Sunday, February 20, 2011

On listening again to Pachelbel's Canon

Being condemned to forced leisure has meant listening to a lot of little heard music on my ipod. This brought be recently to Pachelbel's Canon of which I seem to have a number of versions.

It is not an exaggeration to say that it is one of the most beautiful short baroque pieces ever written. It's a piece that I find I can listen to over and over again, the beauty and joy that pervades this piece washes over you in soothing waves. It's such a pity therefore that the Canon (and the accompanying Gigue) has been relegated to what is derisively referred to as 'elevator music' and indeed one hears it mostly in malls, elevators and as background scores to documentaries.

A piece of music that has stayed with us for 300 years must have something going for it. (How much of our present day music will last that long?). In his time Pachelbel was a major baroque composer and its a pity most of his work has vanished. This work is in traditional contrapunctal style with three violins, with a bass continuo providing the background and is believed to have been composed on the occasion of the marriage of Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach's elder brother.

Mozart and Bach will last for ever, but so will a little known Pachelbel's little gem, despite its fate at the hands of present day remixers.

Tailpiece: I realise many people will not share my opinion. Here is a very funny video about why a cellist could come to hate Pachelbel's canon.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gandhi and Civilization

I am always impressed at the reach of Gandhi's civil disobedience movement. More than 60 years after Indian independence, the Egyptian people used it to uproot a despotic ruler. Of course the army is still in charge and that is always a bad sign, but let us be optimistic.

Gandhi (along with Nehru) have been my heroes for long, as people who read this blog will know. However, before we get all misty eyed about Gandhi's methods, it's important to realise that they have serious limitations. Gandhi's suggestion that the Jews commit mass suicide to make Hitler see reason was received with derision then and would be received with derision now. The opposition needs to play by the rules (that is, the norms of civilised behaviour, hence the title of this post) for non violent movements to succeed. In that sense, British rule in India, despite its exploitative nature and the General Dyers, was overall marked by a certain respect for the rule of law. If the opponent has no principles, it's not possible for Gandhi's ideas of satyagraha to succeed.

This is now becoming clearer and clearer. The Chinese Government brutally put down the Tiananmen square demonstrations by the simple expedient of firing real live bullets at unarmed protesters. A metal bullet is no match for satyagraha. Today we see a repeat of this phenomenon -- a group of uncivilised countries (I use the adjective in the sense described above) have firmly and ruthlessly put down peaceful protests in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen (and earlier in Iran). The Israeli Army does the same with Palestinians. The US President has wrung his hands and expressed 'deep concern' but it has predictably had little effect.

So what does one do in such cases? Does one meet violence with violence? In the movie 'Gandhi' the Mahatma makes the observation 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind' . I have not been able to find this quote in any of Gandhiji's writings, but it's the kind of statement he could well have made. How many human lives must be sacrificed before the faint glimmerings of the conscience of a despot finally take over his actions? (Many many millions in the case of Hitler and Stalin and there is no evidence that they ever regretted anything). So clearly this is not a viable alternative. The only option is intervention by a foreign power which carries grave risks as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and many such places. (The Balkan intervention could presumably be called a success).

To my mind, such an intervention has been successful once in recent history (I am obviously not going as far back as World War II) and that was India's intervention in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. Forced by the millions of refugees pouring in, and the genocide happening under its nose, it was the Indian Government's finest moment. We intervened firmly, helped the democratically elected Bangladeshi Government to take over power, and then, most importantly, withdrew completely. So much so, that we even watched helplessly as successive Bangladeshi Governments turned against their saviour and became distinctly anti-Indian and pro Pakistani. (This trend has now been reversed). But it proved that the Indian Government helped the birth of a new country and then allowed it to grow unhindered and uninfluenced by its large presence to the West. This is a rarity.

Moreover, this is not an event that can be replicated elsewhere. No only can it not be done in a large and powerful country like China, no country including the US is going to intervene in Bahrain, Libya or Yemen except through a couple of phone calls. This means the hapless populace will be left to their own devices to settle their problems with their medieval rulers the best way they can or, as seems clear now, put up and shut up. A depressing scenario, that should give us pause to admire our own set up, no matter how imperfect.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bali, Indonesia

Bali is not to be confused with Bali Hi (or Bali Hai) the mythical island in Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific for those of you whose geography ain't too strong!! Or for the numerous exotic South East Asian restaurants that are named Bali Hai. Never quite figured out why.

We went to Bali in early December, one of the best times to go since the weather isn't too hot and humid. It's still somewhat warmer than say Chennai and it does rain a bit though (need I say it) there is no water logging! And I only discovered much later that that it is actually in the Southern Hemisphere (just about -- 8 degrees).

Indonesia, as most people might know, has the largest Muslim population in the world (India is next by most counts). Bali, one of the many small islands of the Indonesian archipelago, is however majority Hindu -- around 93% - in fact the only island to be so. (Indonesia itself, though, is deeply influenced by Hindu culture and mythology in its art, music, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have a very important presence in their mythology, even its national airline is called Garuda.) The locals in Bali often asked us if we were Hindu, since the number of 'Hindu tourists' are minuscule, being limited to a small number of Indians who visit the island.

The influence of our epics is everywhere. There are innumerable dance dramas and puppet shows mostly based on the Ramayana (a few on the Mahabharata). Here, for example, is a picture from the famous Kecak dance based on the Ramayana and revolving around the monkey sena.

Many minor characters of the epics are important here. One traffic island has an enormous statue of Ghatotkac on an chariot, the botanical garden has a huge image of Jatayu in the centre.

We divided our time between two parts of the island. Sanur is the beach area where we stayed at the Puri Santrian a beautiful resort right on the beach.

Ubud is the cultural heart of the island and we stayed at the Tsampuhan resort .

The northern part of the island are the mountainous regions and are truly beautiful -- there are numerous resorts there

as are the botanical gardens

Despite being a very popular vacation spot, nobody tries to cheat in Bali. You could try and bargain in the shops but savings are not going to be very significant. Amazingly, even taxi drivers, notorious all over the world for fleecing tourists will at worst overcharge by say about 10% (which I think I is acceptable!!). The general culture of fleecing the tourists seems remarkably absent. (Compare with say a place like Goa).

We wound up our trip at the Indian High Commissioner's beautiful colonial style bungalow in Singapore (an old college friend) where we were treated like royalty by him and his wife, starting with being picked up literally from the aircraft's doorstep!

Do have a look at my complete collection of pictures of this trip (I will put in some videos later) here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

And...I am back!

A bout with an undetected lung infection festering for some three months meant that instead of reporting on our wonderful Bali vacation (followed by a stay in the beautiful and welcoming house of the Indian High Commissioner in Singapore (an old college friend)) I ended up in hospital for a month (without, as you might say, passing Go and without collecting 200) soon after our return to Chennai. Recuperation apparently will take a month or two more, but at least I can read and type and so on, so I decided to slowly heave myself into the blogosphere.

I thought of starting off writing the much delayed description of our Bali vacation but that will take some time. In the meantime the air waves are full of what's happening in Egypt on which there is hardly anything I can say that would be original. However, there is something quite hilarious in this, and that refers to my usual bug-bear -- the Chinese Government and it's absurd predilection in seeing threats everywhere to its existence. So here we are -- demonstrators half a world away clamouring for democratic rights, and the Chinese Government is losing sleep. It has started censoring the web and blocked keyword searches like 'Egypt'. After all, what if their citizens start getting ideas from all that is happening in Egypt? Read all about it here.

In the meantime I shall marshall my thoughts about our vacation which seems now a distant memory, and give you some snippets along with some pictures.