Tuesday, 5 March 2013

An Ode.........

With every passing year, we seem to be losing something from our past. I have always loved the idea of old fashioned romance. Young lovers stealing glances from across the street, writing love-letters in perfumed sheets, leaving red roses in books for their loved one to retrieve. Arranging stealthy meetings in parks. Pining for someone in the loneliness of their room. Serenading the lover with mushy poetry and songs. Somehow, in this age of social media and Internet romances, such notions have retreated to the realms of fantasy. 

I have an old audio tape of a recording of Jagjit Singh's concert in Singapore. I still keep it as a memento of the olden times. The old ghazals remind me of love in the age of innocence. Their sombre, haunting strains resonate with the desperation of unrequited love, the pain of separation, and the small delights that passion brings to the heart. They emanate the fragrance of spring when love is in the air. These days I have become cynical when I see relationships being reduced to power games and love being replaced by lust. Somehow these songs give me a sense of cheeriness in knowing that somewhere love exists unsullied by the corruptions of the world.

In the later half of 2011, Jagjit Singh passed away. A few months later he was followed by Mehdi Haasan. It was the end of Ghazal gayaki as we know it. In a way their deaths were symbolic of the joy of simple pleasures that we are losing. Ghazal gayaki enthralled generations of music lovers. Drifting a little apart from its classical moorings, its distinct sensibilities garnered immense appeal with the masses. But with the changing times it became less relevant and could not attract new listeners. In the 80's when digital music and electronica started to make inroads into the music industry,  Jagjit Singh offered it a fresh lease of life. He adapted the ghazal to suit the preferences of the new age listener. At the same time he never altered the soul of the composition. In the recording that I have,  he brought back the simplicity and honesty usually associated with ghazals, occasionally breaking in with a sher or a chutkula. To this day, I regret having missed an opportunity to attend one his concerts and see him perform in person.

These and more gems that will remain immortal in the hearts of anyone who has inhaled love through the breath of a ghazal.
  • Hoshwaalon Ko Khabar Kya: This was the first song of Jagjit, I ever heard. The resonating melody and mellifluous vocals make it an all-time great ghazal.
  • Jhuki Jhuki Si Nazar: This song featured in Mahesh Bhatt's semi-autobiographical movie Aarth, which dealt with the complexities of relaationships. Against this backdrop, Jagjit Singh's compositions became a medium, through which the unspoken thoughts and feelings of the characters were conveyed in pivotal situations of the story. 
  • Gulshan Ki Faqat: As a poetic form, Ghazal came into contact with Sufism in the Middle ages. Consequently, it has found itself delving into the metaphysical and the themes have expanded to include philosophical interpretations. This ghazal tries to view love from such a perspective. Roughly translated, the first verse goes something like this : "Not just the flowers, but also the thorns lend the garden its allure,
    Sorrow too is necessary in our life, for sure."
  • Baat Niklegi To: A wonderful composition reminiscent of the olden times when love was considered taboo and young lovers lamented about their unforgiving generation.This song caught the imagination of music lovers across the country and was his first brush with commercial success. The Independent described it as "ground-breaking ... it became a transformative, before-and-after milestone in the history of Indian popular and ghazal music." 
  •  Shaam Se Aankh Me : The fire of passion gets somewhat dimmed with the passage of time. The song deals with the fleeting nature of love and the anguish it causes. The journey to rediscovering the love that is lost can be as magical as it can be agonising. Whenever I watch the video, I am inundated with such contrasting emotions.
  • Kaagaz Ki Kashti: It was one of Jagjit's many qualities, the choice of poetry for his songs. Here the poet speaks of longing for childhood. Setting afloat paper boats in the rain, making castles out of sand, listening to fairytales, taking turns on the tree swings, chasing butterflies- he presents a kaleidoscope of every child's experiences growing up.
  • Yaad Nahin Kya Kya Dekha: Moving from the usual grim mood of melody, it is almost as if a young Jagjit Singh on the throes of his adolescent love is crooning to his lover.
  • Tera Chehra: Jagjit Singh surprised even the most ardent of his fans by giving a complete new flavour to a ghazalPurists will definitely frown over the liberties taken with the musical arrangements but nevertheless it was a statement to show the way forward for ghazals.
  •  Hazaaron Khwayishen Aisi: Jagjit's compositions for the series on the life of Mirza Ghalib is regarded by many to be  his  magnum opus. It was only fitting that an artiste of his calibre give a tribute to one of the finest poets of Urdu.
  • Honton Se Chulon Tum: Strictly speaking, not a ghazal but nevertheless a timeless classic.  "Caress it with your lips, And just so make my song eternal ". It almost seemed like it was a plea to the world to keep alive the legacy of Ghazal gayaki.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Of Things Left Untold

