Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Marathi moments

While the Thackerays and Azmis compete with each other to raise the dignity and stature of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, I had a remarkably Marathi weekend and would like to report on some of its charming moments.

It started with my watching the play Sapadlelya Aathavani (literally, "Found Memories"). This play was originally written in English by Girish Karnad, then adapted in Marathi by Amruta More and staged by Satyadev Dubey last Friday at TIFR. Both Karnad and Dubey were in the audience (actually Dubey was staging a play of his own outside, but I'll come back to that later). I quite enjoyed the play and found the Marathi fairly easy to follow - Dubey had earlier assured us it was in simple Bombay Marathi ("after all what other Marathi do I know?" he dramatically exclaimed). In fact much of the dialogue consisted of "Really ग!" and "What do you keep doing in that cyber cafe?" which, technically, are not pure Marathi phrases.

The play is nice, and modern, but not a masterpiece. Consider that its co-producer Girish Patke described it as "a trite story of flawed family relationships". But the sisters Vidula and Hema make for a believable duo and their humorous antics, which turn into histrionics towards the end, are most entertaining. The play had one thing in common with a lot of Marathi (and Hindi) dramas - once the emotional pitch goes up and the characters start shrieking and sobbing, there seems no turning back. After ten minutes of this stuff the cast all have sore throats and their shrieks sound more and more comical. But at least in this play the tension abates in the last scene and the characters, not having found any clear resolution to their problems, dance a jig all over the stage.

A number of Bengalis (I use "Bengali" in its TIFR sense of "non-Maharashtrian") left after the first ten minutes, understandably since the play is wordy and hard to follow if you don't know the language. But many others stayed on and formed bunches in the audience around anyone who knew the language. This resulted in an annoying buzz as each twist of the plot got explained in a sequence of Marathi-Chinese whispers, but at least people did try to follow -- which was nice.

As for Mr Dubey, he decided to guard the doors of the auditorium to prevent people entering after the play had started. As there had been no warning about this (and the announced timings had shifted back and forth a bit) there were apparently several latecomers. After trying to shoo them away without too much success, the venerable Mr Dubey lost it and started casting aspersions (in Hindi) on the relationships of various TIFR members to their mothers and sisters! My only regret is that this piece of experimental and participatory theatre did not get filmed.

So, on to my second Marathi moment. Emboldened by my comprehension of the play, on the following evening I dug out my VCD's of the movie Sant Tukaram (if you're interested, here is an astounding website about Tukaram, though not actually about the movie). Any hopes I had of following the dialogue were dashed by the fact that (i) the Marathi of 1937 is not Satyadev Dubey's Marathi (and still less his Hindi, thankfully!), (ii) the sound quality was good for 1937, but no more than that. Fortunately the VCD's were subtitled and I also had a Maharashtrian friend on hand.

So about the movie itself -- now here was a masterpiece. The first thing I noticed was the truly outstanding quality of the music. Everyone sings, and sings brilliantly - Tukaram himself, the evil Salomalo, the vamp what's-her-name who tries to seduce Tuka but becomes his devotee. Maharashtrians understand and feel Indian music in a way that I find remarkable. Somewhat to my friend's astonishment, I sang along with the movie for two solid hours.

The acting too was brilliant in its own way. Vishnupant Paganis as Tukaram manages to stay on the right side of the fine line that separates an expression of devotional ecstasy from the goofy grin of a pot smoker. The good-vs-evil battle plays out with a constant increase of tension but (thankfully) no shrieking or sore throats. My only complaint about the movie is, did they have to make Mrs Tuka such a thick-head? I mean, living with him all those years she must surely have figured out that possessions are BAD and saintly behaviour is GOOD, no? But right until the bitter end when Tukaram flies up to heaven sitting astride a fluffy eagle toy, she just does NOT get it. Anyhow, the acting is wonderfully spontaneous and the directing very sure-footed and innovative, so the movie fully deserves its "Special Recognition" award at the Venice film festival.

To slightly elaborate on a theme above, I'm amazed at how Maharashtrians trump just about all of India when it comes to Hindustani music. After all, the major gharanas like Kirana, Gwalior, Jaipur and Agra are all from North India (eek!! Sena alert!!!), leaving only the infelicitously named Bhendi Bazaar gharana for Maharashtra (and that anyway is an offshoot of Agra as far as I know). But just about anyone who was anyone in Hindustani music, at least in the second half of the 20th century, either was Maharashtrian or lived in Maharashtra or both. And Marathi stage songs (natya sangeet), devotional music (abhang) and folk songs (bhaavgeet) are all steeped in this culture.

My Marathi moments weekend concluded with a morning concert on Sunday by Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar and Satyasheel Deshpande. No prizes for guessing which state they belong to! Not a Marathi word was actually spoken that day, but the music was totally Marathi in spirit and totally wonderful.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cell phones and dry fruits

The recent ban on prepaid cell phone services in Jammu and Kashmir has rightly annoyed people there. An Army spokesman has argued that ‘‘The terrorists are using prepaid phones to stay in touch with their handlers as it gives them easy ISD access’’. I'm sure that's true enough. But then, it's also true that during the 26/11 attacks in Bombay the terrorists needed a stock of dry fruits to sustain them in their rampage. So how come we don't hear about banning dry fruits?

Maybe that was flippant but it's also the point. Terrorists use a lot of modern facilities: cell phones, the internet, electricity... And it's quite true that banning all of these would greatly restrict their actions. Unfortunately it would also restrict normal life as we know it. This would be an unacceptable loss of quality of life, which is why none of these things is banned in, say, Bombay. A concrete example is the wireless router. This device is highly capable of being misused if not configured properly, and attempts and laws have been made to ensure routers are properly secured, but no one in their right minds would suggest Bombay should entirely do without wireless routers.

So finally, it's only people in outlying areas for whom the government considers such bans acceptable. In other words there's a "mainstream" India where normal life, business, personal freedom, entertainment and all that come first, and then a "border" India where instead the citizens are supposed to accept bans and inconveniences "for the sake of" this mainstream India. As a recipe to alienate everyone on our borders, it's truly inspired.

And that's only about cell phones. The disgraceful Armed Forces Special Powers Act allows the army the right to, among other things, shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to "maintain the public order". For more details please read this article. This law is applicable in Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. Interestingly the residents of these states don't find it exciting to sacrifice their fundamental rights for the rest of us. I see their point.