Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Music and history, emotion and intellect

Recently, Perspectives had an article on using music in the classroom, but it was pretty boring. American college kids are not going to understand the mid-nineteenth century by dissecting the form of a Schumann Fantasie, or something they are equally unlikely to respond to emotionally.

How can you play weird- or foreign-sounding music to anyone, and expect that it will help them to understand a distant time and place? I watched a Noh performance in New Delhi once, and although I'm sure it was excellent, I just didn't get it. The narrative, which was explained in the program, was the easy part. But, from what I could gather, Noh is not about the unfolding of a plot, the way that a drama or thriller would be. I imagine it's about music or poetry. But the music made no sense to me at all -- I couldn't even detect a hint of a rhythmic cycle. I remained completely unmoved by the whole thing, except that I found the set and costumes very elegant. I was (still am) too foreign to Noh!

I say if you want to use music in a history classroom, look around for a sound that's familiar to your students. Doesn't have to be 100% familiar: I won't put myself through the pain of looking for rap to communicate with my students. Nor am I anxious to make some sad, undignified, doomed-to-failure attempt to be "cool", or to be just like them. But there does exist some common musical ground between them and me: we both like a strong beat, a bouncy bass, reggae, energy. In my classes, I've played reggae, "world" music, dance, soul, classic rock, sufi rock, raggamuffin, chutney soca... At the end of the semester, I'd play a well-known Christmas carol (or an Easter hymn, if it's the Spring semester) -- in Arabic.

If I want my students to get the feel of mid-nineteenth century Europe, I could play Donizetti or Liszt. But I doubt it would help even one in a hundred students to see the world changing as Liszt saw it change. I find the emergence of a new musical form too cerebral a topic to convey a feeling or world view -- makes no sense when the learner is unfamiliar with the form from which it evolved. Besides, I've a notion most young Americans don't respond very emotionally to classical music, because it's unfortunately meant to be ignored (e.g. in hotel lobbies and malls, or when a company puts you on hold on the phone).

No, for a gut feel of the nineteenth century, I'd choose the twentieth-century composition "Do you hear the people sing" from Les Misérables, accompanied by a slide that presents a really brief synopsis of the musical and of Hugo's novel. The story brings together themes that we would already have started discussing in previous lectures: urban poverty, the rise of working-class consciousness, increased birth rates, the abandoning of orphans, the revolutions of 1848, and the general industrial squalor of Europe. I've found that 3-4 students in a class of 50 recognize this song. Even those who haven't watched Les Misdo know about the musical, and the song quickly becomes familiar because it's repetitive and intense. The martial éclat can't fail to move you; it goes straight for the gut, like all musical theater. I've never had a problem with anyone confusing fiction and history; my students always seem pretty clear that Hugo's novel is just that, a novel, written many years after 1848.

I think when students are emotionally moved, it can spur them to empathize and imagine. Most importantly, that emotional moment has intellectual potential; it can spur them to think independently and empathetically about other times and places. Years of education have nearly severed their emotion from their intellect. That wound has to heal for real understanding to occur. Many of them don't even grow up reading literature, which might have somewhat compensated for the American glorification of cold, mechanistic logic. Playing fun music is a good way to do that.


See if you can tell the difference between paintings by famous artists and paintings by an ape. (This quiz taught me that I am in tune the creative process of primates, he he.)

One of the things I love about Mumbai

It's the season again! (already!)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Meritorious or meretricious?

There's an amusing column by Matt Frei on BBC Online today, about why crappy items made headlines, like the balding of Britney Spears, a blubbering judge (also bald), and a jealous astronaut (not bald), although it was not exactly a slow news week. Frei's explanation: "if war, war, war is your daily porridge, who can be blamed for indulging in something totally frivolous yet utterly genuine?"

All about the giver

A colleague sent this out a week ago. She's a fresh-faced, friendly, popular white American woman, a grad student representative and, I think, a student of transcultural history.

