Bhakti, Gnyana and Aesthetics in Indian temples evoke the Divine

Temple lover Jay Shankar likes to speak through his pictures. His picture of 10th Century Kashmira, made of copper alloy with inlays of silver taken at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, helps to convey her beauty to those who cannot make the trip to the museum themselves. Kashmira is the personification of Kashmir, also known as the daughter of the Himalayas and revered by many. The picture of the small murthy, is an excellent example of early metalwork from Kashmir. The characteristics include silver inlaid eyes; an inset chin, a small waist and fleshy abdomen; a linear pointed flaming halo; and a plain geometric base. An aesthetic that has been the highlight of brilliance in Kashmiri art.

To Shankar photography is something which is captured by a camera, but the intention is to evoke a sense of beauty of reality. “It is a question of what the person who is looking at the photographs is evoked by. And the evocation is of two or more levels – with one being of the sheer beauty of something and second by the content of the photographs. Somebody may look at a murthy of Parvathi or Vishnu, and that evokes something in the viewer. So it is the content that is evoking an emotion not just the photograph. Temple photography may be more evocative, if it is beautifully done, for a Hindu, than say for someone in Aborginal Australia. But if the photograph itself is beautiful, I have found that it evokes emotions in everybody. That is why Ansel Adams photographs of nature evoke feelings in millions of people independent of the culture.”

Shankar has been a traveller for much of his life, having lived in eight cities including two overseas. And they Himalayas and temples of the North and South have fascinated him in equal measure. His family has always believed in pilgrimages. Five generations on his mother’s side has made the long trip to Badrinath form Chennai, with his great grandmother taking three months for the trip, and her mother perhaps longer. It took Shankar a week when he was in 8th grade. Kedarnath, Mukthinath and Kailashnath round off his yatra experience nicely.

“Like many Indians, I have bathed in the holy waters of Manasarovar, Kali-Gandaki and Bhageerathi at Gomukh. I have bathed in the waters of Rameswaram, Kanyakumari, Varkala and Somnath. I enjoy going to temples, broken, reconstructed and those under worship. And in most of those places I chant Vedic chants, the memorable one being the one at the North face of Kailash,” says Shankar.

His early initiation into Yoga at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai and Vedic Chanting at 26 from Mani Vadyar in Andheri, Bombay, gave him a good grounding in Sanskrit knowledge Systems and kept memories of India alive while he was away in the US and Australia for over 19 years.

“The intensity of these things have grown over the last 10 to 15 years in terms of temples photography and yatras. Mainly this is because I have stayed overseas for long and from there when you look at India there are a few things that stand out and temples are definitely one of them, and once you are interested in temples, a yatra is a part of that. Second there are the Himalayas and there are enough kshetras in the Himalayas. Photography happened because I had seen my dad doing that and so it is in my DNA.”

Bhakti, Gnyana and aesthetics, when the three come together in a temple experience, there is a touching of the Divine. “What is evoked could be a surrender to the Lord or Goddess in a bhakta, or it could be the beauty of it. It could also simply be a sense of the space which evokes something deep within oneself. Any one of those could be a reason for somebody to go to a temple. Where does beauty come in? Every deity is considered beautiful. Vedic passages describe in detail the beauty of the deities, using words like Charu which is beauty or Charumath, which means one who has beauty. Beauty is one of the aspects of the Divine. And any evocation that one feels attracted to and wants to reach is Bhakti. And any way in which one searches for the answer within oneself or that is sacred within oneself is Gnyana. Any of these can attract one to a temple. When or how that comes together depends upon the person and who is to say which is the better way to go. Someone may go through the Bhakti route, someone may go by the Gnyana route, and someone may go by the beauty, aesthetic route. If any of this is central to why a person goes to a temple, then it becomes an experience which helps a person evolve,” says Shankar.

Thiruvanaikaval. Picture by Jay Shankar

Shankar has read and researched temples and now is a valuable guide to those undertaking a tour of temples. While most temples in India were sponsored politically and financially by the kings, the styles have depended on the stapathi who built it. “Just like when Lutyens was commissioned to build the Parliament building, his work did not reflect the British style of architecture but the Lutyens style. Similarly the temples of India reflect the skill and imagination of the stapathi who built it. The best example of this are the Hoysala temples which span around 200 years,” says Shankar who was played a critical role in the recently concluded trip to Hoysala temples organised by Heritage Trust, which was supported by Indic.

The role of the stapathi is usually not emphasised enough, as temples are recognised by the rulers so it is Chola temples, Pallava temples and Hoysala temples and temples of the Vijayanagara period. “If you look at Vishnuvardhan who started the Hoyasala Kingdom’s power structure, he built Belur and Halebid. They have a very different style compared to the temples done at the same time by one of his generals which is in Kambadahalli which is a Jain temple and which resembles Pallava architecture. Or you can look at Vishnuvardhan’s benefactor or mentor Sriramanuja and the temples built by him in Thondanur are very Spartan like the Chola temples. So in many ways while a certain Dynasty may have had a predominant style it is not correct to attribute particular styles to a particular kingship and I would rather put it to a certain time,” says Shankar.

Indian temple architecture has inspired awe both for its ornateness as well as its stark simplicity. The Hoysala temples are extremely ornate and there is nothing before or after the Hoysalas that is comparable. The Chalukyas came before the Hoysalas and the Vijayanagaras followed them. And the three are very different but if you see the time period there are overlaps at times. So where did those structures come from? “I think, most likely there must have been an extremely influential sthapathi or who was the founding father of many of these styles. And his descendants and his students took that style and ran with it, provided that their benefactor – the King – was in support of it and liked it. The kings approval was mandatory, and many of the temples used the actual proportions of the King’s size to make the murthy,” says Shankar.

The passing of a king did not influence a change in the structure of any particular temple. The stapathi tradition played a bigger role in changes in style. “It is very unlikely that the architecture would have changed because the successor wanted to change the sthapathi, because he would rather have built a new temple. Secondly, if the king was killed and the dynasty came to an end, unless the person who took over had a different inclination he would have let things be.”

The artist played a very critical role in Indian art and culture. Despite feuds, political adversaries would use the same stapathi who had been doing the work because “culturally the change in political power did not change the building structure, the people who were building it or the rest of the community. Much like in a democracy, even if the king changed, a lot of the things remain the same.”

Chidambaram. Picture by Jay Shankar

There are instances however, where the time periods were so long, that change was inevitable. “In places like Ellora where things were constructed over a very long time one can see changes. In Karnataka, the Bhoganandeshwara temple was built by the Nolambas, got extended by the Gangas was added on to by the Cholas and then was further added on to by the Vijayanagara Nayaka kings. The ceiling panels and many of the pillars are like the Nolambas, outside influence is by Cholas where the Nandi is present and there are inscriptions which point to the Chola influence. The Ganga influence is there in the very ornate mantapa, the Nayaka influence can be seen in the pillars and other structures,” says Shankar.

Melukote, Picture by Jay Shankar

Many of the temple structures today, especially larger ones like Thiruvanamallai or Srirangam, have been around for a long time and have been refurbished or extended or expanded by a succession of kings. “I would say that it is not the king or the dynasty that made the impact, although that is what is recognisable, but certain stapathis who found favour or who were there at that time, and it is their continuation, their descendants or students who took it up. This is borne out by logic because if the Nayaka king was in Hampi their stapathi would likely have been in that area, and not deep down in Madurai or Thanjavur where the Chola stapathis would have held sway. Many of the kings had diminishing power and so there were times when they were flourishing and when they went down this perhaps lead to a migration of sthapthis and each would have adapted to a different style.”

Hosaholalu. Picture by Jay Shankar

However over long periods of time, even in the Hoyasala temples, even though they look seemingly very similar, many changes happened, sometimes in how the technology changed in how they were constructed, or that many great stapathis changed and many new ones would have emerged, says Shankar.

The Madurai Meenakshi temple is the oldest temple that Shankar has been to. It dates back to the Mahabharata period. Antiquity and aesthetics, bhakti and divinity all find their way subtly into his photographs – mirroring the experience.

Indians and French celebrate life with food

Both Indians and the French celebrate the great occasions of life with food, says Director Café Noir Thierry Jasserand. In India as in France, he says, when you want to celebrate something in life, you share food with friends and relatives. “Not just the special events, but also day to day food.”

The Café Noir Restaurants represent the “French Art de Vivre’. Today the group has six restaurants in Bangalore and has recently set up a new fashion store called Project Inn, which also houses a café where women can sit down for a cup of coffee after hectic shopping.  

Thierry moved to India nine years ago, “not to sell French food to foreigners, but to convince Indians that here’s another variety of cuisine. Today 70 to 80 percent of my customers are Indian,” says Thierry.

The engineer turned manager, says that in India it is difficult to find authentic French cuisine. “You find Italian and Chinese food, but finding French food is very hard. There’s a well-known pastry bakery called Opera in Delhi. We do similar things but we have enlarged to the kitchen also.”

