, I decided, and clicked on `blues,’ then, `blues rock.’ Lazer Lloyd sang “ why Mr Politician, why do you lie to me?’’  It seemed pretty apt for country sailing into elections. In my suburb, overlooking clusters of shops selling crackers were posters of local politicians supporting Diwali celebrations. They smiled like benevolent patriarchs. Or, gazed unsmilingly like visionaries deciding my tomorrow, certainly their profitable tomorrow. On the radio, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Moore and Otis Taylor took stage. Then, Etta James belted out, “ the blues is my business and business is good.’’

I started typing this article.

The coffee soothed. The sentences formed. The blues struck a chord.

Suddenly, life seemed good.

Thank you kid for the wake up blast, I thought.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)