Sunday, February 26, 2006

Everything Scientific Vol. VIII

Welcome to yet another edition of everything scientific, your stop for some latest breakthroughs and interesting findings from the world of science.

Chinese secrecy and Avian flu

Bird flu’s in the headlines again, making it’s presence felt in Europe and now in India as well. The earlier SARS outbreak put China in the spotlight though for collaborative and open international research. China considers itself a world-power, and is flexing it’s economic muscle. But, like the old saying goes, with great power comes greater responsibility. In the global efforts against bird flu, where 1.9 billion dollars were pledged to combat bird-flu in poor nations, China pledged a piddling ten million dollars. It’s excuse was that it needs the resources to combat the flu in China itself. Yet, Chinese efforts to combat the flu at home are shrouded in secrecy, and information or biological samples have not been shared with the rest of the world. China’s neighbors, smaller countries like Vietnam or Cambodia are highly vulnerable to the flu, and will need all the help they can get to combat it. China needs to do with bird flu what it eventually did with SARS. Share samples and genetic data of strains, and provide health officials and biologists any information they have, in order to enable the world to mount a response against this virus. Parsimony and secrecy do little to help.

(Editorial, Nature 439, 369 (26 January 2006) link)

A nasty bite

Malaria has been a human scourge for centuries. It’s caused by a nasty parasitic protozoan, plasmodium, and is transmitted by our friendly neighborhood mosquito. The parasite has multiple life cycle stages, and first enters the human bloodstream as a sporozoite, and makes a beeline towards the liver, where the hide and replicate and come out as merozoites. These merozoites then go on to invade our red blood cells and cause the severe conditions of malaria. But how these parasites move about within the system had never been observed. Never, that is, until now. Researchers (doing some “very, very cool science”) took some plasmodium sporozoites, and engineered them to express a green color (Green fluorescent protein). They then used these to infect hairless mice, so the actual migration of the parasites could be seen in a large, whole animal, and what they saw amazed even them. They sporozoites entered the dermis, and moved forward at a rapid, frenetic pace (faster than any thing they’d seen in cultured parasites, or in the mosquito proboscis). Some of these actually escape the dermis, and encounter lymph vessels. Their two big findings really are that there are new life cycle stages of the parasite inside humans (a skin stage, and a lymph node stage). The other big finding is that the lymph node stage might be important in our own immune responsiveness, and may help our understanding towards a attenuated whole-parasite vaccine for malaria.

(Nature Medicine 12, 220 - 224 (2006) link)

Jurassic park mammal

Up to about 65 million years ago, the world was ruled by dinosaurs. The first early mammals were tiny, nocturnal, and confined only to land. Only after the dinosaurs became extinct did they get an opportunity to proliferate and evolve to modern mammals. Or so we thought. Some researchers in China have unearthed a spectacular fossil of a new mammal, that’s over 150 million years old, and puts back the mammalian re-conquest of water by at least a 100 million years. This new mammal was a semi-aquatic swimmer, and probably a fish eater. It seems larger than most mammals of that era, and is about half a meter long, with a beaver like tail, and seal like teeth. And the fossil is so incredibly well preserved that it even provides parts of the soft body, like hair or webbed feet.

All other early mammals were small, and probably insectivores. This was almost certainly a carnivore, and surprisingly resembles the Australian platypus. Clearly, mammals were around doing their bit long before we thought they were. Good times for researchers of mammalian evolution history.

Mammals rule!
(Science 24 February 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5764, pp. 1123 – 1127 link)

New moons and rings

Thought you knew all about our solar system? Think again. We thought Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus were large planets with a ring system, small moons, large moons and a few outer moons. Uranus supposedly had the most straight forward ring system, with it’s moons named curiously after Shakespearean characters. But the Hubble telescope has revealed more. It has discovered two new moons of Uranus, and two new rings around the planet, R1 and R2! The researchers compared the current orbits of all the moons in a new group with those derived a decade ago, and show that the orbits of the moons are constantly changing, and evolving in a chaotic fashion. All I can say is it’s too bad for new students. The solar system isn’t just going to be one big sun, nine planets, and our moon.

