Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Patna’s heart of rats: Looking into Bihar with Amitava Kumar

Madhusree Chatterjee 
Patna, the microcosm of contrasts that is Bihar, is a nostalgic riddle for every immigrant son of the soil who returns home to bask in the city’s changing urban-scape. In the last decade, the capital of Bihar has been witnessing nothing short of a revolution – both in terms of psyche and landscape which is happy mess of new urban metaphors - like malls, highrises, brands and big cars. They occupy every nook of the city that is slowly waking up to the nightmare of space crunch.

Topping the city’s war with the hype surrounding its typical socio-politics is the fact that Mumbai is gradually discovering Bihar – as a city of drama and celluloid commerce. Bihar has become an exotic locale in the moviegoers imagination. The struggle to live up to the reputation as a “badland of gut and gore” is becoming tough – for the planners as well for the residents. 

The forces of past shape the present “lie (geography)” of the city sprawled on the banks of an-once meandering, but now choked river Ganges, India’s lifeline for centuries. The daily beat of Patna carries in its blood the aura of the mighty Magadh empire, the capital city of Pataliputra, E.M.Forster’s “Bankipore” (near patna) - the inspiration behind the novel, “Passage to India”. This is a city (and state) where three different cultures – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism- had merged once to smithereen away later.   

In his new book, “A City of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna (Rupa & Co)”, Amitava Kumar takes a candid look at Patna that has grown “exponentially” as any other Indian capital city drifting from its illustrious heritage – and yet in a strange way being unconsciously moulded by it. Alongside the story of Patna through personal narratives, anecdotes and history, the city fleshes itself out as an emotional entity- breathing, moving, suffering heartaches, blues and sweating to clean itself of the mounds of deadwood that stifles its oxygen.

Patna is a hole of rats, Kumar says in the beginning of the book reflecting upon its state of decay. It is infested by rats. The rodents have access to every urban landmark - the monuments, statues and the public facilities. The rats, dead and alive, are integral to the city’s mind space. The author sees more in them than just festering decadence- a sense of betrayal that Patna reserves for every expat Bihari, who has left the city. He is a rat – a ‘biradar’.

Kumar, who teaches creative writing at the Vassar College in New York, travels beyond the book in an informal chat with this writer. “I was becoming an outsider. The book gave me a chance to go back and learn about what is new about the city,” Kumar said.

Patna is not about failures as many writers spin spiels about the squalor and turbulence that lifts the city out of its mediocre morass to become a urban musing. The story of India’s leading contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta, begins here.          

 Gupta was a school boy in Khagaul, a city outside Patna where his father worked as a railway guard. The youngest of Gupta’s sisters made a discovery one day about a stainless steel manufacturing company. She hit upon a scheme that turned ordinary customers into salespeople. If you sold three “thalis”, you got two free. She made a killing selling utensils and the family was never short of steel kitchenware.

Twenty years later, the page turned one day. Gupta had a spiritual experience while cooking. He realized that stainless steel utensils could lend requisite luster to his sculptures, Kumar says in his book. The stainless “bartans” in Gupta’s art became a global icon.   

“There have been changes,” he adds moving out of his book. “But everyday reveals that the changes have not been enough. Someone might be inclined to say that the changes should have carried us to a more decisive thing”.   Kumar said he wanted the individual life stories to speak of the changes and holes where the process has sunk through.

Citing an instance, the writer says “A man belonging to the backward Mushahar caste tells you the story of a well meaning officer and his changing view about rats, but then why can’t they change their view about caste. 

Kumar’s arguments – though based on a quaint logic —rings sense. The Mushahar community and rats are intrinsically linked in Bihar – the marginal caste is Bihar’s official rat trappers and rat eaters as well.

“Change from above is inadequate. Everyone accepts rats in Patna, but their position on Mushahar will not change,” Kumar said.

Kumar comments on a variety of social issues – the high-profile wedding of Raghav and Leela, a fiery 45-year-old poet and his young actress wife Leela, the neglect of public institutions, the abysmal underdevelopment just outside the city precincts, the plight of women  - who have been denied social status like men but have been given bicycles to ride to school.

However, rats are central to the saga, they scurry in a file, drink seized liquor at a police station and prompts Kumar identify himself with one. “I try to turn the imagery of the rat on its head,” he says.

