Dec 27, 2005

Have you ever seen elephants mating ?

Our usual trek to Shantiniketan was a little extended this time for a few reasons. The first was that we recouped some time which was initially scheduled for a trip to South India, cancelled due to circumstances. The second was a plan to hook up with an old friend (Shunya) and his companion for a look at some of Bengals landmarks.

A quick walk through the Vishva-Bharati campus, accompanied by a University registered guide, was made additionally entertaining by the guides' displeasure (and verbal rebuke) whenever the two ladies in our parties started talking to each other during one of his (many) lectures on Tagore's philosophy about human beings and nature. It should be clarified that all Chandreyee was doing was providing sub-titles to Usha, who was having some trouble with the Benglish lecture. Rabindra Bhavan is still bereft of the Nobel Prize, though security has been beefed up a bit.

We left Shantiniketan the morning after our arrival for other pastures. The four-hour bone-jarring road trip across the Damodar to Bishnupur via Durgapur and Bankura set the trend for our long days on the road. The seat springs in our rental '93 Ambassador has definitely seen better days, and all of us were involuntarily leaning on each other or on doors through out the trip. Frequent stops for tea and pakoras were a necessity.

The district of Bankura is well-known for the artisans who manufacture terra -cotta jewelry and the famous "Bankura Horse". The stunning brilliance of their fore-fathers is illustrated in the terra-cotta temples that were built by the Malla kings of Bengal. There are numerous temples in and around Bishnupur (the guide book cites 300 +), a majority the over-zealous product of the recently converted Vaishnavite king. His heirs also did not seem to have been lacking in enthusiasm. Many of the temples are in an advanced state of decay; most of the terra cotta tiles are severely weathered. The ones that still maintain a high degree of carvings are the Jor-Bangla, the Shyamrai, the Radheshyam and the MadanMohan temples. These, along with the ceremonial platform (the Rash-Mancha), are now under the watchful eye of the tourism department. However, a lot more stringency (IMHO) may be required to preserve the temples from the onslaught of that perennially present, rapidly multiplying creature – the Bengali tourist!

Another set of temples can be found around the corner from Dal-Madal, the famous cannon that helped ward off the marauding Marathas. These temples (about seven in number) are scattered over rolling fields. A few of these have been fenced in, with a park and walkways created around them. Lacking exquisite exteriors like the others, these locations are wanting in tourists. The only people present are the eternal lovers. If any tourism department representatives were present, they were either in plain clothes or well-hidden.

There are also the temples that seem to have been abandoned because of lack of "tourist value". Most of them probably do not have a terra-cotta exterior, just the laterite stone that serves as the base for all construction. We happened to run into one that was located in a nook between residential houses, on the way to one of the "famous" temple cluster. The name of this location is "Jor-Mandir" a literal translation is a "Pair of Temples".

This generic name applies to any similar twin-temple arrangement in Bengal. It has a clearing in front with no evidence of any activity, squatters or otherwise. Does anyone visit this temple? The door to one is locked – I ducked into the other to see mounds of ant hills and possible snake holes in a fairly small sized grotto. No trace of devotion whatsoever. Despite the lack of attention from the tourism department, the area is clean and not subject to vandalism or graffiti. The zealous Vaishnavites still appear to be around in Vishnupur.

Other than the terra-cotta, the other feature of note is the roof of the Jor-Bangla temple. The name signifies a twin roof structure, each mound being similar to the roof (chala) of the huts in rural Bengal that were mostly mud with a thatched roof. The terra-cota images represent the Purans, Ramayana, Mahabharat. We wondered at the fact that these carvings lacked what was standard temple fare, the Kama-Sutra depictions, and started decrying the puritanical spirit of the Malla kings. This apparent lack of attention to sex and desire, as can be deduced from the temple carvings, is contradicted by folk lore – a Malla king once spirited Lal-Bai, a Baiji, away from her lover, the ruler of Maharashtra. His infatuation with her so enraged the queen that she poisoned her husband and drowned the Bai in one of the multiple ponds which were constructed by the kings to satisfy the water demands of the locals and the palace. To ensure an operatic end to this saga, the queen committed sati on the funeral pyre.

