Wednesday, June 15, 2016


YT has been doleful witness to several events that have seared the nation. Among them are: 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, 2008 M-Block Market, GK 1 bomb blasts, and finally the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of the same year. Serendipity at work one supposes, assuming serendipity is not always for the good. We happened to live through a flash-back of 26/11 recently in a totally different context, which we shall elaborate in the outrageously digressive traditions of this blog.

Well, the occasion was a music concert hosted in the august Yeshwantrao Chavan Auditorium Pune. The sole performer was, hold your breath, Swaryoginee Dr Prabha Atre.  She sang Shyam Kalyan (35 mins), Madhu r kauns not Madhu-kauns (34 mins), a  dadra in Mishra Khamaj, and finally the hair-raising Bhairavi sung famously at Durbar, UK- jagatajanani bhavtarini mohini tu navadurga. The prayer is well on way to achieving iconic status, with that stylised Arabic intonation in the prelude. The 82 year vidushi was suffering from a throat condition and had two shishyaas ( cf Shishyas)  for vocal support- one the promising Arti Thakur, and the other an equally talented lady, wish her due recognition. Dr Atre relied on the vocal crutches minimally, and the crutches failed her altogether when it came to Madhurkauns, which is understandable, for that’s not a prachalit raga, having been invented by Prabhatai yesterday. They say Kesarbai Kerkar would plan all her concerts a whole year ahead, and rehearsals for the one coming up would commence two months in advance, and for 12 hours a day she and the accompanists would work exclusively on the presentation. You can’t say they don’t make such artistes anymore, for the simple reason that there are only two recorded instances of historical figures that took all this trouble: Kesarbai and Bhimsen Joshi…!  Yup, Panditji always said he learnt his celebrated taans from Kesarbai! Gharana is no more, good news!

The 900 seat Yeshwantrao Chavan Natyagruha in brahmin hotbed Kothrud was packed and overflowing, needless to state. In Pune the meanest venue will fill up, whoever the artiste, and whatever the calibre, he or she’ll be lustily cheered… Alas we noted that the average audience age today definitely exceeds 60, and to our eyes YT @ 62, together with Missus, appeared to be the babies of the gathering! The country’s demographic dividend is not for Indian Classical it seems, if even Pune is like that…

The most interesting feature of the crowd was that 80 % comprised ladies and only 20% would be men. There is something about Maharashtrian women. The programme was free, passes dispensed by a music shop opposite the hall. Bet everybody carried their passes, but there were no attendants to check those passes, seating was free, and at the appointed time, 5 PM, everybody was seated, and curtains went up! The programme lasted three hours, few left early, and once thru, the audience arose and filed out through the various exits silently, no jostling..And yes- the daad was measured, warm and delivered with precision, at the right ‘places’- jaga, they say in Marathi!

We certainly have important ideological issues with Marathi  ladies, highly parochial, each of whom sees herself in the image of Jizamata, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s mother or Prabhat, Savarkar’s daughter... But there is something about their doggedness when it comes to the call of duty. And yes, you cannot but generalise here. And thereby hangs this tale which we set out to narrate in the first place...   

The Chabiwala-Bank-no-2’s Commercial Branch we headed then used to be the second largest bank branch in the country, with a business of over $ 5 bn, second only to CAG. It is housed in Atlanta building, behind what was then Hotel Oberoi Trident. There are a couple of buildings in between, but the back-side of the ill-fated Hotel is visible from Atlanta through the gaps between buildings.

