Krishan vs Kanhaiya: A triumph for rational humanism

By Dev Nadkarni

It’s never easy to discuss some topics freely and frankly in a disparate group of people without having a polarising effect on the group or creating an unseemly controversy. That’s precisely why people like to steer clear of discussing politics or religion away from all formal conversations.

There are occasions when writers, playwrights and filmmakers deal with such topics and we often know what happens more often than not – protests, book burnings, bans on performances and censored scenes and passages from films. Death threats are not uncommon either.

Any attempt to deal with something as super sensitive as faith, religious belief and the idea of God itself in a controversial manner in a three-hour play could potentially quite easily go pear shaped. But Paresh Rawal’s Krishan vs Kanhaiya achieves this difficult task of discussing the most controversial issues threadbare through colourful characters with uncharacteristic chutzpah and guffaw-a-minute humour.

The core idea of Krishan vs Kanhaiya is far from an original one. It has been explored a few times before – the most well known essay being the English film “The Man Who Sued God”. There is also a Marathi play on the theme. But where the writers of the Hindi version that was staged in Auckland last month score big is in contextualising the idea to the least common denominator of Bharatiya Sanskriti.

Krishan (Rawal), an atheist antique seller who weaves the most imaginative tales around his artifacts with his glib tongue, finds himself left high and dry by the fine print of his insurance policy when a natural disaster strikes, decimating his antique shop. Invoking the force majeure or ‘hand of God’ clause, the insurer denies him the value of his loss in which instance Krishan decides to sue God.

Unable to produce God in a court of law, he makes religious leaders and the priests of temples the respondents. Weaving its way through dozens of hilarious situations peppered with the most frank and forthright discussion on socio-religious mores, which expose most of them for their utter irrationality, the script progresses at a clipping pace toward an exciting climax.

As well as holding a mirror to the irrationality of blind faith, the writers, through Krishan’s sparkling wit and crystal clear logical thinking, expose the unreal vice grip that religious establishments hold their believers and adherents in, with a strong dose of fear.

It is this irrational fear of the future that has built the religion into the world’s largest industry – except that it is not seen as one, which is all to the good of the wily, controlling mandarins of religious establishments big and small.

The play’s subtext quite explicitly brings to the fore the hypocrisy that lurks beneath the thin coating of religiosity in organised religion and makes it resoundingly clear that is always about the money and stark materialism (bigger donors get into privileged queues just as they get the opportunity to inscribe their names on bricks and suchlike than their materially poorer bretheren).

It is just as well that God decides to come down to earth to meet with Krishan the atheist in person – because despite his seeming atheism, Krishan is a practical, existential humanist. In every sense a more honest and a better human being than most persons who wear their religiosity on their sleeves, making a big deal of it – to which the theatrical God alludes.

Krishan vs Kanhaiya appeals to most people’s logic. Or else there wouldn’t have been gleeful clapping and lusty applause for Krishan’s acid observations on blatantly materialistic socio-religious mores as there were for his whacky sense of humour.

The performances were brilliant and the message delivered forceful enough to make any religiously inclined rational person sit up and churn it through their mind. It would undoubtedly make the religious establishment squirm uncomfortably because the play does not give it a leg to stand on.

The play is an intellectual, rip-roaring, well-executed triumph for rational humanism.


First appeared in Indian Weekender, June 2012

A night of sublime music

By Dev Nadkarni

More recently, Kiwi Indians have had a bonanza of Indian performing artistes coming their way. While most of these have been performers of more popular fare of the mass appeal Bollywood variety, there have been a few of the refined classical genre.

One such was the father-son sitarist duo of celebrated veteran Pandit Debu Chaudhuri and his enormously talented son Prateek, who performed at the Auckland Town Hall on March 24.

The concert began with Prateek’s performance, which, as well as being immensely entertaining, proved to be a most effective Hindustani Classical Music 101 lecture one could ever hope for.

The appreciation of classical music has a lot to do with nurture and long term exposure besides discussions and interactions with those in the know about its various nuances. While many may have a ear for classical music, the richness of its experience necessarily comes when the novice listener is familiarised with the finer points during a performance by the performers themselves. And that’s what Prateek Chaudhury did with great elan.

Beginning the concert with raga Yaman Kalyan, he went on to explain every stage of its exploration in the classical style, the intricacies of taal cycles, arriving at the sam with the table player every time, the creativity and individual stamp an artiste puts on each extempore improvisation and many finer aspects to help increase the listener’s appreciation of the artiste’s offering.

He did this with great aplomb and with perfect teamwork with his veteran tabla accompanist Pandit Anup Ghosh. In the course of expounding on the Yaman, he brought in passages from popular Hindi film songs based on the raga, which most listeners would be able to identify, establishing the link between the raga and the song.

He also regaled listeners with the entire gamut of improvisations – from rhythmless alaps, slow jod, jhala, gat and fast drut, interspersing the rendition with sawaal-jawabs with the tabla and superbly intricate triple tihayees.