(Science 17 February 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5763, pp. 973 – 977 link)

Medicine needs evolution

The contributions of evolution to understanding disease and genetics are well known, but it’s full potential in medicine haven’t been realized. Science magazine has a strong editorial on the topic, suggesting that training in evolutionary thinking can help researchers and clinicians ask important questions that they normally wouldn’t think about. Here’s a snippet of their suggestions:

First, include questions about evolution in medical licensing examinations; this will motivate curriculum committees to incorporate relevant basic science education. Second, ensure evolutionary expertise in agencies that fund biomedical research. Third, incorporate evolution into every relevant high school, undergraduate, and graduate course. These three changes will help clinicians and biomedical researchers understand that both the human body and its pathogens are not perfectly designed machines but evolving biological systems shaped by selection under the constraints of tradeoffs that produce specific compromises and vulnerabilities. Powerful insights from evolutionary biology generate new questions whose answers will help improve human health

Science 24 February 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5764, p. 1071 link

And that, dear readers, is all you for this week’s edition of everything scientific.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

“Period films” in Indian cinema

Period films, be they historicals, historical fiction or fantasy-mythology set in a “period” have a unique place in almost all major cinema. Few people can resist the heady rush that a swashbuckling adventure set in a time of lore and legend offers. Asia in general, and India in particular is rich in history, legend and myth. So it seems rather intuitive that Indian cinema should have some memorable historicals. The films of the other two big movie “powerhouses” of Asia, China and Japan, almost automatically bring up images of “period films”. Kurosawa made some superb films set in Medieval Japan. But he wasn’t alone in recreating medieval Japan on celluloid. The Samurai Trilogy (the story of Mushashi Miyomoto), Samurai rebellion and dozens of other non-Kurosawa “samurai” films became classics not only in Japan, but worldwide. These films were by no means a showcase for action alone, but told stories of people, set in a time remembered with nostalgia. Chinese films (mostly made in Hong Kong) used a period setting for non-stop kung-fu action, and Shaolin almost became a household name. Jet Li and Jackie Chan started off in obscure (now cult-classic) Kung-fu historicals before diversifying. More recent efforts by directors like Ang Lee and Yimou Zhang are colorful stories set in ancient imperial China. India has as many legends and fables and stories from the past (both real and imaginary) to provide an endlessly rich source of material for the movies. But to the average viewer of contemporary Indian cinema, period films, be they history or fiction, have become almost alien. Yet there’s a fantastic history of period films in Indian cinema.

Indian cinema started off in the early 20th century using this rich source of material, churning out period films that sometimes were outstanding. The very first movie from India was Raja Harishchandra, in 1913, in as much silent splendor black and white cinema could offer. And this was just the beginning of the “golden age” of period films in Indian cinema. The first “talkie” was Alam Ara, another period fantasy with a king, scheming queens, an abandoned princess, gypsies, a prince and “dazzling fights”. Saurab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor himself starred in innumerable “historicals”, and audiences lapped it up. And stories were not just restricted to India or Indian stories. The Dilip Kumar classic Yahudi was set in imperial Rome, and Dilip Kumar played a Roman prince in love with a Jew, Meena Kumari. At a time when “special effects” were still a concept, directors relied on story, screenplay and drama, and crafted surprisingly moving movies. But within a few years of independence, the popularity of historicals waned, and “socialistic” movies of poor commoner heroes fighting oppressor land-lords or the scheming rich became increasingly popular. But even up to the seventies there were moments of “period film” excellence. Mughal-e-azam, a fascinating story of historical fiction about the love of the mughal crown-prince Salim for a court dancer, Anarkali, in spite of opposition from the emperor, became an instant cinematic classic. Lavishly glamorous, with outstanding music, a stellar star-cast, and outstanding performances, it was destined for Indian cinematic immortality. Taj Mahal and Pakeezah are just two other movies from the sixties that stand out in the historical genre in Indian cinema.

