Sep 6, 2013

A.R.Rahman - Coke Studio 2013

A.R.Rahman's production for Coke Studio's Season III (which also inaugurated the season) is an almost perfect capsule of his career's work: the accessible innovations, the spiritual reference points, the C-L-A-R-I-T-Y of the sound, the difficult balance between styles, the new faces, the do-I-need-to-tolerate-this rap, the sincere yet often bad diction, and those irresistable, unavoidable goosebumps.

I sometimes think we are fortunate to have film music in India: this allows talented musicians a potentially expansive breadth with the option of breaking rules, traditions, formats, and boundaries. Part of Rahman's success has been the willingness to push beyond existing playbooks, collaborate with a diverse range of creative people, and to use his influence to bring new voices and sounds to the fore. In my limited knowledge, I can only think of Pt. Ravi Shankar and R.D.Burman to have exhibited a similar creative diversity while being hugely successful at pulling it off. What they can also do is guide you, the listener, if you are so willing, to new places, gently and gracefully.

Take "Zariya" - a Tibetan nun, a Jordanian singer, a continuum, a set of talented backing vocalists, Hindi lyrics, Sivamani. Soaked in abstract thought. It took me a while to get used to all of this (individually and together), but it works together. Ineffably so. And that deep, haunting sound in your ears, that is a Rahman trademark.

"Naan Yen", set to the questioning words of the late Vaalee, asks questions and draws from rustic metaphors. This song clearly underlines the value of knowing the language of the lyrics: unlike someone like Vishal, Rahman has been more of a 'onomatopoeic' composer, by which I mean that often, the combination of the song's lyrics and its musical neighbours is because of how they sound together rather than to underscore the semantics of the lyrics (if this was hard for you to parse, it is harder for me to explain). This is more so with non-Tamil lyrics. In "Naan Yen" (and in the other Tamil song), the music is not just a guy-in-the-next-seat to the lyrics, but is in an intimate embrace - each fits in snugly with each other. Add to that, Rahman's much improved singing (with the gamakams), and his sister Rayhanah's opening and backing vocals.

"Naan Yen" is a potential top-10/top-20 contender on that hard-to-break-into list of "The Best of Rahman". That, for me, is saying something.

"Aao Balmaa", a multi-generational classic, has in it so many things to rave about that one needs to properly sit down, focus, and make a good fist of it.

There's Rahman's piano-playing. There's the spectacular 'Guitar' Prasanna, who is an absolute joy to listen to, solo or in jugalbandi mode. There's the bass guitarist, Mohini Dey, who, if you factor in her age (she's a teenager) seems almost unreasonably talented. The family of Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, three generations of it, completely at home in this left-field take on something they've probably sung a hundred times in a traditional manner. I am completely bowled over the percussion (Sivamani can often be too gimmicky for me, but not here). But what hit me between the eyes was the jazz-like dance between the piano and the guitar.

That's when you realise this isn't mere Hindustani-meets-Carnatic-meets-Western-meets-jazz, but something that you don't take a scalpel to.

In "Ennile Maha Oliyo" (that is one heck of an opening line), Rahman decides to show that his other sister, Issrath, can sing too. It's feels like an abbreviated song (is there more that will be revealed in the album that the siblings are working on?), but powerful in its quietness. The swarams are crystal-clear, the percussion is muted, and the arrangement adds a dimension for which the word 'ethereal' will do nicely to describe. And there's Prasanna.

Suchismita Das - I've never heard a swara-motor-mouth such as her. What a singer! To steal the thunder in a gallery of stars, as she does in "Jagaao Mere Des Ko", is an achievement. Rahman's opening for the Bengali section uses Tagore's lyrics as a prose poem rather than setting it 'properly' to a tune, but when the Hindi lyrics (Prasoon Joshi) kick in, you are ready to forgive his diction because the melody and orchestration soars. The backing ladies, Mohini Dey, Prasanna, Sivamani give the song its wings (do you really need caffeine stimulants when you can listen to this?) and its terminal velocity. For once, just for once, Blaaze's rap is tolerable. Sivamani's kunnakol is somewhat forced on the scene, but the song recovers, takes off. Off the cliff. End of story!

"Soz-e-Salaam", not telecast in the first episode (it will be on the season-ending episode), but available on the Coke Studio website, is a soothing balm from the Mustafas. It ticks off many Rahman boxes: the spare orchestrations, the higher-pitch voices, the interesting sounds. It touches, ever so lightly, on many of his best works, reminiscent of the Bombay theme and his 90s songs of the 90s that so prominently featured woodwinds.