In the past they wrote diaries. Now we blog. What compels us to write them in the first place? Obviously,there is this desire to put into words our ideas, beliefs and emotions at any instance of time. We want to preserve them for posterity. There is also the wish to reach out to others. The idea that someone, somewhere is reading our thoughts and maybe, feeling connected in a remote way, is enticing indeed.

When I started writing in this blog, I had hoped that it would be a prelude to something. I  had no idea what, but I had certainly hoped that the words that I wrote here would lend itself a meaning. That they would not be merely be like fireworks in the sky that shined for a moment and then fizzle out for the rest of eternity. Many a time, I have felt a surge of emotions within me and just felt the need to express them. But words would fail me.

Words are enigmatic. Put them together in a particular way and they   have far-reaching reverberations. But words can be tricky too. Sometimes you can try and try but they won't bend to your will. I marvel at those writers who have the gift of expression. Those who can conjure words to evoke myriad feelings in the hearts of the readers. Those that can find the power to describe their thoughts like a painter paints a picture. There is just no need to say more. You can feel those feelings. There is this wave of emotion that rises like a rising tide breaking over the banks of the reader's consciousness.

And here I am with words that sound shallow and empty. I am told that in order to convey an idea or feeling, one has to feel it strongly himself. Otherwise it will be like shooting arrows in the dark. When  I was in the middle of writing my first work of fiction, I was told that writing required a level of emotional maturity. I needed to experience the entire gamut of emotions first. Try to gain perspective before I could even expect anybody to connect with my writing. Maybe it is passion that drives any work of creativity.

I have more unpublished blog entries than I would like. I have left them so because they have left many things unsaid. They are not words I myself relate to. Meanwhile, there are several ideas running in my head. Some are sketches of a novel I have been trying to write since forever. Some are story lines for a series of short stories I'm trying to pen down. Some are shreds of memories. Some reflections of thoughts I had at a particular moment of time. All of them have potential. But I haven't found words for them yet. Till then I will continue to blog. And I will publish this entry. Maybe I have once again failed to capture what I set out to express. But this would serve as a reminder of all the things that I have left untold. 

Friday, 4 January 2013

God's Forsaken Children

Since 2009, at least 94 Tibetans have self-immolated, more than 40 have died in parts of China since 2011

You can see them in the markets of Shillong peddling their stuff- T-shirts, jackets, belts, curios  and what not. At Shillong's famous Glory's Plaza as you enter, you seem to have entered Shangrila . A weird smell wafts into your senses. You can see them casting melancholic glances, waiting for you to come to them rather than calling out to you imploring. Their manners are unobtrusive. Somehow you get this feeling that they are strangers who do not belong here.

You can see them in the monasteries at Tawang and Sikkim. Clothed in red robes, they walk about with a stately gait, their lips constantly moving in silent prayer. You feel a sense of calm just watching them. Us people of the world seem to be flitting about from place to place in search of something we don't even know exists whereas they seem to have found bliss and contentment.

You probably have a friend Tenzing. You probably didn't know that it is but their surname. He/ she talks about their homeland like a grandmothers fairy tale that begins with "in a land far far away". They speak of how their people escaped from there and spread far and wide in the world. They also speak with a longing to see the face of that earth once again.

