Saturday, February 27, 2016

Umberto Eco - a literary giant passes away

Umberto Eco - a literary giant passes away.
The Sforza’s led the renaissance in Italy: Francesco and Ludovico - Father and son not only consolidated the military ambitions of Milan, but also led a cultural and intellectual efflorescence that was to dazzle and provide momentum for a thousand other works of art conceived during that brilliant age. Their castle at Milan , fondly called the Sforza palace, was their artistic apogee. Adorned and embellished by DaVinci, Fortified by Bramante, it has held court to some of the greatest intellectuals, poets, dramatists of that age, and it was fitting in modern times, that the body of the one of the accomplished writers of its soil was laid in state within those spacious walls on 20th of February 2016. Umberto Eco, the Italian thinker, philosopher, novelist, essayist, symbolist, critic and a fit successor to the literary genius of Dante died peacefully in bed earlier this month, giving up his two year tryst with Pancreatic cancer. Like Dante, Eco was convinced that “Life is a divine comedy; respect the divinity but don't lose sight of the comedy”
None can better sum his sixty years of literary work better than Eco himself. In 2012, In his own inimitable, sparkling manner he told his interviewer, who questioned him on the secret of prodigious output as an novelist : “I am a philosopher, I write Novels only on weekends”. And rightly so!!. Out of 50 odd published works, only seven of them are full length novels, rest belong to diverse fields such as semiotics, essays on art and arcane theological studies of medieval times. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but he ended being a philosopher. Thankfully for us, he remained one throughout his life.
It was in 1980, his most popular novel “Name of the rose” was published. Few books in history have had the kind of reception that this novel got. After years of studying Borges and Joyce, Eco produced a medieval gothic novel set in a Cistercian monastery, holding a terrible secret; and introduced a Monk and his apprentice to solve its mystery. Written in Italian ( as all his novels were), Translated brilliantly by William Weaver, educated readers were taken on a journey as they have never experienced before. Filled with arcane theological details, vibrant with febrile colors of monastic description, scrupulous characterization based on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, plot seething with masterful diversions and intellectual divagations - the book flowed into five odd pages of difficult reading. But people did read!!. Eco’s fundamental belief was that readers in the modern age wanted to be challenged intellectually, emotionally and culturally, and mass fiction was only treating them as imbecile spectators. A book should involve the entire being of a reader as much as it does of the writer. And with every reader, a new layer of meaning must be pealed. This was Eco’s approach to writing in general. So when “Name of the rose” came out, readers were initially irritated, critics were smirking, but slowly -as more and more readers boldly ventured to read through the book, they found a rich experience of satisfaction at all levels. They came out intellectually richer, more then sufficiently entertained, and definitely wanting more of Eco’s writing. Translated into more than 40 languages, Eco had achieved what authors dream of - success of their debut novel beyond all sense of expectation. But for him, this proved to be an impediment. He was compelled to write more like that, but Eco resisted, and instead turned to different aspects of literature and learning for each of his other novels. However, None of the others : “Focualt’s pendulum”, “Prague cemetery”, “The mysterious flame of Queen Loana” , “Baudalino”- to name a few , reached the levels of acceptance that his first book got, but Eco wasn't bothered. Like the other great writer Gabriel Marquez who could never achieve the fame of “One hundred days of solitude” with any of his other works, Eco knew and acknowledged the pulse of this enterprise. He knew his epitaph would only carry the fame of his first book, and was reconciled to it.
Personally, Eco’ work has had a deep influence on me. His writing introduced me to a world of syncretic learning, where nothing is left out, and everything needs to be embraced. Literature, religion, science, philosophy – all of it is part of a larger human enterprise, and the bets minds are ones not partial to any. Both, the Durant’s (Historians) and Umberto Eco have sown in me a passion towards eclectic studies and a love of knowledge, which has over time grown to become my passion and better-half. Also, Eco spent his time equally in two homes, one in Milan and other in Urbino - host to more than 50,000 books , mostly rare and esoteric works long out of print. He loved his books, and he believed that the sight of unread books all around was a humble reminder on how much more knowledge needed exploration. Somehow, that thirst for books and a deep pleasure in buying, treasuring them from rare book stores , wherever I go, is an interest that Eco’s life sparked in me.