By the time the attacks started on 26th November 2008, we were home, unaware of the unfolding tragedy. By nightfall, the entire Nariman Point area was under curfew. We got a call from the Bank’s MD, anxious about the safety and welfare of our men and women, some 70 in number. We were admonished against going anywhere near our bank the next day, for the attackers were targeting various buildings in the area, or could spill into Atlanta on the run. At 10 on the 27th morning, the bank guard placed on the premises called us in a state of disbelief. Five ladies, all Bombayites working in the Service branch attached to the Commercial branch, had reported on duty. One of the old girls took the phone and we were told about their journey in delightfully deserted locals from far-away places like Panvel and Dahisar. After mutual consultation they had concluded that though South Mumbai was closed, the rest of Mumbai was not, and upcountry clients of branches will find their funds stuck, unless we somehow open. How had they beaten the curfew? Mamas were very understanding, we were told. Besides though one lane girdling the building, Vinay Shah Lane was curfew bound, the other cross lane Jamnalal Bajaj was not, and they entered through the wicket gate! We would never have called you up but for a little fly in the ointment. Vehicles are not plying here and we cannot walk down to the RBI Clearing House 5 km away, so you are requested to kindly make it convenient to come to the branch in bank car, speak to the law and order machinery and arrange for curfew passes. Blah…blah…blah…We were so embarrassed, we called up our driver Gopalan and the commands of the doughty ladies were complied with. So there was no holiday for YT but the terrorists’ evil designs upon Mumbai’s economy were properly foiled by the ladies… In the bargain we got a ring-side view of Trident, for all day there was nothing to do but to stare at those flames emerging from windows, occasional terror-stricken faces, and to listen to the rat-a-tat of machine guns …The snaps are there on our cell-phone, but cannot be published for reasons of national security…joking he, he, he…they’re too hazy. But here are three snaps displayed on Aajtak on 26th night. They are supposed to be of the same scene- shooting of the CST attackers near Girgaum chowpatty- voila! same place, same time, two scenarios! They have been cited by independent Human Right agencies as evidence that police rearranged scenes in order to foist the fiction that one of the attackers (Kasab) was caught alive, after announcing for hours that all had been killed! Allegedly, Kasab, a ‘stock terrorist’, was loaned to us by Nepal for purpose of national catharsis, which would never have been achieved without the hanging of a Muslim, anyone will do…If you remember that story Andher Nagari Chaupat Raja: a man- a bearded man in the Indian context- is to be hanged. The MHA reports to the King that the man is too tall for the gallows- the noose doesn’t strangulate. Idiots says the King- catch a shorter bearded one and hang him…!

Congress was in power, by the way, but IB is said to be long infiltrated by men in khaki shorts! Congress or Jan Sangh- Gandhi or Golwalkar- they are all the same when it comes to mis-educating the generations. Whoever bats for a group smaller than humanity- be it cultural or national identities- Indians, Pakistanis, Americans, or religious- Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians- ideological- Communists or the Klan, businesses, linguistic asmita-licencees, sanskritis, hobbits, drones- he or she wittingly or unwittingly  bats for arms dealers, corrupt politicians, crazy Generals, influence peddlers, drug-lords …in short, enemies of humanity…and deserves to be certified…Unfortunately, in India, an asylum for the sane would go empty (apologies, G.B Shaw)! 




*Mainatai is a uniquely Marathi first name and vice-versa!

Saturday, April 30, 2016


An informal arrangement with YG, the promoter of this blog, was that the moving finger would have at least a monthly tryst with paper. A default would invite a steely glance of disapproval from YG. Over the past one year, the writer’s footfall has diminished by a half, and in the absence of any reaction from the house-keeper, the writer’s anxiety to keep pace too has receded. Incidentally the blog has entered the seventh year of existence, so, నా విమానము అంతా మలుగు చేపలతో నిండిపోయింది, hope YG reads that!

In the meantime a new problem looms over the ageing skyline of what we call our mind. The writer is becoming a professional forgetter. Therefore now he shall attempt to publish his moronic views in shorter and more frequent bursts, lest some mindless digression be lost to the readership, that is himself, and to posterity, he, he, he..

Returning to the topic of the Indian Connection in world music, we recall our post on pioneering Goan film music arrangers, who drew heavily on western rock and jazz pieces without anybody looking askance, simply because they, in the first place, were co-creators of these genres.

In the late nineteen-fifties, the American Government, in order to live down the country’s reputation on racial discrimination, decided to show-case Jazz, a product of Afro-American cohabitation, before the world at large, and the greatest names of Jazz were paid to criss-cross the globe. The results were rewarding to both sides, to say the least. Dave Brubeck was one of the greats of Jazz who visited Bombay in that phase. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was responsible for making ‘Take Five’ composed by Paul Desmond possibly the greatest Single in the history of Jazz.

A word about Take Five. We had occasion to allude to the principal requisite for a composition to qualify for the Jazz tag: the asymmetry between the rhythm and the melody. The closest to the Indian Classical experience is the phenomenon reputedly invented by Amir Khusro, wherein the melody breaks step with the tala, only to converge on a later sam after the least common multiple of the two streams has been played out…The time signature symbol of Take Five is a 4 topped by 5, something like 5/4, which indicates that there are 5 beats to a bar with quarter note-value in the accompanying melody. In Indian terminology this roughly means that the tala is of 5 or 5*x matras, while the notes accommodated in each cycle are 4 in number. As for ‘bar’, if we were to put down teen-taal notionally on a music sheet, there will be 16 intervals bar to bar. Take Five sounds incredibly sweet to YT:

The visit of Brubeck and friends and their extraordinary voyage of discovery has been chronicled by Naresh Fernandes in his blog. In Bombay a Jam Session was arranged in which IK’s sitar muse Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan participated. Here is what Fernandes writes:

One evening the pianist Dave Brubeck and his quartet gathered in the home of a jazz-loving industrialist on Mumbai’s Malabar Hills to chat with a group of Indian Musicians led by the sitar maestro Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. They picked up their instruments and put their new knowledge to work. The jam session, the American pianist said later, changed the way he approached his art. “His (the Ustad’s) influence made me play in a different way,” Mr. Brubeck told Jazz Journal International. “Although Hindu scales, melodies and harmonies are different, we understood each other…the folk origins of music aren’t far apart anywhere in the world.”

