Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This Is For Everybody

I've been a fan of Danny Boyle ever since I saw Trainspotting in the mid nineties - an original and moving journey through the dark side of drug addiction. Next, for me, came Slumdog Millionaire which I instantly loved: the colours and flavours (now I sound like a particle physicist) came across so powerfully that I almost failed to notice the plot. But I greatly enjoyed Boyle's head-on approach to poverty and middle-class India's resulting discomfiture with the movie. People emitted the usual whines about the West highlighting only negative aspects of India. And, in an effort to show the world how we can be simultaneously literal and illiterate, someone tried to convince slum dwellers in Bombay that a white man had called them "dogs"!

A couple of months ago I had a chance to see a movie of a theatrical production of Frankenstein staged by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in London. This movie has had a limited distribution so far, and I got to see it at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Bombay, but it has recently been distributed in theatres across the USA and you can read about it here.  You can also watch the trailer of the movie here, as well as the somewhat better trailer of the play here.

It so happens that I recently downloaded the original novel by Mary Shelley (along with a whole lot of other free literature to read using Kindle on my iPad) and finished reading it around April. In terms of literary style it's repetitive, hackneyed and overdone and came across to me as a little mediocre. But it compensates by the brilliance of its plot and the universal appeal of its horror story: a monster who is physically repulsive to his creator and the rest of mankind, and intelligent enough to appreciate this fact, is emotionally shattered and goes around vengefully killing everyone dear to his creator.

Now most people who haven't read the book think the monster is meant to be disgusting (they also think, incorrectly, that the monster is named "Frankenstein"). But if you read the book, it's not hard to pick up on Mary Shelley's hints that the monster is the hero of the tale, the one who has her sympathies. And in the play Boyle (and to be fair, Nick Dear who wrote the script) take this a step further. The play is largely presented in the monster's voice and devoted to his point of view. It focuses on the justice aspect: is it fair to create someone and then despise and reject him merely because of how he looks? What effect does this have on the person? Can we at least understand, if not completely approve of, the murderous trajectory he follows as a result? And the unspoken corollary: how should we judge the evil deeds of those who have suffered grievous injustice?

The opening scene has no counterpart in the book: we see a monster tumble out of a suspended translucent egg-like object and then wriggle and writhe on the stage for a good ten or fifteen minutes until he learns, all by himself, to use his limbs and walk. I saw this as a metaphor for a lot of things: evolution, physical maturity, emotional growth, intellectual achievement. You can view fragments of this in the trailer of the movie linked above. The entire production was a stunning achievement and kept popping into my head for a week or more after I saw it.

 Then a couple of days ago I watched what's been described as "the best movie that Danny Boyle never made", the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. If you haven't, you should certainly set aside a couple of hours for it. It's been reviewed to death in the media so I won't repeat it here, you can read this nice review in The Guardian.

I'll just highlight two things. One is the sensibility - self-deprecating, light-hearted and inclusive. Lots of children singing, some in their pyjamas, a pastiche depicting the evolution of Britain's landscape from green meadows to ugly chimneys, a review of British music over the decades, some comedy from Mr Bean, a symphony orchestra, a skit of the Queen with James Bond, and a nod to the disabled, to immigrants, to just ordinary people (and a few ordinary cows and sheep too). It's been rightly described as "brilliantly messy" and "bonkers". A Tory MP tweeted his dislike of the multicultural nature of the show and this made me even happier than the negative reception of Slumdog in India! The slogan of the show was "This Is For Everybody" and in today's increasingly mean and narrowing world I found it very refreshing. Here is a nice article by someone else who did, too.

The second thing I liked, was a little story I read later. Given that rehearsals for this gigantic ceremony must have gone on for many many months, and involved tens of thousands of people, there were almost no leaks until virtually the last moment. How come a video of the rehearsal taken on someone's mobile phone didn't make it to YouTube? Frank Cottrell Boyce, the scriptwriter for the ceremony, had this to say:

`Danny could have asked for camera phones to be banned from the stadium or for people to sign confidentiality agreements. Instead he asked people nicely to save the surprise. "The volunteers are the best of us," he said. "This show belongs to them. This country belongs to them." '

I love this story and I wish that leaders of any sort learn this lesson. When you want people to support your efforts, place your trust in them first.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Kumar Gandharva - King of the Seasons

This article was written at the invitation of the Times of India for their Crest supplement, and a (slightly abbreviated) version appeared there in April 2012 around the time of Kumarji's birth anniversary. I'm posting the full version here, with some hyperlinks, for readers of my blog.

The great Marathi writer Pu.La. Deshpande once impishly remarked that we seem to think Classical music is so named because it is taught to us in class. In a similar vein he also complained that his job as a college professor was to create hatred for the Marathi language instead of a love for it! Both comments revealed his distaste for excessively formal approaches that end up distancing ordinary people. This dislike of formalism and orthodoxy was shared by his close friend, the singer Pandit Kumar Gandharva, who did not express his feelings in witty aphorisms but worked them into his music.