The predominant difference between Indian and French cuisine is that the latter is predominantly non-vegetarian. But, “by respect for what we are and what we do here we have in our menu several vegetarian options. We always adapt but we don’t want to change our roots. The cuisine that we propose is never spicy, and it is based on the typical traditional recipe of the food that we eat in France. If you go to Paris you can find the same things. The idea of proposing authentic French food is that if people can’t travel, then you can come here and experience the same feeling of being in a bistro in France and eating the same cuisine.”

Many families coming to the restaurant and often they end up sharing a pastry as some of the pastries are expensive. “Your grandmother may not go to France or Europe, but if you bring her here she may open her mind to new tastes. Food can open your mind to a new culture,” says Thierry.

Thierry says all the Indian staff have been trained by executive French chefs. This is unusual, he says because, usually executive Italian and French chefs train staff only in Five Star hotels, and not in smaller restaurants.

He says Café Noir has a training school attached to it.  It has 185 staff with more than 25-30 of them being bakers who make pastries. “When we recruit someone we have to train and transmit our knowledge to them. The training is not easy, it goes on for around six years. The idea is not just to sell but to share and transmit our knowledge. This is one way of sharing our identity through food. We don’t ask people to speak French – that is difficult. But we expect people to learn the way we serve the dish and work on other skills.”

He says that cuisine is one way of understanding a culture. “If you want to know the identity of India when you come to visit then you eat their food and thereby understand what goes on behind it. For example a foreigner doesn’t understand why you put so much spice in your food, but if you understand the way the spices are used in villages and in the countryside to promote health and keep away the heat, then you understand a way of life. Then you will not be so critical about Indians putting spices in their food.”

The Maharaja and Musical Modernism

A Celebration of Patronage and Legacy – Maharaja Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar of Mysore

Bangalore will play host to pianist Karl Lutchmayer and Soprano Béatrice de Larragoïti as a tribute to Maharaja Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar of Mysore on his birth centenary year.

An Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) of Goan parents, in recent years Karl has focussed much of his time and attention on nurturing the burgeoning Western Classical music scene in India, his family home. While helping young musicians and music teachers to fulfil their potential, he has also been involved in audience creation projects in many of the major cities. It was for this work that he was awarded the Bharat Gaurav (Pride of India) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.

Speaking on Wadiyar’s legacy Karl Lutchmayer, says: ‘The legacy of Maharaja Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar in bringing little-known music to public attention cannot be overestimated. Indeed, as a student, it was the recordings that he sponsored that led me to discover music by Scriabin, Bartok, Busoni, and, perhaps most importantly, Medtner, which have been cornerstones of my repertoire ever since. As such, it is with utmost gratitude that I have prepared this lecture-recital which, in one concert, can only touch on that extraordinary legacy. Central to the programme are works by Medtner, including the rarely performed Sonata Vocalise for soprano and piano, which celebrate his single-handed promotion of the last and perhaps most subtle of the pre-revolutionary Russian composers. The Maharaja’s sponsorship of the Philharmonic orchestra is remembered through his patronage of the world premiere of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, whilst his broad vision of Modernism is recalled in the music of Busoni. But of course, in addition to the patron of the arts, we must remember the performer, and programming Rachmaninov we can recall his meeting with the great pianist, and the fact that, had it not been for his duties of state, he would surely have been celebrated as a great performer.”

Karl Lutchmayer is equally renowned as a concert pianist and a lecturer. A Steinway Artist, Karl performs across the globe, has worked with conductors including Lorin Maazel and Sir Andrew Davis, and has played at all the major London concert halls. He has broadcast on BBC Television and Radio, All India Radio and Classic FM, and is a regular chamber performer. A passionate advocate of contemporary music, Karl has also given over 90 world premieres and had many works written especially for him. 

Karl’s London lecture-recital series, Conversational Concerts, has garnered critical and public acclaim, and following his landmark recitals celebrating the Liszt and Alkan Bicentenaries, he has received invitations from four continents to give lecture-recitals. Karl also held an academic lectureship at Trinity Laban (formerly Trinity College of Music) for 15 years, and is a regular guest lecturer at conservatoires around the world, including the Juilliard and Manhattan Schools in New York.

Karl studied at the Junior Department of Trinity College of Music, then at the Royal College of Music and undertook further studies with Lev Naumov at the Moscow Conservatoire. His research interests include the music of Liszt, Alkan, Busoni and Enescu; The Creative Transcription Network; reception theory; and the history of piano recital programming.

Karl Lutchmayer

For the last two years Karl has been undertaking research at New College, Oxford, but he usually resides in London, where he is sometimes spotted in his alternative incarnation as keyboard, percussion and theremin player in the prog rock band The Connoisseur.

Shaping a distinctive career driven by a versatile artistry and wide-ranging performances, French-Brazilian soprano Béatrice de Larragoïti has been lately hailed for her ‘particular, dense and dark voice’ (Le Temps Tunisie), with ‘considerable resonance in the lower register’ (Seen and Heard International), as well as for her ‘sensitive, authentic and sensual’ stage presence (Operaportal), and ‘refreshing femininity’ (Early Music Today). Béatrice has performed on various stages, festivals and concert platforms across Europe, America and the U.K., including Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Grimeborn Festival, Oxford Lieder Festival, Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, Opéra de Baugé and Opéra en Plein Air, working under conductors such as Vincent Dumestre, Alexandre Piquion, Philip Sunderland, Jessica Cottis and Oliver John Ruthven. 

The concert is being partnered by The International Music and Arts Society founded in December 1974 by Rani Vijaya Devi Kotda-Sangani on a suggestion by her brother, Maharaja Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar of Mysore, to augment Bangalore’s existing cultural landscape by providing an international forum for Indian and foreign musicians and artistes. Designed by the English artist-dramatist-teacher, the late David Horsburgh, the Society’s logo embodies the spirit of the arts both East and West. Over the last forty-five years, the Society has worked in collaboration with other organisations such as the ICCR and USIS, and foreign embassies and cultural centres.

This effort has enabled a wide audience to enjoy the works of some of the finest international exponents of the performing and visual arts of our time. An important objective of the Society has been its work, through the medium of music and dance, to provide a platform for young and upcoming artists.

An important objective of the Society has been its work, through the medium of music and dance, to provide a platform for young and upcoming artists.

The early formative years of Rani Vijaya Devi Kotda-Sangani were spent in the palace where the family’s rich cultural atmosphere left a deep impression on her. The young princess grew up steeped in Carnatic music and dance, and became proficient in playing the veena. At the age of six, she also commenced formal piano lessons at the palace, and progressed through to the fellowship examination of the Trinity College of Music, London under the tutelage of Dr. Alfred Mistowski, professor of Trinity College.

After her marriage to the Thakore Saheb of Kotda-Sangani in 1941, Rani Vijaya Devi continued studying the piano in India. Later, during her husband’s posting in New York, she studied with Professor Edward Steuermann of the Juilliard School of Music. An accomplished concert pianist, she recorded for radio and television, and appeared in concerts in Hong Kong and India.

Learning from the Himalayas


The Anaadi Foundation organised its Himalayan weekly Yatras to the Valley of Flowers, Hemkund and Badrinath, between September 14-20. It is also organising a Tapovan Tapasya, a trek and retreat, at Gomukh and Tapovan between September 20-27 and the Dravya Guna Yatra, an Introduction to Himalayan herbs, from September 28-October 1, and Scaling Heights – the Himalayan Leadership programme for Corporate Professionals from October 2-7.

The white capped peaks of the Himalayas in the higher reaches of North India, have for centuries stolen the thunder from the living. The orange and purple flowers dotting verdant land overlooking thundering rivers, have always waited in humble attendance as mankind looked outwards to the high summits. Wild bulls, boars and even the leeches know who is king here. As one seeker put it, it is actually very difficult to meditate in the Himalayas – to look inwards when all one yearns is to look outwards.

Every mountain range in the world invokes a deep connect with nature. But the Himalayas are special. Founders of Anaadi Foundation – Adinarayanan and Smrithi – have tried to get people to be touched and inspired in environs that have always mesmerised the world. Says Smrithi – “Every mountain range has its unique appeal but the Himalayas surpass many of these. For thousands of years, rishis, sadhus, yogis, sadhakas and rajans have been visiting the Himalayas not just for mental peace but for a complete transformation. Many of the temples that you will find in the Kedar region are consecrated by the Pancha Pandavas. So a trek to the Himalayas is not just an adventure travel but an opportunity to come face to face with one’s own limitation and transcend them. In the plains when you do yogic practices there is a certain experience. When you do the same in the Himalayan regions, the experience and the benefit is enhanced multi fold. So everything can be experienced in an enhanced manner in the Himalayas.”

Every program at Anaadi Foundation is designed based on the needs of the people they come in touch with. “Some people are capable of experiencing deeper states just by sitting in one place. Some will need other tools that are go beyond their will and the yatra is one such opportunity. It is our blessing that through us hundreds of people get the darshan of the Himalayas and the temples every year,” says Smrithi.

