the fatwaif diaries

the workings of a wandering mind

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


a chilly friday night and we line up outside the jazz cafe in camden, hot chocolate fresh in our tummies. not only chilly, it's windy to boot and i pray that the doors will open soon. so we get in, and wait for the act to start, except that we wait for a good hour and a half before seeing anything move, leave alone croon on stage. k says the idea is to get drinks, spend money first - that's what they want us to do.
the opening act is a string quartet that is soon joined by a bengali-looking popstar wannabe who's obviously aiming for the sex-kitten look. she winds her body quite amazingly, i think, all accentuated by the black sheer leggings and stilletto boots - m keeps pointing out that she forgot to wear her pants. anyway the sizzling and smouldering is clearly the main dish and the singing is the side. To be fair, the singing isn't all bad, but then she makes a couple of serious faux pas.
"i composed this song with a famous bollywood music director - a.r. raman" (yes she said raman instead of rahman) and later went on to claim as original a song that sounded suspiciously like the once-ubiquitous choli ke peeche. evidently, she does she not expect there to be any knowledgeable desis in the crowd.
m's face is falling all this while. he can't even complain because the evening was entirely his idea. but it is about to become memorable.
a woman in a worn pair of black pants teamed with a torn net-like green halter dress takes the mike and begins a most subliminal rendition of tamil hymns to murugan, saraswathy, etc. she goes on to bewitch everyone with songs that combine the earthy, sensual tamil sensibility with the fluid cosmopolitanism of jazz and soul. there's a bit of sufi as well.
what i still can't get over is how she got away singing what she did - plenty of Carnatic along with plenty of jazz - without exoticising india and indian spirituality. this is quite a feat if you consider the context: a jazz club in camden.
and for desis like us not to feel the slightest bit odd about hearing these songs in a london club sung by a woman in a torn net dress - this was something else. i think it has to do with the kind of passion and devotion she brings to the music. for example, when she sings 'vel muruga' it's the real thing, no pretences. to the audience.
makes me think long and hard about authenticity and culture. in a different time, place and attire i could see her singing demurely at a carnatic vocal recital in madras. but here she is - susheela raman - boldly belting out her music, stomping her feat, banging her head, notwithstanding the chunky thirumangalyam on a gold choker on her neck.
the force of hybridity hits me like a tonne of bricks. not only does it borrow from tradition, it transforms the stuff of tradition into something new, fearless and creative.
as for the rest of us, we find ourselves questioning what we know. "so this is also sublime," we think. And because what we consider special is closely connected to who we think we are, in acknowledging sanctity elsewhere, we broaden our definition of ourselves

Saturday, March 04, 2006

a disease called nostalgia

it's an almost-perfect saturday with the sun out as it should be. the bendy river outside the window sparkles like a million diamonds. the gulls are screaming at the top of their lungs and i've drawn the sail-white curtains all the way because otherwise i'm squinting! the past week has been mostly dull, grey and depressingly cold. it's the stillness in the air that does you in. doesn't help that you have to bundle up every time you venture out or that every journey involves plenty of walking, and that you can safely expect not to know anybody you see on the road or in the train or even in the elevator back to the apartment.
while taking my daily journey on the train the other day i finally identified the empty pit-like feeling in my stomach. i used to think the word 'homesickness' was off the mark because feeling homesick - nostalgic for home, is entirely a state of mind, nothing like a disease. but i've found now that it's very much a physical experience that saps the body as much as it saps the mind.
i find myself confronted with visions, sounds and smells from particular home places every now and then - unexpected and lovely but also discomforting and disruptive. i woke one morning thinking of that ugly busy area around saidapet with ridiculously disproportionate affection. another dark day on the train i was plagued with thoughts of a random place - a leafy slopey old street near iisc. i find myself longing for noisy indiranagar mornings and trying to feel, longdistance, the maddeningly warm madras sun that seems to yells 'wake up!' in the most ferociously anti-depressant way.
how lame, you must think. yes, i'm increasingly annoyed with myself for allowing these reveries. and then something my mother mentioned the other day rang true: about living in the present, not the past, not the future. she called it a yogic attitude. i think there's something there.
so here i am, determined to make the most of the english sun, however watery and weak. not very convincing, huh?!