The Ustad’s influence is lasting and cerebral, going beyond the cosmetic ‘fusion’ Param Vir talked about in this post. What a tribute to AHJK the Musician’s Musician as we once called him, be sure we shall find out what the Ustad has to say about it when we visit him this Guru Purnima, that’s when he is annually feted by his disciples and fans….the article of curiosity will be the reverse flow- how was AHJK influenced by Dave...

PS: not to forget the insight offered by Brubeck on the Unity of the musical Godhead!

Friday, March 4, 2016


An abiding belief of IK has been that all songs are great, some great by birth, some which achieve greatness, and others which have greatness thrust upon them, ha, ha, ha…The ‘boring ragas’ with bright prospects we talked about in this post,of course, belong to the second category…

Jhinjhoti is a raga not many would hold brief for. Jhinjhit they say in Bangla. So much so that a friend of Missus, a knowledgeable and fine gayika confesses ‘not having gone into’ the raga…! Ustad Abdul Karim Khan’s plaintive Piya Bin Nahi Aawat Chain in Jhinjhoti (before which, says Pt. Rajan Parrikar, others sound like schoolboy howlers) was a favourite with YT from times immemorial, and therefore, not being a fine gayika, has ‘gone into’ the said raga.

Music literature says Jhinjhoti and its kin raga Khamaj, the paterfamilias, are bally ragas of ‘kshudra prakriti’! Loaded words, those, so shhhh…habits as old as Mannu die hard! The classification is supposedly on account of their being rooted in the ‘folk idiom’. Pt. Bhatkhande called it a light raga, fit for thumri and the like. Nyet for dhrupad and khayal. What condescension I sayyy…! But wait!...Here is what a western expert writes about Jhinjhoti

[On recognizing the raga]:…”In the ever shifting wilderness of aroha-avaroha...the profuse orchards of the raga-mala...shadows of the towering thaats...the neophyte will always have trouble telling one thing from the other...but from any handful of notes, I can pick it (Jhinjhoti) out at a hundred yards…Such is the great tunefulness of its nature..”

[Going rave, attending a US concert by Shahid Parvez]…”The first full touch upon the chalan sent a shiver down my spine…It was unexpected and incomparably sweet!” (one would think Peter was onto Malkauns or Bhairavi!)

Then: “I was experiencing visions such as I had known only a few times before…”

Shujaat Khan’s presentation of the raga on DD Bharati, especially the initial prose, is cited as the best exposition of Jhinjhoti available to the lay public. The Ustad calls it incredibly sweet, and talks about its versatility, of how different combinations of its notes result in myriad moods, like shringaar, bhakti or gambhirya. He sings and plays to us the ancient bandish “lakuti, chutki, ab bairan bhayi, Hariju jo diyo, sur ma lagati” . The context or the traditional bandish is how a ‘lakuti’ or a humble stick become divine music united with Krishna’s lips…

In very kind words he explains how unbeknownst to the common listener, Hindi movie makers have made unfettered use of ancient compositions, passing them, by default, as their own. The first sample he sings for our benefit is: Koi hamdam na raha, koi sahara, na raha..and what a great song that...avantage navaneet chauram Kishore ! Shujaat hums the lakuti notes thus:

[*]R P’ D’ S R M M G R G S… P’ D’ S R G R M P’ D’... M D’ D’ P’ R G M n G S

From this, it is but a short step for one to make out the Hindi song notes:

RP-—---MGM-—G—-RG—--SR-- Sn’-- D’-- D’—P’-- S


Thus the credit for this excellent piece goes not to the Music Director Kishore Kumar, but to the song writer Majrooh..avantage Majrooh.. and the trail is deeper into the woods than that:

The original koi hamdam with different antaras was sung by Kishore’s Dada Ashok Kumar in 1936 much before Kishore Kumar adapted it in the 1961 Jhumroo.. (Kishore was then a 5-ish commando in Khandwa) It’s said he forgot the source, his intuition got the better of him...ha, ha…The original score was by Saraswati Devi, who again was not Saraswati Devi, but Khorshed Minocher-Homji sailing under the fictitious Hindu name! SD was the tops in her era, her other famous songs being Mai ban ka panchi ban ke...and  Jai Jai Janani Janmabhoomi ..

