Sunday, February 23, 2014

Verdi''s "Requiem"

I was listening to Verdi's "Requiem" - an operatic composition set on the lines of Roman catholic mass; dedicated to his close friend and great Italian writer Alessandro Monzani. Reclining on my couch with a Julian Barnes book in hand, the slow movement and tenor of the Soprano in chaste and undecipherable Latin rises layer after layer into a rarefied atmosphere of pure sound, and heart stirring octaves. The hundred odd violins carry and jettison the restrained passion and deep pathos of Leontyne Price (arguably the most prolific operatic tenors of the twentieth century). At some time during the second movement of the mass, The book I was reading involuntarily dropped onto my chest ,and I lost contact with what i was reading; mesmerized and transported into the hallowed world of Renaissance; inside the Basilica of a Catholic church, gilded in gold , with priests in purple vestments and the choir boys and girls in pure white flowing robes, standing erect with their voices lost in beauty of the verses and eyes looking up to the heavens; the immense void of the cathedral suffused with light pouring forth through its ornamented windows and cornices - and 'I' standing at very center of it...

For a few timeless moments, the waves of music engulfed me. The epicenter of my being was shifted to a higher plane of awareness. It was the small ticking sound of LP record's finish that awakened me to my normal senses. It then took a few minutes to reorient myself in time. The power and persuasive structure of Verdi's composition had stilled the mind; and its absence all that remained was the music devoid of any listener....

History has it that Verdi conducted this opera in the lesser known church of San Marco in Milan, 1874. It was a tribute to Monzani, whom he admired and befriended. Generations of Conductors, singers and musicians have since then performed the "Requiem" across various auditoriums in Europe. It stands as a testimony of one man's vision of grace transcending the limitations of Time and space.

"Requiems, George Bernard Shaw observed, "is to be offered as a treat, whether anyone is dead or not" . True, every musically sensitive ear should experience the enchanting beauty of its choruses at least once, a definite taste of immortality.......

God bless............

Solitude - the ability to "Be" alone...

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician left behind a body of observations and insights, which later was collected in a book called "Pensees" ( thoughts, in French). Pascal was more a man of the world than an ascetic in the literary sense. Sometimes, when I read the "Pensees", I find, that it has remarkable similarities with aphorisms in the Bhagavad Gita : Strikingly practical, and oozing with common sense. Not surprising though because Pascal was a trained mathematician of the highest order , hence his thoughts were very precise, incisive and never shies away from the truth.

The reason i am reminded of Pascal now is because of a phone call I received a couple of hours ago from a friend in Atlanta. He said he was going mad , restless ,sitting at home, with all this Ice and snow on the roads making it impossible to venture out or do anything. I sympathized with him, but at the back of my mind a particular observation from Pensees came to my mind..

Pascal writes " All the unhappiness of Man stems from one thing only: that he is incapable of staying quietly in his room.."

How very true!!!! : the constant , inveterate or even compulsive need to keep 'doing' something has become a more or less a genetic disorder. There is always this need to have a motive, a purpose, a goal behind every action. Why should this be so.. ? According to me, The problem is that we are afraid of being alone ; frightened of what we have made ourselves into , that pushes us incessantly into some kind of occupation or other. In quietness and silence, we come face to face with ourselves, and that is not a very pretty thing for most of us to see. The other great tragedy is the fact that we have somehow equated solitude with dullness and inactivity ; and this delusion is costing us a great deal in terms of mental hygiene. "Silence" has also been transformed into a thriving business proposition. Millions throng to religious institutions, meditation gurus, therapeutic doctors ; shelling out huge quantities of money to buy Silence. What a terrible tragedy?

Pascal gently reminds us that we just need to "be" without necessarily "being someone" ; and that is the source of quietness that we so madly crave in our outward activities . It is an inward flowering of one's innermost self. A simple reorientation is all that is required to anchor ourselves in our true home .

Do we have the courage, is the Question ??

God bless....

John Milton - The visionary poet..

"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”. John Milton wrote this verse in 1667, in his immortal poem "Paradise lost" . The other day, I happened to be researching Milton for my work, and my eyes glanced upon this timeless verse by the poet. Over ten thousand lines of blank verse, each sparkling with originality and spontaneous vitality, gushing forth like a torrential river in spate , symbolizing the proverbial "fall" of Man from grace and his possible redemption - this poem is a watershed in the history of theology and literature. Milton was impoverished and virtually blind when he composed these magisterial lines. Like his Musical counterparts Beethoven and Bach ,who created some of their finest music when their sensory apparatus had completely failed them, Milton dictated "Paradise Lost" to his aides over a period of five years and sold it for a pittance to a publisher, who couldn't afford to have a rerun of the print after the first set was sold out... Such is the price a genius pays!!!.