Yatra for them is a journey that liberates. “The very word Yatra means a journey that liberates just as Mantra and Yantra are tools for liberation. What happens in a Yatra especially that involves a rigorous journey on foot with limited access to resources – the physical, emotional and cognitive processes start transforming. We usually say that a walk up to Tunganath is like perfoming a lakh ‘kapalabhatis’ (a shatkriya which literally translates as illuminating the brain) in a go and that too in a non-harmful way. One feels physically rejuvenated and the body is not the same after returning. That is why we initiate people into yogic practices a month before the yatra so that they don’t just experience the physical beauty of the kshetra but also draw spiritual benefits. Else all attention would be gone just managing limb aches.”

Psychologically, mundane problems fade, and a common experience of the yatris, “is that problems that seemed big before the yatra start looking small. The yatra takes them away from the routine context and secondly the grandeur of the Himalayas and the emotional experience that it brings makes one forget those mundane problems that they keep chewing in their heads.”

The Himalayas are also vulnerable. As Smrithi puts it, everything there is very fragile, despite the image of grandeur and invulnerability the mountains exude. Uttarakhand has been declared as the herbal state with the presence of numerous medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPS). But with an increase in human activity and modernization, there is a rapid decline in these herbs. The Dravya Guna Yatra has been designed to given a glimpse into some of the rare Himalayan herbs and their Ayurvedic benefits. The Himalayan region has about 5000 vascular plants of which 800 have been found to have value. There are many more to be discovered. Only a very few people have knowledge about them and more researchers are needed to uncover as many of these herbs as possible.

 “The Himalayas offer a deep ecological perspective. Everything is so fragile there and thereby the need for conservation is much more. The yatris become aware of the impact of human activity on such fragile ecosystems.”

The sustainability activities of Anaadi Foundation are carried out at the Center for Research in Ecology and Sustainable Technologies (CREST). In tune with the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, the center integrates various aspects of sustainability including Sustainable Health, Self-Reliant Agriculture, Natural Buildings, Alternate Energy, Waste Management and Chemical free living. The national and international visits are designed to given the participants a glimpse of various sustainable models and how they can be adapted and adopted to contextual needs.

Quietude is a word that comes uppermost to one’s mind in experiencing the Himalayas. Adinarayan has practiced Mouna Tapasya periodically as do other seekers visiting this land. “The Mouna Tapasya undertaken periodically by Shri Adinarayanan serve several purposes. In the constant chatter and hustle bustle of daily life, we accumulate a lot of what one call baggage. If the system has to be cleansed, Mouna tapasya is a great tool. A sadhana is gentle but tapasya is rigourous – tapah is fire. The fundamental quality of fire is to transform and that is what Mouna Tapasya is largely about. At Anaadi Foundation, mouna tapasya is also a means to first person research into consciousness. Yogic practices have significant benefits but they have to be constantly fine-tuned to reach that level of perfection. Just as a laboratory is used to fine tune the results of an experiment, mouna tapasya can be used to fine tune yogic experiments.

Engineers and educationists, Adinarayanan and Smrithi have worked hard to promote Indic knowledge Systems among the youth, and in the Yatras they combine a love for the outdoors with knowledge of our shastras and traditions. “One thing that connected us well with students when we were educators was the fact that we could patiently answer the questions that they had about all aspects of life – technical and non-technical. We have always felt that these questions have the potential to transform into a quest that can take them deeper. When young people find a mentor who is non-judgemental, who can accept their limitations as much as their strengths and who has walked the path, they are willing to enagage with them. Prescriptions don’t work well with young people. Hence at our home and at Anaadi Foundation we have created a platform for self-exploration especially for young people. They are gradually guided into deeper aspects of life and at the moment we are able to offer them personalized attention and care. That is how the members of Anaadi Foundation, who were our past students, got associated with us. Each one pursues their Swadharma and we have a platform for that. They work with themselves, tinker, fine tune and arrive at insights on their purpose in life and carry forward that work. That is how we have these people working on Education, Well-being, Culture and Sustainability,” says Smrithi.

They have explored the Siddhar Parambarai, or the tradition of the Siddhars. And to them each of the Siddhas hold great appeal and offer great benefit to youngsters. “Each of the siddhas (within the 18 and outside) have explored several dimensions of human endeavour and can benefit humanity greatly. Since we are close to Palani and living with the blessings of Lord Murugan, Bogar is very close to our heart. He is a visionary who made the deity’s benefit available for many many years. Knowledge of Tamil is key to decoding the Siddha literature. We do find good number of people in and around Palani with knowledge of siddha works. We are interacting with them closely to see how Siddha literature can benefit modern people,” she adds.

Both of them were Professors of Computer Science at Amrita University for more than a decade. Their interactions with students were deep both in and outside the classroom. “Outside the classroom, we observed that most people we interacted with came to us for solving life problems than computer science problems. As faculty, we evolved tools that would be helpful for enhancing the learning potential of students. These tools blended asana, pranayama, dharana and dhyana with modern concepts of time management and cognitive abilities. At some point, there were a group of our students who left their high-paying jobs and even potential US university admissions to stay with us for a deeper sadhana.”

Founders Adinarayanan and Smrithi

When the numbers increased of people wanting to contribute to society, they formed the Anaadi Foundation in 2015 on Guru Purnima day. At the Foundation since most of the ashramites are technologists, they combine technology, science and spirituality to promote and popularize Indic Knowledge Systems

Having spent their early lives as techies, the couple speaks the language that the younger generation can understand. Ofcourse, modern science is headed in a certain direction with researchers all over the world doing excellent work in science and technology, they say, but the scientific community is hesitant to embrace the Indian sciences because of various reasons. “One of the reasons could be that we do not have enough number of (critical mass) of Indians who can talk both the languages – modern and traditional. Interdisciplinary research, systematic publication and data-oriented approach will be needed to ensure that Indian knowledge systems are adopted. We will also need institutions- schools and colleges that promote the study and research of these sciences so that an interest is created in today’s children to pursue Indian knowledge systems. It is only a question of time and history will have to be rewritten once there is a critical mass of people and their research talking about it.”

Modern neurocognitive sciences and Yogic Sciences are tied to Anaadi’s goals. “Neuroscience looks at experience from a third person perspective while yoga looks at it from a first person perspective. Both these perspective when put together can generate powerful outcomes. At Anaadi Foundation, in collaboration with other research groups, we are studying the neuro-cognitive benefits of Yoga. At the same time we are also look at the insights that yogic literature that can inform neuroscience research.”

The Anaadi Foundation emphasises that shastras are core to the Hindu way of live and Gnana, Bhakti and Kriya all are needed for a fulfilling life. “If one has to decode the experiences that one gains through the yogic path, the knowledge of the shastras is important. Just as research happens from theory to practice and practice to theory, shastras and our daily life are closely tied. The fundamental aspect of Indic teaching is that it encourages us to see everything as interconnected ecosystem – the microcosm and macrocosm and lead life based on the purushartha- goals of human life. What strikes us about the modern way of life is our consumption patterns- food, objects and even ideas and thoughts. When guided by the Purushartha, we lead an enjoyable life that has a purpose and is also aligned with the larger goal of life- moksha. The very way we look at material objects and consume them changes with this framework.”

All of these lessons will be tied in when managers climb up Himalayas, learning to manage expectations, abilities ofcourse with an eye on the goal.

Ganesha’s French Connection

Ganesha Chariot Festival has become the most sought after event in Paris

During his recent visit to France for the G7 Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Indian diaspora and highlighted a very unique aspect which has received less attention and in fact has hardly been reported about. While greeting those present in the audience, he spoke about how Paris lights up during the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi.

Paris and Ganesh Chaturthi! Intrigued? It is the Manika Vinayakar Alayam in Paris, whose famous and colourful chariot festival is the reason that Ganesh Chaturthi has become such a hugely popular event in the metropolitan city.  Organic, bottom-up and people-driven, through the first ever Ganesha chariot festival, the Manika Vinayakar Alayam has well and truly been instrumental in mainstreaming and celebrating India’s grand tradition in Paris.

Every successful event has an inspiring beginning. The nascent efforts of Manika Vinayakar Alayam started in 1985, at a University hall in Paris where the group set up a Ganesha puja. From then on in, there has been no looking back.  It was in 1994 that the Manika Vinayakar Alayam started the annual chariot festival which takes Ganesha in a procession through one of Paris’ most centrally located and crowded streets. The annual procession, led by priests, comprises of the Ganesha chariot steered by people. The festive procession is accompanied by musical instruments and the singing of devotional songs.

When the chariot festival was first thought of, the group faced a lot of flak and had to answer several tough questions from the civic and police authorities. But the lead organisers of the festival called for a meeting of authorities which was attended by several representatives of local media in Paris as well. “There were objections to the idea itself; questions were posed whether people will be safe. There were environmental and health concerns, there being the sound of musical instruments and use of fire during the festival, and so on. But we showed several videos of how Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, through which we started convincing the authorities – mainly the police – for permission. We were patient in answering all their queries, and while it did take time, finally, they had to agree to the idea of holding the chariot festival,” said Vairamuthu Vaithilingam, President, Manikaya Vinayakar Alayam

The police authorities in Paris agreed to give permission to the chariot festival just for a year, to begin with. The police additionally asked Manika Vinayakar Alayam to sign a document that would hold them responsible if there was any harm caused due to the result of the festival. There were 80 police personnel provided for the festival. Ganesha and his devotees won over everyone! “The first Ganesha chariot festival was a roaring success. The authorities were so impressed that they called us and appreciated the manner in which we had organised the festival, without causing any damage. From there on in, the festival became an annual affair in Paris.”