Closer scrutiny of the thousands of panels finally revealed one of elephants copulating. My friends, recently back from trips to Eastern Africa and Kumayon, told me that the posture depicted was not how elephants mate. We grudgingly accepted it as poetic license of the artisan although other reasons offered included ignorance ("the artist has never witnessed elephants in the act"), and space ("had only three quarters of a panel to fit in two elephants and meet the quota"). One thing we agreed on – so much for the puritanical spirit.

India's growth rate and economic boom have not spread uniformly across the population spectrum. The retail-heavy restaurant-filled Kolkata is a far cry from the living conditions and employment opportunities in parts of rural Bengal. The onslaught of tourism has been seen as a boon for the locals. Other than numerous restaurants (the paise hotel of yore, with a fixed meal system – choice of fish, meat or egg) and other tourism related units, numerous guides mill around tourist destinations and eateries. They sport a badge certifying their affiliations/accredication, one even gave me a card that said "Senior-most Guide in Bishnupur" a fact apparently attested by the WB tourism department. Having visited this area about 20 years ago, this was a striking change. The poor trying to eke out an existence by grasping at straws. This phenomenon in India used to be restricted to active religious sites; all visitors to Puri will surely remember being mobbed by the Panda the second you stepped on to the railway platform. Murshidabad, which we visited later, exemplified the worst instance of this, but more on that later.

(Click here for more pictures of Bishnupur terracotta and temples)

Dec 10, 2005

Kolkata 12-2005

We have been in the city for less than 24 hours and have blended right into the lifestyle. We have negotiated the bureaucratic machinations of the banking system, gone shoe & grocery shopping, used an Internet cafe, seen a play and chased it up with late night clubbing with the Calcutta Club set – barra pegs of whiskey and rum along with Chicken Reshmi Kebabs.

The play was produced by a theater group called Rupo-Darshini and was set among the lives of Sunderban inhabitants. The theater (at the Academy of Fine Arts) is one of the less attractive places to watch a play in the city. The theater was barely half full – a sad plight for what was definitely a good production. The director/lead actor made an appeal at the end to spread the word if we liked the play.

Awake at 4 AM, although that is better than the no sleep condition of last night. Sounds of street construction filter through the closed windows, the cawing of crows welcome the dawn. Day 2 begins.

Oct 16, 2005

Grim Movie

I wasted time on Saturday and Sunday watching a couple of movies. What I mean is that the movies were imminently mediocre and my time would have better spent getting drunk with friends. The movies were "El Crimen Perfecto" and "Batman Begins". I have decided that in keeping in with the theme of this weekend, I will write my thoughts on another mediocre disappointing movie that I saw a few weeks ago.

I have to offer a point of clarification, lest my definition of mediocre be misconstrued. "El Crimen Perfecto" was billed as a black comedy, supposedly painted with shades of Almadovar. I'll admit that the movie had it's moments, but the director, de la Iglesia, is no Almadovar.  As far as Batman Begins, do not mistake my trashing it as some sort of pseudo intellectual bullying. When I go to the theater to watch a film adaptation of one of my childhood favorite comics, I expect to be fully entertained, lost in the world of cool dialogue, delightful excesses and slick action. As was the case with Tim Burtons muy sabroso "Batman".  However, when a comic book starts taking itself seriously, and special effects overwhelm coolness, you've lost me!

Anyway, the movie that really disappointed me was "The Brother's Grimm". I have been enraptured with Terry Gilliams creations. From his cartoons in Monty Python to the Fisher King and Brazil, he has used his imagination to portray the bizarre and the fantastic while delivering a human message.  Maybe the message was not that human in "Fear and Loathing.." but it was a great laugh. It was heartbreaking to see his movie based on Don Quixote fall apart, and I was eagerly anticipating the Brother's Grimm.

Perhaps my disappointment was due to anticipation. The wrong premise that a filmmaker who makes few movies always delivers the goods either through a subtle plot or a subliminal insight into some facet of humanity or a novel style of filmography. The Brother's Grimm served up none of the above. To top it all, one coughs up a good $10 per head for this experience.