Regional cinema too was enamored by Indian myth and history. Tamil cinema, to take just one example, churned out some memorable historicals. Shivaji Ganesan became a household name with dialog heavy period movies like Manohara or Veerapandya Kattabomman. The other Ganeshan, “Gemini”, also had his share of period dramas, like Parthiban kanavu, while a later “savior of the people”, MGR, starred in a series of historical dramas, dueling away to stardom. There were also innumerable fantasies rooted in the Indian epics or fables, and some were even rollicking entertainers, movies like Tiruvilayadal or Mayabazaar. A lot of these movies when viewed today appear tacky, with gaudy sets or outlandish costumes. Yet, many of them still hold together very well because they remain rooted in a story that’s timeless and irresistibly appealing.

But period dramas were slowly relegated to the back burner by the mid seventies in Hindi as well as regional cinema. Angry young men or chocolate heroes began to dominate the screen, and more contemporary themes began to predominate cinema, and historicals became part of history. But in recent years there has been a small revival of sorts with period dramas. It started off with a series of movies set in India under the British Raj. Hey Ram or Bhagat Singh were excellent efforts, but Lagaan was a revolution of sorts. Lagaan had a rather predictable story, but it’s cast, picturization and screenplay were flawless (going with outstanding music), and the story was told beautifully. Devdas was an opulent extravaganza. Other efforts like Ashoka or Kisna were downright awful, and even the recent Mangal Pandey was rather tepid. But perhaps it’s just a lost skill being revived.

In order to make a good period film, be it history, fiction or absolute fantasy, there’s one little requirement. The moviemaker needs to be an old fashioned storyteller at heart, not unlike the wandering bards and minstrels of ancient India, who would build worlds in the minds of gaping listeners. The glitz or special effects come much later. Even though the special effects of the Lord of the rings were fantastic, Peter Jackson remained a storyteller at heart, and that’s what made the movie spectacular. But the technology now makes it possible for a talented storyteller to paint a cinematic canvas the way he or she imagines it. Perhaps it’s a perfect time for talented Indian storytellers to start mining this endless source of stories for the screen once again, and revive a genre that’s timeless.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Another dose of 55

It’s been quite a while since I wrote some 55-word micro-fiction stories. So I thought I’d subject you to some more 55-word torture.


Hasradbal’s Carthagian troops surrounded Rome itself. Elephants, phalanxes, and ballistas stood ready. The Roman cities of the Scipii, Julii and Brutii had fallen. One final thrust would end it all. Ah! The scent of victory!

And then the mouse froze, and the hard-drive stopped humming. Damn you, Windows, for denying me a Rome: total war victory.


These were indeed grim times. Their working conditions had become worse. The cramped conditions and squalor were affecting their productivity. They sat still, in their cramped conditions, and had no idea what their fate would be.

“They have to be killed”, said the inspector to the farmer, pointing at his fifty bird-flu infected squawking hens.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Book review: The twentieth wife

“…………..He reached out and smoothed the still sweaty hair from her forehead. Cradled in Asmat’s arms and swathed in some old cloth lay a perfect little child.
“Our daughter.” Asmat handed the baby to Ghias...”

I’ve always had a soft corner for historical fiction. Swashbuckling adventures filled with intrigue, wars, action, stratagem and romance in an era long gone by some how seems to be a potent combination. India, with its rich history, would seem like an obvious and endless resource for such writing, where the core events or characters are real, but the story itself is woven from imagination. Robert Graves wrote one of the finest pieces of historical fiction in the time of Roman splendor, I, Claudius. But few Indian authors attempted it. Of course, the finest writer of Indian historical fiction was undoubtedly the magnificent writer and nationalist Kalki Krishnamurthy. His stories (in Tamil) set amidst the backdrop of wars between the great Chalukya, Pallava, Chola or Pandya empires made irresistible reading. But few authors have attempted this in English.

Indu Sundaresan, in her book The twentieth wife starts to fill this void in Indian literature. This book grabs your attention from the very first page. It is set at the height of the Mughal empire in India. Akbar is emperor, and Salim his heir. But this is not their story. It is the story of a woman who went on to perhaps become the most powerful queen medieval times have known. Her name was Mehrunnisa, “Sun amongst women”. History remembers her as Nur Jahan, “light of the world”, empress of India and queen of Jahangir’s heart and mind.

