Thursday, December 29, 2005

Same Great Menu (Since 1988)

The first page of the menu at the Palo Alto Creamery, at the crossing of Emerson and Hamilton Streets:
Welcome to the Palo Alto Creamery! In 1923 the Peninsula Dairy opened this place, and through the years it has managed to survive. Although the faces of our servers have changed, the original concept remains the same: Great Food... Great Shakes... Reasonable Prices. We know you all miss the grumpy old waitresses who used to bicker all day long. Somehow we just know this place never would have made it without them.

There are a few things we would like to set the record straight on. Please don't ask how old the girls are, you know the ones, because we don't know. And about those 15c shakes: Get real! Chances are we don't remember "way back when" you first started coming here, but we're glad to see some things never change.

The bathrooms are now downstairs and no, we don't have a pay phone, never mind a FAX. About the music, well, the records are so old they play at different volumes, sometimes loud, sometimes not so loud. Oh well, as they say at the counter, that's life. Maybe we don't do everything the way you like, but we'll do our best. If that's not good enough make us an offer we can't refuse!

We love to see all of you, but you could come in a little more often.

P.S. If you're not from Palo Alto this probably won't make any sense.
I had a massive brunch (three scrambled eggs with diced ham, bacon and sausages, home fries and buttered rye, washed down with coffee) here today. Yum yum.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Radio Jaijayanti

Ladies, Gentlemen and Beloved Children Below the Age of Three,

The "Tolly Nullah Bachao Andolan" (est. 1972) is pleased to present a fundraising programme dedicated entirely to Raga Jaijayanti. The programme will be beamed directly to your homes via Besur Betal Betar, whether you like it or not, if you click this link to open the stream in your music player.

Some notes on the raga and short samples may be found here (scroll down the page).

The artists who have kindly consented to take the stage are:

Akbar Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Allauddin Khan, Asad Ali Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bismillah Khan, Buddhadev Das Gupta, D. V. Paluskar, Faiyyaz Khan, Ghulam Mustafa Khan, Gundecha Brothers, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Imrat and Nishat Khan, Pandit Jasraj, Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Mallik Family (Darbhanga Dhrupadiyas), Nikhil Banerjee, Purnima Sen, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Rashid Khan, Shobha Gurtu, Siyaram Tiwari, Subhra Guha, Sultan Khan, Umrao Bundu Khan, Veena Sahasrabuddhe, V. G. Jog, Vilayat Khan and Vinayak Rao Patwardhan.

We thank members of certain disreputable educational institutions for persuading these musicians to be here with us tonight. We deny all reports that excessive force was used in some cases.

The programme will last approximately 16 hours. If you feel the need to leave before the end, you may do so only by leaving a substantial monetary contribution to the cause in the lunchbox by the door. Please switch off your cellphones before the concert starts. Thank you.

We now invite the chief guest to light the ceremonial lamp. (Applause.) Miss [Tumpa/Jhumpa/Rumpa] [Sikdar/Sanyal/Ghosh Dastidar] will present a momento (sic) to His Excellency.

And now, please welcome...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Besur Betal Betar

(Attention: The procedure for accessing the station has changed. The station is still available on the SHOUTcast Yellowpages but the playlist file available there has an IP address dependent URL, and my IP changes regularly: the feed will stop and you'll have to re-Tune In from the Yellowpages every time this happens. With the new system you'll (hopefully) need to merely stop and restart the track in your music player.)

Frustrated by my moojikally-isolated existence in sunny California, I have started an internet radio station called "Besur Betal Betar" for Hindustani classical music. It's a SHOUTcast feed: to access it, open this playlist file in your music player (Winamp or equivalent). In some players, you can simply open the URL "". For more info, visit the station's homepage. If you can't access this page, the server is switched off: refer to the first caveat below.

Caveat 1: When the server is switched off for long periods, the feed will also (obviously) stop, and will probably not restart unless you restart it in your music player. If you see the feed is silent for a long time, click Stop in your player. Wait for some time (listen to something else :)) and click Play. If the feed has started again by then you should get some sound. Else click Stop, wait some more, and try playing again.

Caveat 2: The feed is not guaranteed to be 24x7, since my laptop is not always networked (e.g. when I travel between office and home).