The numbers present at the chariot festival has incrementally increased over the years, and participants are from diverse backgrounds. “The footfall of people will be anywhere between 70,000 to 1, 50,000; such huge crowds that it becomes increasingly difficult to control, but it is managed well. We have about 30-40 volunteers who give their time and efforts to the festival. People from several countries participate wholeheartedly, especially from India, China, Mauritius, Britain, Columbia, to name a few.”

The French citizens and authorities have taken gradual but definite interest in the chariot festival as well. “Nearly 30% of the festival attendees are French citizens. Representatives from the French Ministry of Cultural and Religious affairs participate every time we organise the chariot festival, “says Vaithilingam.

The annual chariot festival as well as the inception of the Ganesha temple by the Manika Vinayakar Alayam is a simple yet dedicated effort of the family of Vairamuthu Vaidyalingam, who is passionate about the cause and significance of Ganesha. With no hidden agenda in what started as a nascent effort, the chariot festival has gone on to become a huge organic success and a much sought after event in Paris.

The great news is that this is not just a one-off event in Europe. “If you take countries like Denmark, Austria, Norway, and others, they have all started celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi now, and this shows the larger acceptance of eastern traditions and cultural practices,” added Vairamuthu.

While Vairamuthu is based in London currently, he is from Jaffna in Srilanka, but he attributes his ancestry to India. He also makes it a point to visit India often, especially Goa. “Our ancestors hail from India and migrated about 200 odd years ago. Currently, I am in pursuit of finding my exact roots in Tamil Nadu. I think I am from southern Tamil Nadu. Hopefully, we will be able to solve that mystery soon!” 

Everyday ambassadors like Vairamuthu Vaithilingam drive home the heart-warming point that one’s culture must be worn on ones sleeve, with pride and joy. Most importantly, customs and traditions should be all-inclusive, allowing anyone and everyone to take part in a spirit of friendship and brotherhood. More power to such visionaries; the world will certainly be richer for their contributions.

(Author is Senior Research Fellow and Administrative Head at India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power. Views expressed by the author are his own)

Of India, Arts and Multicultural Australia

Australia is home to scores of Indians. According to the recent statistics Indians account for 2.4% of the Australian population and are the third-largest migrant group in the country.  There are so many of us here that every suburb in Melbourne has an Indian grocery store that not only sells ready-to-eat rotis and freshly ground dosa batter besides the regular pulses and spices but also rents South Indian films DVDs.  Coles and Woolworth (supermarket chains) have a whole section dedicated to Indian food. Even the Chinese markets sell ‘India Gate Basmati rice! The very thought of Australian Chinese relishing ‘Made in India’ rice makes me gloat with national pride! We all know about desi restaurants and the Indian-born restaurateurs’ who hit it big overseas, but we seldom hear about the long wait on Friday nights outside Saravana Bhavan restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney.  Butter chicken is so popular that the cruise boats in Sydney have the dish on their buffet menu. Mind you, it’s not all about gastronomy; you can spot quite a few Yoga studios in Melbourne and Sydney suburbs.

If all of the above sounds cliché then consider this – Network Ten’s new dramedy, Five Bedrooms has an Indian character – a 30-year-old Indian doctor who is still living with his Indian mum and typically the mum doesn’t know he’s gay.  In 2017, Melbourne Theater Company (Australia’s largest theater company), had programmed an Indian play, Melbourne Talam in their Education season that went on to win awards and nominations. More recently, Australia’s iconic playwright, Patricia Cornelius, has woven an Indian story in the fabric of her new play. Last year Australian Shakespeare Company cast actors of color in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Karanvir Malhotra, the 23-year-old actor, best known for his work in Selection Day (Netflix Series), played the part of Paris in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Karanvir had trained at 16th Street Actors after moving to Melbourne with his parents.  Karan is excited about the emerging trend to cast diverse actors in the roles that were traditionally played by white actors. He is thrilled that the Australian performing arts industry is becoming more inclusive.

Karan is excited about the emerging trend to cast diverse actors in the roles that were traditionally played by white actors.

Just a couple of years back a veteran Indian actor had said in the passing, “25 years back you wouldn’t have seen any Indian in and around the Southbank Theater, leave alone on the stage at the Southbank.” If you take his statement as the reference then 21 shows of an Indian play (Melbourne Talam) at the landmark Southbank Theater or an Indian actor playing a part in a Shakespeare play becomes a political statement.  There’s no doubt we are seeing more Indian actors and works by Indian artists in the performing arts industry.  Is it because Indian influence is growing in Australia or is it a game of numbers? As the Indian population grows it needs more stores to shop in and more stage/platforms to show its stories. But what does culture mean to Australia?

Though Australia is geographically closer to Asia its culture is Western. There are at least 200 migrant communities living in Australia but the Australian culture is not a cocktail of the cultures of the diverse groups inhabiting the country.  Bernard Joseph Salt, an author, and columnist with The Australian and Herald Sun newspapers, recently published an article entitled, ‘Where is Australian culture now?’ in The Australian. Mr. Salt writes traces the history of Australian culture that has absorbed influences over the years to become seemingly more sophisticated. Mr. Salt ends his piece on a cautionary note, “Culture isn’t something that happens along the way of life, by accident; it is a powerful dividend of a people who know who they are and where they’re headed. And wherever we’re headed, we’ll be better placed to get there if we’re united by a uniquely Australian culture.”

Now what remains to be seen is where Indians will fit in this uniquely Australian culture. Jiva J. Parhipan, a Sydney based performing artist, producer, and educator who is working internationally in the cross-section of performing, visual and community arts thinks the growing presence of Indians on stage or screen does not mean Indians have been accorded a special status. Jiva has worked in the performing arts sector in the United Kingdom and Australia for over two decades. A Sri-Lankan Tamilian, Jiva, is trained in the Western and Indian classical dance forms and has an insider-outsider perspective.  Jiva considers the inclusion of the diverse people in the art world as a natural progression where Indians are a part of the bigger mix. The important thing to remember is that Indians are merely one of the diverse ethnic groups that make up Australia, just another story in the multiple stories of a play. This year a new Australian play about Sri Lanka’s civil war, ‘Counting and Cracking’ bagged seven Helpmann Awards. One year it is a Sri Lankan play, the next year is the turn of a Malaysian-Chinese story on stage.

Suhasini Seelin, an Indian actor in Melbourne is of the view that the attempts at inclusivity and multiculturalism are not enough.  “There is blindness when it comes to casting, where people of colour aren’t considered for general roles unless ethnicity is specified.” She adds, “I’ve been an actor in Melbourne for about 8 years and the only real embracing of an Indian form I have experienced is that of Bollywood Dance.”  While this statement will rattle the cultural pundits of India, the truth is India is synonymous with Bollywood.  I have heard young Australians talk about Bollywood dance on trams, “Is Bollywood dance from In..dia?” That’s right some of them can’t pronounce India.

Suahsini has had to consciously downplay what she refers to as ‘my Indian-ness’. “I have auditioned for characters that have needed an accent, and mine has either been too little or too much. As a female, I’ve been offered a lot of ‘mum’ roles and less complex characters than I’d like. This is not Australia specific, gender disparity exists across the world and here is no different.” She wonders sometimes whether working in India would have been more satisfying. 

Suhasini is trained in the Indian dance forms and Western style of acting. But her training in Bharatnatyam has not served her in the acting jobs in Australia.  The modern theater in Australia is text- driven, taut and minimalistic. Contemporary Australian theater has little use for Indian classical dance or exaggerated acting.  On the other hand, Suhasini has been able to draw from Japanese forms like Butoh and Suzuki in some of her performances. Suahsini feels, “an intermingling of ideas or art forms is too complex for consumption!”  The problem is that the Indian classical dance and music are inaccessible to the uninitiated audience. Unlike yoga that can be consumed by the masses, Indian dance forms are of little use to a foreigner.

This brings us to whether there is any place for the Indian Classical dance in Australia? Most classical dance performances are considered community events rather than professional concerts. The sub-text is that a community event is not high art. The Australians (non-Indians) who come to attend such concerts tend to be dancers, academics, or those working in the Multicultural Arts Department. Jiva points out that the Indian dances (referred to as the Hindu Temple dances) have been performed on the global stage by dancers from outside India such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries in the sub-continent. The cardinal question that Jiva raises is whether Indian dance should be located in the ambit of dance? Or is it a theatrical form? Western dance is centered on movement and precision but Indian dance places a lot of emphasis on abhinaya.  

