Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Goodbye to Gangubai

The legendary Indian Classical singer Gangubai Hangal passed away this morning at the age of 96. Her passing is one more sorrowful step towards the end of an era which I was fortunate to experience in its final decades. This was an era where the grand art and tradition of Indian Classical ("Hindustani") music was practised by people of a certain calibre, dedication and - how else to say it - solidity. These were people for whom fame and money were by-products. Gangubai also pursued her career defying the prevailing prejudice against a woman pursuing a musical career (she may have been helped by the fact that her mother was herself a vocalist).

(The image above is a link to http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/mausam/artistpics/gangubai.jpg.)

I had the good fortune to attend several of her concerts during the 1980's and 90's. Two of them were at my alma mater St Xavier's College in Bombay. They have an open-air music festival in January which, on the final day, would continue through the night (I think this feature has recently been discontinued). I remember once hearing her sing Raga Chandrakauns under a brilliant moon around midnight. A magical experience. Another time, or perhaps on the same occasion, my friend Vishwanath and I were chatting at the side of the stage after her concert when she passed us on her way out. She sent a truly charming smile in our general direction, leaving each one of us convinced we had been the recipient.

Gangubai trained under the legendary Kirana Gharana musician Sawai Gandharva and was therefore the "guru-behen" of Bhimsen Joshi and Firoz Dastur among many others. She had a rather masculine voice which was instantly identifiable. Gangubai's daughter Krishna Hangal was also an excellent musician, with a more feminine voice that resonated like silver. Born when her mother was just 16, Krishna - who died five years ago at the age of 75 - was her constant companion at concerts and they came across more like sisters than like a mother-daughter duo.

The hallmark of Kirana singing is the purity of the note, and here I feel Gangubai excelled over all her peers. Strangely enough her concerts, and even studio recordings, tended to start on a meandering and very unpromising note. Her first "saa" (enunciation of the tonic of the scale) would be anything but precise, in fact it would wobble like a boat about to sink and one would wonder how things were going to go. But after a minute or so of this wobbling, the boat would slowly gather a bit of speed and steady itself. Her recital of the composition would bring out the words very affectionately (one of my favourites, in Raga Bhimpalasi, is the Sadarang composition "Garava harava daarungi main"). And now the steamship would gather more speed and start to really slice through the waves. Here the Kirana ambition would come to the fore and every "taan" would end on a high note with the sharpness of a titanium knife-edge.

Before hitting one of these notes Gangubai would, in a characteristic gesture, cup her left ear. Perhaps it helped her experience the resonance better. And now a particular event comes to mind. In the 1980's I had gone with Vishwanath and another friend, Aravinda, to Birla Matushri Sabhaghar, near Chowpatty, where Gangubai sang Raga Shuddh Kalyan. I recall we had dropped in on the concert spontaneously and without any advance planning. And once she really got going and started hitting the pure notes, the event happened. One palm over her left ear, she hit a note with such force that she surprised herself! Then she gave a sweet, childlike smile as if to say "did I really do that?". All three of us noticed it independently.

Now the wonderful smile is gone and another pure spirit lost to the world. Fortunately we are left with a number of her recordings, as well as this 79-minute youtube video (an error in the link has now been corrected).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

God's unchanging word

The following letter was supposedly written to right-wing talk show host Laura Schlessinger in the US some years ago and has apparently been circulating on the net ever since. It's reappeared in India in recent times thanks to the Section 377 ruling and the ensuing religious backlash. The letter is thought-provoking and plain hilarious. Its authorship is apparently unknown.

Before people get on my case, I'll grant that I seem to be giving Christianity a disproportionately hard time on this issue compared to other religions. All I can say in my defence is - what does one do when brilliant literature like the letter below is available...