Requests for tracks and artists are most welcome, subject of course to my having them.

The flavour of the day is Sharafat Hussain Khan (courtesy SCTR@JU) and Ali Akbar Khan, and my current playlist consists of about 23 hours of these two. Nice long pieces, mostly old, so do tune in if you're interested.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Samvad! Samvad! Samvad!

Until yesterday, I had no idea the Films Division of India has a website with freely streamable documentaries. I came across the link while flipping through Jim Kippen's tabla site. This is what Kippen has to say:
A spectacular archive of films sponsored by the Government of India. Regarding tabla, look in particular for the 1971 film of Ahmedjan Thirakwa (14 mins) and the 1970 film of Alla Rakha (13 mins). Other films are available, such as Mani Kaul's excellent Dhrupad (70 mins) featuring Z.M. and F.M Dagar, as well as documentaries and dramatizations of the lives of Birju Maharaj, Amir Khan, Malikarjun Mansoor, Bhimsen Joshi, Siddheswari Devi, Girija Devi, Begum Akhtar, Ravi Shankar, and Amjad Ali Khan. The best way to access these is to choose "Music of India" [or "Indian classical series"] from the Category field, then click on the search button.
The collection is truly outstanding. In fact it's more than outstanding: if you're a classical music buff, it's incredible, epiphanic and overwhelming (and I'm sure many other subjects are equally well-covered). So far, I have watched documentaries on Ud. Allauddin Khan, Ud. Ahmedjan Thirakwa (the Farukhabad tabla nawaz), Ud. Amir Khan, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi (directed by Gulzar), Pt. Ravi Shankar and Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur. I had watched Patrick Moutal's copy of the Amir Khan earlier. DD and I are in agreement that the Mansur is the best by some distance. Let's start with the stats: the film is 73 minutes long. Of these, less than a couple of minutes are used for narration, around 10-15 minutes for silence and background noise (correction: well, perhaps that should be a bit more for the former and a bit less for the latter), and the rest for singing. The director evidently appreciated the fact that the soundtrack for a film on sound is best provided by its own subject. Mansur sings all the usual stuff (Multani, Chhayanat, Paraj, Ramdasi Malhar, Bhairav, Jait Kalyan...) plus a vachana or two. And there is NOT ONE stage performance for the usual genteel urban audience. The closest we get is a bunch of neighbours (?) or a bunch of monks. There are a number of songs sung in temples, sometimes alone. The Ramdasi is sung in semi-darkness beside a window. There's a huge number of shots of (I presume) rural Dharwad. And throughout there's this impression of a man who, in the end, sings for something beyond his listeners. I can think of only two other people who consistently give this impression: Nikhil Banerjee and Amir Khan.

The Bhimsen is excellent, as is to be expected, the Amir Khan is a minor gem (and technically perhaps the best of the lot), and the Allauddin, though not the best film that could have been made, contains enough classic clippings (Allauddin teasing his wife on the violin, Ali Akbar with this absolutely fantastic clean, quick fingering of his salad days) to be fascinating. The Ravi Shankar clip is interesting -- concert fragments interspersed with questions from the audience -- the questions (and, I must admit, the answers) are eminently skippable, but the music is good.

At this point let me mention Allauddin Khan's autobiography (dictated to Shubhomoy Ghosh), "Aamar Katha" ("My Story"). It's a lovely little book about a completely unreal person. I know of no Hindi/English translation that exists.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Siddhartha is a football that inflates balloons!

And that was my freaking first attempt here. There is a God! (and now it's confirmed His initials are ZZ)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

To BW or not to BW

Why do people like black-and-white photographs? Why do we convert run-of-the-mill colour shots to BW to make them look arty? Why the hell, if at all, is less more?

A friend brought up the topic, so I thought I'd jot down a few ideas here. These thoughts are very much under construction so I might update this in the future.

1. Old-shtyle ishtyle: The least charitable reason, but not entirely devoid of substance. "Old" is a pretty good excuse to say "classic". And a sense of history, a hearkening back to the good old days is always a nice feeling. For instance, how about this swingin' 70's concert pic? Ah, what a time it was, it was!

