When A R Rahman composed for me…

It was 1991 and the company I was consulting with was about to launch India’s first branded baby diaper named ‘Snuggy’. The team had planned an innovative relationship marketing approach for the launch with the formation of ‘Snuggy Clubs’ across India’s metro cities with young celebrity mothers heading them.
Just over a week before launch, a team member had a brilliant idea – how about an anthem for the club? Bharat Dabholkar’s ad agency came up with a superb lyric and I was looking for a composer. I spread the word far and wide and received the quickest response from the company’s southern regional manager. He said he knew a young boy who was “a real whiz kid who makes tunes on a computer.”
I was due to travel to Chennai for some other stuff the next day and on the evening before, faxed the lyrics to the regional manager. In Chennai, after my morning appointment, the regional manager and I drove off to a pokey little studio in the city – Choolaimedu, I think it was.
That’s where I shook hands with this smiling, cherubic young man who had the lyric sheet in his other hand. “I am Rahman,” he said. Pleasantries over, he put on his headsets and proceeded to run his magical fingers on the keyboards in front of a PC screen producing several phrases of a tune.
Three young women stood ready by the mikes. They were Singapore Airlines flight attendants who moonlighted as jingle singers, I was told later. Obviously, he seemed to have had a composition in mind and even probably had a few takes with the crooners before our arrival.
I was told that the young man was a dab hand at ad jingles and had produced several memorable ones before then and was on his way to bigger things. “Mani Ratnam has approached him for this forthcoming movie Roja,” the regional manager whispered into my ear as the group readied its act.
“Here we go, Sir… I’ve loosely based it on We are the world,” he said. We nodded for him to go ahead.
On his cue, the young women began, “Snug and cosy … yes that’s the way …” Two takes later, with a minor change upon our suggestion, he put it on a couple of cassette tapes and handed them back to me.
The tune was so good, we hummed it for a bit during the drive back to the airport, with the regional manager telling me what a big deal this young boy was set to become…
Over the next few months we launched the clubs in Chennai and Bangalore, with Chennai’s club president being Suhasini Maniratnam and Bangalore’s Ujjala Padukone. I do remember little Deepika Padukone in pigtails accompanying her mother to the launch.
And yes, I remember with some embarrassment, signing off on a payment of a princely Rs 1500 for someone who is today nothing short of a great musical genius.