Oct 14, 2005


There's not a whole lot to blog about, when your life consists of a 7 to 7 routine of work and commute, followed by dinner, and errands. Ever had days like that ? No revelations, great or small, at work. No towering achievements, no babies were killed, no million-dollar-oops. The ride to and fro was essentially blah ! No damsels in distress, no menacing acts by road -rage racked individuals. The weather was fine with a slight drizzle. You came home and ate leftovers, watched some TV and completed one chore you had been meaning to do.

It was that kind of a day. .

Oct 13, 2005


I am not musically inclined – rhythm has never claimed me as her own, be it while dancing, or just tapping fingers to keep the beat. (Forget actually trying to play an instrument). However, this much I know – listening to music is unmitigated pleasure. It's a source of revelry and joy as well as free therapy for malaise.

In other words, I spend a lot of money on concerts and CDs! With that justification of my squandering habits off my chest, let me get on to my real point.

Every so often, I have had the opportunity to be at a concert where the music is truly real (IMHO). It is usually a confluence of geniuses, whose towering minds allow for no ego and the music is played out of sheer joy, camaraderie is created on-stage through majestic talent recognizing the same. [The key, I believe, is the towering mind + humility, witness the shambles of the 3 tenors]

The list is as follows:
  • Paco, Al and John (San Fran 1996). Maybe not as good as their first concert, but they still had the magic, 15 years later at the 15th SF Jazz festival.

  • Ali Akbar Khan and Allah Rakkah (Kolkata, 1993). I am fairly ignorant when it comes to Indian classical but when music moves and mesmerizes, what do you need to know.

  • Bela, Stanley Clark and Jean-Luc Ponty (New Bedford, yesterday). My muse today. So much virtuosity, seeping off-stage and gathering up the crowd. Clark shuts his eyes and thumps the double bass, his eyes closed in some sort of an ecstasy; Bela, with his wry humor, humble yet mischievous as he plays with his boyhood legends; Jean-Luc, an apparition from elf land, swaying to his own musical swirling cloud.

I am indeed fortunate.

Oct 12, 2005

Seasons of the Witch

The New England Fall is upon us.

I am not referring to the season of spectacular colors, the richly-hued vista that elicits gasps from hikers and other tourists. I am talking about the grey dull days, the continual rain since Friday, the creeping chill that is forcing home heating systems to turn on. The season of the at-least-40%-more-expensive natural gas.

Oct 11, 2005

Legalize it !

The dichotomy of people getting increasingly isolated from each other as technology brings the world closer together just hit home again. I am at a coffee shop, I've had lunch and am now drinking copious amounts of coffee (free refills). I am connected to office e-mail, Yahoo e-mail, and all kinds of IM's. I can do a quick check on the latest on the Islamabad earthquake, or look up the meaning of "peregrinations" on the On-Line Merriam Webster, I can Skype pals in India, I am downloading bit torrent files of the 1989 Telluride Blue Grass festival and rating the sound quality of the audio files seeded by Xpanding Man.

All this while I sit in a roomful of people, most of whom are eating or working alone, or are talking on cell phones. I can shut my eyes and imagine scenes out some futuristic novel, glassy eyed people in mod cat space suits, gliding on walkways. I feel depressed. I am shaken out of my gloom by a timeless mating-ritual tableau at the table next to mine, reminding me that I am still on Planet Earth.

Various websites debunk and glorify the hypothesis of- The Neurotransmitter "Serotonin" & Serotonin Acting Anti-depressants. I had my "so-called clear-thoughts" about this, and I realized today that I actually don’t quiet know where I stand. (So what's new).  
I used to think that our emotions change our "biochemical balance" which affects us physically. Sometimes, the circle is complete when our physical incapacity induces inertia which then impacts our emotions further. Thus, we spiral downwards. Anti-depressants are supposed to handle this. Since I am opposed to medication in general, I (Dr. Shouvik 8-) advise that we deal with our imbalance through "wellness"  That new age concept of a balanced diet coupled with Yoga.