In the video you hear Dada Muni recall warning Kishore, the song is in "chaudah matra ka ada chautaal, tumse nahi hoga". Kishore feigns ignorance about ada chautaal promising Dada his effort will be better than the previous avatar. And boyyy...the song scales new heights. Ada chautaal yields place to 1-2,1-2,1-2 chords, strengthening our senior's conviction, tabalchi as he is, that bols like tirkit, or tin, or dha dha toona don't matter, for they are anyway not very distinct in published audios- what matters is matra or interval between beats!
A closer approximation to lakuti is another Jhinjhoti  film song sung by Hemant Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar:

Bas ek chup si lagi hai, nahi udaas nahi.

It follows the first sargam with precision...avantage Gulzar...

About its technicals, this is a sampoorna raga, with shuddha swaras, save descending nishad which is komal...vaadi-samvaadi are sa and pa, though the jhinjhoti soul hovers between re, sa, and (lower) ni, dha, pa...comprehensively, it goes M G R G S… R n D n D P M P D S… D S R G D M P… R M G R G D S… S R G M G D S…. R M G R M P D…. N D P D M G R G S… R n D P D S… S R n D P D S

Cinderella boards the pumpkin coach...there, there...! Listen to the consummation of bhakti rasa:

Mahadev vishwambhar, jata juta trinayan neelkantha (bada khayal taught in JA gharana)

Then karunya rasa for you:

Chhup gaya koi re, door se pukaar ke (Lata Mangeshkar, Champakali); Mera Jeevan kora kaagaz (Kishore Kumar, Kora Kagaz); Rehte the kabhi (Lata Mangeshkar, Mamta)

What versatality I sayyy...!

What brings us here is- why do Jhinjhoti compositions go beyond the theoretically defined ‘prakriti’? If one calls it ‘the wrong question’, then we are consigning to the WPB the concept of prakriti persayyy I sayyyyy..(fun intended)! There our equation e= (k*S)^p+(l*T)^q+(m*E)^r+(n*गंमत)^s steps in…wherein musical consummation has been conjured up a product of 4 attributes, raga vistara, emotion infused by singer, technique, and an unknown called gammat in maiboli, maximum weightage going to ‘emotion’.  However, people have tried to shadow the swaras and have come up with observations on how different combinations of notes engender in the listener’s mind different emotions. Pta. Kishoritai’s feel of the swaras has already been discussed in IK here.

To begin with, Dave of Dave Conservatory, a British music resource, believes that a note followed by the sharp version of the same note creates an eerie and chilling effect. This is illustrated by the background piano that plays when the white shark attacks holidaymakers in Jaws.

According to Marathi magazine ‘Sangeet Kala Vihar’ of Miraj, a khayal comprises various ‘sutras’ (strings of notes). Basically they say, there are two types of sutras, jyeshtha and kanishtha (major and minor). They are as under:

(0)        S  G  P
(4) S  g  P
(1)        S  G  M
(5) M  d  S
(2)        M  D  S  
(6) P  n  R
(3)        P   N  R

According to the analyst (though we have not been able to get a hang of it so far):

“1+ 3= Hamsadhwani/ Shankara; 2+4+6= Kafi; 4+5+6= Jaunpuri/ Darbari; 0+3+Re Ma Dha + Ni Re Ma= Kalyan thaat

“The basic principle of Hindustani classical music is that Ragas are created when Samvadi swaramalika of Shadja comes into a conflict with swaramalika of vaadi swara. The swaramalika of Shadja will normally have 4-5 swaras.

“The mood of a Raga is determined by the clash of vaadi and samvaadi swaramalikas. The atmosphere of conflict can be felt most keenly in ragas with teevra madhyam. In such ragas, ni and (komal) re are found to be in conflict with the basic sa in abundance. Ragas with re- dha conflict come next in raw-power-status.

Quite plausible, requires more research…. so more, later paarkalam...chuddam...nan se piet…. Not that it is strictly about Jhinjhoti…(#)

[*] ’ for lower octave and n (i.e. el nino) for komal nishaad.

(#) “let’s see” respectively in Tamil, Telugu and Khasi- so you can guess where-where have we been, to look at the queen, in the service of the BTN!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in Notes- Beethoven

The Jaipur Atrauli gharana is all over today, its farthest outpost 20 billion km. into interstellar space, manned by the Grand Lady of JA Pta. Kesarbai Kerkar (check out Golden Record).