Earth Day: Millennia-old Prithvi Sukta more relevant today than ever

[This piece I wrote was first published 25 years ago. I think the Prithvi Sukta will forever be relevant. It is probably the earliest known document on caring for the environment.]
The world of three, perhaps four thousand years ago was different. A cocktail of toxic chemicals were not spewed out into the air every day. Auto exhausts did not cause a wheezing Pranayama. Nuclear and chemical pollution did not produce deformed babies. Deforestation did not cause desertification and men did not render creatures extinct at the rate of a species a day.
Yet in those truly clean, green times, an ancient, learned sage, voiced his concerns for the well-being of the earth, while thanking her profusely for giving mankind and the creatures that she sustains all she has, so generously and unhesitatingly.
A chapter in the ancient Atharvaveda, the last of the four Vedas, the Prithivi Sukta (or Song of the Earth) is a collection of sixty-three verses in praise of the earth and her environment, a fine and touching work of deep gratitude. According to tradition, the verses were composed by the seer Rishi Atharvan, who is also credited with much of the compilation of the Atharvaveda. The verses are full of both poetic and metrical elegance and besides thanking the earth for everything, convey many concerns about man’s relationship with her, in many places, presaging modern times.
Reading through the verses, one sees that the Prithivi Sukta is much more than an ancient poet breaking into inspired song, imbued with respect and gratefulness.
The verses show that the author has observed, deeply reflected on and carefully analysed the interpenetration of the earth’s ecosystem with her myriad life forms. He wonders at the cyclic patterns of her many processes like the tides and the seasons and then underscores the importance of not upsetting her fragile balance: “May none of our activities, as we go about our daily tasks, cause injury or grief to mother earth.”(v.28) Then again, the seer, on behalf of the agrarian Vedic community, says: “May we till your soil in a way that does not harm you nor disturb any vital ingredient in you.” (v.35) He follows up this verse with a prayer to mother earth to bless mankind with her seasons regularly and favourably. (v. 36)
The Prithivi Sukta is among the earliest texts where the earth is referred to as mother and her relationship with man as one between mother and child. “Like a mother, may the earth nourish us and spur our growth.” (v.10) The earth, her creatures and the ecosystem are seen as family: “May the earth hold us close, like a mother protects her sons and may the rain-filled dark clouds, like a father, water us and see to our growth.” (v.12) In some verses, the Rishi Atharvan prays to mother earth to protect mankind from beasts, inclement weather and the other fierce forces of nature as a mother would protect her helpless children. In others, he advises his fellowmen not to do anything that would upset her “internal calm” quite obviously referring to the spectre of geological upheavals and natural calamities.
The importance of commerce and economics in life, too, was not lost on the ancient sage. In the later verses, Rishi Atharvan describes the earth as a goddess and praises her with the choicest of superlatives in keeping with the Vedic tradition of deifying and eulogising natural phenomena. He prays to her to give mankind some of her immense wealth –gold and jewels (v. 44) and asks her to let good fortune flow like a thousand incessant streams of milk from Dhenu, the divine cow (v. 45)
Perhaps the single most important idea in the Prithivi Sukta that is more relevant today than it might have been when it was composed is that of understanding among us humans in preserving nature’s pristine purity. “May whatever is decided in assemblies of men, in villages and towns, be in accordance with your rules, not contrary to them, O Mother,” (v.56) is how the author counsels good sense to prevail in our dealings that could affect the earth and her environment. In another verse he says, “May we have the good sense to perform only those actions that will keep the waters of the earth pure and unpolluted.”
“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, the simple idea that foreshadowed today’s catchwords like “global village”, “lonely planet” and “one world” by three millennia, has been referred to in a very contemporary manner by the ancient seer: “May we, the children of Mother Earth, have the wisdom to speak to each other pleasantly and in a manner that is understood well, in spite of our different tongues and cultures. May our interaction among ourselves and Mother Earth be harmonious. (v.16)

Reminiscing Kishoritai

Dev Nadkarni

My earliest memories of Kishoritai are of her visits to our Mumbai home. I must have been nine or ten years old. Sometimes she would visit with her mother, the great Mogubai Kurdikar, and at other times by herself. Her mother, though, visited alone far more often and even stayed with us a couple of times. She was quite close to my father.

Kishoritai with my father the late Mohan Nadkarni.
Kishoritai with my father the late Mohan Nadkarni.

I recall Kishoritai’s animated and sometimes heated discussions with my father but I have no idea what they were arguing about. She addressed father as Mohandada, he being about a decade older than her. The discussions were often interspersed with singing, sargams and other musical demonstrations.

Mogubai Kurdikar relaxes in our Mumbai home. I clicked this with my cousin's borrowed camera.
Mogubai Kurdikar relaxes in our Mumbai home. I clicked this with my cousin’s borrowed camera.

Yesterday, on hearing of her sad passing, we talked about our memories of her. I asked Amma if she remembered what those discussions were all about. She said it was all far too technical for her to follow, much less remember. Besides, more often than not, she would be in the kitchen preparing a meal. But, she said, no matter what they discussed and whether they agreed on a point or not, they would never drag the argument to the dining table.

They liked each other like a brother and sister, Amma says. Once, however, in the midst of an argument in front of Amma, she said, “Mohandada fights with me like he is my boyfriend.” Everyone had a good laugh and I guess the two moved on to the next thing to argue about. After one of those lunches, I remember having dropped mother and daughter home in our trusty Ambassador. During our ride Kishoritai suggested that I should get to know her son Bibhas, who she said was my age. That meeting was never to happen.

Her visits stopped when serious troubles with her voice began and she nearly gave up singing for close to a decade. After that hiatus, she came back with a bang and was soon the undisputed prima donna of Hindustani music. As her profile grew, so did tales about her idiosyncratic conduct. Nevertheless, everything was forgotten the moment she took to the stage. Her voice scintillated, her performance elevating the soul to rarefied realms.