Actually, the picture was taken in 2004. The guy's called Eddie Roberts and he was performing with his band The New Mastersounds in Chicago. BW insidiously warps our minds again.

But now on to more intrinsic things:

2. Emphasis: Sometimes, the dominant forms and patterns in a scene are most strongly defined by shades (lightness or darkness) and not by colours. Most significantly, the three-dimensional structure of objects is conveyed entirely through shading -- if you've ever cross-hatched a pencil drawing of a vase or a face you'll know what I mean. Bright colours distract our eyes from these patterns -- a bright yellow flag in the background can ruin a sober portrait, and colourful designs can obscure the roundness of a vessel or the clean lines of architecture. BW emphasizes just the shadows, highlights and contours, which is where the communicative forms of a photograph frequently (I would stick my neck out and say "usually") lie, and strips away the chromatic junk.

3. Clarity: With just two colours (or strictly speaking, just one colour -- grey) our visual language is immediately restricted. So the messages we manage to convey through our images are likely to be simpler and more direct. Result: a much greater chance of effective and unambiguous communication.

For an example of 2 and 3, here's Ansel Adams' "Aspens". There are three visual elements -- tree in foreground, treetrunks in background, and dark forest beyond. There are three dominant intensities -- bright white for the tree, medium white for the trunks, and dark grey for the forest. And that's it. End of story. The sparsest possible language is chosen to perfectly separate all three elements and the impact of the resulting image says a lot for economy of expression. Colour would be unnecessarily verbose.

Ansel Adams, "Aspens", New Mexico, 1958

4. Coordination: A camera allows you plenty of control over exposure, i.e. over the darkness and lightness of objects. What it can't do is give you any sort of control over colours in your image -- filters or exotic films limit your options to colour casts or weird fixed palettes, and extensive digital post-processing is... umm... not really photography, is it? So that brilliant bazaar shot you thought you nailed the other day turns out to be a dud because Mrs Ray and Mrs Ghosh, the chief protagonists, wore hideous pink and blue saris respectively. Shooting BW keeps your colours (dammit, you have just one!) nicely matched. In fact, many excellent colour photographs use small, well-coordinated palettes.

Here's something that works in BW but would definitely NOT work in colour if the clothing and the umbrella were of different hues (which is quite likely). Note that the colours wouldn't necessarily clash, but the picture would still lose unity in the foreground.

R. Gardiner, Wollman Ice Rink, Central Park, New York

4a. Shadows: Cutting out colours introduces interesting resonances between objects and their shadows. These pictures say it all:

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1969

Andre Kertesz, "The White Horse", New York, 1962
Marcio Ferrari, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, 2001

5. Rawness and Simplicity: A much-heralded quality of BW is its capacity to render stark and gritty images. This is probably why so many urban photographers use BW -- the clamour and grime of a big city is an ideal BW subject. The favourite film of these street shooters used to be Kodak Tri-X, well known for yielding somewhat grainy images. This feature contributed to the slightly raw and rough-edged look we've come to associate with classic street photographs.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Taxidrivers", Berlin, 1932

More philosophically, life in the city was tough, and the primordial instincts that governed your survival were somehow mirrored in the elemental simplicity of monochrome. Even now, conflict, grief, struggle, insanity and other deep-rooted emotions find a sympathetic medium in BW.

Let me reiterate this: BW is essentially simpler than colour. We associate simplicity with the past, with rural life, with congenital traits, with our primitive instincts to be happy or sad or combative, and so on. And BW excels in capturing these aspects of our world.

6. Abstraction: Verisimilitude is never the principal purpose of art. This is a nuisance for photography, which is burdened from the start by the fact that it mimics reality by default. So over the years, photographers have looked for ways to express themselves through their pictures, to make us look at the world through their eyes. BW immediately distinguishes between the real and the virtual by discarding colour, and thus in a way establishes the communicative credentials of the image -- it sticks out and hence seems more meaningful.

Of course, at this point we must admit that BW was not devised because of its potential for abstraction -- it was a consequence of the limitations of the technology of the time. And when colour film was invented, BW's exit seemed preordained. But that didn't happen, and even today many many people who shoot to tell stories stick to BW.