Prateek is an associate professor of music at Delhi University and it was evident from his lec-dem style presentation that he is as gifted as a teacher as he is as a performer. His presentation at the concert would have gone a long way in enhancing the appreciation of Hindustani classical music for several listeners.

Next to perform was Dr Chintamani Rath with his violin. Dr Rath, who lives in Tauranga, is plays both Hindustani and Western classical music and has performed for audiences worldwide, including for the late Pope John Paul II. He first played raga Hindoli and then a Bengali folk song, the lyrics of which he recited and translated for the audience.

The senior violinist had never ever performed – not even so much as practised – with Pandit Ghosh but both artiste and accompanist were on the spot when it came to anticipating each other. “That’s how it always is in Hindustani classical music,” the erudite Dr Rath said to the audience at the end of his presentation. It is not often that one gets to listen to a Hindustani classical performance on violin in this part of the world. We could certainly hear more of this great local talent.

Last to take to the stage was the father son duo of Pandit Debu Chaudhury and Prateek. Panditji is among India’s foremost sitar exponents, a respected Guru and teacher, a composer of numerous symphonies, has created eight new ragas, authored three books and won numerous awards and honours, both national and global.

Panditji began with a slow exposition of raga Jhinjhoti with a rich, extended alap, the slowness of pace offering a decided contrast to Prateek’s faster offering in his inaugural Yaman. Clearly, his style of presentation, especially in the early stages, was for the mature listener. He rounded off his first piece with raga Bihag in a faster tempo ably aided by Prateek. The two sitarists and the tabaliya provided a feast of rhythmic calisthenics toward the end of the piece.

The concert concluded with Panditji and Prateek playing a couple of Bengali folk tunes followed by a Hindi film song at the insistence of some in the audience. Undoubtedly, it was one of the more memorable Hindustani classical concerts heard in Auckland in recent times.


Auckland visit a walk down memory lane for Panditji

For Pandit Debu Chaudhuri, his Auckland visit was a walk down memory lane, catching up with old friends. He met up with former longtime Times of India music critic Mohan Nadkarni, now 90, during his stay in the city. The veteran writer had reviewed Panditji’s first Mumbai concert in the newspaper in the 1960s and predicted that he would emerge as one of the instrument’s top exponents. It was also an opportunity for Panditji to catch up with an old neighbour from Mumbai, again back from the 1960s and 1970s – Indian Weekender publisher Giri Gupta, with whose family Panditji and his entourage shared a meal.

First appeared in Indian Weekender , April 2012



Bad acoustics mars Rahat concert

By Dev Nadkarni

Auckland audiences had been waiting long for Rahat’s first New Zealand performance. So it was pleasing to see last weekend’s sellout concert begin right on the dot – and the maestro launch into his performance without the sort of fanfare that celebrity performers have come to be associated with. Full marks on that score to Aariya Entertainment, for whom this was a first concert under its auspices.

Starting off with the contemplative Allah hu, the Sufi song that his uncle, the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan took to the corners of the world, Rahat alternated between traditional and contemporary fare from Hindi films throughout the first half.

Sufi singing reflects the abandon of its mystical philosophy and the singer often dwells in the uppermost octave – taar saptak in musical parlance – reaching several successive crescendos in the course of the song. While Rahat sang with the practiced ease he has come to be known for, the poor sound management did gross disservice to his virtuosity.

In the early stages of the concert the sound was tuned to such a deafening level that both his singing and the accompaniment, especially in the higher octaves, sounded shrill, even raucous, to the point that several listeners in the Telstraclear Events Centre audience were seen shielding their ears.

When will acoustics technicians realise that over-the-top decibel levels completely destroy Indian vocalists’ finer essays? Poor sound tuning has been the bane of Indian music concerts in Auckland for years and it is time event organisers step up to the plate and deal with the problem with some degree of finality. Sadly, the subtleties of the celebrated Ustad’s awesome vocal calisthenics were drowned out for a large part of the first half of the concert.

Aariya’s managers have said that the sound management was supervised by sound engineers who had travelled with Rahat and that Aariya had almost no control over it.

Fortunately, wiser counsels seem to have prevailed and the sound in the second half was decidedly better, though far from ideal. Post interval, the Ustad from Pakistan who has succeeded in straddling across the subcontinent with his soulful singing, pleased the audience with his more recent Hindi film favourites. He also sang a few traditional qawwalis and a Punjabi number to a surging re- sponse from the audience.

Rahat is clearly a shy and reticent artiste, who likes to get on with his business of regaling the audience with what he does best – singing soulfully, full throated. His boyish smiles and twinkling eyes undoubtedly endear him to his live audiences. But then there is little that he does by way of interacting with his listeners in a way most other celebrity stage performers do.

In that sense he is the quintessential stage artiste of traditional Indian baithak music: more artiste than entertainer. Which is rather rare in these times especially with shows that involve Bollywood music. And it was a refreshing change.

The audience lapped up his wildly successful recent Bollywood numbers, which he sang with great finesse, though the super hits whose originals had a feminine voice were sung solo – diminishing the experience somewhat. For instance “Teri Meri, Meri Teri” from the superhit flick Bodyguard sounded incomplete without a feminine voice, which is so important to the lyric.