The writer tries to look for the Patna of his childhood – the Patna qalam (school of nature art) and its glorious history – between the stories he hears and in his conversation with friends. “On the morning after my 11th  birthday, the guests were unable to leave home. There was smoke billowing in the distance. The JP Movement had begun,” Kumar recalled.

Three years later, Bihar showed the way, as the former editor of The Statesman Sunanda K. Dutta-Ray wrote. “The movement ultimately led to the end of the Indira Gandhi government. When I think of Patna now, it is not showing the way by changing realities but by predicting the socio-political future of India,” the writer pointed out.

Patna reveals that there has been a “shift in the power balance from the upper caste to other social groups. But even that shift is slightly flawed. It has left those at the bottom untouched”. Even as the upper caste lost political power, they still have economic power that is reminder that things have not changed much.

“That struck me a lot in my last visit,” Kumar observed. The older generation of morning walkers in a big park adjacent to his parents’ home in Patna has not outgrown their “fetish” for caste-specific banter even after more than three decades of the movement for social justice. “Caste is so deeply ingrained in the psyche,” he said, urging “change”.

Comparing Bihar with other states, Kumar said “unlike many other states, Bihar was more secular”. There has been greater movement of educated people from the state outside than Gujarat and Kerala that copes with high outward migration.

“I believe in the policy of circulation and enrichment. More people from Bihar should go out and more should come back- the city (state) should be like Paris,” Kumar said.

Kumar’s obsession with his native turf will spill over into his next title- a novel about Bihar set in America.  
 Madhusree Chatterjee           

Saturday, July 27, 2013

India’s first digital musical archive – an individual labour of love


Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The notions of cultural archiving in India is still sporadic with few government run institutions existing in harmony with standalone private repositories – managed by individuals that are conspicuous by the absence of inter-linkages with government facilities.

Bangalore-based scholar, writer and the moving force behind the Bangalore Literature Festival Vikram Sampath has given Indian classical music the first-of-its kind archive, www.archiveofindianmusic.org that features nearly 200 artists and  1,000 clips. It spans a wide range of sounds including folk, classical and instrumental genres – voices and historic recordings free of government interference.   

The archive is headquartered in Bangalore under the umbrella of the Manipal University. It has collected close to 10,000 records  - both 78 RPM shellacs and vinyls from a variety of sources – few donations, from private owners and “kabadiwallahs”.   

Classical music in India has a Vedic lineage with the Sama Vedic chantings while folk traditions predate the arrival of the Aryans. Over centuries music evolved with the royal patronage and also through the interventions of the saints as a medium to propagate the message of universal brotherhood starting with the Tamil Azhwar and Nayanar saints of the 6-8th centuries. North Indian vocal music assimilated from Persian and Iranian music in the 12th-13th century with the arrival of the Sufi saints.   

Vikram  Sampath, the author of “My Name is Gauhar Jaan” (the narrative of Gauhar Jaan, the first woman vocalist of India to record commercially on gramophone) - traces the beginning of the archive to the intense research for his book in Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. “I had collected several original 78 RPM records of Gauhar Jaan from the flea markets in Kolkata, Mumbai and in the national capital.  In 2010, after writing the book, I went to Berlin on a visiting fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Study and came upon a treasure of recordings by Indian artists in sound archives at Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London. The constant refrain was why don’t I set up a music archive,” Sampath said, recalling the archive’s origin.

Upon his return to India, he filed a detailed proposal to the government of India for a national archive of music – but the plan was canned.   Help came in the form T.V. Mohandas Pai, who was then with Infosys and now the chairman of the Manipal Global Education, who advised Sampath to set up a private non-profit trust.  “I established the Archive of Indian Music (AMI) in 2011 with my parents then as founder trustees. Pai reposed faith  and generously funded the project with seed capital that helped to import state of the art equipment,” Sampath told this writer.  The Manipal University agreed to host the archive on their premises in Bangalore.

A grant from the India Foundation of Arts (IFA) is helping Sampath put together  important research material around this era.  The archive since 2011 has added heft with advisors like Chinmaya Garekhan, the president of Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA-Delhi), Shyam Benegal, Vijay Kichlu, VAK Ranga Rao, Suresh Chandravarkar,  musician Shyamala G. Bhave, Lalith Rao, Bombay Jayashri, danseuse Sonal Man Singh and Arundhati Ghosh (IFA)  pitching in for the archive.