  1. Biplab makes a case for small palettes and strong separation of elements in "Why I both like and dislike Ansel Adams...". Clarity of expression does show clarity of thought, and the argument is convincing.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A few quick plugs

  • Tony Dummett's poor imitations of Cartier-Bresson. Not HCB, but not that poor, you'll notice. And this one from another folder is a scream.
  • David Malcomson has a lot of consistently good portraits.
  • Bill Hocker's gallery and his homepage: among the best travel photographs I've seen online.
  • Zishaan Hayath's photoblog (check the archives). I really like this sort of slice-of-life photography, and hey, he likes 50mm too :). He also has a nice article on how to get started clicking photos, but since I'm going to religiously avoid linking to tutorials here, you can find it yourself. I envy the bugger clicking away in Bombay -- the places in Kanpur which I found really photogenic (the ramshackle stretch from Parade Chauraha to the station and some other nearby localities) were also the places I was too nervous to shoot in.
And finally (shameless self-promotion) I've uploaded a lot of new photos to Flickr, specifically the last 30-odd in the People photoset. These were taken during a very cold trip to Kausani, near Almora, in early 2005 (some are from an arbit little station outside Kanpur on the return leg when our train had to stop because someone had messed with the fishplates). We took along a ton of equipment to shoot the range in the full moon, but clouds scuppered that plan and I consoled myself clicking people. An off-season trip like this is highly recommended for a very different, raw, ochre-russet-and-mist look of the hills, by the way.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

No comment

I have just read this and this. The world stinks. That's an understatement.

We're all responsible: running away from these realities won't help.

Incidentally, I believe some lady claims (in response to the first article) that "this would never have happened in USA or london". Please read the reports on looting, shooting, killing, raping and, yes, mutilation in post-Katrina Louisiana. But this is hardly the point.


I have realized, at 8:00 this morning, that I'm a stupid, gormless, garrulous, narcissistic, self-important, irresponsible pig.

I am also very old.

I assume this is common knowledge, but it suddenly hit me extra hard.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Case of Identity

During the last two weeks I have watched two wonderful films. Films about things I can relate to, either through direct experience or indirectly, through the pervasive intangibles that we call history and culture.

The first of these was Aparna Sen's "36, Chowringhee Lane" (1981), a film about an ageing Anglo-Indian schoolteacher in Calcutta (at Pratt Memorial School -- for the sake of Pratt people reading this I will refrain from using the unfortunate acronym :)). The script was originally a short story which Sen asked Satyajit Ray to take a look at. Ray read it and told her she should make a film from it, and a remarkable film it turned out to be. Throughout, Sen impresses with her sensitive and intelligent handling of her three protagonists: the schoolteacher Ms Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal) with a deep love of Shakespeare and an eccentric invalid of a brother (a delightful ham by, appropriately enough, "Shakespearewallah" Geoffrey Kendal); and a young Bengali couple (Debashree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee) whose main object is to make out chez Stoneham. The three are mutually dependent, the couple needing the old lady's apartment for sweaty workouts and the lady depending on the couple for friendship and a break from her daily monotony and loneliness. I won't tell you how this symbiosis resolves itself (watch the film!), but I was very impressed by the excellent acting, sober photography and strong script.

So much for technical appreciation. More personal stuff: I studied in a school in Calcutta run by Belgian Jesuits, where I was taught by many Ms Stonehams (well, Guzmans, Misquittas, Browns, Millars and Viannas at least!). My school is on Park Street, in an area of Calcutta that is home to many Anglo-Indian (we used the term rather vaguely to include just about anybody with some European blood :)) families, and the most common surname in school was Gomes. I spent twelve wonderful years there with many good friends from this community. I remember the Jesuit priests, men who had left their native lands to spend their lives in our country, working for the poor and working to educate us, men who had taught my father, old men in white cassocks who lived for God -- and for once that doesn't sound corny (though one of those men thought God's benevolence was frequently best dispersed through the business end of a cane :) -- he was, believe it or not, extremely popular). I was entirely comfortable reciting the Lord's Prayer at the start and end of each day's classes (one teacher of Bengali made us say it in the vernacular!) without any feeling of religious imposition (I am not Christian). In short, we were a product of an intermingling of cultures -- not the outlandish Stephanian/Doonish Raj hangover but something which I like to believe was more understated, social, intertwined and humane, representing innumerable diasporas, large and small. And for me, Ms Stoneham exists here, although she is a genetic relict of the Raj. Visit New Market and you will see many like her, as Calcuttan as me or anyone else yet not a part of the Bangalikhana that we like to pretend defines our city. A change of name (to "Kolkata", to satisfy our insecure Bengali egos) cannot rob Calcutta of its complex identity.

