Friday, July 3, 2015

The Raga of the Dusk

They say, Tagore never composed a song in the raga Marwa. That is not surprising because Tagore was famous for his affinity for uttaranga-vadi ragas such as Purvi, Puriya-Dhaneshri, Puriya, Shri, Bageshri and their combinations. These ragas, with their flat tones, with occasional stress on sharp ones such as the teevra madhyama, produce a sensation of a peculiar punch of warm and cool colors.

                                                   Sunset over Venice - Monet , 1908

We see such colors in nature only during the sunrise and sunset. However, sunrise begins from the dark. It is always rich with red tones. In the dusk, the gradient from blue to red, leading to wild tonalities of magenta, challenges the highest human imagination. The palettes take on any color, continuously and drastically, in any combination, from azure, through turquoise, to magenta, purple and orange.

We call that the light for the first romance. Anyone looks beautiful in that light. Photographers call it the magic hour. This time of day is called sandhya in the North Indian languages. That  word means transition. The mood signifies the transition between work and home, the one between wakefulness and sleep.

Komal, or flat, notes in succession evoke the mood of the blue – the distant, unknown, nostalgic stars, of whose dust we are made. In contrast, teevra notes and shrutis evoke the sense of the warmth, earthly, close. The ragas of the dusk, such as Marwa or Purvi stitch those two strands of our emotion in different patchworks. A master like Ustad Amir Khan easily roams from Puriya through Dhaneshri back to Marwa, just by changing the emphasis from dha to gaa, as the point of return. This is interesting to note that what we call scale (D-major, for example), is roughly known as the thaat, or major raga, in the Indian classical system. The scale may undergo variations on the use of different chords and notes. Similarly, we have closely linked, different ragas.

Some ragas have the same movement through notes and shrutis – shrutis are semi, quarter and even minor fractions between quarter notes. Take Shivaranjani and Bhopali, for example. Bhopali is roughly tantamount to Em7 and E7 chords on a pentatonic scale. Here, if one changes just a single note, shuddha gaa to komal gaa, the raga changes. It is touched upon by the mystery of komal swaras conflicted with the shuddha ones.

Coming back to the ragas of the dusk, or vespertine ragas, they primarily originate from two major scales – Purvi – S r G M P d N, and Marwa – S r G m D N. The change in only one note – from komal dhaivata in Purvi to the shuddha swara in Marwa, changes the collision among the notes. Hence, the presence of pancham swara in Purvi is justified. Marwa does not need that support.

One of the best expressions in Marwa is here

Tagore used Purvi and related ragas a lot in his songs of nostalgia, tantalizing love, first look and waiting. Sometimes, he changed the shuddha madhyam of Purvi to its teevra swara equivalent. The result is magnanimous, as one many find in this rendition. 

But, the question remains. Why did Tagore shy away from Marwa? It is a main Dhrupad raga, and one major scale, or thaat, both in Bhatkhande and Palushkar systems.

when I hear the typical dha-ni-ri-sa-ma-ga-re of Purvi, I immediately visualize a blusih-orangish long stretch of road arcaded by tall plants, with patches of sky seen through. Sunset time. A typical low-key situation in cinematic term.

He has composed on ragas based on the Marwa scale, even in ragas like Deepak-Pancham which was not so popular - Prathama aadi taba shaktii. Why he never used Marwa would always remain a mystery.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Citizen Kane

[I wrote this long back, as the Cultural Representative of my Film School Class, to promote the daily film viewing, in the auditorium, after the class. We were probably the only batch who watched films in the auditorium and used the library as we wished. The second batch of LVP enjoyed some of these too. From the third batch onward, the management imposed many restrictions on students. I don't know how many organized film screenings take place in a week, for the current batches. But, I know, there is no way of learning to speak unless you hear others speaking first. People who claim they do not watch films, or never did, before they made their own, are either insane or liars.]

Citizen Kane (1939) is considered a textbook for any cinema student all over the world. Even almost seventy-five years after its release.
The reaction of the common student after a first viewing of the film is also similar worldwide – boring and useless.

But, is it really boring and useless?

On the surface, this is the story of a journalistic detection, to make a scoop. Imagine a contemporary billionaire like Steve Jobs mumbling “Rosebud”, on his last breath. Would not the media run after the meaning of this strange word? Especially, when none knows it apparently?