JA is sort of St. Stephen’s of Hindustani Classical. Aks Amitabh Bachhan how it feels not to have studied or bunked or being debunked in St. Stephen’s. Having studied in my Alma Mater Kirori Mal instead is a major existential issue with the great man, he, he, he…bhaya had you not been adopted by Frank Thakurdas of The Players c/o KM College, you would have been selling soap-directly, I sayyy…

Panduranga, asude….So far as affiliation to JA is concerned, even Pt. Bhimsen Joshi has gone on record saying he learnt his famous  boltaans, gamaktaans etc., if not damsaas from Kesarbai…

The Moses of the gharana was Ustad Alladiya Khan. Aficionados trace the JA lineage to a brahmin, Nath Vishwamber -and Swami Haridas. A string of Ustads followed the brahmin ancestors, with more than a dozen generations intervening between the Nath and our Ustad. The Ustad was a genius and a very sensitive human being, easily towering creativity-wise  over all contemporaries, who in turn never hesitated to acknowledge their fascination with his music and exhibited a Catholic tendency to adopt the depth and the embellishments of the JA gharana…In a sense the Ustad’s immense talents dealt a death blow to the gharana system. Even though pure (surviving) JA-ites can be counted on one’s fingers today, Vidushi Amonkar, Dr. Arun Dravid, Vidushi Manjiri Asnare to name a majority, no one can accuse Alladiya of not having left behind a caboodle of disciples in the Ustad Allauddin Khan tradition- for Alladiya DNA today pervades the Musical Universe at large….

For the record, JA gayaki was assiduously developed by the Ustad from the grass-root, that is from dhrupad. The style is distinct, with lots of alluring features like intricate taans, and a complicated grammar of blending sur, bol and laya. The Ustad also invented many jod-ragas, particularly Nat and Kanada variants which, in the language of Chemistry, are not Mixtures or Colloids, but stable Compounds... The Ustad was a pucca Namazi, but was also reputedly found wearing the brahminical sacred thread. This amalgam of two Beliefs is omnipresent in the Hindustani Classical world, especially in genealogies- for example Pt. Sureshbhau Mane and Pta. Hirabai Barodekar were progenies of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the Kirana doyen. Music did not really mesh with orthodox Islam, and in part, given the patronage of Kings and Nawabs, the musicians’ foibles were left unaddressed by orthodoxy, while the common Muslim merrily indulged in sama, qawwalis  and dargah-parasti. Alas, in today’s scenario, this fervour to embrace, instead of uniting people, invites only derision from of the 2% Mahabrahm fringe, masquerading as guerrillas of ‘Hindavi Culture’. To take a recent phenomenon, a delightful ancient Marathi play was made into a nasty movie with communal overtones!  In the process, the benign albeit  gharana-obsessed Khansaheb, a beloved character of the Marathi stage, is tarred and feathered  as the movie progresses or regresses…The greatest affront is to the memory of the Pt. Vasantrao Deshpande, who resides in our minds as Khansaheb! (*)

But our concern here is the doctrinaire approach of some JA stalwarts- are they not emulating the Khansaheb so ably portrayed by Vasantrao? In particular, let’s take the place of the sargam as a staple ingredient of a vocal recital. According to gharana’s high-priestess Tai, the JA vocalist sings only in aakar to the exclusion of the sargam. “It’s a meretricious display of your knowledge and prowess” says she. In a famous interview she demonstrated the Bilawal chalan Sa Ga Re Ga Ma Pa Ma Ga Ma Re Sa in both manners, obviously to the disadvantage of the sargam. Where does that leave great vocalists like Ustad Amir Khan who sang banderoles of sargam, and took the trouble of examining each of the 5040 merukhands..?

Well if you set so much store by the swara over the tala or bol part, pray why do you shy from calling the swara by his or her name? To the blinkered eyes of the writer, the very purpose of articulating the sargam differs from that of the melody. It serves to bring out the key to the emotional character of the raga to the less perspicacious listeners, who abound. It has a pay-off also for the vocalist – it reinforces in his/her mind and exposition, the nature or prakriti of the raga. To repudiate the sargam  is to belittle the importance of notation.

Tai has raved in the past about the pathos generated by Bageshri- where do they come from one always wonders? From sargams, one realises that poignantly evocative phrases are Ma Dha Ni Dha Ni Dha or Ga Ma Dha Ga Ma Ga- imitating x y z x y x . This is the distilled nectar of Bageshri’s pathos. The swara samoohs are enough to dissolve the listener into a limp pool of self-despondency. If your aakars do not give a clue to the listener, he/she is so much the poorer, and the genes of JA will terminate in Pt. Bhimsen Joshi like BT Cotton.  A singular disgrace to a great Creator…

The sargam is akin to English Grammar. Of course one need not be a grammarian to write beautiful English. But one certainly needs grammatical under-pinning, say, in order to explain to the errant user the fallacy in the expression “I have slept the baby”. If you are abreast of Wren and Martin, you’d be able to hold your own, and explain that the snafus is on account of treating an intransitive verb as transitive…!