It is perhaps a little ironic that Kumarji is considered an intellectual of Hindustani Music. Of course he was, in the sense that he did not just perform but spent time thinking about music, forming his own ideas, discussing them with people and writing copious notes. Yet in a different and precise sense he was opposed to intellectualism. Neither in his compositions nor in his writings, nor in his body language during his performances, did he ever suggest that some specialised knowledge or ability was required in order to appreciate his music.

Quite the contrary. Kumarji’s legendary gestures – hands intertwined, then arms thrust out at an angle, then a single finger weaving an invisible spiral high above his head – invited the audience to trust their own feelings and access his music at an intuitive level. Just when his music seemed to be getting too abstract, he would often stop to make a joke about whatever he was singing. And once when questioned by critics about his inclusion of the note “pancham” in a composition in Raga Malkauns (from which it is supposed to be rigorously excluded), Kumarji is said to have responded “but it wanted to be there! What could I do?”

These were manifestations of his “people-friendly” ideology, according to which classical music should not be seen as something abstract or remote. Rather, it originates from the ordinary feelings of ordinary people, from emotions that arise out of daily experiences such as hearing the chirping of birds, meeting an old friend, waking up at dawn, preparing for a wedding or witnessing the changing of seasons. From this standpoint it was natural that he would consider raga-based classical music, folk music and bhajans as equally important parts of a single artistic vision. This remains one of the most enduring and unique aspects of his musical legacy.

Kumarji was a methodical person who worked out the broad structure of each performance in meticulous detail, though this in no way detracted from the spontaneity of his actual recitals. While most of his performances were in traditional formats, he enjoyed formulating thematic programmes to communicate specific concepts and created over a dozen of these. For his musically trained followers there were programmes highlighting a single raga or family of ragas, such as Kalyan ke Prakar, Bhairav ke Prakar and Goud Malhar Darshan. For other audiences and occasions he would perform entire programmes of bhajans based on the work of saint-poets like Surdas, Kabir, Meerabai, Tulsidas and Tukaram, or based on Marathi stage music or on “lighter” forms of classical music like thumri, tappa and tarana.

But the most audacious and unique of his programmes were those conceived around the seasons of the subcontinent: Geet Varsha, Geet Hemant and Geet Basant. Here his ideology found its richest expression. Bhajans, folk music from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, and compositions in classical ragas, each had its own place in the programme and they would blend into each other seamlessly. Each piece would be designed to evoke an emotion or memory associated to that season, encompassing both natural occurrences like thunder and lightning, rainfall, cool breezes and bright moonlight, as well as human activities like farming, romance and religious festivals. A listener might initially be attracted to the programme through their own favourite type of music, but would end up appreciating that the differences among musical genres of our tradition are less important than the similarities. In this way Kumarji’s point would be proved.

Geet Varsha opens with a pre-monsoon sense of desperate thirst tinged with hopelessness, expressed through an alaap in Raga Marwa: “ghaam pare re”. But despair is short-lived as “nayo nayo meha” invokes the sighting of clouds for the first time. Once the rains seriously set in, the lyrics abound with references to swollen rivers, thunderstorms, songbirds and croaking frogs. Soon it’s time to settle down to the single “fully classical” segment of the programme, a half hour of Raga Miyan Malhar. This is followed by mid-monsoon romance conveyed in an elaborately fluid Pilu Khamaj tappa, “o dildaara aa jaa re”. The concluding piece is a muted and reflective composition in Raga Jaladhar Basant, beautifully capturing the moment when a spell of heavy rain has ended and we look around in silence at the boundless greenery. The Geet Basant programme (later replaced by Ritu Raj Mehfil) similarly captures the relief of the end of winter and moves rapidly into the wild revelry of Holi. The programme is rich with references to Krishna’s flirtations and the rituals of throwing colour, meeting friends, offering sweets, emptying one’s heart of anger. The philosophical bhajans of Kabir have no place here, but are supplanted with Surdas’s lyrical tales. And as always there is a classical core of exquisite original compositions in Bhoop, Bhimpalasi and Hameer, all set in madhya laya (medium tempo) which enhances the scope of formal development of a raga, but also makes it sound much like a song.

Though Kumarji was not the first in our culture to use seasons as a vehicle for art – after all, Kalidasa wrote Meghaduta over 16 centuries ago – he achieved the unique distinction of capturing the annual life-cycle of a people and a subcontinent in its own authentic musical language.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Higgs unmasked

Today was not like any other day. A historic announcement was made at CERN about the discovery of the Higgs boson, or something very much like it. I joined many others at TIFR in a lecture room to watch the live telecast of the proceedings. I won't review the science of this discovery here in any detail, instead I'd like to share some of the thoughts that went through my head as the lectures unfolded and then later on during the day.