You see them in the streets of Delhi carrying the red and yellow banner of their creed, chanting slogans of freedom demanding their right to return to the place from whence they came. You see the pain in their eyes hardened and covered by a veil of resoluteness. You see their peaceful protests being curbed in our country lest we upset the fragile relations with our neighbour.

You see their pictures the front page of our newspapers. You read to your horror about the self-immolations. In a world where others will not hesitate to kill thousands in the name of religion, this is the most extreme measure they will ever take to make their voice heard. You deplore the act and yet in your heart, you know that it is the only way they feel that the world will see their pain.  A hope that this act of sacrifice will make their captors see reason. You forget these scenes very quickly and go on living your sheltered existence while they live theirs. A life of a  refugee, a life of a nomad. They are God's very own children but you wonder if he has forsaken them.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

When The Stage Became My World

This is about my stage début in a high school musical. It is said that When Al Pacino auditioned for Lee Strasberg and was subsequently accepted into the Actor's Studio, he knew that he was on the brink of something monumental. It was exactly like that for me...... well, it was almost like that........ at least there were some similarities..... Who am I kidding? It was nothing like that at all. Time to get back to my story.

The year was 1998. The Principal of our school, Fr. P.D.John announced to everyone in the school assembly that we were going to stage a musical- "Roots". Apparently in the past it was something of a school tradition to stage an annual play and it was his venture to revive it. Our school already had a students club, " Leadership Training Service" (LTS) the members of which would naturally form the core of the cast. But the sheer scale of the project conceptualised, was such that we would need a far bigger pool of resources. In my school, if you weren't the sports jock types, then you were expected to chip in for such activities. And since my talent in chess didn't qualify me to seek an exemption, I found myself reluctantly auditioning for the play.

The first stage in any play is naturally the casting. Now being a part of an exclusive boy's school presented with unique problems, not the smallest of which was to get actors to play female roles. There was some talk that reinforcement would be had form one of the nearby girls schools.  Our joie de vivre was short-lived when that turned out to be just a rumour. Moments of crisis demand supreme self sacrifice and I found myself to be the proverbial sacrificial goat. I fumbled in every line they gave me, my acting was pedestrian and I (for the lack of a better word) sucked in every way possible. In the end, I was convinced that no one in their right minds would even consider me. But as it turned out, I was considered fit enough to play a minor role. In the first Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, the role of Taramati was played by a male, Salunkhe. However, I was not the least excited that I would be in the league of the pioneers of Indian cinema. In a school where one would be ripped apart for the most trivial of flaws, I was staring at a torrid future ahead of me. Begrudgingly, I resigned myself to my fate.

The rehearsals began in full earnest. It became apparent to us in a few days that the task at hand was, if not Herculean then at least Schwarzeneggerian. It would be no mean feat to even stage a show of some worth. The script was simple and the crux of it was this. A village boy goes to the city for education. He is however, ashamed of his roots and when some of his city friends come to his village, he has to confront his insecurities. You could say that the plot was not very different from a Bollywood movie. The promotional for the play could have easily been, "is me drama hai, emotion hai, action hai, superhit gaane hai". But it had some smart dialogues and some really funny parts, interspersed with songs, sung by the school choir. My part was one of the protagonist's friends from the city. In all, I had three scenes and I was not required to utter a single word. It actually turned out to be fun. While the rest of the students toiled in the class, we were free to skip them. And that was a luxury that we could enjoy not so often. And for those of us, who did not have major roles, it was even better as we had little responsibility. We just had to finish our parts which hardly took any time and then we would be off gallivanting. We could eat the metaphorical cake and have it too. The rehearsals on the weekends were more like a picnic when we were treated to cheese sandwiches and a game of cricket thereafter.

