Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sarod parity

Yesterday my friend Viplav came over to, as usual, exchange recordings of Hindustani music and chat about music. At some point he pulled out my copy of Raghu Rai's awesome photo collection "India's Great Masters" (you can -- and certainly should -- buy this book at your nearest bookshop or order it here). Flipping through it we came across a picture of the sarod maestro Allauddin Khan, father of the more widely known sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and teacher of (among others) the even more widely known sitarist Ravi Shankar. Viplav pointed out that Allauddin Khan was left-handed and therefore held his sarod with the gourd on his left side, which looks rather unusual once you notice it. I found this mildly amusing.

Now today I took a longish local train journey to the suburb of Vasai and carried with me a fascinating book called "The Lost World of Hindustani Music" by Kumar Prasad Mukherji, which deserves a blog article all on its own. While reading it on the train I came across a photo of Allauddin Khan and he was holding his sarod in the standard right-handed orientation! Quite a surprise. A closer look revealed that the disciples he was teaching (Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar) appeared, instead, to be left-handed. Then the light dawned: the printer of the book had obviously inverted the negative! One imagines the late Kumar Prasad Mukherji, a fussy Bengali if ever there was one, would have been furious.

Now while all this was going on, a passenger boarded this train and sat down facing me. I was engrossed in my book but noticed that this person's fingers were playing "air tabla" on his knees, and quite professionally. I guessed he was a tabalchi (tabla player) though he looked more like a businessman. Evidently he in turn noticed my book because he soon leaned forward, pointed to the photo and asked "do you know what's special about this person?" I looked at him with cool confidence and said "he's left-handed". A rare pleasure when life actually hands you the answer just before it asks you the question!

My fellow passenger survived this tragic deflation and entertained me with conversation about tabla-playing all the way to my destination. By the way he turned out to be both a tabalchi and a businessman.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bloodgate and other kinds of self-injury

Recently a news item about a British doctor called Wendy Chapman came to my attention. This led me to discover the full story of "Bloodgate", a sports scandal in the UK. I'll briefly repeat it here because most people I've talked to in India have never heard about it (and nor had I). The full story is here.

The English rugby team Harlequins was playing against the Irish team Leinster in April 2009. A Harlequins player, Tom Williams, came off the field with blood streaming down his face in the last ten minutes of the game. Due to his injury, he was substituted by a fresh player. Only, it later turned out he wasn't injured at all. He had deliberately bitten a blood capsule (which he pulled out from his stocking where it was concealed, and put in his mouth) so that he could be sent off and a substitute put in his place, who might have a better chance of scoring in the last few minutes by virtue of not being exhausted.

On investigation, a number of skeletons tumbled out. This wasn't the first time Williams was doing this, only the first time he got caught. He had previously managed to get away with it four times. It then turned out that the Director of Rugby of the club, Dean Richards, had orchestrated the subterfuge and the club's physiotherapist Steph Brennan supplied the blood capsule to the player. Charles Jillings has had to resign as chairman of the Harlequins over accusations that he tried to cover up what happened, and Mark Evans, its chief executive, has also been accused of a part in the cover-up. Finally, and perhaps most shocking of all, Wendy Chapman, the team's doctor, was recently found guilty of having actually cut the lip of the player after he went off the field, to sustain his deception.

You'd think that after all this there would be punishments and recriminations all round, but no. Dr Chapman has been let off with a warning (remarkably her recent history of depression was upheld as a valid excuse for her action). The player Williams received a 12-month ban on playing which was later reduced to 4 months because he came clean. And Mark Evans came out with this astonishing piece of spin: "You would be incredibly naive to think (the Bloodgate stigma) will ever disappear completely. Things like that don't. They become part of history and, like good or bad seasons, are woven into the fabric of any club." In other words, things like this just happen.

Now I'll ask all my readers from the subcontinent the following question. Which one of Williams, Richards, Brennan, Jillings, Evans and Chapman is Pakistani? Or Indian? Or Bangladeshi? Hint: a very small number of them, namely zero. These are all true-blue Brits. They attempted to deceive in the ugliest way and most of them continue to spin the matter in every way except to admit it was a shame and a disgrace. (Wendy Chapman says she was "horrified" that she lied about the incident to the European Rugby Cup which carried out an earlier investigation. Horrified? We are horrified at what others do. Ashamed would be a somewhat better word for what we ourselves do).

And here's my point. From the above story we see that appalling scandals do take place in the British sports world, not necessarily involving a single subcontinental darkie, and the people concerned both get off lightly and spin the events by suggesting that they "just happen". But when it comes to the subcontinent, we indulge in a different kind of self-injury altogether. Three Pakistani players and a Croydon-born bookie of Pakistani origin indulge in spot-fixing and suddenly it's in our culture, our DNA even! Both Pakistanis and Indians (in a rare show of unity) seem almost delighted and falling over themselves to enjoy being tainted by this scandal.

An outpouring of incredible silliness by Sagarika Ghose in today's Hindustan Times, which you can read here, tells us breathlessly that "several cricketers have expressed the belief that dishonesty exists not just in Pakistan cricket, but in the very DNA of the subcontinent" and goes on to add "Ricky Ponting believes that the values of cricket are simply not upheld in certain cultures". She then goes on to extend the evidence of our tainted culture by appealing to the Commonwealth Games etc etc and having established a grand unified theory of subcontinental corruption, appeals to our worthy Prime Minister to slam the most corrupt people of our nation in a theatrical public event that will go down in history.

In case anyone is planning to misunderstand my point, it isn't that we should be soft on ourselves or complacent about any form of corruption. And it certainly isn't that we should try to put a positive spin on our scandals as the British rugby people did with theirs. My point is just that we need to respond to scandals with less of a propensity to self-hatred and self-injury. We should show more self-confidence and a far far better sense of balance and proportion. Corruption is bad wherever it happens, and it should be dealt with firmly, but please don't reach out and paint your own face and mine and that of entire countries and cultures with it. We need not accept the kind of rubbish that Ricky Ponting is supposed to have said (assuming he did say it), and still less should we, like Ms Ghose, get carried away with the delicious feeling of how bad we all are.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I wonder if the monsoon particularly brings out the confused state of English in our land. This morning's Hindustan Times (or yesterday's DNA, I forget which) carried a picture of a lake that "overflew"!

But the prize goes to the Indian Meteorology Department, whose Monsoon Watch page informs us that "Significant amounts of rainfall (1 cm or more) during past 24 hours ending at 0830 hours IST are enclosed".