Dr. Amit Sarwal’s upcoming book traces the early links between the Western and the Indian dance in Australia. Dr. Amit Sarwal is the Founding Convenor of Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network (AIIRN) and has a nuanced understanding of aesthetics. Published by Routledge, Dr Sarwal’s book, ‘The Dancing Gods: Staging Hindu Dance in Australia’ explores how a unique dance form (Kathakali and Manipuri especially) evolved in the meeting of travellers and cultures during 1930s-50s.  The blurb on the cover reads, ‘The intricately symbolic Hindu dance in its vital form was virtually unseen and unknown in Australia until an Australian impresario, Louise Lightfoot, brought it onto the stage. Her experimental changes, which modernized Kathakali and Manipuri dance through her pioneering collaboration with Indian dancers Ananda Shivaram, Rajkumar Priyagopal Singh and Ibetombi Devi, moved the Hindu dance from the sphere of ritualistic practice to formalized stage art. This movement enabled both the authentic Hindu dance and dancers to gain recognition worldwide and created in their persona cultural gurus and ambassadors on the global stage.’ When asked whether there is a need to metamorphose the Indian dances in order to appeal to the global audience Dr. Amit replied that Indian dances have already been transformed either for an Indian or Western audience. He cites Bhatatnatyam’s example that has evolved from Sadir which was performed by Devadasis. Louise Lightfoot had to actively transform the dance because the requirements of a stage are different from that of a pandal or a temple.

We Indians are an ethnocentric lot. We have grand notions about our civilizational superiority and the stature of our art forms. We are so self-aggrandizing that we remain oblivious to the world art forms like the Japanese musical drama Noh, African music, Sudanese drums, Chinese dance, Russian ballet and more.  In multicultural societies such as Australia Indians can only hope to be the seasoning with a distinct flavor. We are not the whole dish. Australia encourages equal participation of all cultures and accords the same status to all art forms. We are obliged to transform, translate, and blend our art in their art and culture landscape. Else, we remain a foreign dish savoured out of curiosity.

(The author Rashma N. Kalsie’s plays have been performed around Australia and India. Rashma’s writing credit for the theater include Melbourne Talam, Padma Shri Prahasana, The Lost Dog, and The Rejected Girl. TV credits include scripts for close to 100 episodes of Indian TV shows/docudrama with B.A.G. Films and News and Entertainment Television. Book Credits:  Ohh! Gods Are Online (Srishti Publishers, India) co-authored with a British writer. The Buddha & the Bitch (Hay House, India) co-authored with an American writer, released in May, 2018. Melbourne Talam (MTC Education production) won Drama Victoria Award for ‘Best Performance by a Theater Company for VCE Drama 2017’ and was nominated in 5 categories for the premiere theatre awards “Green Room Awards 2018” including Rashma’s nomination in the ‘New Writing for the Australian Stage’ category.)

(Cover image credit: Jeff Busby; Image source: Melbourne Theater Company)  


In a recent interview published by India’s public service broadcaster DD News, Sanskrit scholar Professor Chirapat Prapandvidya, from Thailand, exclaimed, “Thailand is the most crucial place for study of Sanskrit. We started to study Sanskrit long back. Hinduism and Buddhism existed in Thailand and have very strong influences. The influence of Sanskrit in Thai life is very strong and is intact. ”

Prof. Prapandvidya, who was also a speaker at the India Foundation’s Conference on Soft Power held in December 2018, is an archaeologist by profession. He has dedicated his entire life to the study and propagation of Sanskrit in Thailand. He continues to teach Sanskrit to the youth of Thailand, and he was the first to conceive both a post-graduate course and a PhD course in Sanskrit. He has also archived every inscription relating to the historicity of Indians who have visited Thailand. Prof. Prapandvidya continues to inspire scores of youth in Thailand, thereby bringing Thailand and India closer.

India and Thailand have over a millennia-old religious, cultural and trade links; these links have been concrete enablers of cultural and public diplomacy contributing to the convergence of New Delhi’s “Act East Policy” and Bangkok’s “Look West Policy.”

India’s Legacy in Thailand

As the world’s focus shifts from the British royal family to Thai royal family, Thailand has just recently witnessed the coronation of its first monarch since the people’s king, King Bhumibol, who ruled over Thailand for an exceptionally long duration. The elaborate coronation of King Vajiralongkorn that took place over three days, from May 4 to 6, in the capital Bangkok saw many Buddhist and Hindu rituals performed in the month leading up to the event. The 66-year-old King Vajiralongkorn became Thailand’s constitutional monarch after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 following a 70-year rule.

In what is rare footage released by Thai film archivists, glimpses of the 1950 coronation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej show him pouring sacred water on himself as part of the purification process, soon after which he wears the crown. Available reports state that the use of water is based on a Hindu tradition that dates back to 18th century coronation ceremonies, since the founding of the Chakri dynasty.

To date, the special relationship between India and Thailand exists and is there for all to see. This bond has been carefully preserved and carried forward for generations together, so much so that it plays an integral part in the anointment of the King of Thailand, even today.

Hindu touches of Thai coronation are not new. In ancient India, Rajabhisheka referred to the coronation of ordinary kings. “For the Siamese, Rajabhisheka is rather a Rajasuya, a ceremony for the consecration of an emperor, and it is extremely interesting to find that some of its features can be traced back to the Vedic Rajasuya described in the Satapatha Brahmana,” wrote author Horace Geoffrey Quaritch Wales, advisor of Siamese King Rama VI and Rama VII.

Pertinent here also is the fact that the Thai royal family has never let a ritual in their family be performed without the presence of Indian priests or those who have learned the hymns in Sanskrit and Tamil. “Thai priests have been taught Sanskrit and Tamil hymns, including Thiruppavai and Thiruvempavai,” said Krongkanit Rakcharoen, the former Consul-General of the Royal Thai Consulate-General in Chennai. “Over a period of time, these hymns formed a salient feature of Thai rituals. The monarchy in Thailand reveres these Indian priests, and no ritual is performed without their presence.”

The similarities between Indian and Thai culture are not restricted to the Royal family and do not stop there. The Island of Phuket has a long-recorded history dating back to 1025 CE, which indicates that the island’s present-day name derives its meaning from the Tamil word manikram (crystal mountain), which is equivalent to the Thai words phu meaning “mountain,” and ket meaning “jewel.”

Admiration for Indian deities is perhaps engrained in Thai culture. Dr. Padma Subramaniam, who has honed herself not just as an performing artist but also as an academic, in an interview described, “Once in Thailand, I was invited to the puja room of the Royal Thai Opera and there I saw masks of four deities being worshipped—Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh and Bharatamuni.”

Another striking example is that of the Si Thep Historical Park in Phetchabun’s Si Thep district, for which the Thai authorities are striving hard that it be declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Architecture at the site is a mixture of the Buddhism-based culture of the Dvaravati kingdom and Khmer culture, which draws on Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism.

Indian-Thai Relations

This civilizational base on which India-Thailand relations have consistently been nurtured, is a true testament to the countless similarities that exist between both countries. Be it Hinduism or Buddhism; be it any branch of Buddhism or even Indian epics like Ramayana, all have had a deep profound impact in the milieu of Thailand. It will not stop at just one Prof. Pranpandvidya; there will be many more such scholars and ambassadors for India who will emerge from the beautiful country of Thailand.

This significant cultural exchange is not a one-way street. In March, Delhi’s Namaste Thailand Festival was organized by the Royal Thai Embassy and showcases many aspects of Thai culture to Indians. This year’s festival also featured the popular folk jazz music band, Asia 7, from Thailand.

While there is much more to achieve, trade relations between the countries have witnessed a steady rise between 2017 and 2018; bilateral trade has witnessed an increase of 30 percent. An interesting annual study brought out by the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative has asserted how aspects such as cultural diplomacy and soft power can catapult enhanced bilateral trade. Historically, too, it is trade that actually played an important role in the expanse of India’s culture reaching the shores of Southeast Asia.

The deep significance that India attaches to Thailand was discernible when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, en route to Japan, stopped in Bangkok to pay homage to late King Bhumibol, in November 2016. Describing King Bhumibol as a “world statesman,” PM Modi said, “His Majesty will always be remembered for his compassion, foresight and commitment for the welfare of his people. His departure from this world is also a loss for the international community.”

As cultural commentator Tiffany Jenkins once put it, “The value of the arts, the quality of a play or a painting, is not measurable. You could put all sorts of data into a machine: dates, colours, images, box office receipts, and none of it could explain what the artwork is, what it means, and why it is powerful.”

Looking Ahead

To date, the special relationship between India and Thailand exists and is there for all to see. This bond has been carefully preserved and carried forward for generations together, so much so that it plays an integral part in the anointment of the King of Thailand, even today.

Traditionally, soft power ties have strengthened strong civilizational links between India and Thailand. There are a number of forms of Indian literature that have influenced Thai culture. It was a means for India to forge ties with Thailand and the larger ASEAN region, and these ties will only grow with contemporary relevance. Recently the ASEAN member countries in Bangkok proposed a distinct outlook toward cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, and vibrant soft power ties will only enable this key objective bringing India, Thailand and the ASEAN more closer in the economically powerful Indo-Pacific region.