The Higgs mechanism was discovered independently by six researchers in 1964 (only one of whom is called Higgs), based on a physical effect studied two years earlier by Anderson. So the fact that Prof. Higgs alone has become a household name is a shade unfair to the others. But then, you can't expect the press to get all breathless about a Brout-Englert-Higgs-Hagen-Guralnik-Kibble boson! And even if there had been a single discoverer, it's hard to imagine what the corresponding particle would have been called if that discoverer went by a name like Venkatachalapathy, or Klapdor-Kleingrothaus (the latter is a genuine German physicist). Let's just agree that it's good to have a short, snappy name if you want things named after you. Though it's less often highlighted, the other part of the term "Higgs boson" comes from the name of Satyendra Nath Bose whose work described the statistical behaviour of a generic class of particles called bosons. Again, I just couldn't help wondering what would have happened had this Bengali gentleman carried the surname Mukhopadhyay, or Raichaudhuri!

But enough of the flippant stuff. As Feynman put it very well, knowing the name of an object only tells us how human beings refer to it, but nothing about the object itself. What is important about the object under discussion today is that it's a key ingredient of a fairly elegant and simple mathematical theory, the Standard Model of particle physics, that accurately describes the behaviour of everything in the universe.

The last sentence is an over-simplification for essentially two reasons. One is that this theory only describes behaviour not involving the gravitational force. But this is fine as long as one stays away from immense gravitational forces such as those involving black holes or the early universe. Completing the theory to describe gravitational forces is the task of string theory, the field in which I work, but we can leave that story for another day. The second reason why it's an over-simplification is easier to appreciate. Knowing in principle the behaviour of every particle that makes up a jug of water, or a monkey, is almost useless to understand the behaviour of the composite object. This is why research in physics goes in two directions: one is to understand the fundamental constituents, the other is to understand how simple constituents are organised into larger objects that freeze at low temperatures, or bite when provoked, or exhibit some other type of complex behaviour.

Both directions are important. But in practice the "fundamental" and "complex" scientists rather tend to despise each other's preference. The "complex" scientist observes that finding and classifying fundamental particles - like the Higgs boson - is never going to answer questions like "when does water freeze?" or "why do materials superconduct?", let alone the trickiest one: "what is life?" Meanwhile the "fundamental" scientist feels that only by studying the most elementary objects can one aim to find elegant, universal and precise laws. Both sides are perfectly correct.

As someone who has tied his career to the "fundamental" or "reductionist" enterprise, I've seen its fortunes fluctuate quite a lot. It's been very popular through certain periods, while during other periods it has provoked irritation or even fury from scientists in the other camp. There are many possible reasons for this. One is the sheer audacity of the enterprise. Do we really think there can be a "theory of everything"? Another is the expense. Why should the nations of the world pool in a few billion Euros to answer esoteric questions about some particular elementary particle? Yet another is the fact that even the questions we raise, never mind the answers, are very hard for a person to understand without considerable prior knowledge of mathematics and quantum physics. And then there is the apparent indifference to social benefit. Will the Higgs boson cure cancer or mitigate climate change? Our community is seen to respond: "we do not care". Finally, there is the even higher level of grandiosity involved in claims like "particles are merely vibrational modes of strings" given that the strings would have a spatial size that is a million billion times smaller than things we know how to measure.

While all the questions raised above have (defensive) answers, sometimes it's best to let these questions just remain as they are and look at the other side of the picture. And I think today even the skeptics have had a close-up view of that other side, and hopefully have been moved by it. For around six decades, a global community of physicists - divided by everything else but united by their belief in the reductionist enterprise - have collaborated to uncover the secrets of nature. Some have done theoretical work, others experimental, yet others work in the middle ground between the two that's called "phenomenology". Over this period most of these people have never met each other, some have failed to even understand or accept each others' work, many have foolishly pitted theory against experiment (as though either one could ever be sufficient) and engaged in numerous other follies. But enough people gave of their best, and their best has proved good enough. The discipline of the scientific method, plus a collective dedication to the goal, washed out the conflicts and amplified the consensus. And today it's turned out that the whole thing holds together beautifully. It needn't have, but it did - and this for me is the best defence of the entire reductionist enterprise. It works.

So an absurd little particle, postulated for an apparently trifling reason, came to occupy centre stage in our quest and then held out for decades - but in the end it was unmasked by the sustained onslaught of a few thousand people (and, it has to be admitted, billions of Euros). The discovery of the Higgs boson might be the most sustained cooperative enterprise in the history of the human race!

And there's another grandiose statement calculated to annoy people...