What is interesting for me is that Milton was one of the earliest proponents of liberalism in modern society as we know it. He had strong belief in dogma free Christianity and he was against the hegemony of monarchy and its insistence on the authority of the Church as the moral arbiter of Man's foibles and strengths . In fact, "Paradise lost", is more of a political commentary on the unfortunate restoration of Monarchy in seventeenth century, which Milton portrayed as a "Fall from grace" because society was again plunged into a servitude from which it had come out gasping in the tumultuous years of Cromwell . It was with deep anguish that he wrote the poem, more as consolation to himself than as a work that would merit literary acclaim. Milton believed that the salvation of man lay in himself and his ability to transcend the narrow boundaries of society and merge into a higher paradigm of reality . Being an optimist ,He set this theme in his lesser known but very profound sequel titled "Paradise Regained". It is a much shorter poem than its predecessor, in which Milton eulogized the martyrdom of Christ as a signpost for Man progress and evolution.

Well to conclude, Both these poems need to read and enjoyed for the sheer beauty of its language and the nonchalance of Milton's theology . Generations of Poets : Keats,Wordsworth, Shelley - to name a few have unconsciously drawn from the sublime waters of Milton's thought and writing. No words can summarize the force and glory of his work better than Samuel Johnson's epigrammatic comment when He wrote " Milton had the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful......"

What more can a poet do?........

God bless.....

Musings on the inadequacy of words to define reality....

Unless one starts feeling raw pain, suffering or happiness, without pigeon- holing it into conceptualized compartments, the experience and the understanding of it is often incomplete. The psychological ideation of experience kills its beauty and any direct contact with it. When the Buddha held up a rose in front of his disciples as a sermon, only Ananda kept quiet and smiled without any ratiocination about it ; or when Gertrude Stein wrote : 'A rose is a rose is a rose', she indicated the "factualness" of things that are self evident and needs no further elaboration.

The point is that the process of labeling is merely a socially convenient contrivance , and the moment it takes on the mantle of reality then we are in serious trouble. The other day I heard somebody telling me that she was going through a "Mid life crisis". Now, in one single pithily defined phrase, she has wrapped her entire gamut of feelings and thoughts spread over years into a snug little idea; and now trying to grapple and come to terms with the idea and not wanting to look at the actual root cause of her discontent . She is holding on to a linguistic handle which has no relevance to what she is going through. Spend a minute looking at the numbers of judgments, labels, prejudices that we carry every moment with us, and you will realize what i am talking about. This is particularly visible when parents talk about their Child's upbringing. There is a term for every year of his or her growth : "Childhood", "adolescence" , "teenage blues" - and we expect them to fit into these little, meaningless containers that will result in only making them as ignorant as we are. The beauty of this though, is to know the utility of these terms and leave it at that. Any trained Psychiatrist will tell you to open up and exhume the buried skeletons, and what they mean is to go beyond the labels and look at the actual content of our thoughts and emotions without the distorting mirror of verbalization. Read Lewis Carroll's " though the looking glass" to understand this better. Again, do not dismiss this book as children's fiction , it has a profound theme that many elders have failed to grasp.

So we keep reacting to labels, our actions are always over or under exaggerated , and never to the point ; and each act leaves a residue which compounds over a period of time , leaving us incapable of any fresh understanding or insights. Think about this......

God bless...

Balu mahendra - A rememberance


The nation loses yet another fine, sensitive director in Balumahendra. His work may not be very familiar to audiences in Northern India , but he will, forever be remembered and cherished as the Man who conceived the beautiful, poignant and tragic drama on Indian screen - "Sadma" : that wonderful biopic which captured the essence of altruistic love and its repercussions, bringing out the best in Kamal Hassan and Sridevi. Balu was a cinematographer who turned Director; and we are fortunate that he did, because the precision of his camera was only matched by the simplicity , intensity and relevance of the magic that he created on screen. I still remember a Tamil film that still resonates in me as a path breaking venture on Indian screen titled - "Moodu Pani" , roughly translated as " Intense fog". It explored the sexual deviations of a man with an abused childhood, who grows up to dislike the concept of femininity and ends up murdering them in a fit of unruly passion. The story was far ahead of its times. When most of the films revolved around actors prancing around trees in meaningless gyrations; the artist in Balu ventured boldly into translating the darkness of the Human mind on to the silver screen, with a sensitivity and dignity, that left us sympathizing with the murderer. The wonderful locale of Ooty served as a background to this dark drama and the soul stirring background score of Ilayaraja underlined the psychic disturbance that marked every frame of the movie. To the best of my knowledge, this movie has not been remade or dubbed ; rightly so; it is too original a masterpiece to be replicated...