Kishoritai was a thinking musician. Everything she spoke about music came after deep, rational thought. Even her aesthetics was backed by robust, convincing logic rather than unquestioned tradition alone. If you’d hear her speak as much as you’d hear her sing, you would see her genius, though many would be convinced of it only listening to her singing.

As we all know geniuses often have eccentricities. In fact, eccentricities probably define geniuses. Mogubai once invited my parents for lunch at their home. Amma remembers that day well. Though she cooked the entire meal perfectly, Kishoritai confined herself to the kitchen and did not utter a single word the whole afternoon, leaving my parents quite puzzled.

A couple of days later she called and profusely apologised saying she was mentally preoccupied and consumed by planning her repertoire for a concert the next day. She refers to this idiosyncracy in Amol Palekar’s film ‘Bhinna Shadja’ which incidentally has a reference to one of my father’s comments about her style of presentation in the mid 1970s.

RIP Kishoritai. You will never be forgotten; your song will forever echo in our hearts.

Brexit a symptom of discontent against growing inequality

Dev Nadkarni

Like a massive earthquake, Brexit, in one fell swoop, has laid bare the many deep fissures and fault lines that so dangerously divide not just Britain but the world at large in so many different ways today.

Statistical and psephology analyses quickly revealed that the vote was split between blue collar and white collar, urban and rural, the less educated and university graduates, haves and have-nots and along distinct geographical areas (Think Scotland, which has created a whole new post-Brexit problem for Britain – but that’s an entirely different story).

The ‘leave’ voters clearly had a deep sense of disenfranchisement that has been bubbling away for years. The establishment, not just in Britain but also in many western countries around the world, seems increasingly out of touch with the hoi polloi – the people at the grassroots. In recent decades the nexus of mutual convenience between the political and business elite is so blatantly self-serving, that those who don’t see themselves belonging there have been hardened to embrace ideologies of the far right: nationalism, insularity – and xenophobia.

This is happening around the world. The success of Donald Trump’s campaign for his presidential nomination is another example of this. A certain sizable demographic at the grassroots level is fed up with the politically correct, please all brand of centrism. People increasingly want leaders to take a stand. Go left or right. The centre isn’t cool anymore – at least among those who feel they’ve been left out by that self-serving nexus between politics and big business.

India, the world’s biggest democracy, too, has in recent years displayed a marked shift to the right, with the centrist UPA and the once ubiquitous Congress party nowhere in the political reckoning in recent years.

The malaise of inequality

Forces that drove Brexit are a symptom of this widespread malaise of growing inequality: it was more an angry vote against the establishment. When the disappointed and the disenfranchised go out to vote, they vote with more emotion than rationality and it is no surprise that many weren’t even aware of the full consequences that would unfold after Britain left the European Union. Reports said that ‘EU’ was among the most searched words on Google after the Brexit vote. The ‘remain’ voters accused the government of not adequately explaining the repercussions of leaving to those backing that move.

Discontent on several fronts has been brewing in the UK for years. But it is the highly emotive issue of immigration that seems to have played a major part in hardening the stance of the ‘leave’ voters. Being part of the EU has brought in a flood of workers from other poorer European countries like Poland into Britain, with the immigrants eager to work for far less wages than the typical British blue collar worker is used to. The sudden spike in anti-Polish rhetoric and signs that have sprung up particularly in Britain’s rust belt (which overwhelmingly voted to leave) are a rather discomforting testimony to this.

The consequences for not just Britain but also for the EU are flying thick and fast. Scotland feels shortchanged that despite an overwhelming vote to remain it is being forced to toe the majority line to leave. So it’s seriously considering a second referendum to ask its people whether it should leave the United Kingdom. Over in the EU, member nations are beginning to worry if Brexit is the beginning of the end of the EU. Would other countries see less and less value in remaining in the union in the coming months and years? There is discontent in some countries already while in some others the voices to leave are becoming shriller post Brexit.