No one including Tai would question an artiste’s right to present his or her own interpretation of a raga, choosing the ingredients and measure thereof. That’s what we mean by khayal. In fact Dr Prabha Atre researched the topic extensively and the title of her Ph.D. happens to be “Sargam in Khayal Gayaki ”. Ustad Amir Khan related  the sargam to ‘upaj ‘ or spontaneous improvisation in khayal gayaki. He firmly believed that in order to improvise, say experimenting difficult combinations (khandmeru) of distant swara components of a raga or combinations of differing octaves, the medium has to be the sargam, and if one tries bold combinations through the medium of the akar, one may founder. Dr. Ibrahim Ali of Vikram University, Ujjain has gone deeply into this aspect of the gayaki of his fellow Malwi…(see

But one is tempted to end the discussion on a different note. One cannot but admire Tai for stressing the neglected ‘Thought’ dimension in Music Criticism. She invariably shines the light on the sum and substance of musical delight! Advertently or inadvertently, we have a rare authority who always highlights the Theoretical side of Classical Music which is the passion of your site IK....
Atrauli to Jaipur: but the real action happened in Kolhapur:
They say the North made it and the Deccan listened!
(*) More on this later…

PS for the sake of completion: In Western Music, the equivalent of sargam is the solfege, which is not recounted frequently, but is used mainly for ear training and comes with hand gestures for each of the notes. It is said that the solfege in Western is an import from the Arab world: here is a kids' choir solfege:

Friday, September 11, 2015


Kilimanoor-the name has a magical ring no!- sounds uncannily like Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa!? That is a place a tourist in the right mind should visit when in Kerala. It’s divine connect matches that of Sabarimala or Guruvayoor. So when in Kerala a while back, we were determined to pay our respects to the ‘Prince among Painters and Painter among Princes’, Raja Ravi Varma right at his birth-place, the Kilimanoor Palace. Every famous place in Kerala is located between two famous places, given the linearity of the state. In our present case, Kilimanoor town lies off the MC/SH 1, mid-way between Kollam and Thiruvanathapuram, a stretch of 80 KM approximately.  Kilimanoor literally means “land of the  parrot and the deer”….

Reaching the place is tricky. While Sreebesh, our energetic young pilot and guide knows quite a bit about Kerala history, Kilimanoor leaves him stumped. It is not there in “Kerala guide-syllabus sirrh” he says jokingly. Maharaja Marthanda Varma however looms large over his imagination, incredibly versatile as he was. Marthanda Varma (circa 1706-1758) was the greatest King of the Travancore state, the only Rajah in the whole of India who bested a European army (Dutch). Kilimanoor was under the sway of the Nair octet, the Ettuveetil Pillamar (Pillamar= Lord, from which derives the Nair title Pillai) and when the local tribal chieftain rebelled against Travancore authority, it was annexed by Marthanda Varma, reigns of the Kingdom handed over to the matrimonially related Koli lineage. The clan is supposed to be simply Kshatriyas, no ifs and buts like other Kerala castes. As Vivekananda once said in exasperation, Kerala is a ‘mad-house of castes’!

So…there we are…come heritage town Kilimanoor, and we are led to the Palace by tentative sign-boards, and alas...the wicket gate and the massive doors are closed. The only photo-op seems to be this snap which Sreebesh clicks.
We allow for the possibility of the monument being deserted, and stakes being so high, try to force the wicket gate open, it swings inside with a rasping sound, and as we raise our camera for another picture, out storms a tall, dark, handsome man with a regal mien, expostulating that the estate is not a public place. We sheepishly explain the design behind our visit, and acknowledging our erudition, he gives us full marks, then invites us inside. He is none else than Rama Varma ‘Biju’ (the appellation serves to distinguish him from his cousin, the renowned musician from Ravi Varma’s direct lineage, Prince Rama Varma). The Palace wears white and radiates an old world beauty and charm...