Following the hallowed traditions of Cinema- making, Balu just made a handful of movies; each one being an experiment in itself. His personal life was a wreck, but his work reflected the very best of him; and he strongly believed and advocated the principle that an artist should be measured by his work and not by anything else : probably, such inner turmoil, chaos is required to produce greats works of Art. Quiet, introverted, shy of interviews, he was a recluse for most part of his working life. Those who came in contact with him : young directors, cinematographers ; needed to learn the trade the hard way; watching the master at work, syncing with the highs and lows of his tantrums, his moods - but sure to emerge as a better craftsman than they were before.

We need more like Balu today to lift the art of Film making to a new level. Hopefully, there will be eager minds who would observe and learn from his works, and if possible transcend the boundaries that he has set. I am sure, Nothing would make Balu rest peacefully than witness the rejuvenation of meaningful film making, and establishing its position as a worthy art form in its own right..

God rest his soul in peace......

God bless...

"Lost in Translation" - A Sophia coppola Masterpiece


The strange alienation of man in society is a theme that has been explored many times in various art forms, especially in literature. To capture the essence of this deep human void on screen is an art that requires the confluence of many facets of film making. A proper setting, great actors, a subtle story line and above all, a director who can visualize frames and sequences that touch the undercurrent of sadness and non-fulfillment in life. Sophia Coppola, the daughter of legendary Francis ford Coppola has managed to get it all right in this wonderfully sensitive and meaningful 2003 movie “Lost in translation”. The film revolves around an aging and successful actor and a lonely and intellectually alive housewife, running into each other in a Hotel in Tokyo. Each trying to find a sense and purpose in life and its relationships, but unable to touch the spot of solace within. Set in the mechanized, fast paced environs of Tokyo, the movie beautifully explores the creeping uneasiness of their lives and the complete disconnect with it. Bill Murray and the stunning Scarlett Johansson play these roles with an ease and perfection that makes it look so true and effortless. There is nothing in the story line that resembles a narrative: a beginning or an end; each frame explores existential boredom , smeared with dishonest emotions, and the concomitant inner frustration that it typically brings.

Sophia Coppola has learnt well from her father: The mellowed play of light and darkness, the silhouetted angles of the camera, the disjoint dialogues , the wonderful evocation of atmosphere that contrasts and highlights the inner crisis of the protagonists, clean eye for detail, the hauntingly relevant background score - elevates this two hour drama into an aesthetically pleasing and deeply satisfying experience.

Scarlet Johansson comes as revelation. Twenty nine years old, considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the last decade by Playboy and Esquire among others, an accomplished singer - she plays the role of Charlotte to perfection. It couldn't have been done better. The sweet innocence of her face, the divinely sculpted body; phenomenal acing talent, limpid dark blue eyes that reflects sadness in all its dark hues, overwhelming screen presence for one so young ; leaves us wondering how these actors are nurtured and nourished by a system that keeps churning out actors of this caliber all the time. Is there an elixir, a formula that Indian films can learn or borrow..?? Scarlet missed the Oscar by a whisker, but won numerous critical accolades for her role. Interestingly, the Movie was also a commercial success. Probably, the public found reflections of their only inner emptiness reflected on screen and empathized with it.

I loved this movie and I am sure my educated readers to whom movies represent something more than rip-roaring entertainment will find this a rewarding piece of work. Watch it…….

God bless…..

Gita Mehta - An appreciaton

One of the authors I have enjoyed immensely over the years is Gita Mehta. I remember reading her first book “Karma cola” sometime in the late nineties. Curiously, I had picked that book off the shelf not so much for the title but for the picture of Gita on the Flap cover of the hard bound edition. It was a stunning Black and white photograph of her, leaning against a wall relaxed and demurely poised, a charming smile and ever so gracefully draped in a flowing Saree. To be frank, I had a curious disregard for female Indian authors at that time, and the only one that I had read were Shobha de’s attempts at writing Hollywood fiction in Indian context. But “Karma cola” was a revelation. Here was a writer, who not only could write beautifully but also understood the deep moral and spiritual fibers that run through this large and divided nation. It was an attempt to redefine the relevance of Modern India to western eyes, not so much as a justification, but as a testimony to its depth and resilience. In quick succession then, I read her “Raj” and “the river sutra”. I was enthralled by her artistry..