Lessons for New Zealand

At the heart of the issue is inequality – the widening and deepening chasm between the rich and the poor across the world. Incredibly, we see this phenomenon as the world frenetically pursues globalisation, ostensibly to create a more equitable and egalitarian world. But the exact opposite seems to be happening. Instead of being distributed equitably, wealth is being even further concentrated. Statistics in every country underscores the fact that the gulf is ever widening.

Inequality in New Zealand is growing fast. Last week Statistics New Zealand figures said the country’s richest 10 per cent owns 60 per cent of its wealth while the poorest 40 per cent owns a paltry 10 per cent. These are the sorts of figures that are bandied about by pro-poor NGOs ahead of high profile annual jamborees of the rich and famous like the Davos meet in Switzerland every January. Much is discussed and lip service paid. But little ever is done to bridge the chasm at the policy level and ensure a more equitable distribution of global wealth.

Brexit is a red light for the entire world. More than just a desire to leave the EU, it needs to be seen as a vote of no confidence in the status quo of the establishment. Discontent, when it bubbles over, could manifest itself in many ways – whether it is leaving an elite club of nations, bringing in an extreme right wing president, a rising tide of xenophobia against immigrants or having to live in cars because of housing unaffordability. Inequality is fertile ground for such disasters to unfold.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender July 1, 2016

Bullet train to Rameshwaram…

India’s first bullet train is to have a 21km long underwater stretch north of Mumbai, said a news report last week. But only if the surveyors looked west near the Palghar coastline, they could well find a tunnel running 1600km south, to the tip of the Indian peninsula.

Thirty-six years ago I was visiting a college mate of mine in Kelve-Mahim near Palghar. It happened to be Hanuman Jayanti. So we cycled to a temple outside the village. Praful had told me that ‘Ahi-Mahi che devool’ had a fascinating story, quite unremarkable though it looked.

The stone deity in the dark sanctum had sunk into the floor at about 45 degrees, like a precariously listing ship. A frail old man who had made the temple his abode led us down a flight of broken steps
descending into a pond thick with a sickly green algal bloom.

“The other end opens in Rameshwaram,” he said. He then told us a fascinating story from the Ramayan. Ahiravan and Mahiravan, Ravan’s sorcerer brothers kidnapped the unconscious Ram and Lakshman from their war camp in Rameshwaram from right under the nose of their custodian Hanuman. Ahiravan carried the duo on his shoulders through Pataal.

“This is where he emerged and hid them here,” said the old man. When Hanuman got wind of it he followed him down that tunnel and at the end of a great fight lasting days killed the sorcerers. Finding the unconscious Ram and Lakshman crouched behind the stone deity he kicked it hard to get to them. “That’s how it sank.”

When he was a little boy, a ‘gora sahib’ came to find out if this was true. A rock was tied to lengths of rope from 40 charpoys and sunk into the pond. “They ran out of rope. It goes all the way to Rameshwaram, you see.”

Manojavam Marutatulya Vegam… Hanuman Jayanti greetings!

The death of soliloquy

I must have been eight. Dad and I were going somewhere in a Mumbai local. A middle aged gent boarded at a station and plonked himself on the bench in front of us. He began a monologue, gesturing intermittently. Everyone glanced at him. Some chuckled, some smirked. A few stations later he got off. I asked dad. “All of us talk to ourselves but some do so loudly. It’s called soliloquy.” I wasn’t impressed. I thought he was talking to a ghost. I was into ghosts then. I made bold, “How do you know he wasn’t talking to a ghost whom we couldn’t see?” Dad promptly exorcised the topic. I spent the rest of the journey running all sorts of scenarios about the ghost and the gent in my head. It was the stuff of Calvin and Hobbes.

Cut to last week. I was on an errand dropping a friend’s eight-year-old someplace. We stopped at a light. Another car pulled up alongside. I glanced at the driver who was talking and gesturing animatedly. There was nobody else in his car. His gesticulations also caught my young passenger’s eye. “There’s no one else in the car. Do you suppose he’s talking to a ghost?” I asked. “Nah… he must be on his handsfree,” came the reply. No more ghosts in this digital age. No Calvin and Hobbes, too, for that matter. And soliloquy vanished at that railway station all those years ago.