The truth is that discipline is hard – it also takes away so much from life. I want my whiskey-soda-bourbon, my biriyani from Shiraz, the blue smoke wisps swirling when I try to give my aching mind a break late at night, Chandrapuli, Baklava, goat curry. Without these objects, I would be emotionally drained (a circle within a circle). I want to stop nothing, but practice moderation.

So what's my point? I'm blabbering. Apparently no one is quiet sure what out biochemical balance should be, so what are anti-depressants actually doing? Laughter is the best medicine. Meet friends, have fun, fight isolation. The young man in the next table  is now giving his paramour a neck-shoulder massage. All the solitary folks are looking in their direction, glaring/sneering. Fools... follow their example. Find a friend, share the joy of company, it's medicinal.

Aug 25, 2005

That's just the way it is

Our 4th Bruce Hornsby concert in 5 years. I think we can be called groupies 8-)

To me, music is always best experienced in cozy intimate settings - the audience is at one with the performer, dancing like dervishes to intricate beats and extended jams, swaying gently with eyes closed to the ballads. It's what I estimate the Dead always tried to do, before fame and the mob juggernaut overcame the happiness. Hornsby manages to achieve that at Cohasset inside the tent. The show, which we have always seen on a middle-of-the-week night, is barely half sold. The empty seats fade into the background once the diehards are immersed in the music. Hornsby does transitions so well - seguing in and out of Dark Star, and the final ballad medley where he inter-twined "Comfortably Numb" with "Fortunate Son" again. Magic was in the air.

If only the acoustics were a little better. The concerts are so enjoyable that I did not even realize what was missing till last year -- we missed Hornsby at the tent but caught him at the Orpheum instead. It's a real venue with real sound, but still cozy. It was the best Hornsby show we ever saw. The bad part about that is some unfair standards have now been set.

Aug 18, 2005

Beautiful People

They say everybody has a story.

The second meeting of the "writer's hang-out" took place at Panera Bread. It seems that Lisa has dropped out, but we have picked up a new member who has a lot to offer. The sustenance of the group is no longer in question, the members scheduled a third meeting before we adjourned.

The shy girl who barely speaks was frantically writing down snippets of information. Suddenly, completely out of character, she broke in during a conversation between Chandreyee and the new member and said "I've been to Varanasi, India". I sat up. "It was during the time I was spending an year in Japan teaching English" she added. My jaw dropped, ever so slightly. "I used to go for Yoga classes in the morning by the river, and I saw a Bollywood movie in a theater". Game, set and match.

As a young boy/man, I remember distinguished movie theaters such as Alea, Menoka, and New Empire. It was the early eighties, when legend has it that the rowdier elements once even threw a cat down from the upper balcony to liven up a boring movie. The women of the family would go to such theaters only in groups, at a distinguished hour and preferably with some male "support". The scene was worse in Kharagpur, I don't recall female students attending shows at the town theater. The creme de la creme was an Amitabh Bachchan movie that a group of preppy Bosco Boys saw in Puri. We had a good time, but definitely stood out in that environment- molestation was not entirely improbable. In this context, a blond woman in the late 1990's at a Sunny Deol/Amrita Singh blockbuster in the Holy City is a story. More to follow....

Aug 16, 2005

New York is real - the rest are just mirrors !

I got to check off an item from my wishlist this past weekend, an item I had developed during our stay in New Jersey. It was to visit the Mecca of jazz clubs, the Blue Note. (I wanted to see Medina as well, Birdland, but that's for another day). My real wish was to catch the late late night sets that they have, usually 1 to 4, but let's get real. I usually collapse by 1:30, even in a loud bar. So the 10:30 set it was - Cachao, a Latin Jazz sensation.

There is a feeling of youth that accompanies a day at the Met, dinner at a Sushi restaurant in the Village and a visit to a Jazz Club. We were discussing how residents of Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston prefer their hometown to NYC on a comfort level basis (I am one of those people). However, New York still stuns oneself. There are more people on the subway and at Times Square at 1 AM than most places have at mid-day. As far as the entire package goes, New York is the REAL DEAL !