Gita’s heritage is noteworthy. Her Family had played a prominent role in the Independence struggle, and she was one of those “midnight’s children”, who came into this world with a colonial past still lingering heavily in the air, and the pulsating throb of a newly born India waiting at her threshold. Her Father was the erstwhile Biju patnaik – architect of Orissa, and a visionary who wanted the land of “Kalinga” to shine brightly in the firmament of Independent India, and her Younger brother, the learned Naveen patnaik, who reluctantly became the chief minister of the State after his father passed away. Gita, though had for a large part of her adult life lived outside the country; educated herself at Cambridge, married Sonny Mehta - the chief editor of the leading Publishing house Alfred Knopf in the late eighties and lived a life of a Glitterati, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous across the globe. Yet, the rich strain of her genes never forsook her. Having seen the best of both worlds, she brings to her writing a blatant pragmatism, authenticity and a realistic interpretation of what her Mother country stands for. Scathing in her criticisms, unpardoning in her comments on Political and social mediocrity, overflowing in praises where it is due, her work presents an insight into the true strength of India - the meaningful repository of thousands of years of Cultural experimentation and learning.

In one of her interviews to Western press, Gita frankly confesses that she was dreadfully frightened of ever being able to write a book. Being the wife of a prominent publisher and editor, she would have had to meet the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jackie Collins, Douglas Adam and Salman Rushdie amongst others for dinner or drinks at every social event or private gathering. In fact, it was in one such meeting that she was offended by a casual remark with a racial slur that propelled her to write and finish “karma Cola” in three weeks straight. Her most mature work is “The river sutra” , a balanced, exquisitely written story of retired government bureaucrat finding his spiritual solace on the banks of river Ganges through the eyes of six different travelers. The book reads like a poem in prose…

The reason I wrote this piece is because I happened to buy a second-hand hard bound copy of her “snakes and ladder” from a Goodwill store. This work was published in 1997, and probably, the last major work written by Gita Mehta. After nearly a decade, I am reading her again; and the words and ideas leap out of the pages with the same freshness and beauty as it had many years ago. I wish she would continue writing more. Literature will only become richer with her contribution….

Read her books - the fragrance will linger on…

God bless…

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Flaubert's Parrot by Juilian Barnes

Its has been a week of quiet introspection so far. The Icy weather in Philly has cast a spell on me. The roads are wet with speckles of ice dropping from high rise buildings , creating small little puddles that will quickly freeze again as temperatures drop in the night. As i look out of my window, I see couple of homeless people standing near the lamp post with tattered clothes , vacant eyes and shivering hands holding out a placard pleading for help. There is a resolute stoicism about their bearing. Pedestrians pass by , blissfully unmindful of their presence, caught up in their own world and hurrying towards a destination. Down the road, babbled voices emerge out of a pub that has glittering neon signs reflecting its jarring colors on the wet concrete outside. There is obviously a party going on there. The garrulous voices of inebriation is a testimony to it..

I started reading Julian Barnes "Flaubert s parrot" on Sunday in Atlanta airport; and in three straight days I find that I have reached the end of this magnificent work. It is not what one could call a conventional novel; or even a piece of literary fiction. This is a book that cannot be defined or categorized into any genre. Part biography;part autobiography, part fiction : interspersed with nuggets of social life in eighteenth century France and England, revolving around Gustave Flaubert uncompromising and philandering genius - this book opens up a whole new world of writing. Flaubert's "Madam Bovary" stirred a morally upright generation, when it was published in 1856. Th idea of adultery, infidelity was an anathema until Flaubert broke the barriers with his characterization of Madame Bovary . The novel form never remained the same after that. The world wanted to know the truth about Flaubert ,and consequently stories, ,myths, rumors were interminably woven to disgrace and ostracize him. Julian Barnes questions these half truths, and in "Flaubert s parrot" tries to bring home the point that the novel need not necessarily reflect an author's life. One should not be worried about the truth behind a work of fiction. It is enough, if the work is enjoyed and passed on; that is the true value of art. To know that Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel is sufficient ; and it is not necessary to question his religious convictions or beliefs to arrive at an appreciation of it. Likewise,Literary criticism is good if it can curtail itself to analyzing the contents of the work, but the moment it steps into the dubious territory of ascertaining the true intentions of the author, or prying into motives that are based on hearsay - the line is crossed and an great disfavor is done to the artist, for whom the work may after all only be a consummation of his creative imagination, and nothing else.

Barn's book is for lovers of literature as an art form. I would not recommend this for casual reading. If you so attempt it, you may not get beyond the first few pages. The sheer joy of words, the underlying sarcasm and a riveting narrative makes "Flaubert's Parrot" a book that can forever change ones perspective on fiction.

I fly to Seattle tomorrow morning. Its going to be a long flight. Until then....

God bless.......