Like all good historical fiction writers, Sundaresan has done her research well. The Mughals left behind good written records, translated in to many languages. The Europeans too wrote profusely about the Mughals, so there is much reference material. But, as was custom, the queens of court were not even seen by the public, leave alone written about. Yet, Nur Jahan was well known to be incredibly powerful, and all acts of Jahangir were said to have her approval. But who was she? Where did she come from? How did she, Jahangir’s last wife, become so powerful? This is a story of a beautiful, strong, determined and intelligent woman, but is also a story of love and anguish, and is seen from a women’s perspective, from within what the aristocratic women’s society might have been in Mughal India.

It starts with Mehrunnisa’s birth, when her father Ghias Beg is escaping penniless from Persia and making his way to India. She is abandoned at birth, then found again by her parents, and grows up in the shadow of the imperial Mughal court. There she is taken under by Rukayya Sultan Begam, Akbar’s “padsha begum”, the senior most queen of his harem, and Akbar’s confidante. Mehrunnisa learns of the ways of intrigue within the zenana, as she grows in to a beautiful woman. And she comes to love the prince, Salim. But there is separation, marriage to Sher Afghan, wars, rebellion (where Salim rebels against his beloved father), reconciliation, ascent to the throne, and more rebellions by Salim’s (Jahangir’s) son. In these turbulent times are the schemes and stratagems within the royal harem, with the Rajput princess Jagat Gosini, Jahangir’s favorite wife, waiting for Jahangir to ascend the throne, so that she could displace Rukayya Sultan as padshah begum. And amidst all this is Mehrunnisa’s love for Salim, and Salim’s pining for Mehrunnisa.

A well crafted book, where historical fact blend with a beautiful and rich imagination, and an excellent writing style. The hallmark of a good historical fiction book is that upon reading it, you want to read more by the author. I do not plan to waste any time before I read Sundaresan’s sequel to this book, A feast of roses, where Nur Jahan goes from being wife of Jahangir, to padshah begum and empress of India.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Good luck Brian, where ever you are

I lived with a number of housemates in my first three-four years in the States. And it’s mostly been a fine experience, living with people from various cultures and backgrounds. Most of them were very friendly, some became good friends, some were strange or even disturbing, but the experience has always been enriching.

About two and a half years ago, I was living in this four-bedroom apartment with three other guys. One of them was Brian.

The first time I met him was when he moved in. He looked like the typical white, American graduate student, and greeted me with a cheery “hi”. But even after a short conversation with him, I knew he was far from typical.

He spoke with a “neutralized” accent…..a strange mixture of clipped New England, new world and old world! And over the months he stayed here, I got to know him much better, and found that he’d done in his short life more than most of us would do in many lifetimes.

He’d enlisted the marines after high school, in an impulsive moment (“I was young and didn’t know any better”, were the words he used). This surprised me significantly. Brian was just around five feet eight inches tall, skinny, ate organic food, and only bought fair-trade coffee and organic dark chocolate (good times, those). As un-marine as I could imagine a marine could be. And serving in the marines had enabled him to see much of the world. In some casual conversation, we steered from Darjeeling to Nepal to ghurkas, and he stunned me by saying that he’d served as liason on assignment in Haiti with a UN Peacekeeping force Ghurka regiment contingent (I don’t remember if it was the Ghurka regiment from the Indian army or the British army). And as proof, rummaged through his closet, and pulled out a magnificent ceremonial khukri, the famed and feared Ghurka blade. I lusted at it, remembering the time when I wanted to buy a cheap souvenir in Darjeeling for my mantelpiece.

It was a gift from a Ghurka officer in appreciation of his efficient work.

“And I was just a lowly private, while he was a major with his own orderly!”, was Brian’s modest response to my admiration.

Brian figured out that after a few years of service, the US Army would pay for a college education, so he took the first opportunity he got to go back to college. And there (I never got to know the exact details of how) he got interested in …..Persian!

So, after many years, here he was, a senior masters student in farsi! I gasped when I learnt this. And not only had he spent years studying the language, but now he was a fluent (almost accent less) speaker, and the teaching assistant for introductory Persian. He’d even been to Tehran for many months!