Biju Rama Varma a constituent of the family, heads the Ravi Varma trust. He is a practising classical musician, and sings and composes both Caranatic and Hindustani. Swathi Thirunal, his legendary ancestor has hundreds of Hindustani compositions to his credit, we are informed. We apprise him of the musical pedigree of Missus. He is thrilled and proposes an impromptu mehfil in the hallowed hall where the Raja painted some of his most celebrated canvases. What a windfall says Missus and she suspends the artiste’s innate disinclination to perform unaccompanied and on the spur of the moment. BRV whips out his cell phone and switching on the tanpura utitlity, seeks her base note, it’s the white sixth she responds. Given the stature and seniority of Rama Varma, it is decided that Missus will lead and BRV conclude. They keep it ‘light’ and Missus renders her favourite Ram ka gun gaan kariye by the twin Bharat Ratnas Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar, set to Bhairav by Pt. Shriniwas Khale. The magic of the studio rubs off on her and she sings as if possessed. Dramatically, BRV’s assistant emerges from inside and literally performs a sashtanga before her! Leaves her flushed with gratitude really.
BRV then sings his Madhymawati, Anupama Sundara as we reported in our previous dispatch. We are dumbfounded by the rich timbre of his voice and his range, spanning three octaves. The taar saptak finale is simply grand.

This video was uploaded by BRV's sister. BRV is a well-known composer, having given score to a number of Malayalee movies, and eminent singers, including Yesudas have sung for him.

Conversation naturally veers around to the topic of the Raja’s painting. The Raja’s painting is egalitarian…of ‘utility’ to everybody, rich or poor, he says, without distinction of caste, creed or station in life. He thoroughed every scripture before he painted the Gods, and went by the basic common denominators, lest orthodoxy raise a finger. So much so that in the present day, the paintings are themselves pointers for the Faithful (chaddidharis excused, ha, ha…)! He had a way with faces, which are suffused with emotion and charm. But alas…BRV laments, in the original home of the painter, there is no Original. The Raja usually painted in his room on the first floor. Like a true blue Malayalee, he went all over the world, and many of his major works, particularly those of the Marathi ladies in nauwari sarees, were painted in Baroda, where he was invited by erstwhile Baroda regent Sir Madhavrao, earlier the Dewan of the Travancore state. The originals of Goddesses Saraswati and Laxmi, the Ram Durbar, the Shakuntala are among the hundreds preserved at the Baroda Heritage Art Gallery. Ravi Varma paintings are scattered as in a diaspora, and his originals are displayed in numerous galleries, like the Modern Art Gallery, New Delhi and the Sri Chithra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram. The Trust under the dynamic leadership of BRV arranges retrospectives and art festivals in Kilimanoor, and is engaged in the effort to acquire at least some originals for the benefit of aficionados like CVB who are prone to visiting the Palace. Paintings by the Raja are known to command prices in crores at international auctions, BRV confides. The palace was maintained by Ravi Varma with the sale proceeds of some of his paintings says BRV…
We ask for permission to shoot in the sanctum sanctorum, and BRV has a hearty laugh. Believe us-his words are- you and I are long lost brothers of a previous birth! Here is the clip:

Finally, he takes us on a guided tour of the palace (built circa 1753). We are shown the place where pujas were performed (kaavu) and only family could enter-you know- the caste requisites were more stringent in Kerala than anywhere else…We love the small mandapam with carved doors and arches for windows, which BRV says has hosted the greatest musicians of present day India.

And finally, in spite of our words of dissuation, the Prince, in all grace and modesty, accompanies us right upto Sreebesh's Honda City and we wave a warm mutual good-bye...Senior and Junior are duly updated about the day’s events with the anticipated seasoning. Senior’s tribute to YT for the industry demonstrated by us in tracking down the Painter to the Nation’s abode makes our day: “All sorts of things happen when you are around Dad!” says he…

Tuesday, September 1, 2015




That God created Man lies in the realm of conjecture, but the reverse is an empirically proven fact. Created Him in his, that is man’s, own image. An anthropomorphic God. Let’s undertake a little census.  