As the day of the performance drew nearer, the intensity also increased. We started with full dress rehearsals. We started to get a glimpse of how the play would take shape. I remember being decked in full female attire adorned with make-up and jewellery. I took to the stage, red-faced with a feeling of abject humiliation. In the middle, I received the heartening news that my mannerisms were not "feminine enough". I was instead asked to play my part, but this time as a male. I wasn't complaining. Yes, it called into question, my acting skills. But if my masculinity was to be the cause of it, then so be it.

"Chaos" - the one word that I would use among several others to describe the backstage . The changeover of costumes; the shifting of equipment; actors poring over their lines; teachers trying to do the impossible task of maintaining some semblance of decorum. Yet for me, the backstage is one of the most fun filled places to be in. Even in the midst of the busy schedule we would find some time to goof around. A peek into the backstage would often greet you with the most astonishing and comical of sights. The village headman gyrating to the music of Ricky Martin with one of the city girls. The old father demonstrating the highly acrobatic and somewhat objectionable moves of a certain WWF wrestler. The village boy in a duet with the the school teacher. My love for the backstage was born out of the many wonderful experiences I shared there.

D-day. The day of the performance. In all we would stage it for three days, the first day for the school students, the next for the parents and the third day for the general public. We arrived at the auditorium early and were greeted by the sight of the stage, decked up with floral decorations. A local theatre group had been assigned the task of rigging the sound and light arrangements and stage set-up. A podium was constructed below the main stage to accommodate the choir. Painted wooden boards depicting scenes from a village life set the scene for the play.

The usual demeanour was replaced by a sense of sobriety. We were called for the inspection of our costumes. Since it was a village setting, costume requirements were going to be minimum. Or so I thought. The villagers' attire was basically the most tattered clothes that they could lay their hands on. Apparently even those clothes weren't considered ragged enough. So with a pair of scissors they went about tearing their clothes with a vigour bordering on violence. One guy decided to take it to an extreme by smudging shoe polish all over his face. Soon others followed suit. Some junior school students were brought to fill in as kids . They were handed out ragged dolls which had several missing body parts and seemed more like objects of witchcraft than playthings. At the end it is fair to say that they ended up looking like a sorry, poverty stricken bunch of villagers somewhere in the coal belt of Meghalaya. Next came the turn of the city folk. Like me, the guys playing male parts were just given some touch ups but those playing the female parts were actually given a pair of "female parts". A whole lot of "stuffing" went into making sure that the girls could be easily identified from amongst the boys. So much for authenticity. I thanked my stars that I was spared from this ignominy. The seats were filling in and after a brief opening address, we were given the cue to start.

It was with a sense of gratification that we saw the play unfold before our eyes. "Roots" was the culmination of several weeks of painstaking effort both by the teachers and the students. Every peal of laughter and every round of applause that burst forth evoked a feeling of pride within us. When it was time, I went in for my bit. All I had to do was sit there in the middle of the forest pretending to have a nice time, gorging on snacks and chugging beer (well actually soda water). There is something liberating about sitting in front of your teachers and pretending to drink beer. There were a few minor hiccups too. The old father was in the middle of some heavy duty dialogues like " ...your thoughts and actions have become so poignant that they have pierced the heart of your old father."  But it so happened that the glue holding his moustache gave way and it hung precariously from his upper lip. So what was supposed to be a very emotional moment instead evoked a roar of laughter. The one thing that they teach you in drama school is improvisation and so he did. He buried his face in his palms, in an act of grief and took the opportunity of taking the moustache off. When he resurfaced without the moustache, the pitch of laughter rose even higher. Then he turned his face away and put the moustache back but now the moustache was upside down. Even in the backstage, we could not control ourselves and we laughed so hard that our tummies hurt.

The three days passed by like a dream and in the end, by the turnout and response it was evident that our play was a major success. "Roots" was no Broadway play, but it will always be special in our hearts and minds. For about two months we lived a dream, the enormity of which would strike us when we went back to the routine and humdrum of classes. For all those who participated and even those who just witnessed it, it was an experience to be cherished forever.