Citizen Kane is the story of that meaning-hunt. And just as Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, are intertwined in layers of our day-to-day living, the story of Charles Foster Kane is a story of the American dream – the dream of democracy, rags to riches. How far is that dream true? A great fortune always comes at the cost of some great sacrifice. How much is that worth it?

Citizen Kane is the story of that.

Just like Eisenstein’s Strike (1924or Battleship Potemkin (1925), or like Disney’s Fantasia (1940) , the story is told visually. Citizen Kane was probably the first film that tried which Eisenstein called Polyphonic, overtonal montage successfully. Visuals, in conflict with one another, can create explosive emotions. If such emotions can be connected to conventional stories, the result would be interesting. Although the storytelling was not conventional in its day - snaps from different phases of Kane’s life, through documents and interviews, connected by the backbone of the story – the mysterious rosebud.

Today we are used to watching non-linear movies. In fact, anything presented in a too linear fashion makes us bored. Even TV serials are made non-linear. But, in 1939, Citizen Kane was like a revolution with its fragmented, jigsaw puzzle approach.

Everyone who has seen the film even once must remember the first scene in which Kane’s character comes alive on the screen, for the first time, as a child.

In the second shot of the scene, the camera takes a long journey from the window sill looking outwards, into the room pushing the kid into the background. This shot, in fact, is the most momentous event in the story, and can be considered the first plot point, in the traditional purpose of the term. The clue to rosebud is also hidden in this.

The Director (and the Hero of the film) Orson Welles wanted a technique that would show everyone from foreground to the background, involved in different, but linked, actions in the frame. Gregg Toland achieved that with his already refined technique of Deep Focus. Few months back, in France, Jean Renoir had used the same technique in Les Regles du Jou (1939), for almost the same ulterior motive. Both Renoir and Welles wanted to split the hypocrisy of the bourgeois in their respective societies. Bourgeoisie cannot sustain on its own. It needs the protection of other classes. A deep focus photography would be a natural ploy for that purpose.
The famous breakfast sequence shows up the emotional separation of Kane and his first wife through a montage. A newly married couple who chattered so much on the first days of their marriage, finally took positions on the opposite ends of an elongated dinner table with different brands of newspapers stuck to their noses.

Who can forget the extremely apt use of split field filter, where both foreground and background were in focus (something impossible to achieve in normal photography) while the middle-ground with a overdosed, suicidal Susan Alexander out of focus? Nobody had seen such narrative use of focus before. Such innovative use of simple cinematic techniques are rare even now.

Citizen Kane would be a landmark for in-camera special effects, choice of lens and aperture, extreme low-angle camera positioned juxtaposed with extreme high-angle bird’s-eye-view shot, use of noir lighting to showcase a man’s fight with destiny, and his eternal retreat to an almost non-existent childhood, Fast cuts coupled with slow, long takes.

Welles crafted grammar, and pushed cinema at least a hundred years, by making this film. While Griffith gave the medium a voice, Eisenstein a brain, Welles gave it a dance of its own.

It is understandable why the contemporary generation does not like this film. Most of the prints we are forced to watch are like bad copies of a Xeroxed book. Toland’s brilliant compositional scheme, with his dark noir lighting, does not surface above the grimy image in the grainiest copy. Nor does Welles’ modern acting.

In this new, restored edition made along with a Blu-ray the images would give you an approximation of how the 1939 audience had received Citizen Kane. It was not for nothing that AFI voted this the best film of the Century for decades, before it finally receded to second position (to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)), just a few months ago.

Watch Citizen Kane for a vivid insider criticism of 20th century American life and its capitalist economy. Watch Citizen Kane to hone your own storytelling skills.

Always remember, while viewing, that you are watching a film on investigative journalism. It is like a detective fiction. Try to guess the answer from the clues presented as the movie unrolls. See if you can get it!

Happy watching!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mohammad, the Prophet... Shia, Sunni and the dogma

The Prophet has always been traditionally depicted. Such depiction was a normal affair especially in Shia tribes and nations - Iran and Turkic Kingdoms among them.

I, being a photographer and Cinematographer, fully agree with the Islamic tradition of condemning pictorial representations of human (and more importantly, powerful human) figures. Such representations create an aura. That aura is hypnotic in power. Designed images can subvert reality and create myth.

Hitler's pet filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl hit this point. She showed Hitler as demi-god, thus validating the Führer's claims. Careful stitching of shots - Low Angle Führer against Sky + God's Point-of-View of the earth teeming with pure race - created a belief.