The final meaning behind Eco’s work lay in his abiding interest in Semiotics - a study of meaning and symbols in language and daily life. In a sense, he strongly advocated that words and events are only symbols of a more profound truth, and to reach there, both the writer and the reader must embark on a unique journey together. Eco was a distinguished master of five languages, and his past time of reading dictionaries, amply reflected in his academic and popular works as arcane symbols and unpredictable meanings. His attempt in novels was to bridge that gap between a good story, intellectual enrichment, personal sense of involvement and a comic satire in the reading process. The world will agree; he definitely succeeded in that goal.
It is ironic, or in a way fitting, that I finished reading “The Island of the Day before” - the only Eco novel that I had not read – on 14th of Feb. When I closed the book, I sent out a loving wave of gratitude to this great man and wished him many more years of active literary life. He was eighty four already, but I felt, Eco would live much longer. So much energy and verve was still left in him. Five days later, he quietly passed away, leaving behind an unpublished work, an English translation of which will be released by end of this year. It is not a novel, but a collection of his critical essays. But I would read anything he has written. They always sparkle with insights.
As I finish this essay, I turn around to look at my bookshelf to see my collection of ten of Eco’s books , lined alongside each other. Together, they span 8000 pages of his distilled thinking and stories. I am sure, more will added in years to come. And I will probably end up re-reading some of these works ( I have read “Name of the rose” at least three times) hoping some of his symbols will acquire better clarity and depth as time passes. I look forward to that experience.
Italians love life, and their culture reflects that spirit of living. Umberto Eco – it's prodigal son - despite the seriousness of his works, took life lightly and lived it in a spirit of laughter. Speaking on the subject of laughter, which was one of his underlying themes, he once told his interviewer : “ Laughter has always fascinated me… Man is the only laughing animal, because, unlike other animals he know he has to die…”
I am confident, Eco would now be laughing his guts out from wherever he is.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,

Friday, February 26, 2016

“A little chaos” - a loving liaison between fact and fiction.

“A little chaos” - a loving liaison between fact and fiction.
Artistic license is a privilege granted to every artist. It gives them the freedom to imagine, conceive, expand, infiltrate, offend, beautify, and create a world of imaginary certitude ,transporting the beholder from their gross addiction to day to day affairs , into the realm of potentiality and harmonious blending of fact with fiction; infusing a drab and juiceless life with passion, clarity and emotional fulfillment - and above all, allowing one to see the world with fresh eyes without the restricting limitation of causation. Man has always loved his stories; for million of years it is in these steamy, vaporous and often dreamy world of stories he has had his sustenance. It has filled every human event with a sense of extraordinary, and every act blessed with a hoary myth. And It is from these beginnings we have evolved into our modern selves; not by casting away out our primeval attraction to fiction, but by merely sublimating it to our rational selves. Even today, It now lies dormant within most of us; waiting for a good story teller to awaken that enchanting world which lies buried deep within. And good art in different forms, every now and then, manages to unlock that secret passage connecting fact with dramatic fiction, ,allowing us to curl luxuriantly in the amniotic comfort of suspended disbelief which a well told story so mercifully creates. A world without that state is hardly conceivable, or for the matter not worth inhabiting. Art, as is often said , is the true elixir and panacea of life. Nothing can be truer!!
I love artists who can pick up an event from the past, present or future and embellish it with their imagination. Who would read Tolstoy’s “War and peace” if not for the brilliant tapestry of Russian life he spun for us, or who would have succumbed to the secrecy and revenge of Madame defarge in Dickens “Tale of two cities”, If the master had not woven a emotionally charged story encapsulating the French Revolution around her, or , who would have watched demille’s “Ten commandments”, if not for his heroic imagination that imbued a Moses with all human fallacies and strengths, or how can we wade through the thousand page tome of Vikram seth’s “ A suitable boy”- which in a single line can be condensed as Girl meeting boy and getting married, if not for those sumptuous details, anecdotes and sub plots that held the theme together . In all these Instances, facts are wonderfully. subtly clothed in fiction; it sometimes becomes difficult to separate one from the other. Human history is full of such stories. There is no real objectivity at all. What gets written as history, and passed on is more often than not colored by the subjective eyes of its chronicler with all the hues of his emotions. It does not mean, it is incorrect ; but only enhances the appreciation of the event and probably satisfies some inner need to fictionalize.