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. (After all, all things in the bible should be taken and followed as the literal law)

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to follow them.

a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.

d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

e) I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

g) Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

i) I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev.24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging. Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bigots vs the Constitution of India

I've always watched with amusement and exasperation when inter-religious conflicts play out in India. From my distant outpost, all religions are pretty loony about some issues. Then again, all are sources of comfort, guidance and even inspiration to their followers (here I'll include my ultra-rationalist, atheist self: Buddhist philosophy has been an important influence for me through most of my adult life, and I've also on occasion appreciated the "spiritual feeling" at places of worship of every religion).

The claim that religious practice is timeless (and comes down from God) is of course nonsensical. All religions have undergone significant - sometimes very major - shifts in their attitude and presentation over the ages. However, if one thing rarely changes with time, it's the inability of various religions to get along with each other. In a world where increasing numbers of young people are bound less to religion and more to Facebook and Twitter (these could turn into new religions given enough time!) one might expect existing religions to find common ground and seek to retain followers in their own self-interest. But that rarely happens.

Like the angry opponents of Martin Gardner's famous book "Fads and fallacies in the name of science", each of whom felt his own fad was fine but all the others were nonsense, each religious group will agree with prevailing criticisms of all other groups besides itself. I remember reading a letter in the Hindustan Times wherein a Christian lady from Bombay fulminated against Muslims for very generic practices (being "dirty", "fundamentalist", "uncooperative" etc). It was precisely at this time that poor Christian tribals in Orissa's Kandhamal district were being slaughtered in riots. That the Christian minority in India could be (and was being) accused of very similar things did not occur to this kind lady.

But, just as all nations, communities and religions will stand together if the earth is attacked by aliens, it's also true that religions can work out a temporary understanding when faced with a threat to their "values". Just consider the following quotes about feminism that I got off the net:

"...scripture declares that in the matters of authority and leadership men and women are not equal. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of woman..."


"Suggesting that egalitarianism can be Islamic ignores genetic differences in within gender. By challenging Islamic understanding from the Prophet Muhammad and the companions, it cannot be plausible to state Feminism can be Islamic,..."

Neither of these quotes are necessarily representative, but it's amusing how similar they are to each other. It may be that Muslim, Christian and other religious communities around the world have in the past actually banded together to oppose feminism, or even just equal gender rights, though this is not known to me in any detail and I would be interested to hear from readers about it. But there is a more recent example in India that is illuminating because it deals with a more focused issue.

This is the Delhi High Court's decision, last week, to strike down a line from Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Thereby, homosexual acts between consenting adults are no longer illegal. What's fascinating about the judgement is not simply the one-line consequence, which was long overdue, but the way in which the liberal, humanist nature of the Indian Constitution has been highlighted by the judges.

And now that there is a cause to oppose, various religions in India are finding common ground. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the Muslim Personal Law Board, the Sikh SGPC and Jain and Hindu organisations have come together on a common platform to oppose the recent legalisation of gay sex in India. Of course it isn't only the specific consequence of this specific judgement that that they truly oppose. All of them agree (though they will admit it only to varying degrees) that every liberal, humanist position threatens the stranglehold of their particular religion over its followers, by freeing people up to be themselves and make their own choices rather than be held to ransom by perceived (and usually invented) "social obligations".

I hate to point out the obvious, but no religious group in India would be comfortable if sexual practices between its own male priests were to be investigated, so it's a risky business going down the political road they are now travelling. I believe the reason they are doing it nevertheless has to do with female, rather than male, sexual practices. Any diversity in this sphere poses an obvious threat to the patriarchal system and I expect this threat will be targeted over the next few months.

While the law takes its course, I'd like to end this particular musing by reproducing a quote from the recent Section 377 judgement (the entire 105-page judgement can be read by following a link on the Wikipedia page).

If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of 'inclusiveness'. This Court believes that Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, nurtured over several generations. The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone. Those perceived by the majority as “deviants' or 'different' are not on that score excluded or ostracised.

Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. This was the 'spirit behind the Resolution' of which Nehru spoke so passionately. In our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who the LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.

In these lines the learned judges have laid down a standard and rationale for civil rights of every kind in India, and they have based this on the Indian Constitution. Religious bigots are welcome to fight the constitution, but I believe they will lose.