Indeed, it was a conscious plan by the future-architect of the World War II to project himself as a Messiah to the war and inflation-stricken Germany through instruments of ideology creation. This film was made in 1934, September, capturing the the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg.

The film opens out in the cloud, in the plane in which Hitler was going to Nuremberg. The idea of this celestial journey is clear today. Such a film still works, in the days of image overdose and manipulation.

In 1934, this film was the biggest ad on power. Any modern day TV commercial would feel shy in comparison.

This is exactly what the Prophet warned.

The world of glamour is connected to power. Glamour, charisma, leadership  all produce a magnetic aura. Money, sex and power, the three motivations of life, charted out by a Forbes contributor in June, 2013, were also the three motivating factors in the late Vedic culture of North India.

Dharma, artha and kama were the three motivating factors. There was a fourth factor - Moksha. But, that may be a later addition. Nowhere in the Rigveda Samhita, and Aiteraya Brahman, I came across any reference to the liberation from the birth-cycle. Who knows which came earlier - the moksha of the Vedic, or the Nirvana of the Buddhist?

Whatever it was, any figure that radiated success in these three areas of human life was considered a leader. A leader to be adored, to be worshipped.

Nobody knows if the Indus Valley Civilization idols were figurines for religious worship. Major pillars of Hindu revival were almost unanimous before the Harappan discovery that idol worship was not there in the Vedic ages. Swami Vivekananda and Rahul Sankrityayan both explicitly stated that idols came with the Greek. The first recorded idol to be worshipped was Buddha's. Probably some Greek architect built that, in the erstwhile Bactrean Empire. Modern Afghanistan retains part of those echoes from their past.

Gandhara Buddha. 1st-2nd century. Musee Guimet, Paris
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Buddha never talked against, or in favor of, idol worship. There is no record. That's probably because there was no convention of idol making and worship in India in Buddha's time. Why was that so  is obviously an important question in its own right. But, there is no mention of any pratik or pratima in the early Vedic literature.

I believe Sanskrit scholars like Sukumari Bhattacharya could light this up in a clear way. Maybe Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri and other notable students of her who are involved in popularizing Vedic and Sanskrit literature and ideologies, and connecting them to modern life, could do so.

My Sanskrit knowledge is limited. And this field is vast - just like Newton's ocean of knowledge.

What I understand though, with my ultra-limited explorations, is that people change with ages, with new conveniences of life, with new technologies.

One of my teachers, who accidentally looks like Sakshi Maharaj, believes that human life doesn't change with technology. It remains basically the same. Hence, the stories and storytelling would be the same.

I don't agree.

We eat, sex, love and work in ways similar to what we would do five thousand, or even fifty thousand years ago. But, we don't eat the same food, we use lots of new toys and accessories in sex, we express love through newer means (I am pretty sure some new toy like Oculus would very soon revolutionize the way of distant relationships), and we work in radically different fields.

Although our motivations are still the same,

Yet the ways of appeasing them are not the same.

We need new leadership. We are afraid to take responsibility for the unconnected masses. We fear to take responsibility for ourselves. But, leadership is not so cheap.

Photo Courtesy: Political

A leader like Jesus, or Mohammad, is not born so easily.

So, we create our own leaders, We use the old traditions, old books, and interim sham-leaders to elude the uneasiness in our mind.

We put our own self-interests in their mouth. Doesn't PK say exactly the same thing?

Ironically, Vivekananda wrote similar things in Bhaktiyoga.

When enough people come together, from vested interest, to validate their own word as the word of god, a myth is created.

Buddha knew about this myth-creation process. This is why he encouraged individual explorations, and not blind faith.

Marx knew about this.

Yet, ornate rites have developed around these anti-ideologues.

Coming back to the Prophet, the depiction of demi-gods and the awe for the glamour-world, it is interesting to note that South Indians always knew this. This is why they made temples for Khushbu, Rajini and Amma. This is why filmmakers and actors always felt natural to enter politics.

It is not an anomaly.

This is why, I guess, the Prophet talked against creating divine aura around fellow human beings.

But, the message was misunderstood.

More about that in my next post.

Let's watch an old film on the Prophet and the early rise of Islam, from 1977.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

What do I do, Marriage and other things... A

You have sometimes asked what I do. Or, rather, what I want to do.