I recently watched the 2014 film directed by Alan Rickman titled “A little chaos” - a story based on the design and construction of the open air ball room that Louis IV commissioned his chief architect Andre Le Notre to develop in Versailles. Speaking of the palace and gardens of Versailles!!. What a magnificent symbol of monarchy and its power. History has it that the “Sun King” wished to rival the gardens his disgraced financed minister Nicolas Fouquet ( who embezzled state money) built for himself; hence hired the minister’s own architects and landscaping engineer Andre and "ordered" them to excel their own creation in Versailles. Over 800 hectares of land, the king wished to spawn a palace to move in; and being an ardent horticulturist himself, he needed his gardens to be its crown jewel. Louis IV was also a fantastic ballet dancer, and his dream of an open air ball room set in the midst of sprawling garden very dear to him.Even today, Modern engineers marvel at the conception and execution of this piece of architecture. Watered throughout the year by underground canals running miles across to access water, embroidered by choicest flowers that Louis loved, and surrounded by 32 varieties of pears, fountains emanating from unlikely corners almost dancing to the tunes of the invisible orchestra hidden behind trees, railing and pediments brocaded by twirling vines shimmering in green, and the dancing podium in marble glistening with purity in striking contrast to the profusion of colors surrounding it. - it is truly one of the greatest architectural wonders of the age. Historically, we know nothing about how the ball room was built, what problems were encountered, how they were solved, what kind of Men and women put their heart and soul into that marvelous enterprise - facts are silent about such sentiments; but an artist is free to imagine how it could have been. That is their natural prerogative, and Alan Rickman has done just that in this movie. He has created a fictional landscape artist in Madame Sabine de Barra, overflowing with talent and beauty, widowed, sizzling with unorthodox ideas, willing to push the limits, outspoken and at the same time conscious of a certain demure shyness, so often found in women of exceptional beauty. Andre, the master architect recruits her for unconventional reasons. While he believes strictly in order, Madam de barre wouldn't mind a little chaos. Using their relationship and work as a basis, Rickman has stitched a story that gives us glimpses of aristocratic life style in France during Louis IV’s time. Rickman plays the role of the King to perfection. The strong minded yet effeminate monarch ruled France during its tumultuous times for nearly half a century, and his reign was perhaps the last before the profligacy of kingship came to an end, and In Rickman’s portrayal of this role, one can sense the deep wisdom and humaneness of this great French King and the gentle passing of an era.
The movie however belonged to Kate Winslet as Madam de Barra. In my books Ms Winslet is the best British actress of my generation. if anyone had told me twenty years ago, that this girl playing the rich lover girl in Titanic would over years blossom into one of the most proficient , consummate character actors on screen - I would not have believed; but she has proved many a critic and admirers wrong. Unmindful of physical beauty, with a face that radiates mature intelligence and innocence, equally. - she essays a realistic portrayal of an enlightened female in a milieu that was essentially overflowing with male chauvinism . Critics may point out that such a character as De Barra could not have lived during Louis time; but who cares ?. We love the imagination of the story teller who could place her in such settings, and pull it off well.
The great German author Goethe one wrote “ one ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem ,see a fine picture, and if it were possible to speak a few reasonable words..” . Well told stories like “ A little chaos” achieves that purpose of educating and entertaining at the same time. What more can we expect out of art? Towards the end of a hard working day, how comforting and relaxing would it be to immerse oneself into a world of imagination and possibilities. It relieves the strain of living "purposefully" and retreating into a space where a little chaos can reign. Nothing wrong with that!!