Sampath says the archive seeks to digitize, preserve and disseminate an immortal slice of the musical and cultural history of the land. The range of recordings to be covered would not be restricted to Hindustani and Carnatic classical alone, but “also to theatre, early cinema and folk recordings in all languages, devotional and patriotic songs – as also voices and speeches of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore , Jawaharlal Nehru and several other Indian icons.

The archivist throws lights on few rare possessions of the repository — “rare tracks including Gandhiji’s spiritual message he recorded in 1931 in England, the country’s first recordings by Gauhar Jaan in 1902, Rabindranath Tagore reciting his Bengali poetry, the first recording of the national anthem by the Viswa Bharati chorus and the first recording of Carnatic vocalist M.S Subbulakshmi as a nine-year-old”.  

Sampath says the “Archive of Indian Music is probably the first of its kind of digital sound archive for vintage recordings in India that is easily accessible to all”. The archive wants to restore nearly 100,000 records in the next five years and set up parallel centres in Kolkata and Gujarat— and build a permanent building in Bangalore called the “National Sound Archive of India” which would be an everlasting legacy for our country.     

The history of music preservation in our country is “a sad commentary”. In a nation, “where music is so ubiquitous, isn’t it a shame that we don’t have a central repository for all kinds of music” Sampath says.

What better way than the arts to achieve a sense of national integration in these troubled times where divisions are more apparent than any sense of unity. It is cultural inheritances like these that give us sense of identity. But traditionally music too has been an oral tradition, transmitted from teacher to taught and hence along with pedagogy, even the documentation has largely survived word of mouth and through anecdotal memory — all of which come with their fair share of loss in translation and exaggeration.   

“Treatises on musical theories have no doubt existed, but documentation around musicians is almost absent,” the archivist says.  An archivist  needs to be indiscriminate and not let his or her personal biases cloud the preservation. 
“I would naturally tend to have a bias towards classical music. But that defeats the whole purpose. Our criterion is that all that was recorded — be it classical or folk songs or speeches or voices of common Indians – needs to be collated and preserved from across the country… Recording technology when it came to India in 1902 played such a major role in democratizing music, making classical music popular. Hence what was perceived as elitist becomes “that of the masses through technology’”, Sampath said.

Hence what is perceived as elitist becomes that of the masses through technology.

“In just three months of the pilot website going live with 600 clips, the sound cloud profile has more than 300,000 total plays and close to 200,000 followers. Sampath says 40 per cent of the listeners coming from India.
P.S Archivist Vikram Sampath is the author of three books, “Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars” (Rupa & Co) , “My Name is Gauhar Jaan” and “Voice of the Veena: S. Balachander” .

- Madhusree Chatterjee  

Friday, July 26, 2013

Italian pizza king Ciro opens his food hamper – up, close, tattooed


Italian pizza king Ciro opens his food hamper – up, close, tattooed

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

India on the fast lane is fast logging on to the quick eat network – and Italy tops the gourmet scores with its platter of pizzas, pasta, lasagna, spaghetti and risotto, not to mention the array of rich fruity wines from the Valleys and the nooks of the Mediterranean. Italian pizza king and spiritualist Ciro Orsini has been quick to catch on to the trend in a rapidly urbanising India.

His pizza chain outlet, CIro’s Pomodoro, named after a species of tomato, celebrated its first birthday in the Indian national capital (New Delhi) with a small posse of friends from Bollywood and Hollywood on July 24.
Ciro, known as the mastermind behind converting the delicate Italian pizza – essentially a snack – into a wholesome gourmet meal with add-ons and toppings in the 1980s England, blends spirituality with his savouries from Italy. 

The 53-year-old pizza impresario is covered in tattoos that flowers on his torso and arms like ancient totemic omens. His wrists are choc-a-bloc with silver charm bracelets. And around his neck dangles more than a dozen odd necklaces of healing “tawizi”, sacred pendants.

Born a devout Catholic in the Napoli region of Italy, Ciro turned to Sufi spirituality after he realized “that the Catholic Church was not doing much to help people in distress – especially during disasters like the tsunami”.

“I don’t like the Church. They don’t do the right thing. I was born a Catholic but I don’t believe in it any more. And neither in the government. One has to find one own’s way,” Ciro told this writer in an informal chat at the Pomodoro in New Delhi. This quest for alternative spirituality mooring led the pizza innovator to Maulana Kazmi, a revered Sufi mystic in Pakistan, a Sufi shrine in Cyprus and to Maulana Sheikh Nazim in London. They showed him the healing power of faith in divine commune with god, Ciro recalled.