I learnt much about the country from him, and it’s customs and culture (yup, an Indian learning about Persia, a country with centuries of historic links with India, from an American). Many of his friends were Persian, and they would come over. And I learnt another unexpected fact. Iranians love good wines (yeah, yeah, they’re Moslem). I learnt that the (my now favorite) wine, Shiraz, probably originated from the Shiraz region in Iran. And I learnt that the best way to bribe a revolutionary guard (if you were caught dodging curfew) would be with a bottle of good French wine!

While talking about mountains and our fondness for hiking, he asked me about the Himalayas. I told him I’d seen Kanchenjunga, but hadn’t really climbed any thing at those heights. He casually mentioned that he’d spent six months in Morocco and Algeria, ostensibly learning Arabic, but mostly climbing the Atlas mountains! Apparently, learning Arabic was much, much harder than learning Farsi (contrary to popular imagination, the languages are not related one little bit), but Casablanca was a great place to hang out in.

Brian’s tastes in movies were as (if not more) eclectic than my own. It didn’t matter what language the movie was in, or what era it was from. I’d sometimes catch him practicing his French while watching a French classic. As I would dig in to a Hindi movie, he’d join me to often watch it. He was terribly excited when I re-watched Mughal-e-azam. “I can learn this language, it’s not very different from Farsi!” he exclaimed.

I told him even if he learnt to speak in refined Urdu, he’d be hard pressed to find a group large enough to fluently converse in it. And that instantly lead in to a discussion of Urdu’s development, and finally ended in how Sanskrit and Old-Persian were very closely related, and how modern Persian evolved from old-Persian (while I clutched feebly at my crippled Sanskrit).

One fine day, Brian came home, and told me he’d be leaving at the end of the quarter.

“Where to?” I asked.

Tajikistan, he replied, with a poker face.

“Are you serious? Tajikistan? Why on earth?” was my instant query.

And then I learnt that the Tajik language is directly derived from Persian, and is still very close to Farsi (and is not of Turkic origin, as I had mistakenly assumed, just because Uzbek is Turkic). Outside of Persia, Tajikistan is the best place in the world to study Persian.

“What about wars, and abductions and all that stuff?”, I asked.

“Oh, that stuff happens in all the countries around it. This place is totally safe”, replied Brian confidently, as I stared at him in disbelief (forgetting that he was a marine and had see war).

And so, Brian headed out to Tajikistan (leaving behind his movie collection with me for “safekeeping”).

It’s been two years now, and I haven’t heard from Brian since. I hope he’s ok, and is a master of the Persian language, and is back working for the US government. Or perhaps he met a beautiful Tajik village lass, and decided to settle down there.

Wherever you are Brian, good luck to you!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Of indomitable will

If you’ve grown up on an overdose of Hindi or Tamil or Malayalam or Kannada (*insert Indian language of choice*) cinema, you’re usually rarely impressed by unbending or indomitable characters. There’s invariably a hero, who stands up to fight all of society’s evils, or who will never bow to any form of injustice. You’re hardly moved by their ability to resist being “broken”, no matter the price. But as I re-watched an old Hollywood classic, I remembered why that movie moved me in the first place, and also was reminded of another different (and yet strangely similar) movie.