God bless…
Yours in mortality,

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Misty Copeland - éloges pour une ballerine

Misty Copeland - éloges pour une ballerine
On a pleasant June evening in New York, the year is 2012, Hundreds of classical music and Dance connoisseurs congregated at the Metropolitan Opera ( lovingly called the MET) with a subdued sense of apprehension. The imposing entrance of the MET displayed a huge banner ,gently flapping in the light breeze, announcing the performance of “Firebird” - one of the renowned, artistically sublime and mesmerizing Ballet ever composed. All that the banner had on it was a flaming girl in red bending in a classic ballet position, with effulgent shades of crimson and violet emanating from her body. And in between those profusion of dark colors, one could make out the focused, chiseled face and structure of Misty Copeland – the African- American ballet dancer, who was to play the lead role of Firebird in Igor Stravinsky’s Russian folk tale adaption. It was in 1910, that the world of art, chanced to bring together three genius in their respective fields to collaborate on music. It was a mystical Union. Sergei Diaghilev - Russian, master choreographer, creator of the Ballet Russes, a theater where representation of ballet for the new-classical age revitalized the brilliant dance form that Catherine de Medici imported from Italy to France during renaissance; , Igor Stravinsky - the young Russian composer, whose neo classical symphonies, polyphonic arrangements of rhythms and bold interpretations of Ancient folk tales ushered a new wave of compositions for the 20th century that was to startle and entertain arty public immersed until then only in solemn strains of traditional Western classical music; and, Nijinsky , the greatest Ballet Dancer ever to have graced the stage, whose singular concentration of energy, madness, verve, precision and talent elevated the Ballet to an aesthetically divine experience. The three of them were to produce some of the finest, artistically challenging productions over a period of twenty years. Firebird was their crown jewel. In it, they bought together the unique elements of their art to a consummating peak of excellence; and as a ballet piece, it presented the ultimate challenge for any dancer attempting to scale the heights of tempestuous emotion, physical energy and perfect unbroken rhythm this piece required. It was a wild story of Fantasy rooted in the archetype of good and evil, destruction and regeneration; and it required every ounce of energy, every range of emotion, and every step in a Ballerina’s repertoire to even come close to pulling it off. And for every sincere Ballerina, to play the soloist as the “Firebird” is a life fulfilling moment. Only the very best, the most dexterous and most talented get to play that role. And Misty Copeland, the young 16 year Black American, Born and raised in relative poverty, prodigiously gifted, immensely articulate - found herself, after years of personal and professional struggle – at the pinnacle of her ballet career. She was to play the Firebird at the MET.
Misty was not new to fame and accolades. Yes, she was a Black American, one of six kids, reticent and introverted, grew up for most part in a motel. But since the age of 13, when her mother introduced her to ballet, it was almost as if she had found that spark of true self. Ballet stirred within her like a coiled serpent waiting for that gentle tap on its head. Whoever saw her glide as a child on the floor instinctively knew that here was a prodigy, a genius waiting to unfold. At eighteen , she moved to New York to join the American Ballet company, a prestigious platform for the very best dancers, and quickly her great posture, impeccable poise and abundance of energy was noticed by critics and mentors. It was mentally tough to be in the midst of racially different crowd, adapt and perform. But that is the hallmark of character and greatness, and Misty poured herself into her art. Ballet was her, and she was Ballet. This singular pursuit of perfection quickly got her to dance in some of the theater’s prestigious programs In Tchaikovsky’s Swan lake and Paux de deux; in Ludwig Minkus “La bayadere” and in Le corsaire - Misty played prominent roles in these Ballets.. None noticed the difference in her skin color, when she was on stage. Electrifying and breathtaking was her presence. But in all these appearances, she was only playing a prominent part in a bigger drama, and never the heroine, so to speak. To play a principal role in a ballet is the apogee of this art, and Firebird gave her that opportunity. However, she knew that playing the firebird was a daunting task, simply because one of the greatest western dancers of the age had set the benchmark for that role. Nijinsky - the mad, mystical dancer had donned that role in 1910, of whom Rodin (learned, gifted art critic) wrote “In Nijinsky, the harmony of Mimicry and physical expression is perfect: his entire body is the representation of the will of the spirit…”. And firebird is full of spirit. From the initial momentum of the piece when Firebird descends to the stage in a glow of fire, till her alchemical transformation into harbinger of good, the role encapsulates all nuances of ballet and its spiritual power. Stravinsky’s music is not merely powerful , but rumbles with passion and fury till it reaches its peaceful crescendo. Each movement is approximately fifteen minutes, and stretches the dancer to their utmost physical and emotional limits .Only a mad man or a genius could keep pace and dance with the intensity required.. And Misty combined both in equal measure .