I'm sure cleverer people can construct complex theories of identity for Ms Stoneham. I'm not sure how effectively her story allegorizes the larger cultural picture. I'm not even sure whether the film's main focus is on such issues (rather than on the ones of human relationships and exploitation). But the context struck a chord and reminded me of something which I formally left behind many years ago but which remains implicit in me.

And on a not entirely unrelated note (?), the film has these brilliantly-placed lines from, appropriately enough, "King Lear":

Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

Have you seen Kurosawa's "Ran"? A brilliant Lear.

The second film was Sudhir Mishra's "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi" ("A Thousand Dreams Such As These", 2003), a story about three young people from Delhi during the Naxalite movement and the Emergency, technically nowhere near as good as the Sen film but remarkably genuine. Mishra provokes thought and skilfully avoids making political statements in a highly political film. Shiney Ahuja's character is brilliantly conceived -- a clever twist on the cliched supportive-friend-who-hides-his-love theme. And some scenes cut me so deep that even the memory touches something down there. If "36, Chowringhee Lane" reminded me of school, "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi" brought back things from college -- dreams and ideologies and action that is spiritually satisfying and eventually futile. And the 70s -- a decade we yearned to reach through enough classic rock and kishore/rafi and daydreams and late night bulla, the decade of India's political dark ages while the flower generation urged us to make love not war. And the many faces of freedom, from exhileration to self-destruction. And cities and friends from far away corners of the country and the immense heartland of India that trains rumble through under cloudy skies in swirling rain, or in blazing, parching heat, or in pitchdark broken by the occasional pinflicker of light -- a land we know yet never know. Indian Railways ensured that the train would occasionally stop in the middle of nowhere, and I would get down and walk around, for a minute or so, on a little patch of grass in Bihar or UP, somehow content that I had made contact with this expanse of lonely countryside, although I knew that it and its people would, in all likelihood, remain forever alien to me.

And I discovered connections at a more personal level that will remain personal.

Rivers mountains rain
Rain against a torrid hillscape
Her body wrapped itself around me

Like a summer without end.

I have bought three rolls of black-and-white film today and am happy.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Who the hell!

Interesting people are into blogging these days. Anybody ever checked out this guy?

Take a peek. It's worth it.

The novel itself seems pretty awful. The autobiographical (?) parts are readable, though.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Lines from a Canadian backyard

Ian MacEachern, the Canadian black-and-white poet, maintains a wonderful portfolio on There's a sense of humour lurking behind each photo and no trace of the maudlin. His framing is bang on every time and does a great job snipping away the inessentials. And he is, somehow, respectful, and that's a peculiar word to use considering that he does a lot of in-your-face social statement type of work. I think Bert Hardy's work in the Gorbals slums of Glasgow had that same basic humanity, as did Kertesz's early shots of rural Hungarian life.

Check out classics like Looking, Children in Wales, Sharing, Asylum #2, Boy with a Bottle. And that's not counting his candids of people inside pubs and cafes, which are probably the best of the lot.

Oh and this one is hilarious.

While on the subject of "snipping away" stuff from a photo (metaphorically of course), take a look at this snap by HCB: what do you think the kid's doing?

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Valencia, 1933

The upturned face and that ecstatic skip in front of the surreal background have nothing ethereal about them, actually -- he's waiting to catch a ball he's thrown into the air. HCB just chose to leave the ball out. End demonstration.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I'll start this off without any words...

... of my own.

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log,
Expiring frog!

Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
With wild halloo, and brutal noise,
Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!

(Charles Dickens, "The Pickwick Papers")

I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.
I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
that am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

(Edna St. Vincent-Millay, "Assault")