(The article was originally published in the USC CPD blog)

Image source:
Tris_T7 via Wikimedia Commons 

Chennai Soft Power 30 : Brand India Through Performing Arts And Music

Hu Shih, the Chinese philosopher who passed away in 1962, is quoted often for saying, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”

There is no better way to understand the term, ‘soft power’ than this; the power to influence with our culture and tradition.

The Center for Soft Power is the 4th Center of India Foundation established in collaboration with Indic Academy. Based in Chennai, the Center has embarked on a unique project labelled, Chennai Soft Power 30.

Through this endeavour they bring to you a series of interviews with 30 top-performing artists of Chennai in the field of music and dance.

Listen in on how they got to go overseas, perform to diverse audiences and leave behind a fragrant reminder of the heights our culture has managed to achieve by blending spirituality with rhythm, movements and melody.

Vikku Vinayakram — The Ghatam Maestro

A ghatam is just an earthen pot. In Vikku Vinayakram’s hands it is an instrument that transports you into a pulsating rhythmic space that is exhilarating.

His first trip out of India was in accompanying the ever-melodious M S Subbalakshmi for a concert to promote world peace. He says Zakir Hussain is like a brother to him — they have no common language but the rhythm of their instruments!

When Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead band) insisted that the Grammy award for the album they had created with percussionists from seven countries must be shared by all participants, Vinayakram wrote away his royalty to Maha Periyava — such is his devotion to music and his guru.

Listen to the whole interview here.

Rajhesh Vaidhya — The Veena Maestro

Rajhesh says he was forced to learn to play the veena because that was his mother’s wish. He was formally trained under Chitti Babu — the great veena maestro — at the latter’s gurukul for three and a half years.

Rajhesh went on his first tour abroad during his tenth board exams, to Australia. He has participated in the Festival of India tours accompanying eight dancers on as many occasions to Russia!

He says his veena sounds unique as he works hard to make it so and the one country that he wishes to perform in, is Japan.

If ever there is a soul for music it is in India. These words by Rajhesh express why Indian classical music is so elevating and satisfying for anyone, anywhere.

Listen to his interview here.

Lydian Nadaswaram — The Child Piano Prodigy

Lydian is the ‘Mozart of Madras’ playing Western Classical music on the piano with such ease as to leave you wonder struck.

If that is not breathtaking, he has also performed by playing, on two pianos at the same, different tunes on each simultaneously!

This child prodigy is lovingly nurtured by his family and he says that he plays his music to make others and himself happy.

Even having achieved so much already, the little champ says his career is just beginning, that he has a lot to learn and that he must keep practising to get better.

Such dedication, such humility is what defines great love for one’s calling.

Listen to him playing and answering questions here

This is only the beginning of the Chennai Super 30 series. Stay tuned for more.

(This article was originally published in Swarajya Magazine)

In search of sound

A native of Seattle, Daniel Miller is a composer, programmer, instrument builder, and field recordist. His creative practice centers on perceiving and responding to the vitality latent in simple processes, materials, and technologies. Recent creative interests have included explorations of found objects, live animated interactive scores, and feedback cycles between performers and stochastic processes or acoustic automata. In 2013, he was a recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a grant that made possible twelve months of research on music and technology in seven countries. This article is the trail of all the sounds he covered in four continents.

More recently, Daniel was a Fulbright-Nehru research fellow based in Mysuru, India from 2017-2018 where he collaborated with Indian musicians and sound artists at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology and was advised by Dr. Mysore Manjunath at the University of Mysore.

By Daniel Miller

The glass terrariums by my bedroll were covered, but not as securely as I would have liked considering that they contained a diverse collection of Australia’s venomous reptiles. My host was an affable professional snake catcher with a genuine admiration for scaly creatures of all kinds. He took in strays, both reptilian and human; his house, a suburban pad on the outskirts of Brisbane, was a menagerie. Besides the snakes, there were crayfish in a former swimming pool, bearded dragon lizards in a pen in the garden, and a rotating roster of human guests who seemed to stay anywhere from a few days to a year. Among this small community of geeks and students, itinerant circus artist and wandering buskers, my obsession with recording the sounds of Australian frogs doubtless seemed only slightly out of the ordinary.

          At night my host took me out into the abandoned quarries near town, where he taught me how to spot the glint reflected by a spider’s faceted eye, catching the glare of a flashlight beam even from its hiding place in deep grass. It was here too that I first heard the bizarre chorus of “barking” frogs, attempting rather unsuccessfully to capture their distant jeering cry on my tiny Zoom H4n digital audio recorder.

*    *    *

          The year 2013–14 was one of the most transformative experiences of my life, both as a person and as a sound artist and composer. After graduating with degrees in music composition and philosophy from Lawrence University, a tiny college in the rural American Midwest, I had the astonishing honor and privilege to be granted a Watson Fellowship. Established by the heirs of the late IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, the grant funds a year of self-directed research overseas for selected graduates of 40 of America’s small, liberal-arts colleges, irrespective of the graduates’ countries of origin or citizenship.

          My thesis—which I ultimately pursued in seven countries on four continents—was that sound artists, musicians, and composers are particularly perceptive to the sounds of their immediate environment. Whether urban or rural, classically trained or self-taught, the practice of listening deeply to sound changes a composer’s perception of the act of auration itself. Inevitably the sounds of one’s surroundings influence one’s music, and this is particularly true of artists who work with microphones, the surrogate ears through which we attempt to copy, emulate, and even distort the object of perception.

          A condenser microphone is a fortress built to protect an almost indescribably delicate membrane. At the microphone’s heart is a minute drumhead, like a tin-man replica of the human inner ear, just half the thickness of cling wrap and stretched under fearsome tension. Through this delicate skin, perhaps covered in a fine lamina of gold, a fleeting electrical charge courses, fluctuating with the vibration of the air and passing on the barest tickle of current to circuits that will capture and amplify the signal.

          The field recordist is an artist with the almost foolhardy task of pitting this feather-light stylus against all the violence of sound in its natural habitat. We go to absurd lengths to protect the tiny metal grill from the barest breath of wind, cupping our body around the mic, or encasing it in blimp-like fuzzy nylon “socks.” Though some prefer the gonzo thrill of hearing even the physical body and movements of the recordist in the recording (a reminder that no human-made record is ever free of the particular auration of its creator), if we are to truly listen deeply we must practice being still—very still. One becomes aware of even the tiny creaking of the bones in the hand or the sound of one’s own breath. Recording, and listening through a microphone, becomes a kind of contemplative practice in itself.

          Dorothea Lange—the iconic photographer of America’s Great Depression of the 1930s—is quoted in a biography by Milton Meltzer: to take her camera with her in the morning, she said, was like “putting on her shoes.” Tellingly, she goes on to emphasize the importance of the camera as a tool for learning to “see without the camera.” Similarly, field recordists commit themselves to using the microphone as an instrument for learning to listen, with or without its mechanical assistance.

          But while a photographer has significant leeway in how they frame a scene—deciding what objects to include and which to cut from the frame—most microphones are less directional. What the field recordist can hear, the microphone can generally hear with even greater sensitivity. To listen through a microphone is not to ever hear “the” actual sound but rather a sound which is mechanically enhanced or attenuated. We cannot escape intervening in that record, but neither can we ever entirely control the outcome of a recording.

          I found that these competing themes of control and intervention versus exploration and discovery reappeared in countless ways in the work of artists I met, collaborated with, and interviewed during my twelve months on the road. But to understand the context, both cultural and acoustic, of the musicians I met along the way, I first had to engage with the environments I traveled through on my own terms.

*    *    *

          Starting my journey in Perth, Western Australia, one of the most isolated cities on earth, I hiked part of the Bibbulmun Track, a 1000-kilometer-long trail that snakes down the coast through dense Jarrah forests conspicuously inhabited by flocks of wild cockatiel birds. My soundtrack, for the first time in my life, was the creaking of my heavy pack’s straps, the bright red, iron-rich earth underfoot scarred in places by tumultuous subtropical rains. In a rite of passage for any young field recordist, I clamped little copper contact microphones (a simple microphone that records vibrations in solid surfaces rather than in the air) to metal cattle fences along the trail, listening to the reverberant hum of metal vibrating in the wind. Laying the contact microphones face up on anthills, I listened to the sound of tiny desperate footfalls as the insects investigated the intrusion of this alien copper disc. One night, in my tent, I heard, from very close by, the growling hiss of a goanna, a giant carnivorous monitor lizard that can grow to two meters long.

          Flying to Brisbane a month later, I had the pleasure of meeting Lawrence English, the Johnny Cash of field recording, as dapper and distinguished in person as he is in promotional photos for Room40, his well-respected record label. English is a keen listener with a penchant for philosophical contemplation, and his recordings are as extraordinary for their clarity and complexity as they are for the creativity of their environs. A recording which I always return to is his 2011 recording of a toy store in Tokyo (Toy Store Ueno Japan. “And the Lived In.” Room40, 2012)—a rich tapestry of electronic warbles like a field of cicadas at dusk, a bizarre mimesis, the synthetic masquerading as the biological.

          Another Australian field recordist who influenced me a great deal was Martin Kay. More abstract and interventionist in his aesthetic, Kay has largely focused on “prepared” field recording. A typical experiment for him is to place a microphone deep within a storm drain or culvert to record the distant crowd noise some kilometers away from a major sporting event.