In summary, this tells you what some Indian film musicians, when let loose, can do even if they have the baggage and expectations of two decades of work. And when you hear Rahman ask "Naan Yen Piranden" ("why did I come into this world?"), you know the answer to that.

Also see Karthik's review on Milliblog.

(A note: if you've heard the songs on TV or from the internet via your PC speakers, do yourself a huge favour and listen to them through your head-phones. There's so much happening that you can risk permanent tinnitus if ony to have this ringing in your head.)

Verbal Lice This

Does the modelling agency have a ramp up plan for its new models?
Does a book club meeting end with all its members on the same page?
Did the jail superintendent keep the hangman in the loop?
Did the stunt supervisor send out the action items to his team?
Was Mike Tyson thinking out of the box when he decided to give Holyfield an ear-ful?
Does the HLL distributor have any leverage over company salesmen?
Did that sherpa touch base with the mountaineering expedition?
What was the outcome of the parachutist's blue-sky thinking?
Just how much bandwidth did the fat drummer need?
Just how did the epidemiologist's slide go viral?
Was Dolly the sheep the best-of-breed option?
What is the obstetrician's next major deliverable?
What is the telepath's mind-share of the market?
Wasn't Cain who made the first killer app?
Going forward, get it into the marathon team not the tug-of-war team, ok?

(posted elsewhere, some time ago)

Sep 5, 2013

Poetry by numbers

My one-liners are one-dimensional,

My dohas are so square,

My trivenis are trivial,

And my quatrains are four-gettable.

Just like this one.

Posted a while ago somewhere else.

Aug 26, 2013

The World That Week

After about a year or so of telly-abstinence, I have once again begun watching the news on TV, that too at that traditional hour between 9-10 pm. Things really are the same: the conflicts of Afghanistan, global recessionary trends, Indian film awards, and young Sachin Tendulkar's plans for the summer.

Yes, young Sachin.

I have, you see, stumbled upon the fact that at 9 pm each weekday, NDTV Profit airs episodes of "The World This Week", that 90s show. Mercifully, there are still those of you old enough to remember a time when news studios were not like the set of Hollywood Squares and when someone read out the news to you instead of behaving as if they missed those days of quoting prices on the floor of the BSE. Right into your malleus-incus-stapes. 

So yes, I have been watching news from around the world; only that it is from two decades ago (they are currently in 1992 with the Barcelona Olympics around the corner). It is instructive to note illustrations of both "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" as well as "plus ça change, +1 change". Afghanistan stays rocky, Scotland is still looking for independence, the Tories are back in power. But there is no Gabby Sabatini, Narasimha Rao is forgotten, and terrorism is prime-time news every week. 

"The World This Week" was anchored calmly and patiently by the psephologist-turned-mediaman Prannoy Roy, whom history will now only recall as having unleashed upon the us the likes of Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named-BUT-SHOUTED-OUT-WITH-EXTREME-OUTRAGE-NOT-TO-MENTION-PREJUDICE. There was the bearded special correspondent Appan Menon, whose preferred style of letting his interviewees say everything would soon be rejected by every media school's syllabus in the last decade. TWTW was an example of how news could be interesting, even if it was about the elections in France or South Africa, and relevant, with reports on the then emerging AIDS epidemic or rap music from the US. Where breadth of coverage didn't mean sacrificing depth, and listening to the news just once a week meant a chance to let the substantive events surface above the knee-jerk flavour of the day.

This may be the nostalgic rumblings of a Doordarshan-era apologist who forgets that then, news could often be staid and unimaginative, or worse, dangerously status quoist and propagandist. But programmes such as TWTW and production houses such as NDTV showed us the light at the end of the TV camera and laid the foundations for TV news media as we know it today. If they turned me on TV, their successors have sadly turned me and the telly off at 9.

But not any more. Tune in to TWTW: the good thing is you know how most things are going to turn out, so there are no worries. You can see a somewhat random collection of sports clips from alpine skiing and Italian Serie A action, and the occasional entertainment hilarity such as the inaugural "Natraj Awards", billed as India's answer to the Oscars. You can live in the past with the assurance that you made it to the future despite the news.

And for once, the nation should demand to know how.