“I connected to the faith instantly. I have worked with orphans in Pakistan and have seen how the Sufi mystics heal children possessed by demons. Three years ago, I was in Pakistan to be blessed by 21 Sufi saints. It was lightening process – I let go of my anxiety,” Ciro said, showing off a Sufi “tawizi” that has a powerful healing effect on the entrepreneur.

Ciro is keen to known the mysticism of India – the healing power and temperance of Hinduism that he believes “is as inclusive and warm as Sufism”. This dash of spirituality tops his pizza as well.

“I have an USP. I can make pizzas according to blood types as special healing recipes. It is personal contribution I have made the traditional legacy of the Italian delicacy,” Ciro divulged between sips of sparkling mineral water. He has evolved recipes for “those with type A positive, O, AB and B blood groups”.

“People with certain type of blood feel good with certain type of food. For example, people with positive blood groups have an affinity to vegetables like carrots, cauliflowers and broccoli. For the positive blood type eaters, I top my pizza liberally with vegetables. And for the O blood type, I top the crust with lot of meat,’ the pizza chef said.  “Eating a pizza becomes a spiritual experience”.  
Ciro’s menu of exotica from home grown produce – that include traditional gourmet dishes like the Zuppe, Selezione Di Pane, Antipasti, Insalate, Paste, Risotti, Secondi Piatti and Contorni — has sparked generous amount of interest among the Delhi foodies.

Ciro’s range boasts of Hollywood favourites as well like the “recipe of Dustin Hoffman’s signature ‘Mushroom’, Jackie Shroff’s “Pizza all Ortolano”, Sophia Loren’s “Verdure”, Sharon Stone’s “Pesto”, Patrick Swaye’s “Quattro Formagi”, George Clooney’s “Chicken Fajita”, Al Pacino’s “Padrino”, Sylvester Stallone’s “Caterina” and Clint Eastwood’s “Proscuitto”. The guest list to the outlets is a “starstudded who’s who”- from Axel Rose of Guns n Roses, Mike Tyson, Brad Pitt to Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor.

Ciro’s tryst with pizza is quixotic. “When I was young, I was a boxer. Later when I began to studying, I began catering in Napoli to support myself. Later I located to Milano’s in Rome. After boxing and studies, I went into restauranteering and realized that this was what I wanted to do in the future,” Ciro said, recounting his journey across the world of pizza.

The boxer-turned-pizza chef said “it was nice feeling being in the kitchen”. 
“But so many people were working in the kitchen and I wanted to do a little more than them. When I was in London, I decided to turn the thin crust Napoli pizza into a gourmet meal with extra fillings, cheese and meat. So that it was not just after dinner … But a dinner menu in itself,” Ciro said.

Pizza since then has travelled far and wide as a full meal. In India, Ciro has to compete with American version of thin, medium and thick crusted pizzas – and in their Indian avatars like paneer (cottage cheese) and tikka (tandoor grilled) topped spicy toppings.

“I think the market in India is maturing and it is the right time to take it on,” Ciro said. 

- Madhusree Chatterjee 

Ciro's Pomodoro is located in N Block Market GK 1

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Indian growth and its uncertainties with Amartya Sen (BOOK REVIEW FEATURE)


Understanding Indian growth and its shadows with Amartya Sen (BOOK REVIEW FEATURE)

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

In the last two decades, India had been concerned with understanding how growth happens – and how it happened in nations like Brazil, Mexico, Africa and China, said Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, the iconic economist and philosopher in the national capital on July 22.     

There is a story of growth everywhere in Europe and around the world. But there is an Asian story as well. “Public education, public healthcare, welfare – there is no difference between the quality of people and the models of growth applicable to them,” Sen said, pointing to certain imbalance in growth statistics across India.

Growth is the primary premise of Sen’s new volume, “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions (Penguin-India)”, a non-fictional account of India’s uncertainties in its progress report card that he has “co-authored” with leading French economist Jean Dreze, who lives and works in India.

The book contends that the country’s main problems lie in the lack of attention paid to the essential needs of the people. They point out that an increase in the per capita income cannot transform living conditions in the country in 10 inter-related chapters that deal with integrated development and growth, accountability, corruption, importance of education, healthcare crisis, social support, poverty, inequalities and the urgent need to agitate and change.