I just wanted to let people know that in the office there is a small box sitting on the fridge from the "Operation Rice Bowl" which is designed for overseas projects, such as bringing clean water to communities, providing basic health care etc. The box is there for people to put their spare change in it if they choose to do so. No pressure, just wanted everyone to know that the box was there if people wanted to help out. (I know many of us get annoyed carrying pennies around...those are welcome too!). It is a Catholic Relief Services-run project, so in case there are people who have any problems giving to religious organizations I thought I'd let you know.


I have always maintained, and still do, that Americans are generous and trendsetters when it comes to philanthropy. But this e-mail annoyed me, because it's almost apologetic for suggesting that people give, and because it suggests that the receptacle is for trash or something you want to get rid of, rather than for giving what you owe. I happen to be one of those "overseas" people. The fact that our communities are in need of basic healthcare, clean water, etc. has had, and has, much to do with profits in the US and Europe, today and yesterday.

Having read my Foucault, I feel I must not respond with complete silence, but at the same time, I don't know how to respond. Sigh!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Waters still runs deep (kind of)

Image: Premshree Pillai on Flickr

Got back a couple of hours ago from the Roger Waters concert at the MMRDA grounds. Complete with flying pig and all. Said pig sported the slogans I expected -- habeas corpus is important, impeach Bush now, cut along dotted line, etc. -- and also an anti-caste slogan in English and Hindi.

India was the third stop, I think, on the tour that began in ANZ. Waters will then "flow into China, India, the Middle East and South America before heading again to Europe and the United States for the tour's last concerts in July."

He was joined by son Harry Waters on keyboards, Andy Fairweather-Low (guitars and vocals), Snowy White (guitars), Dave Kilminster (guitars and vocals), Jon Carin (keyboards), Graham Broad (drums), Ian Ritchie (saxophone), and backing vocalists Katie Kissoon, P. P. Arnold and Carol Kenyon.

They performed songs from Wish You Were Here, The Wall, Final Cut, Saucerful of Secrets, Animals, and of course the entire Dark Side. Waters apparently forgot to introduce the band, and made up for it at the encore. For the encore, they performed a whole set, mostly from The Wall, including "Bring the Boys Back Home".

Yes, there was much Bush- and Blair-bashing, visually, lyrically, and pig-wise. My friends said the white Americans on the other side of them left promptly when the Bush-bashing started. Can't imagine what they expected from Waters or why they bothered to come.

Levis was selling tour t-shirts for the outrageous sum of Rs. 1400!! I wonder if Waters knows that he was selling $67 tickets, and $31 t-shirts in India last night. These prices are high even by US standards, but in India they just seem criminal. They require an Indian audience to be many things that Waters would hate, if he thought about it. But he made 'em pay, made 'em stay, made 'em feel O.K. I do love the man's music, but someone needs to tell him what the prices mean in a poor country where kids express generations of inherited self-hatred by trying their darnedest to be "cool".

I've heard Waters donates a portion of his proceeds to water harvesting. I can't find conformation on his official website (you'd think he would be up-front about the causes/charities he supports). Well, if it's true, it's ironical. Waters, like hundreds of other artists, contributes hugely to the market for bottled water, which is the only way to ingest any at the MMRDA grounds (and many other concert venues). By now it's an old story that I'm sure even Waters knows: bottling industry (soft drinks and water) depriving third-world communities of clean water, promoting model of "development" in which poor people start paying for water, etc., etc.

I prefer it when Waters stands on the fringe of establishment and reflects its irony. I don't like it when he creates irony. He should encourage the local production of bootleg tour t-shirts that sell for Rs. 150 ($3.30). Instead, sadly, he sells establishment t-shirts for Rs. 1400.

Many times I couldn't help wondering how much of the history in his songs was lost on the crowd. Who knows what Lebanon was like in 1961? More than anything else, the kids were there to be cool. Even my own friends wanted those ridiculous tees, and were worried that autographed posters might be available somewhere and they were missing out on them. They enthusiastically discussed the other Pink Floyd tees they had from previous concerts. These are not silly teenagers, but professionals over the age of forty.