Aug 7, 2013

1000+ days at Infinite Zounds

Some of you know that I run a daily quiz blog called "Infinite Zounds". Over at the blog, I'm celebrating going past 1000 days & questions - this week, I'm asking readers there to give the blog a little pat on the back in whichever way they like (by giving us Facebook likes, writing a blurb for us, or telling your network about us).

If Infinite Zounds is something that has educated, entertained, or enlightened you in any way, here's where you can give us some luuvv :-) (click on the image below):

Aug 6, 2013

Employee-centric hiring notices

Many months ago, I was asked to draft a hiring notice for a position in my group. Now, I've been working in teams whose raison d'etre is 'innovation', so it is reasonable to assume that we not only do innovative things, but also are seen to be innovative (i.e. creative/different/novel/better/more effective) in everything we do.

I don't like most job postings, especially in the tech world - they are never candidate-centric. The average job ad will give you a dry list of expected skills and tell you something about the group looking to hire. They don't give you even a fraction of a hint as to what it would be like to work there, and why you would consider it worth your while in a life-changing way to work there.

They don't market the job in an engaging manner and they don't treat you as a human, or at least a human that thinks beyond keywords.

So I drafted what I thought was an engaging note, trying to succinctly describe what it would be like to come work for us, what someone could reasonably hope to achieve, and why someone should consider all this in the first place. Especially, since we were a off-beat team (or so I thought) that was both 'cool' (in theory) and 'challenging' (not being run-of-the-mill).

The ending of this story isn't hard to foresee: the notice went up to my supervisors who, in their wisdom, edited most of it out and in the end, we were left with a desiccated list of keywords. And yes, we did hire someone eventually (it's always hard to say if he was the best man for the post - time will tell), so it wasn't as if that was ineffective. But I thought we lost an opportunity to signal so many intangible attributes about who we are and what we do. Perhaps the people in charge of the notice didn't share those feelings with me.

A job notice is perhaps the first engagement that a candidate has with a hiring manager or a group or a company. First impressions are a great way to strike a chord. Don't lose that opportunity.

Jul 28, 2013


So you sit there, literally at the eleventh hour, wondering: how do we get here once again? The blackboard of the mind, so fresh and unsullied in the morning, brimming with the promise of a plan, a straightforward journey chalked out in white, red, yellow, and green, where all you had to do was to show up, follow the dotted line, and pick up the pot at the end of the rainbow.

But here we are, sitting in front of your laptop/book/slate, watching a tangled mess that even Jackson Pollock would refuse to entertain with kindness. Visual evidence of another day spent idling, in neutral, in reverse gear. And when the engine spluttered to life, it took you elsewhere, on paths in black and grey, fun but guilty nevertheless. Or so you claim.

So here you are, with the clock's hammer poised to strike down upon your head with vengeance, when you decide to sleep over it. Tomorrow, the slate will be wiped clean, freshly gleaming, waiting for your stratagems which it shall spoil - but only by the end of the day.

Business as unusual.

May 5, 2013

How Tendulkar helped me retire, unhurt

I call my generation of Indians as the "Doordarshan generation", because of the shared monoculture embodied by the national broadcaster and the overwhelming nostalgia for the DDiot box. "Tendulkar generation" may be another good candidate: we came into sporting consciousness by surfing the after-wave of the '83 Cup victory and helped make cricket a single-minded national obsession.

In the centre was "Sachiiin, Sachin". He was the only child prodigy we could tolerate and not feel envious of. He became a solitary and tragic soap operatic figure - Fate, doubtlessly clad in rich georgettes and heavy makeup, constantly conspired to thwart his success and tried his sincerity and talent in every episode. Like our moms would with Tulsi and her ilk, we stood by him, knowing Sachineva Jayate. There were those who doubted him, and fought from the shoulders of Sourav or Rahul, but we knew we'd win in the end.

And look who is still padding up. The end has come and gone.

My relationship with sport has changed dramatically. It may be a dreaded sign of becoming a grown-up or an inevitable cooling off. The first signs came when I realised I had accumulated very few stories of watching sport from recent times. No more I-sat-up-and-watched or did-you-also-notice or I-still-can't-believe-it. The few stories that stuck featured Federer, Nadal, and Messi. Where at one point, I had shelves full of daring cricket stories, now I had the woodwork being gnawed away by the termites of apathy.