          In prepared field recording, “composition” becomes explicitly about composing the placement of microphones. Microphones may be placed inside enclosed or resonant vessels, the vessels partially submerged or subjected to wind, ice, or steam; or the microphone may be located in a generally inaccessible place, such as on the roof of a moving elevator. (Japanese sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda once famously recorded birdsongs with a microphone placed in the tailpipe of his car.)

          In mid-October I flew north to the Indonesian island of Java through white-knuckle turbulence that rocked the Airbus A330 as we passed over the sultry beaches of Darwin. The former capital of the Mataram Sultanate, Yogyakarta, has long been a cultural hub for Javanese traditional arts and is now at the center of a new kind of artistic revival. Many of Yogyakarta’s young artists draw on classical Javanese arts as well as the contemporary concerns of their community to create work that is at once fresh and culturally aware. Two artists who exemplify this trend are Rully Shabara and Wukir Suryadi, who together form the band Senyawa.

          I first met Suryadi at his farmhouse at a distant edge of town. With little more than a GPS coordinate and a cell number, I walked through shaded lanes and lush farmland, past feral chickens and children who inevitably stopped to stare at the obviously quite lost American guy who would have had to stoop to fit through any normal-sized doorway.

          Suryadi’s house at that time was filled with traditional farming tools, all in various stages of being converted into electronically amplified musical instruments. In pride of place was an enormous wooden plow, which dominated his front entryway, strung with taut wires like the rigging of some shipwrecked vessel. A backroom contained dozens of objects in various stages of modification: bamboo rice winnowing baskets with attached contact mics, lutes made of hoes and spades, and a bamboo spear strung around its circumference with amplified wires.
          Like Senyawa, the community arts collective LifePatch draws on environmental and agricultural concerns of the community, staging workshops on water quality and fermentation, and creating works of art that electronically sonify environmental processes. Its model is deeply interdisciplinary and idiosyncratic; its core members include artists and musicians, a biochemist, and a farmer. I spent many evenings in their cluttered but creative clubhouse, the smell of tobacco smoke and hot electrical circuitry richly accenting workshops on the open-source programming platform Pure Data. Not to be outdone by Senyawa’s heavy metal aesthetic, LifePatch members once placed flags with embedded electronic synthesizers and speakers near the summit of Mt. Marapi an active (and very lively) volcano. Each flag’s motion sonified the fickle and ash laden winds on the summit. (Sadly, the installation was perhaps destroyed in an eruption shortly thereafter.)

*    *    *

          In the months that followed, I wandered from country to country, savoring the changing soundscape in each new place, always in awe of the artists I met and the generosity of the musicians who let me sleep on their couches.

          I moved on to Taiwan and Japan, hanging out evening after evening at SuperDeluxe—Tokyo’s legendary noise-music dive famous for hosting the likes of JapaNoise idol and art-house heartthrob Masami Akita (aka Merzbow). Immersing myself in Tokyo’s vibrant underground noise music scene, I heard and met artists such as free improv collective Marginal Consort and, on one particularly memorable evening, “Zombie Music,” a recorder-playing pneumatic robot designed by eccentric Japanese composer Yasuno Taro. My reluctant departure from Japan in January was briefly delayed by a historic snowstorm that stranded me in Narita Airport for three nights, sleeping in the airport’s public observation deck and waking each morning to the unusual sight of deserted, peaceful runways.

          I spent the spring of 2013 in beautiful, perplexing Buenos Aires, jamming in the eclectic folk-instrument-strewn apartment of Alejo Duek, a member of the Argentine freak folk band La Suena de los Elefantes. His workshops (Experimentación Sonora) draw an eclectic crowd of porteños: cynical studio guitarists, New Age spiritualists, folk musicians, and painters. The results fall somewhere between avant-garde and freestyle meditation.

          Weekends I would often spend at cheLA, a former asbestos factory turned center for media art and technology, which hosted, among other things, a practice space for circus performers. Here I met the charismatic Luciano Azzigotti who runs ConDiT, an experimental music project founded in 2011. Since its inception, ConDiT has staged more than 60 events, many with an international scope. ConDiT composers have drawn on a pre-Columbian tradition of cooperative labor and community service known as Minka, reinterpreting this tradition through a method of communal artistic creation, composing a musical work collaboratively over the course of a day.

          Sonic coincidences—fortuitous moments of overheard beauty—were everywhere, from my kitchen in Tokyo, to the cold mountains of the Atacama Desert. One day, standing on a ridge high above the town of Tupiza, in Bolivia’s arid southwest, I recorded a school band and a military parade echoing in simultaneous oblivious counterpoint from different parts of the little town, fading in and out of background noise of the dry, dusty little town at the edge of the desert. Music is where you stop to listen.

          Shortly before the end of my fellowship, my trusty hydrophone (underwater microphone)—which had served me well recording the cacophonous creaking of ice in the glacial lagoons along Iceland’s south coast—met its untimely end in a boiling pool of geothermal water along Iceland’s Laugavegur trail. Yet for the brief time during which the hydrophone was able to record, I captured the most amazing soundscape, one which none of us will ever hear with our unaided ears: the thunderous growl of geothermal water boiling up from deep beneath a volcano, and at one point a long, loud wail of escaping gasses, which scared me so much (listening in through my headphones) that I scrambled back up the trail, leaving my recording equipment behind, expecting at any moment that the hot volcanic crust around me would give way to a freak geyser of boiling sulfurous effluent.
          In my twelve months of wandering, the only place I struggled to find any sound at all, was deep in the Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats that cover 11,000 square kilometers of Bolivian highlands. Here, on salt as hard and flat as ice stretching as far as the eye could see, not even insects relieved heavy silence. In the occasional pools of shimmering brine, no bubbles disturbed the soft hiss of digital silence in my headphones. American composer John Cage talked frequently of hearing his own blood rushing in his veins when he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951. It was an important moment for him, a realization that we are perhaps never without sound (save perhaps, as Lawrence English has suggested, in the moments just before death). I can’t say that I heard my own blood pulsing in the Salar, but I can say that I felt very strongly the fragility of life in that moment and the great importance of sound for most people even in the most mundane moments of our lives.

*    *    *

          From a sociological viewpoint, musical traditions can be classified according to how one participates in the music making: participatory music, in which the community collectively acts as both the performers and the listeners; presentational styles, in which the music is presented by a group of expert performers before a quiet receptive audience; music disseminated primarily through audio recordings; and even works of experimental sonic art that originate entirely in the synthesizers and other alchemical sublimations of the recording studio.

          My own experiences suggest that we might understand a global community of musicians in a different way, defined instead by the object of their curiosity. In particular, I am interested in the community of artists working outside of the limelight, perhaps with little or no formal institutional backing. Their work may seem to be an obscure hobby, but without the pressures of sluggish institutional support, their work can connect with communities in new and interesting ways; their music is as influenced by their environment as they choose to let it be. They are lovers of strange sounds, tinkerers, and inventors. They are not exclusively of any particular musical tradition, although they draw on and thrive alongside classical, vernacular, and contemporary traditions in many countries. They embody the spirit of do-it-yourself/do-it-with-others, open source, acoustic curiosity.

          Now more than ever the acoustic eccentric thrives, ridding a resurgent interest in presumed “authenticity.” The cool new gadget is the collection of wires, speakers, and circuit boards hand-soldered in a garage somewhere. The sophisticated audio software that processes the signal from a mic can be downloaded free from freeware repository GitHub.

          Of course we must not overstate the accessibility of this music or the community that nourishes it. To participate in an international community still requires some resources. While open-source software may be “free,” it still requires the resources of a computer to download it, and in many cases one must have some understanding of English (or at least a programming language) in order to use it. Though DIY hardware hacking can produce electronic instruments of great beauty from cheap and available parts, these components are not free, and one must have the time and knowledge to learn to solder and assemble them. Though contact microphones can be made or found within discarded consumer electronics, the best condenser mics are unaffordable for many. Experimental music, regardless of its providence, still remains most accessible to the middle class in most countries, and there remain important questions about “experimentalism,” an ideal that has historically been valorized alongside colonialism.

          Nevertheless, the internet and the cheap availability of digital recording equipment have somewhat democratized sound art. Whereas in the 20th century the heartland of electronic music experimentation was in the large government-supported sound studios of Europe and the mainframe computer labs of America’s Ivy League universities, today with the resurgent interest in small-scale analogue circuitry and “maker” culture, tinkering has become the new standards for uncompromising creativity. Perhaps this trend will help to replace the troubling concept of a monolithic and static “authenticity” (so often implying latent exoticism or orientalism) with a recognition that most artists draw on complex and evolving influences within a rapidly globalizing artistic community.

          As Rana Ghose—a New Delhi-based concert promoter and organizer of the Listening Room concert series, which presents noise music shows in several Indian cities—recently told The Hindu Business Line reporter Bhanuj Kappal, Indian artists have always been experimenting with DIY sound and noise “in the privacy of their own homes.” (Kappal, Bhanuj. ‘Signal to noise.’ The Hindu Business Line, May 27, 2016).  It is an encouraging sign that such music is increasingly receiving press attention in many parts of the world; shows, often organized by the artists themselves, are finding an audience outside of the small vanguard of audiophiles who themselves produce or perform the music.

