Friday, November 28, 2008

The Jethro Tull concert

Yesterday, all excited, and broken toe notwithstanding, I trooped off with K for what for me was certainly an experience of a lifetime - the Jethro Tull concert, where a part of their performance was to have been with Anoushka Shankar, at the Science City auditorium. We wisely left early and got there at 6 - the show was to begin at 7.30 - only to find ourselves stuck behind a long line of cars that moved so excrutiatingly slowly that one felt like screaming in frustration - seriously, does it take that long to park cars? As it turned out, it doesn't - the slowness was due to confused-looking security people who were checking cars, taking money and then passing them through - our tiny, battered car obviously didn't look very threatening, because we were waved through rather soon. We queued up before what seemed like hundreds of people - most of them older, clearly Jethro Tull fans, and those quintessential Bong aantel types who are so unmistakable to any true-blue Calcuttan. And, of course, the young college-goers. We shamelessly eavesdropped on conversations around while the queue inched forward and then, once inside the auditorium, were confronted with young ushers who had absolutely no idea about where to seat everyone - they were earnestly squinting at seating plans which clearly made little sense. We made our way through four people before getting our seats - which turned out to be the wrong seats, and we - and the people seated next to us - had to shift later, after the concert had begun, much to our annoyance.

The concert, though, was worth it all. Anoushka Shankar kicked it off with two extended raags, which found little favour with most of the audience, myself included - don't get me wrong, I think she's very good, and certainly her two pieces (especially the second one; but I know next to nothing of Indian classical music, so can't tell you which raags she played) were excellent - but when one has gone to see Ian Anderson and listen to Tull, one does tend to get restive after an hour of sitar. 'We want Ian Anderson!' yelled someone from the audience towards the end of the first - and longer - piece, to rumbles of agreement from the rest of the crowd. Tull finally took the stage at 9 - the show having begun around 8 - and if the yells from the crowd were any indication, the wait was jugded to have been worth it.

I haven't really heard too much of Tull, though I have of course heard their better-known numbers, and who doesn't know that legendary silhouette of that most famous piper of all, Ian Anderson? They played some of their earlier numbers, and then some of their later ones - classics like 'Too Old to Rock'n'Roll, too Young to Die' (dedicated to Mick Jagger - 'pop singers are growing younger every year, sitar players are growing younger, it just seems us rock stars who're growing older with each year!'), 'Thick as a Brick', 'Heavy Horses', 'That Sunday Feeling' - and throughout it all one had Ian Anderson prancing around impishly all over the stage, for all the world like an Irish leprechaun complete with the music; his flute entranced, his vocals had people clapping and roaring in appreciation, that dry British humour interspersing each number had us laughing - and never mind that his lines were, for the most part, so obviously scripted - and his phenomenal lead guitarist, Martin Barre's, riffs were mind-blowing, to say the least. I found it hard to sit still - couldn't understand why people unhampered by hurt toes weren't standing, or prancing around themselves. Last night was all about Ian Anderson the performer, the showman, the man who had a sizeable chunk of Calcutta eating out of his hands.

The third part of the show was the 'fusion' part, with Anoushka playing with Tull - and that was a bit of a washout. Tull's sound doesn't lend itself too readily to fusion of any sort, being largely unstructured and and the rhythm not following any linear pattern - Anderson had composed two pieces especially for the India tour, which the band and Anoushka could play together - the first, 'Tea with Anoushka', didn't, after the arenalin-pumping excitement of one hour with Tull, really take off. The second, 'Celtic Cradle' (meant to bring together the music of the East and the West), was much better, but again, the good parts were Tull's magic flute, and the guitarists' riffs. The sitar somehow did not sit very well through it all - if anything, it sounded forced, interventionist. They moved on later to the signature 'Bouree' ('a piece written quite a long time ago - about 300 years ... I think Bach would have liked what we're about to do with it') where, mercifully, the sitar was given a minimal role to play. That was to be the final piece, but predictably, the audience howled for an encore, and they returned, willingly enough, for a spectacular rendition of yet another Tull classic, 'Locomotive Breath'. Ian Anderson was at his faun-like best during this recital - he made every bit of that stage his own, and at times, it was hard to tell whether it was he playing the flute, or the flute playing him. Some of the best parts were when he jammed with Anoushka's flautist, who ably held his own alongside Anderson, and the guitar solos. The crowd suddenly seemed to wake up to the fact that the show was nearing its end and clapped, yelled, stamped, and sang along for all they were worth, much to Anderson's obvious delight. And then it was over. The lights came up, they took a final bow, Anderson ran off the stage, while his band members began packing up, and hugging the tabla player (the well-known Tanmoy Bose) and the flautist at having pulled off a very successful show.