Though Misty premiered this role on a smaller scale earlier in California , It was at the MET the real test lay. The solemn, Majestic setting of the Lincoln center is probably the most prestigious stage for a Ballet Dancer to step on,, and She knew that her performance here was her proverbial door to immortality. No black woman had ever danced as the firebird in that august setting. And for misty, it was not merely personal redemption as a gifted artist who had to fight through odds to reach this position, , but that a slice of history was being made for African –Americans in an arena traditionally dominated by White skin, pale color and skinny bodies. Misty was all that a Ballet Dancer should not be. She was tall, she was 29, big chested, black, captivating, articulate, loves doughnuts. All stereotypes were being broken here, and destiny beckoned with eager arms.
However, Not many knew that Misty was suffering with stress fractures in the region of Tibia (the most important bone below the knee for a Ballet dancer) days before her performance. During rehearsals, she felt excruciating pain each time she jumped, or tip toed like a fawn. For a ballet dancer, it was the ultimate curse but not her. She would go back to her apartment and wince, cry with pain; but she knew ,as every great artists knows, that such chances as this come but once in a life time; and this performance at the MET was to be defining moment not only for her, but for the aspirations and dreams of an entire community. Disregarding her mounting pain, she graced the stage in crimson red and danced her way to perfection and into hearts of thousands who watched with stunned silence the evocative interpretation of Stravinsky’s,Diaghalievs and Nijinsky dream. It was a spotless solo performance. After the 20 minute climax routine, everyone in the hall was up and applauding, almost endlessly. They had witnessed a historical performance - one that would forever change the five hundred year tradition of Ballet.
In June last year, ABT (American Ballet theater) announced her as their principal dancer. The highest honor to be bestowed. It is an official recognition of the fact that Ballet is no more the preserve of the white race. After a century of struggle, when many aspiring Black dancers have had to avoid limelight, Misty at the age of 30, with just a few more years of Active dancing left in her has taken this art form to a newer, more embracing level. Her tremendous resilience after her surgery, that unique brand of intellectual articulation both as a writer and a public speaker, multi million dollar deals that showcase her stunning profile - all of them point to one simple fact : In the controversial debate that has raging in humanities and sciences about “nature” and “nurture”, Misty has proved that it needs both. The standard social science model, as strongly opposed by social scientists like Steve Pinker and others -where genetic propensities are considered valueless, and environment is everything - is rendered futile in her case. She was gifted to dance, and right environment allowed it to blossom forth. And of course, she was able to focus and raise herself above problems that nagged her. That is obviously recipe of success : Talent, nurture and determination.
The world of ballet is not as popular as Hollywood cinema, and not many would know of Misty Copeland and her achievement. Therefore this essay. Firebird is my favorite Ballet theme, and recently, I chanced to see a recording of Misty dance. There were tears in my eyes. Never have I seen music and dance come together with such grace, intensity and poise. It was a blessing, and I felt I needed to write about this extraordinary lady. It is more an offering of gratitude than anything else.
As I watched Misty dance with ecstatic abandon, a verse from the Bhagavad gita constantly kept surfacing to my mind. Perhaps, it best defines her attitude and accomplishment
Uddharad atmanatmanam natmanan avasadyet
Atmaiva hy atmano bandhur atmaiva ripur atmanaha.
"Let each man raise oneself through the self;
Your self is your friend, and it can become your foe as well.
So rise Arjuna, and live by the SELF

God bless..
Yours in mortality,