You have always seen me in flux. Always in transition, doing things ad hoc. As if I am waiting for something else. As if I am deferring my real job.

You have seen me in politics, as student, in the role of teacher, as film critic and magazine editor.

You have seen me shooting ads, music videos, feature films. You have seen me writing.

Each time you have seen me referring to my work as the path to my goal. None of what I ever did seemed to be the end in itself.

Yeah, you were correct!

So, what do I do? Or, rather, what do I want to do?

My real job is to go deep inside cultural practices and see their origins, how they developed, how they changed. Their anatomy.

This sounds much like science - how chemists play with the elements and compounds in labs. These days, based on scientific understanding of cells and other organic elements, and inorganic, they prepare complex models, and environmental simulations in computers. That is also a kind of lab practice. However, much of cultural close readings (just like chemists read the results and values of experiments based on known parameters, I read culture) is guesswork. We really don't have any option to know how marriage started, how the first religions began, or how the respect for the elder came to establish itself as a natural behavior.

Much is guesswork, much deduction. There is a field of knowledge called Culture Studies. This is an interdisciplinary field. Practitioners from different disciplines - anthropologists, historians, literature experts, sociologists, economists, linguists, psychologists, archaeologists, religion experts, geologists, evolutionary geographers, geneticists and even biochemists, neuroscientists, physicists and chemists work together in the field of Culture Studies.

From the name, you can understand, Culture Studies include everything that contributes to human culture. That possibly means everything. So, you may ask, Why do I need another name for the whole field of knowledge? If Culture Studies just means Knowledge, why is there another name?

Actually, it's partially a misnomer. Culture Studies was the name given to a particular academic routine started in Birmingham University, UK, in the 1950s, by two British sociologists, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. While their program was initially to study social behavior and social machine through models of hegemony, agency and State apparatus, Culture Studies influenced different American, Canadian and European universities to study ideology and culture as a field of study distinct from academic philosophy.

One way of studying culture is through its everyday effects. Literature, newspaper, TV channels, Soaps, Advertisements, music, dance, sports, food culture, fashion, Public speeches, Cinema, Law, Morality and morality legality institutions such as school/college/universities, police, press/media. 

But, why Culture Studies? Weren't we always studying culture?  Why do we need such a pin-pointed approach?

There is a reason. Long back, in the beginning of every civilization, there were philosophers and mystics. Philosophers wanted to know what, why and how. Deductive logic - the same logic that we follow in Mathematics - came from that. This also led to experimentation and discovery of new things - another name for inductive logic.
Mystics received flashes - almost like inductive logic. They discovered new things through intuition. But, nobody knew how they received wisdom. Nobody, including the mystics themselves, knew the steps of it. Sometimes, extremely rarely, the same person became philosopher and mystic both. Gautama Buddha was someone like this.

In our times, in a specialized field of knowledge, Einstein was like that.

However, most of the population, 90% or more, were neither philosopher nor mystic. They just followed whatever norm prevailed in society. They followed leaders, and after the leader's death ghost of the leader, until another great leader came.

Great leaders sometimes were born in the population itself. They also came from outside, from other communities. Individual migration was always there. I have seen there were always two types of people in any population - settlers and migrants. Migrants are not gypsies, or nomadics, in the popular use of the latter terms, although they shared some common traits with gypsies or nomadics.

Migrants, by nature of the lifestyle, were philosophers or mystics. As they were always on the move, they had to be skilled in different things for survival. They had to go deep into different cultures for the same reason. As they went deeper into many different cultures, they could see similarities and differences. They were the first comparatists.

Comparatists are people who compare among cultures. I probably had some interest in cultures and societies since childhood. But, as I randomly got into Comparative Literature for five years, in the university, I had basic training as comparatist almost unwillingly.

As I had been training myself to be a physicist since the beginning of teenage, I had questions which most fellow students never had. When most others were taking notes and copying from references in library and classroom, I became impatient with repetition of literature. I also had problems with reading long works in English. So, I kept reading books on popular sciences. As many of them as I got. Gradually I became interested in biology and the theoretical part of general biology, especially in Evolution and genetics. I had no guide. So, my study was random.

As I read the six volumes of Stephen Jay Gould's Reflections in Natural History, Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene, Steven Pinker's three books (Visual Cognition, How the Mind Works, The Language Instinct), a lot from Darwin's own writing, some Russian books and finally regular textbooks works from the sixties and seventies, the idea of psychogenetics slowly developed in my mind.