Before I conclude, I would like to make a few points.

1. It has been almost 14 years since it was staged and the details have become foggy. For one, I cannot remember who played the role of the protagonist. I would be glad if somebody could share with me their recollections of it.
2. Next year I was selected for a one act play without auditioning, this time for the role of a drug addict. Maybe the teachers noticed some negative shades in my acting. Who knows I could have been the next Al Pacino.
3. The play wouldn't have been the same without the superb performance of the school choir. The rendition of Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" and Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love Of All" deserve special mention.
4. Amongst all the good performances there were some that were brilliant. Amin as the old father, Sameer as the school teacher and my very good friend, Joy as the village headman were a class apart.
5. Five years later, the school staged a theatrical adaptation of "The Sound of Music". In many ways, it was a much more professional attempt. But somehow I was happier to have been a part of "Roots". There is no way that they could have had more fun than us.
6. Everyone should take part in a play at least once in their lifetime, even if it only means sipping soda water. Your life will be richer for it. If nothing, you can make a blog out of it.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Of Dead Poets And Rudderless Ships

"Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." - Robin Williams in the movie, Dead Poet's Society.

It is a well known trick among amateur writers, to start with a quotable quote, whenever you are short of an impressive introduction. This is not a different case, but I assure you that it is relevant to the piece.
I remember that in my high school days, we were often asked to write on a variety of themes. One particular essay, which happened to be a teacher's favourite was, "My Aim In life". Perhaps the motive was to arouse within us, a sense of purpose and help us decide our goals. However in essence, it meant that we had to chart our entire course of life within a thousand words. And every single time, I would find myself shuffling around my seat with uneasiness. How was I supposed to make such an important decision so early in my life? My 12 year old brain did not have thoughts deeper than an ice cream or maybe a game of cricket.

But the essay had to be completed. So I would begin, "An aimless person is like a rudderless ship........". I would ramble on and on about the importance of having an aim, about great men who realized their calling in their formative years . That was the easy part. The hard part was to question myself, "What was I passionate about? What was the one single thing that would make my life meaningful?". I could never come up with any answers. To be honest, I did not give it a serious thought. For the purpose of completing the assignment, I would make a random choice.  Well my choice of profession would change every year and they ranged from the insipid to the bizarre. A fighter pilot, an investigative reporter, a traffic policeman, a motorcycle racer, a nature photographer - I have donned several roles in the pages of my notebook. If I ever ran out of ideas (or if I wanted a higher grade), I would always fall back on "a teacher". 

When it was time for me to make a choice, I did and I do not regret it. But I often wonder I was meant to do something different. At this point in my life, I think I understand enough to say that it is an unfair question to ask of a child. For it does not encourage a child to think for himself. It encourages an ethic that professional accomplishments is the key to a successful life. The world is full of possibilities and the only thing a child needs to be made aware of, is to look for the potential that he has within himself. That he does not necessarily have to follow a road, maybe he can make one of his own. Maybe the ideal thing to do, is to explore all the trails in life before deciding which path to take. That is perhaps what the movie "Dead Poet's Society" attempted to portray (not very convincingly though). That one must shed the principle of conformity to realize the potential in themselves; to rise beyond what is mundane to reach what is exciting. We are asked to view the world from a set perspective and as a consequence we end up following a stereotype. If necessary, we must perch ourselves in an altogether new vantage point and then the view might become much clearer to us.

Just to humour myself, I pause to think what if now I could turn back time and return to the point where I could be allowed to chose a calling for myself. Well if God was generous enough to change the laws of physics for me, I would like to state for the record that I would like to venture into the field of film making. I have seen enough mediocre movies to realize that very few people involved in this field have appreciation for the art that that it is. Ah! To be able to present a visual medium to your thoughts; to show to everyone a world you think is possible- the very thought of it makes me drunk with ecstasy. Maybe I’m kidding myself, nonetheless I would like to close my eyes and think that it is still possible.