An improbable anachronism

What’s 13 times 5? If you can roll it off your tongue, this might resonate. A film historian was guest lecturing at my media school some 30 years ago. The raconteur par excellence told of a director of the ‘forties who spent a whole month on one shot. He wanted to perfectly capture the reflection of lovers embracing – on the surface of a gently flowing river. No digital special effects then. Neither fancy cameras. You simply worked with what you had and waited for perfect conditions. With countless takes.

I’ve recently come to know this talented young filmmaker who is cast in that old mould. You can feel his passion for his metier. He’s no Ray or Kurosawa but his craft is redolent of the time when moving images weren’t processed by microchips. He says he works with natural light, real, natural settings. He eschews special effects. He doesn’t mind the extra time and effort than if he had opted for digital wizardry, when he has it all on his laptop.

But he is an improbable anachronism. After screening his short earlier this week he invited questions. A young film student asked which special effects software he had used for one of the more poignant scenes. The filmmaker said he hadn’t used any. The questioner was unbelieving. How could that ever be? He must have used something? Else, how could he get that effect? Not his fault. He is of a generation that wouldn’t know how to multiply 13 times 5 without a smartphone.

A buck saved is a black buck earned

Amidst the Aamir Khan/Kiran row, some on social media took vows like the earthshaking vows that many men and women in our epics and Puranas took. Some last week swore never ever to spend a single rupee watching any of the actor’s movies.

I was reminded of an acquaintance that took a similar vow when Salman Khan’s case was hogging the social media space some months back. But when he told me he’d watched Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I asked him about his vow. His reply proved to me that there is a little Birbal or Tenali Rama in each one of us. And as in the case of many of our Puranic vows, his workaround was fiendishly clever.

He said he’d kept his vow – not spending a single paisa watching the film. “I streamed it from a pirate website. The quality was bad, there were lots of interruptions but I had the pleasure of not paying anything to watch that [expletives deleted] actor’s movie. Enjoyed the movie without a paisa spent.”

Any qualms watching illegal stuff, I asked naively. “Nah, that’s the best way to treat him.”

The gurus of wifi nirvana…

I grew up with my fair share of spiritual gurus inherited from my elders. Most were ill clad, unkempt, looking penurious, even gaunt. They looked that way because they had renounced everything, had no worldly possessions, no filial relationships. They were so one with the world that there was nothing to possess – no distinction between the possessor and the possessed. They were the world; the world was them, or so I was told.

I don’t see gurus like them anymore. Every guru of today is a brand. Distinguished by carefully coiffured heads of hair even if looking wild and windblown; velvety flowing robes; signature accoutrements; headgear straight out of a fancy dress party: Their image so very selfie-ready; poised to materialise a hundred social media posts a day, a myriad likes and a million dollars from thin air. A global network of opulent ashrams, a who’s who of followers, fancy sets of wheels and wings, dedicated media channels vending instant nirvana…

Like the gurus of old, the world is at their feet. Yet unlike them, there seems so much more to possess!

A little tolerance goes a long way –

Or how a tycoon dissuaded a banker from leaving India…

This happened a very long time ago, when I was but a minion in a very large Indian enterprise.

At one of the many drinking binges, which were hosted so very often for all sorts of celebratory reasons, I happened to listen to this conversation between a high-profile cowboy banker (long since dead) and a tycoon (very much alive but not so kicking anymore):

The banker, just back from a trip to Switzerland and Amsterdam, told the tycoon they should all move base to Switzerland and do business from Europe. The life was easy he said. “Kya ladkiyan! Kya ayyashi, everything so clean, spic and span!” The next five minutes, thoroughly sozzled, he went on to describe his exploits over the past week.

The tycoon gave him a patient ear. Then, equally sozzled but with all his wits seemingly about him, he said it was a great idea to buy a private plane, a chalet, even a bank in Europe – but always live in India, no matter the grime and the poverty.

Why? Asked the banker. “Because, in India you can buy everything you can’t dream of buying anywhere else. You can buy netas, babus, police, chief ministers and even prime ministers – all have a price and you can even haggle!” the tycoon replied. “You need to have a little tolerance for the gandgi and garibi.”