Describing the history of growth, Sen and Dreze say “despite the grim beginning, a newly independent India rapidly went on to have cluster of very significant political and economic successes”. In the initial years, the growth of the Indian economy was quite slow – about 3-5 per cent annually, but for several decades after Independence, the paltry growth rate was considered an achievement compared to the near-zero growth of the colonial days”.

The great uncertainty looming over the country’s early growth narrative was the doubt over India’s capacity to operate as a functioning democracy. The second challenge was to avoid the danger of conflict and avoid a breakup of the country. But the overshadowing factor was the magnitude of poverty in India. The scenario, however, changed in the decades that followed with a momentum in the rate of growth as democracy struck deeper roots, the economists say.
Growth in India has been fickle compared to other Asian countries. 

“There was a whole lot of things that we missed out which the Japanese didn’t. They were successful. South Korea did many of the things and they followed Japan. Koreans believed in hard work,” Sen said.

Throwing insights into the story of growth in Korea, Sen said, “Korea became a high education nation from a low education country.” First it raised the coverage and then raised the quality,” the economist expounded.

Sen clarified that “he had never recommended more subsidies for the poor but what the poor needs most are more public services.” The country needs to build up its public services, the economist observed.
“There are things to look at – like there has been a diagnostic failure which people fail to understand. Reforms are a dual promise. On the one hand, while it means removing unnecessary government control and allowing the market to flourish at the same time, the state has to do its functions, Sen pointed out.

One of the failures that Sen and Dreze point to is the inability of the social support system – the role of the state — in tackling poverty. Well-functioning public services can make a big difference to people’s lives. The economists cite an example of a tribal village in the Surguja district in Chhattisgarh.

The year was 2001. A tribal woman in Jhapat, a remote outpost in the heartland state, lamented that “no one was going to listen to the marginalized poor because they did not wield the stick”. She railed at the non-functional public distribution system in the area. The local ration shop was three hours away on foot.

Years later in 2011, Jhapat had a PDS shop in the middle of the village, but a just few km away across the border between Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, the situation was still the same as it was a decade ago.

A malfunctioning social support system prompts imbalances on the development map. “The delivery system has not happened. China has spent much more on public services and healthcare. The question to raise here is whether we can learn from them. We would like to have more democratic systems,” Sen punched holes in the Indian social support delivery apparatus with exceptions of sporadic success models like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. The reason for the brisk growth in these states, Sen says, is their serious capacity to do it.

The economists dwell at length on a comparative advantage between India and the bigger Asian countries and the sub-Saharan Africa that have a low human development index.

South Asia and the sub-Saharan Africa may be sharing high incidences of poverty, but they are not similarly placed in every aspect. Statistical studies bring out a disturbing fact, the economists say. What is alarming, given the past, is not India’s comparatively low position in terms of income per head like many other countries in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa — but how badly India does in terms of non-income features of living even within these groups of countries.

The growth chart is flawed, the economists assert in the book. Even in the South Asian region, where India was supposed to be leading the regional solidarity bloc, the country has fallen behind most of its SAARC (South Asian) neighbours in the social indicators (barring Pakistan).

A comparison between India and Bangladesh shows that in the last 20 years, India has grown much richer then Bangladesh, but during the same period, Bangladesh has raced past India in areas like life expectancy, child survival, reduced fertility rates and enhanced immunization campaigns.

Nepal with all its problems has edged past in many social and health indicators despite India’s greater per capita income. Pakistan shows in better tally in the healthcare mandate.

Sen and Dreze point out that the “comparative perspectives in South Asia tend to be commonly overlooked in development studies – yet there is a lot to learn from looking around within South Asia”.  In is interesting to note that in Sri Lanka, which has an edge over India in schooling and literacy – private schools are absent. They were prohibited since 1960s.

“Few people in Sri Lanka live barely 1.4 km away from the nearest health centre”. Notwithstanding the large geography and the faster pace of growth in general compared to its South Asian neighbours. The economists suggest that India may have a lot to learn from them.

Sen says “India presents a diverse picture of growth”. While the performance in the business sector (with soft industry as the way to a sustainable future), the country has had a bad record in public policy- especially in areas like nutrition, education and healthcare.

“Ten years ago, corruption was not a big issue, but today people were involved in it,” Sen said, urging greater accountability. The saga of development and growth in India is like “hundreds of islands of California”, scattered along the urban nodes in pockets – where it was easy to get lost in the glitter of bustling culture, good food and theatre. But just outside the city limits was a disconnect – the real picture of a poorer India on Ground Zero.

Book- “Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions”; Publisher- Penguin India