The Hindu pantheon is  said to be populated by 33 crore ( a third of a billion) Gods. As Sahir  rightly  pointed  out  the other day, the earth’s miseries result from the inequality ⁿG<ⁿH, i.e. the fact that the total number of Gods is less than that of humans: aadmi hain anginat, devata hain kam….he, he, he….According to the 2011 Indian Census, there are around 10 crore ( a hundred million)  Hindu urban households in the country. We can safely assume that each buys at least one of the above displayed pictures every year (people call them photographs, which usage IK does not subscribe to). Extrapolating, one can safely state that at least 5 crore of each of these have been sold in the country annually over, at least five decades!  So-over 2.5 billions have been sold since these Gods were conceived by the Creator, painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). Far more in number than the very population of Gods as per the Divine census! Undoubtedly the Raja is the most sold painter ever, and el Nia Mona Lisa, the most celebrated of paintings, pales into insignificance, going by the sheer number of prints sold!  More than that, the Raja magically ignited and seared in the Hindu mind, the munificence of Goddess Laxmi, the bright scholarship of Saraswati, the benign visages of Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, the upright loyalty of Hanuman, or the insouciant callousness of one of our greatest Rishis, when confronted by Menaka with his love-child Shakuntala! The endearing images that flew from his mind to those of bhaktas must have contributed in no small measure to the peaceful nature of Hindus, till the spanner was thrown into the works with the sick images of Rambo Rama and Sambo Siva who rather resembles Nandi! Panduranga, asude…!
It will however be an over- simplification to ascribe to the Raja’s two hands this monumental feat in vacuo, sort of ignoring the Historical dialectic behind l’ affaire des Dieux…Behind the benign Gods lie a host of determinants, such as the compulsive talents of contemporary Malayalees in general,  the complex caste grid, British intervention, not to speak of the Neoclassical and Romantic movements pervading the 18-19th century European art scene. Bengal and Kerala apparently were the two states which picked up the best of British tradition. It’s again not a coincidence that these were the two states where Communist parties first came to power in the 1960s- speaks volumes for the open-mindedness of the people there.

The Kilimanoor Royalty connections of the Raja, his wedlock into the matriarchal lineage of the great Chera King Swathi Thirunal, culminating in the present status of the Kilimanoor Palace, more about which later, is but the stuff of gossip…more important being the admixture of the swirling eddies of Indian theology and shades of  major European art movement that played on the Raja’s colourful palette, bursting into a riot of images which are today cardinal to 'Hinduism'....Well, the British, represented whether by the Company Bahadur or the British Crown were historically on the same wave-length as the artistic Cheras ruling from Travancore. Swathi Thirunal (b. 1813) was the ‘Garbha Sreeman’, for he was proclaimed King while still in the womb, though it would be more accurate to address the baby as ‘heir to the throne’ to take care of both sexist eventualities of child-birth! The "garbha sreeman" stuff  owes to the East India Company’s Travancore representative Col. Munro who, in order to keep the doctrine of lapse at bay, informed the British Government about arrival of the heir 4 months in advance... There is a tradition that none other than Munroe visited the Padmanabhasami temple to pray for the birth of a boy, matriarchal succession not withstandingThe regent of the unborn sovereign was the mother Gowri Lakshmi Bayi. When the child was merely 4 months old, she held a Durbar where Col.Munroe was invited, and there she handed over the child’s custody to Munroe, exhorting him to take care of the Prince and the State!

Our protagonist Raja Ravi Varma was a scion of the Kilimanoor Royal house-hold, and in the absence of a regular teacher, learnt the basics of painting under the tutelage of the Travancore King, Ayilam Thirunal. The British administrator Edgar Thurston had a major role in carving the Raja’s destiny. The Raja’s painting style that emerged was greatly influenced by his training under contemporary British-Dutch painter Theodor Jenson (1857-1943), who had been then commissioned to paint a portrait of Raja Ayilam Thirunal. Jenson is known for the subtle interplay of light and shade in his oils, which is the distinctive feature of the Romantic style..

In the Europe of the day, the dominant style was termed ‘the Academic style’, after the beliefs obtaining in various European Academies. The ‘rebel’  Impressionism was to follow later on. The Academic style sought to achieve a happy union of the Neo-classical style, which stressed the prominence of the 'line', with the Romantic style’s  romance with ‘colours’…The Classical, the Neo-classical and the Academic styles account for the overwhelming bulk of paintings displayed in the Louvre. Historically, Romanticism was the manifestation of Europe’s march towards Republicanism, from Monarchy, which in turn had incubated Classicism right from Michelangelo days. Goya’s ‘Third of May 1808’, commemorating the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies, is a classic example of this association of the Romantic style with Nationalism and Republicanism. Some critics believe that the Raja’s works were superior even to some leading European Academic school painters. This is what Frank Moraes says (not THE Frank Moraes but the British columnist of ‘Franklycurious’ fame):

"What I appreciate about him is how he brings western and eastern traditions together. You might say he was the William Bouguereau of India. But much as I love Bouguereau, Varma is much more than that. His colour palette is far more intense. And his religious painting is far more interesting….”.  This is Frank’s favourite from the Raja’s work:): there.
Storming Kerala a few months back, we made it a point to visit Kilimanoor, where we had a delightful tete-a-tete with Biju Rama Varma, a descendent of the royal family. Biju heads the Ravi Varma Trust which is doing a lot to preserve the Raja’s heritage. Our next dispatch on the high water-mark of our tryst with God’s Own Country….


By the way, 'Swathi' or 'Ayilam' signifies the 'nakshatra' of birth (the Birth Star). Marathi for Ayilam is Aslesha.