Papillon was perhaps the finest moment in Steve Mcqueen’s more than modest career. The story based on the life of Henrie Charriere, called “papillon”, the butterfly. Charriere was a small time criminal, who was falsely accused of murder, and thrown in to prison in French Guyana. For about a century, from the time of Napoleon’s exile to the middle of the 20th century, French Guyana served as a penal colony with one of the harshest prison systems the modern world has known. Prisoners were often sent there after flawed trials, and once there they could never escape (British India had it’s own replica of the French Guyana system, in Kala paani). There, they had to undergo hard labor, in hot, malaria infected swamps, with little food and water, and the barest minimum for survival. The first attempt at escaping would result in 2 years of solitary confinement, where absolute silence was enforced, in a closed (no barred doors) 6 foot by 4 room, with one meal a day. Prisoners could be tortured here, and even be thrown in to complete darkness for months. A second attempt would result in five years in solitary. A third (if obviously unsuccessful) would lead to the guillotine. And there were a few places to escape to. Surrounded by swamps, with few habitations around, and armed guards (manhunters), with orders to remain ruthless. Yet, Papillon enters prison with one idea in mind, freedom. There he meets and befriends Louis Dega (the inimitable Dustin Hoffman), a myopic, fragile master-forger, sentenced to exile and imprisonment. Dega represents more common aspirations. Willingness to compromise. To try to bribe one’s way to lesser hardships. To use all legal means possible to secure release. And an innate decency towards all other men. But with Papillon, without freedom there is no life. So, he escapes, is caught, and is thrown in to solitary. When Dega helps him (by bribing a warden to bring him food), and Papillon is caught, he refuses to reveal his benefactor’s name. More punishment, and brutal torture. He barely survives, only to escape again. To be caught again, and subjected to more breaking. And then escape again, to almost make it to freedom. Finally, an old man, he’s sent to Devil’s island, a rocky, isolated island where convicts eke out a subsistence survival. Here he meets his old friend Dega again, and as they hobble across the island, arthritic, with rotten teeth and weak limbs, he plots his final escape from the island. Defiant, unbroken, and believing in freedom to the last

And as I watched the dvd for the umpteenth time, my mind kept drifting back to a classic starring one of Hollywood’s finest. Cool hand Luke stands out even in Paul Newman’s covetable resume. This is a “masaala” movie, but a movie so rich, and so deep, that it’s hard not to admire the craft or the depth of performances. A loner arrested in the south for a relatively trivial reason (being drunk on the street), Luke goes to prison, and does hard labor as part of a chain gang. And there he’s put under the meanest prison warden fiction could conjure up.

“You gonna fit here real good. I can be a good guy or a real mean son-of-a-bitch. It’s up to you”.

Set in the conservative and religious south, this movie is full of religious imagery. But above it all are Luke’s uncompromising principles, and independence. The movie moves along expected lines, as Luke forges friendships, and unites prisoners. The captain and the guards strive constantly to break his spirit, and Luke silently resists. Newman’s smile haunts you throughout and after the film. The parallels to Christ (dying for the sins of the world) are more than obvious. The movie questions the reform system, and the power of authority and the establishment. But none of that stayed in my mind. What lasted was Luke, the man who believed in independence, of free thought and a belief in freedom.

Yet, between these two movies, there remained one big difference (of course, Papillon was based on fact, Luke was all fiction). Both strived for freedom, of will as well as freedom in flesh. But Papillon’s optimism contrasted starkly with Luke’s negativism. Papillon’s glass always remained half full.

And for a lover of Indian cinema, what’s any movie without undying optimism?

Postscript: Sanjay Gupta, these little aspects are what make these movies classics, and Zinda a dud.

Friday, February 03, 2006

If music be the food of love Part II

(The first part of this post is here)

As we talked about the historical growth and influences in Carnatic music, we didn’t touch upon one region of the South, Kerala. But the form of music was and is indeed popular in the state. The greatest growth and patronage of the music occurred under the rulers of Travancore, and Maharaja Swati Thirunal’s name stands out. He lived in the early part of the 19th century, and was not only a great patron of Carnatic music and dance (as well as musical storytelling forms like Harikatha, closely linked to Carnatic music), but was a composer of great repute himself (composing in Sanskrit, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada). He’s said to have composed over 400 songs in five languages (though historians believe that some of these songs were composed by musicians in court). His His court was adorned by the finest musicians of that time, and resulted in a mini “golden age” of sorts for Carnatic music. Many of “his” compositions bear the mudra (signature phrase) “Padmanaabha”, the patron deity of Travancore.