Apart from the music itself moving me to tears, I felt really, really sad and afraid that the irony and raw pain of Waters' lyrics seemed largely lost on much of the crowd.

The crowd roared supportively when Waters railed against the war, against Bush and his poodle Blair. That included the skinny kid in his ghastly, gaudy red shirt that shouted "Carslberg" (Where did he get it? Who the hell drinks Carlsberg? Does he even know it's a beer? It's not even available in India!) , and thousands others like them. To them, being cool is about somehow being American (or at least declaring it, or wishing it, or something). All this business about being "cool" ... more about Indians and our self-hatred some other time.

But tonight, the music, lights, effects, everything was just fabulous!

Friday, February 16, 2007


I like going to Dongri. I occasionally go there to sort through accounts on my job. It's a lovely airy office, on the fifth floor of a Kutchhi Jain girls' school.

Today, I took the train from Bandra to Sandhurst Road. It was a holiday, so the streets and station were relatively empty. The ride was made more pleasant by the soundtrack of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World". Generally, I can't stand headphones, and the only soundtrack to my commute is Indian Railways, i.e. train noises, commuters, hawkers. But I was in such a mood to hear Louis this morning!

Sandhurst Road station has a condom vending machine right next to the coupon validating machine, so that the "CVM" sign could mean either. I take the condom machine as reflective of the Sandhurst Road economy, rather than of a concern with sexual freedom. I cross Nowroji Hill Road no. 5 with its kerbside second-hand "store" (today it's selling used paint brushes, a pair of battered golden shoes, and used teacups), and go past the two temples and the occasional large and pretty goat, to Char Null (four taps). I pass old balconies, Hindu and Muslim "hotels" and sweet shops, a few old art deco buildings. Cross over to Pala Gully (Samuel Street), go past the shops selling Islamic religious paraphernalia, shops selling headscarves and burqas in black and colors, past the travel agent selling package tours to Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, and to Iran and Syria. Everything about Samuel Street appears Muslim now, but it must not always have been so. The name Samuel, of course, is Jewish. It seems to me the area was more Gujarati than anything else. The Muslims there are overwhelmingly Gujarati. I know of Hindu connections to Samuel Street: Kiran's family had an office there, and my mother's family lived not too far off when she was a child. And, of course, the CVOD school is Jain.

The reason I like Dongri, I think, is that it's like my Naani's neighborhood near VT station, less than 2 km away. All the buildings around there were pressed together. They were brick exteriors, with timber floors, and had dingy wooden stairwells with tall steps. At the street level, through open doorways, you saw old people doing business in old offices in old-fashioned ways (pedhis of commodity brokers and wholesale agents). There was (still is) the Madanmohanlalji mandir nearby, the cowshed on the street level and the temple itself on the first floor. The streets are narrow, and the shops and people in them still seem similar, somehow, to what they were thirty years ago. Life seems to go slow there.

Going to Dongri by train via Sandhurst Road is so much more agreeable than the cab ride from my office in the Fort district. Nothing underscores the wretchedness of Bombay like the ride along P. DeMello Road. Along the entire way from Mint Road to Char Null, which is a half-hour drive, where the kerb probably is (or would be) are tin and sack-cloth homes, with raggedy kids playing, people washing or cooking, people lounging, people welding / polishing / repairing, all on the road, inches from the traffic. Behind broken gateposts and sagging walls, there are bare, dusty compounds. Long stretches of kerb are inexplicably rubble, and the passing traffic constantly raises dust -- a sight I see everywhere in Bombay. It makes me sad to think how the environment is for most of us in this city.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Unseasonal rain

It rained this morning! I felt gleeful, like I'd sneaked into early June for just a morning. The daylight was even and a bit watery, no shadows, and the air was, momentarily at least, washed clean of suspended particulate matter. I felt emboldened to venture on another bus ride, this time from Moshe's at Cuffe Parade, to Churchgate station, although I had barely recovered from Friday's smoggy 45-minute ride (Shrujan at Breach Candy to my office) that made me sick over the weekend.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Chutney makes everything better!