Apparently Rahat’s troupe does not include women artistes, according to promo material that was distributed during the concert, supposedly because the traditional genre that he specialises in does not involve women artistes. But that is at variance with the depiction of both male and female qawwali singers in countless Hindi films released since the 1950s.

His 15-man ensemble is highly accomplished and comprises support vocalists (including Rahat’s younger brother), western and tradi- tional rhythmists and string, wind and electronic instrumentalists. Rahat himself wields the harmonium with great dexterity and finesse.

In no mehfil can an audience’s farmaaish be fully met and that was the case with Rahat’s as well. Many requests from the audience of his favourite numbers – both from Hindi films and his traditional collection – went unheeded and one wished some more of his more recent and not so recent Hindi film numbers were doled out towards the end.

All in all, it was a memorable concert because of both Rahat’s music and the terrible sound management. While Aariya Entertainment and promoters Dinesh and Rahul Raniga did a marvelous job of organising the concert, there was nothing they could have done about the sound.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, March 2012

Breathless Auckland left gasping for more

Auckland’s Hindi music fans will undoubtedly remember the country’s first SEL concert for a long time to come. What a night it was as Bollywood’s celebrated musical triumvirate belted out number after unforgettable number sending the sellout audience into a foot tapping frenzy late into the night.

The well organised concert began at 7-45pm at the choc-a-block Telstraclear Events Centre, just 15 minutes past the scheduled time – a refreshing departure from the delayed starts that is de riguer for celebrity concerts of this sort.

From the word go the trio fired on all cylinders with maestro Shankar connecting with the audience straight away. As the concert went into top gear with his repertoire of smash hit numbers, Shankar cajoled and coaxed the audience to sing, sway and dance with him – a thing which they did with great enthusiasm.

Fresh from a sellout performance in Sydney, the trio on more than one occasion said that the Auckland audience was the most amazing one they had ever faced. This was a statement as sincere as it can be because Shankar is a straight shooter – there are simply no airs about him. He speaks from the heart and there was no doubt that he meant it.

The trio and their talented ensemble performed every number that they had promised all along in their promos in the pages of Indian Weekender, including the title theme of the concert, the legendary “Breathless”, which catapulted Shankar into his permanent place in Bollywood’s stellar firmament.

The trio’s hit numbers are so many over the years since their big break in Dil Chahta Hai that it would have been impossible to sing all of them. But Shankar obliged by stringing along about a dozen of them of them sampler style in a panorama of their musical hits down the years.

Shankar’s training in both forms of Indian Classical music – Hindustani and Carnatic – shone through brilliantly in his incredible range of vocal inflections: alaps, taans, gamaks, taranas and superfast sargams besides rhythmic bols and boltaans, the latter which he dabbled in with the superbly talented drummers and percussionists.

His virtuosity in extempore improvisation even in his well known numbers to make them special for a live performance were pure genius, which would have elicited a hundred wah-wahs from connoisseurs.

But bad sound tuning, which had his microphone low on volume, subdued the finer points of his softer vocalisations, much to the chagrin of several listeners in the audience. Bad sound management is the bane of Auckland sound contractors when it comes to traditional Indian soirees. Many a great concert has been a victim of this unfortunate shortcoming.

A number of people complained during the interval and the versatile singer’s mic was set to a higher volume in the second half much to everybody’s relief. Shankar himself wasn’t happy with the settings in the first half, he told me backstage at the interval and acknowledged that many had echoed those sentiments.

The ever smiling and effable Ehsaan Noorani and the gentle and shy Loy Mendonca displayed their own virtuosity on the instruments of their mastery to rounds of unending applause. The trio’s coordination with one another and their extraordinarily talented ensemble including the singers in their troupe was superb and radiated an easygoing bonhomie that is characteristic of the trio’s persona even offstage.
Speaking to me on the evening before the concert, Shankar spoke of his early training, his favourite ragas, how the trio makes its legendary music and the non-Bollywood experimentation he has been involved in.

The middleclass lad growing up in suburban Mumbai in a family of music lovers showed early talent in singing. He was tutored in both Hindustani and Carnatic forms before breaking out into singing and composing popular music.

Though he is clearly the driving force, the SEL engine room is a finely coordinated, collaborative effort, insists Shankar: everyone plays a more or less equally significant role he says, pulling in their respective talents and creativity to produce their wholesome musical offerings that have proved to be such great hits time and time again.

Shankar has created and collaborated to create a significant body of music outside Bollywood. He has set to tune and sung soulful Ghazals and Urdu poetry written by the great Javed Akhtar and others and has been part of a fusion group headquartered in Sweden called Mynta, which has produced extremely interesting experimental sounds with international musicians.

When asked if he would sing some of the soulful Javed Akhtar-penned numbers in Auckland, he said he was sorry he couldn’t because of the set up of the concert. Indeed the absence of some of his more soulful songs did seem to disappoint a wee bit of the senior audience who have listened to his early music and remembered it over the years.

Auckland’s SEL Breathless concert will go down as one of the most memorable ones.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, March 2012