Like any music form, there has been a constant flux and evolution of Carnatic music over the centuries. Carnatic musicians did not belong to any one caste group (it is often mistaken that it is a music “of brahmins”). The bhakti tradition drew people of various castes, and most of them strived for a caste-free society. The haridasas, veerasaivas, nayanars, alvars and others (who profoundly influenced the development of this music) were from various communities, and preached a casteless world. There is however no denial that brahmins did closely embrace Carnatic music, given it’s devotional nature, and close association with philosophy. In more modern times though, especially in Tamil Nadu, many of the “top rung” performers are brahmins. It remains less so in Karnataka, Andhra or Kerala. But even a few decades ago, it was not so even in Tamil Nadu. Kumbakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai or Kanchipuram Naina Pillai remain amongst the greats of the past century. Mysore Chowdiah (a Kannadiga) or Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu (Telugu) were hugely popular in Tamil Nadu. However, things perhaps changed with the Dravidian movement in the sixties. Carnatic music, has strong Sanskrit influences, and so was associated with brahmins by default. This resulted in other patrons distancing themselves from it, just to avoid association with any thing that could be considered sanskritic.

Interestingly, a majority of the greatest female Carnatic musicians came from the “Isai velalar” community (side note: Isai velalars are not to be confused with velalars, who were landowning communities in Tamil Nadu. This includes Saiva Pillais, Mudaliars or Chettiars who historically, like brahmins were allowed high levels of education, and may perhaps be compared to the Thakurs in Northern India). Isai velalars were temple dancers and musicians, “deva dasis” of sorts. The legendary Veena Dhannamal, Brinda, Mukta, M.L. Vasantakumari and the peerless M.S. Subbalakshmi were all Isai Velalars. They were for centuries the keepers and nourishers of Carnatic music, especially the bhakti or “bhajana sampradaya” aspects of it. However, social reform (in part due to the Devadasi Act in 1982) as well as a loss of traditional patronage for temple musicians from wealthy patrons resulted in this community slowly disappearing (by being absorbed in to “mainstream” society). The reasons for social reform of Isai Velalars were compelling, but the loss to Carnatic music has been priceless.

The patronage of royal courts began to wane by the mid 20th century, but new patrons arose. In Tamil Nadu, the biggest patrons came from the wealthy and growing business community, especially the Chettiars and Mudaliars. The likes of “Raja” Annamalai Chettiar, or Azhagapa Chettiar were great patrons of the music form. This (in part) resulted in a revival of Tamil music in Carnatic music (with the formation of the Tamil Isai Sangam). The works of the alvars, nayanars, Venkatakavi, Arunachalakavi, Muthu Thandavar, Gopalakrishna Bharati and others were again revived as “main” concert pieces, and this has come to change the face of many modern concerts. Additionally, in the mid-nineteenth century, many of the connoisseurs of Carnatic music were ardent nationalists (and many musicians themselves were strong supporters of the freedom movement). C. Rajagopalachari, “Kalki” Krishnamurthy, T. Sadasivam (M.S. Subbalakshmi’s husband) and many others were active congressmen or Gandhians. This resulted in a new kind of music, patriotic music (especially the compositions of Subramanya Bharati) becoming popular in Carnatic concerts, changing the face of an essentially devotional form of music.

Finally, we come to the “modern” concert format. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no fixed “format” for a concert. Musicians would even sometimes vie to extend a concert for as long as they could, and there are stories of musicians singing for two or three whole days! That really often became a bad case of a sensory overdose causing the appetite to sicken and so die (B.O.A). Or else, people really didn’t have time any more to hang out by a temple (or where ever else) and listen to endless music. Ariyagudi Ramanuja Iyengar really gets the credit for creating a “crisp” two and a half hour concert format. He would typically start a concert with a varanam, and then speed through three or four crisp and rapidly rendered compositions, to warm the audience up. He then would elaborately outline a raga (raga aalapana), and proceed with a kriti, followed by a nerval and swara kalpana. His raga aalapanas were also concise, and would never be repetitive. He also put the “ragam thanam pallavi” as the center piece of the concert. He also ended the concert with shorter pieces, and bhajans. His style didn’t take long to become extremely popular. Another profound influence on the style of concerts was Maharajapuram Vishwanatan. His own style was unique, and he rarely spent much time exploring the raga independently in an alapana. He would prefer to explore it from within a song itself, and so would render many, many shorter pieces in his concerts. Modern musicians still follow a nicely organized format that is profoundly influenced by these two styles.

Carnatic music has constantly evolved over the centuries, and just like India, has absorbed and adopted various influences, all of which have only served to embellish it further.


PS: Srikanth has an interesting post about Thyagaraja here