I found a fun song at Trini Jungle Juice that cheered me up -- Machel Montano's "O Larki".

Chutney soca is, of course, the legacy of an empire that replaced slavery with the indenture system.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

No words

I am in tears. I don't know what to say.

Here's the story from Iraq that accompanied the picture.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Getting over it

Secondary schools in England will be allowed to teach Mandarin or Arabic instead of EU languages as part of proposals to update the curriculum.

Climate change, slavery and healthy cooking also feature in a shake-up of what 11 to 14-year-olds should study.

...In history, all 11-14-year-olds would for the first time have to study the British slave trade.

They would find out about reformers such as William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano, and how the anti-slavery movement led to later campaigns and civil rights movements.

Other changes include a new emphasis on "essential life skills" such as practical cooking.

Full story

Once, English kids were taught scientific thinking in combination with cultural superiority. They could then go to Haileybury College to learn how to rule the "natives", and make the East their career. "Natives", meanwhile, could learn to read and write English well enough to become clerks, but were actively discouraged from studying science and technology.

It looks today as though the British were right to discourage them! Now that they have been let loose, just look what's happened -- every engineering department in the US is overrun with them. If the Raj had let them, they might have made its Colonels and Collectors and Reverends look rather silly.

The peoples and environment that are still suffering the onslaught of 19th century capitalism have long been claiming their due share of attention. And it seems that today, England can no longer avoid giving it to those mutated remnants of empire. This isn't happening anywhere near as much as it should on fronts like diplomacy, economic cooperation, and reparations. But perhaps it will, if Europe's new generation of policymakers consists of native speakers of Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, Xhosa, etc.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

My Euromillions

I don't want to claim my prize. I just want one pound (or dollar, or euro) for every prize I've been selected for, every lottery I've ever won, every stock tip I've ever received, and every dictator's / earl's legacy I've inherited.

Spammers, if you're reading this, don't send me an e-mail; just send me a dollar. That will make me very happy.

The Ministry of Food Processing is trying to kill us

This ad appeared in The Times of India edition dated Jan 31, 2007. It's decidedly ugly. It's also unoriginal: the tagline "Processed food mein hai kuchh khaas" (there's something special about processed food) seems inspired by McDonald's tagline "McDonald's mein hai kuchh baat" (there's something special about McDonald's). There's not even a fig-leaf of an attempt to conceal where the message is coming from.

And what is this nonsense about how wonderful processed foods are? If anyone knows how to preserve foods, Indians do. Even my great-great-grandmothers know how to make sun-dried papads and achaars that keep for a year or more. They could stock dried fruit, dehydrated legumes, and six months worth of food grain sealed in giant earthen jars. Their year's supply of spices was ensured by sun-drying and pounding large quantities of ginger, cloves, peppercorns, chilli peppers, turmeric, cumin, and coriander seeds. Their kitchens had stores of rice that had been only husked, or processed into poha, or puffed into kurmura -- all of which are good for you, and which keep for months. They bought chickpeas that were either green, or dried into chana, or further processed into chana dal, or still further into besan. I think they did not have much use for butylated hydroxytoluene (which sounds like an ingredient in a bomb recipe, and not like something to eat) and without the plastic McLitter of Modified Atmosphere Packaging.

Why is Indian taxpayer money propping up an entire ministry for food processing? I say the money is better spent establishing a Ministry for Consuming Food and Water As Close As Possible to Where and When They Occur Naturally.

It seems that attracting investment, especially foreign investment, has become a goal in itself. The government has lost sight of why, and for whom, India needs investment.

Now, if only if those fresh-food-browsing losers would all switch to eating food embalmed with chemicals, mummified in polluting packaging, and far removed from the time and place of its birth, we could realize our fear of hell on earth. And the people over at the ministry for food processing would feel needed.