          If my experience is representative, chances are there are artists near you who are doing something unimaginably strange and exciting with sound. But if not, you could always do it yourself.

(Daniel’s music has been performed in North America, Europe, and Asia. Past collaborators include Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, ensemble mise-en, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Ensemble l’Itinéraire, Sound Energy Trio, the NOW Ensemble, Ensemble MotoContrario, and folk duo Undlin & Wolfe. He was a recipient of BMI Student Composer Awards in 2016 and again in 2017. A former student of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, Daniel is a recipient of degrees in music composition and philosophy from Lawrence University. Most recently he completed a master degree in the Digital Musics program of Dartmouth College. Daniel is currently a Fulbright-Nehru research fellow based in Mysuru, India, where he is advised by Dr. Mysore Manjunath at the University of Mysore.)

“The real merit of music on the global stage is the ability to teach the listener about the qualities of the maker”

Musicologist Bob Gilmore describes American born Ned Mcgowan’s music as one which “strives for an idiom in which various musics – American popular, European classical and avant-garde, Carnatic, a fascination with proportionally intricate rhythms, the use of microtones in the search for new subtleties of melody – and many others, rub against each other and generate new meanings.

Ned McGowan was a part of the Center for Soft Power’s Yoganiyoga project. He is a composer, teacher, flautist, improviser and curator. His works have been performed throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia. Ned McGowan teaches composition at the College for Arts, Media and Technology in Hilversum, Netherlands.

Ned studied to play the Carnatic flute for several months in Bangalore, with MK Pranesh and it influenced him to learn more about the Gamaka or the ornamentation on a note. “However, to play Carnatic flute is as climbing a very tall mountain and I had already climbed several other mountains in my life, so I stopped practicing.”

However, he did take back Indian rhythm with him. As a professor of Advanced Rhythm and Pulse at the Utrecht Conservatory, and the creator of the International Rhythm Course he says his methods all start with the South Indian syllable system to learn subdivisions and groupings. “Carnatic music has a great method for combining composition and improvisation. I love the approach to ornamentations and rhythm.”

Ned McGowan was a part of the Center for Soft Power’s Yoganiyoga project. He is a composer, teacher, flautist, improviser and curator. His works have been performed throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia.

For his PhD research he is exploring the ‘identity of speed in music, from the compositional, performative or pedagogical perspectives.’ “The speed of rhythms in live acoustic music, literally the velocity at which notes are sounding, can be defined in absolute terms based on clock time. But there is also the perceived speed that, in the simplest terms, states that musical material can seem fast, slow or some other relational quality.”

“Speed is articulated by sounding rhythm. Rhythms, however, manifest themselves through a myriad of various implicit and explicit frames, depending on the musical context, including tuplets, meters (traditional and’irrational’), tempo, polytempos, pulses, polypulses, polyrhythms (superimposed frames), additive frames, divisive frames, metric modulation, time brackets and other structures.” In his PhD he is researching the current practice, precise identities and possibilities of the various time frames in music and the bearing they have individually and in combinations on the speed of the music.

In 2016, he released his album The Art of the Contrabass Flute, an album dedicated solely to this amazing instrument. “A phenomenal technique and flawless feeling for rhythm and sound, he knows how to use it perfectly in his compositions,” said Luister Magazine.

A strong facet of Ned’s influence is Carnatic music. He believes that his instrument works well for South Indian music. “Contrabass flute has a full low expressive tone, but it can also play fast articulate rhythms.”

Over the past decade, he has collaborated and performed regularly in India and Europe with Indian musicians Dr Mysore Manjunath, Mysore Nagaraj, Dr Suma Sudhindra, Pravin Godkhindi, Jahnavi Jayaprakash, Ronu Majumdar, B.C. Manjunath, M.K. Pranesh, Anoor Anathakrishna Sharma and Giridar Udupa. “What fascinates me is the Carnatic use of rhythmical complexities developed through a tradition of performance.”

Works exploring Indian forms from a European perspective include Chamundi Hill, for flute and harp, Alap for voice and ensemble, Stone Soup for jazz ensemble, Tusk for ensemble and Three Amsterdam Scenes for voice, viola and keyboards. About his association with India, he says, “I love India, it’s people, it’s food, and the musicians from there are some of my best friends!”

In a research paper on whether music is a universal language, he questions whether the same piece of music can the same thing to people from different cultures?

“The answer, in my opinion, is a clear no. To give a small example, I’ve taken friends from India to classical concerts in Europe and watched them fall asleep while the European audience was elated. Vice versa, I’ve watched Europeans fall asleep during Indian classical concerts while the Indian audience remained in rapt attention.

Further, music isn’t universal even to all the people from the same culture. Not everyone in India understands or appreciates Indian classical music and the same is true for Europeans of European classical music. Think about the common observation that the youth don’t attend many classical concerts, if at all. So if music cannot communicate the same to people within the same culture, how can it communicate equally across the globe?

“What fascinates me is the Carnatic use of rhythmical complexities developed through a tradition of performance.” – Ned McGowan

Of course, these examples are not based on scientific research but merely observations. There has been in depth research, though, done on the ability of music to communicate across cultures. In a study carried about in Montreal, groups of Canadians and Congolese Pygmies were played music from each other’s cultures. The results indicated that while there were similarities in how the two groups responded emotionally to the basic musical elements of tempo, pitch and timbre, there were also broad differences in the preference of music, the judgement of quality (good or bad) and extra-musical associations. This goes to show that perhaps the question of universality does not receive a simple a yes or no answer, that the truth lies somewhere in between the two.”

In order to understand which aspects of music are universal and which are not Ned suggests that we break music up into three parts: the universal, the cultural and the personal.

“The universal elements of music are indeed the ones mentioned in the above study: tempo, pitch and timbre, and they each relate to physiological processes. For example, music in a faster tempo will inspire more movement in the listener than a slower tempo, just as reflected in dance music around the world. Further, human ears are calibrated for the range of the human voice and thus music in that octave will speak more clearly to any human, such as how one can understand the excited quality of a singer even while not understanding the lyrics. Similarly with timbre, a shrieking sound will be dramatic to anyone.

Relating to tempo, the use of rhythm in different cultures provides an interesting analogy to this question of universality, I believe. Think of the common square rhythms in 4 of European classical, jazz and pop compared to the Indian classical rhythms making regular use of lengths of 3, 5 and 7. Or of rhythms in 12 of Africa to the gestural rhythms used in Japanese traditional music. They are all very different in character yet make similar use of sparse or dense rhythms, slow or fast tempos to create lower or higher energy levels in the music. There are indeed universal truths to rhythm, I believe, which are explored differently by each culture.

The 2nd component inherent to all music is cultural context, and it is precisely that context which defines its contained influence. For example in India there are some ragas which are only played at certain times of the day. If one grows up listening to these ragas at their designated times, the association becomes strong. Hearing a morning raga, even in the evening, will still evoke images of sunrise and birds chirping. One who did not grow up or learn these associations will likely not have those same images. Likewise organ music often has religious associations in Europe because organs mostly exist in churches. But for someone from one of the many countries where there are few churches, the sound of the organ would not necessarily bring the worship of god to mind. Lastly, another clear example of the musical barriers between cultures is the lyrics of vocal music. In this respect music clearly mimics the regional quality of spoken language. If only Google translator could also translate musical meaning!”

“The 2nd component inherent to all music is cultural context, and it is precisely that context which defines its contained influence. For example in India there are some ragas which are only played at certain times of the day.” – Ned McGowan

He adds that an intensification of the cultural context is found in the musical element of ornamentation, due to its geographical and historic specificity. “The way jazz in the United States is ornamented today is different than 80 years ago and also different between the east coast and the west coast. Likewise, Carnatic gamakas have also evolved over the last eighty years and there are certainly differences in their execution throughout local traditions in southern India. Perhaps the differences in ornamentation occur similarly to differences in accent of spoken languages, which vary locally and over time.”

At the third level, he says music exists on the personal level. “Every individual musician has grown up with a set of experiences which are his or her own. Even two musicians of the same age within the same culture will still have their own unique perspectives, feelings and thoughts. Their identity is exclusive and this is the reason why new voices in music always sound fresh, even within standard repertoire. Just as no two humans are alike, so is every musician unique and that comes out in their music, whether as performers or composers.

This component also refers to listeners, whose perspectives are also coloured by their individuality. To experience this fact, just ask your neighbour at any concert what they thought and understood from the music. While there may be some common opinions, there are always also some differences in perspective. So when we multiply the individual expressions of the musician with the individual experiences of the listener, it is no wonder that music is often considered to be subjective in nature.”

Ned stresses that the more one learns about the music of a different culture the more one can understand and appreciate it. “This, I feel is the real merit of music on the global stage: not its ability to speak the same to everyone, but its ability to teach the listener about the qualities of the maker.”