Like a Nick Hornby character, I could write an autobiographical account purely through the lens of Indian cricket and Tendulkar. The Abdul Qadir over: I was at a friend's place, watching my friend's father howling in delight over this little fella smacking the world's best leggie. Aamir Sohail's wicket to turn around the '92 WC match: at home, during exams, just after a immensely annoying but short power-cut. '93 Hero Cup Semi-Final: at cousin's place the day after father was admitted to hospital with malaria. The Pakistan Test at Chennai: on stage at a quiz final, getting score updates from the only person on stage with both a pager and a complete lack of interest in sport.

And so on and so forth through the nineties and the noughties and what-do-they-call-this-decades, proving wrong uncles who thought India couldn't chase big scores, proving friends right through big-match failures, collapsed in prayer and stuck in superstitious chairs, and choosing to stay away from debates of being "overrated". And a World Cup win, and a 4th innings chase, and some other tidbits. (But never a direct hit: he always sucked at throwing down the stumps to run someone out.)

We knew that one day it would happen: Sachin would retire. This wasn't a Superman comic or a Nancy Drew book or a myth about a Chiranjeev. Things came to an end. And then there was personal business. In these enlightened times where everyone sings solemn paeans to productivity, it was hard to ignore the time being spent in watching your team lose. Or win. It was hard to tell the difference any more. So I knew I would have to move on too. Perhaps, somewhat like with friends from fifth standard, I could promise to 'keep in touch'. But the channel doesn't show Sportscenter anymore and the subcription to Sportstar lapsed two years ago.

So how would I feel? What would I miss? What would I do, post-retirement? These questions circled around me, setting up me up for a soft dismissal that I would weep over.

The Master Blaster to the rescue. I don't know how, but I've been led to a point where I just couldn't care. The fan-muscles had atrophied, but with overuse. No debate would goad me into a response; no allegation would rile me; no snigger would evoke an instinctive reaction. Yes, Tendulkar is still around, far beyond what anyone would have expected a decade ago. He's overseen my transition from naive and rabid supporter to oxymoronic objective fan looking for beauty in sport to a devil-may-care-but-I-don't bystander. This is mostly true of cricket; since my involvement with other sports was relatively skin-deep, they have escaped this fierce U-turn.

100 hundreds, or 24 years not out, or 30k+ runs - the numbers are so big that they are insignificant. Somewhat like the length of the orbit of Jupiter. It makes utterly no difference to my life - and if he hadn't been around for so long, I would not have realised that.

This makes my cricket retirement utterly bearable, and I have, like with many things in life, Sachin Tendulkar to thank for it.

* Some of my old Tendulkar posts
* A truly illuminating article by Jonathan Wilson on the value of sport to our lives.

Apr 23, 2013

During Sunrise, During Sunset

Why do we find sunrises and sunsets beautiful? So much so that we will wake up infernally early to make trips to hill station "points" and brave mosquitoes and crowds at dusk at ends of peninsulas, just to get a glimpse of something that is literally an everyday occurence.

It does not, unlike symmetric faces and rounded hips, take its cue from evolutionary benefits. Nor does it obey any trends of the week imported from Milan or Cannes. These oranges and lemons can be had free, cheaper than a penny. It's not special enough for us to get up each day or escape the workday to admire the sight out of our windows (agreed, it has to stand on its heels to be seen beyond skyscrapers and gets overshadowed by the false tinkle of the neon lights). But, once in a faintly blue moon, when you do get a glimpse of it, it's bigger than you, and you're a part of it.

How lucky, therefore, that we should live on a planet whose sun which is so mad about it that it not only revolves around us like a smitten suitor, but also puts out such a spectacular show at no charge, twice a day, on an accessible screen? That the colours are so vivid, just to suit our taste? Or is this too anthropocentric a conclusion? Did we find it boring at first ("I'm so tired of all this crimson and scarlet and yellow. But it does remind me of last night's supper")? Did we, as one of P.G.Wodehouse's poets did, make comparisons to roast beef?

Would we like a new skin, a different theme, a fresh coat? Perhaps madame would like to see something in purple? Then in "baingani", perhaps? We have a new refraction range, exclusive, just came in yesterday.

The same goes for the greens in the trees, the oranges of the fall, the yellows of the mustard, the purples of the orchids. Just why we should find them so pretty, so sensuous, so soothing, is a mystery. But they've kept poets, artists, and film-makers in business, and counterpoint our boring, whitewashed, concrete lives.

Like a little bit of sunshine on a dull marble tile.