I remembered from plus-2 classes that an individual is specificity of characters-characters are specificity of proteins- proteins are specificity of genes-genes are specificity of nucleotides. You know I stopped studying in plus-2. So, I didn't really understand the meaning of this chain at that time. But, with the renewed knowledge, it became clear to me. I studies Steven Rose's Not in Our Genes. The interaction between environmental pressure and genetic makeup of an individual became clear to me.

I also read  E O Wilson's Sociobiology at that time. The idea that human behavior is also naturally selected, and just like geological evolution it can have precise manifestation, became clear to me.

By this time, my courses in Comparative Literature got over, and I was largely unsuccessful in the university because of my personal journey. But, I came back. This time with Film Studies.

I saw literature, cinema and any other cultural expression as specific outlet of naturally selected behavior working under cultural pressure. 

Cultural pressure and cultural selection are very similar to natural pressure and natural selection; but there are differences too.

I guess you know although I never clearly told you. I have genuine interest in bipolar disorder, and some types of neuroses. I got chances to watch and live closely with such patients. I know certain genes in their bodies switch themselves and others on and certain others off, to produce certain hormonal makeup, under certain environmental conditions. That produce uneasiness in body, which leads to uneasiness of mind, and that produces a never-ending feedback loop.

I am not a physician. I don't know exactly how the endocrine system changes with external inputs, for such patients.

The only part in this chain known to me was environment. I came to know this because of personal experiences. I saw, one solution is  avoiding environments which start off this chain. Warm and dry climate, lots of sunlight, and being surrounded by people with positive outlook kills the electro-chemical circuits which cause depressive behavior.

I was interested in knowing how the normal and the depressed people behave differently in getting imbibed in the same culture.

I also saw that Jung's introvert and extravert division have some real merits. They are not fiddler's imagination.

Personality type is partially genetic, and partially shaped up by the culture at the time of growing up, early socializing, schooling, peer pressures, parental influence, family environment and many other factors.

In time, a full grown personality adds to the cultural pool, with his/her own idiosyncrasies. 

As the culture, or the person him/herself, is not a fixed entity; as s/he is always changing, reshaping, the personality can change from one type to another without limit, at any age.

I needed to compare, among different individuals, and among groups. That brought me to academic study of psychology, and partially, to the study of behavioral economics.

A comparatist is commonly known as a cultural critic. Here, critic means someone who closely reads the culture, tries to find out the origins and see that nothing is final.

In that sense, I call the mythological figure Krishna a comparatist. It is significant that he didn't take a warrior's role in the war. He was a critic.

I finally found out my job a decade and a half after plus-2. I was a comparatist, and my job was to make films and write about what I find.

I was almost a scientist. But, unlike the definite history and properties of elements and their interactions, a lot of my materials were guesswork, or deductive logic from minimal finding. It was not strictly scientific. Yet, it was not pseudoscience like astrology.

Quite naturally, I grew interested in psychology and its different branches. I also wanted to see how different cultural expressions such films, literature, painting, dance and music affect individual minds and groups; how they create a feedback loop.

As I came to see through different expressions of culture, I started losing deep belief in their stability. 

Marriage was one of these.

I was never interested in marriage for marriage's sake. State is interested in that. If there is no sexual union, there would be no next generation. However, if there is promiscuous sexual union, children would be born outside fixed families. They would be burden for a single person - mother. But, it's meaningless to force any male person to take care of any child. So, the society needed a way to ascertain who is linked biologically for the birth of the child. This started the process of sexual union under the sanction of the society. Powerful leaders in the society gave that sanction. To make the process more accepted to most people, such leaders connected marriage to divine things and gods. However, the sole reason behind marriage was always economic.

However, personally for me, finding my partner was important. Marriage was practically non-existent for me. I was ready to marry my partner if she wants. But, marriage was not something divine. It was just a social sanction; and I see social sanctions for what they are - social sanctions only.

It is interesting, as the ideas are getting clarity to myself, Indian judicial systems are opening up to liberal inter-personal sexual relationship too.

I change my field so often, as I go out of my comfort zone to look for answers, through new experiences. Yeah. I need more disciplined approach for my exploration to be fruitful to others. I'll keep that in mind.

Why don't you join me too? May not be full time. This doesn't pay in short term. We need payment. We need to survive.

This is a long road.