As for us, we walked out into the chilly night in a happy daze with memories that we'll be reliving for quite some time to come. Had Ian Anderson suddenly metamorphosed into a Pied Piper of sorts - albeit a merrier and more energetic one - we'd have danced along behind him without a second's hesitation, following wherever he chose to lead.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Delhi at the receiving end

Those Indians - especially Delhiites - infuriated at Aravind Adiga's heinous crime, that of painting a less than laudatory picture of India in general and Delhi in particular (a crime for which he has received so many threats that he has purpotedly placed himself under voluntary house arrest), should have watched the last couple of episodes of The Amazing Race, currently being aired on AXN Monday nights. Not because it would have cooled their righteous anger, but because it would inflamed them to the extent that Adiga, whose only crime as I see it is to have written an unreadable book, could have basked in the glory of the Booker prize money, even as the rest of us 'celebrated the death of the Booker', as K put it.

The Amazing Race, for people not in the know, is this very exciting programme where 10 couples (they don't have to going around or married; children and parents, friends, colleagues, etc., can all participate, as long as they're a twosome) set off for a race around the world - they fly to different countries, are given various tasks to perform, and the last team to come in every week gets eliminated. Three teams make to the finale, where the winning team receives a million dollars in prize money. This hugely successful show started an Asian franchise, The Amazing Race Asia, where participants come from Asian countries, and are on the whole far more intelligent, polite and charismatic than their American counterparts. They get only 100,000 USD, though, and they're pretty much confined to Asia and the UAE. So anyway, in the current season of The Amazing Race, six teams were asked to fly to India from Cambodia, where they had successfully completed the last leg of the race. They had to go to Delhi.

Now, the countries hosting the participants understandably look upon this opportunity as a tourism venture - the lovely parts of the city the teams are in are highlighted, so-called 'cultural' tasks set them - but not so in Delhi. The country's capital, which is a beautiful city for the most part, and boasts of historical ruins and momuments by the dozen, to say nothing of the lovely expanse of Lutyens' Delhi, unearthed the shadiest, dingiest parts of itself to send the AR teams to. And what did they do there? Paint autos the CNG green, go to the dhobi ghat and iron clothes, go to a gurudwara and give out water in dirty glasses, run through a field where people were playing mock Holi to retrieve their next clue, and in the quest get drenched in colour and mauled by grinning Kalkaji ruffians, try and spot little tags on electric lines in Nai Sarak, Daryaganj - all accompanied by random shots of monkeys, stray dogs, cows, and shanties (the last had divorcees Kelly and Christie holding their noses), and commentary that went like - 'Teams must now make their way through Delhi's crowded streets'; 'confusing roads'; 'dingy neighbourhoods', and so on. The Indian stereotype of dirt, crowds, ogling men, cows, snake charmers, poverty, beggars were held up for Western consumption, particularly for an audience that didn't have much knowledge of ... er... anything at all! For example, here's how conversations between frat boys Dan and Andy usually go - 'Where's Cambodia, man'? 'Man, India's big!'

The funny thing is, The Amazing Race Asia teams came to India too, to Cochin and Pune, where things were handled much better. They went to temples, did a rangoli, washed elephants, and went to the fishing bay in Cochin; went to Buddhist caves, the beautiful Shanivar Vada in Pune, and wandered around Pune's posh, glitzy neighbourhoods, finishing up at the pottery bazaar and crushing sugarcane to make juice that they subsequently sold. So why were the Indian crew, who were obviously part of deciding the tasks and arranging the practicalities, so singularly malicious when it came to Delhi? Clueboxes could have been set up in Janpath, or Connaught Circus, tasks devised in Hauz Khas Village, for example, but no. Don't get me wrong - I haven't suddenly discovered a love for the city after a year of being away. But I do hate that whole Indian stereotype of dirt and poverty and spirituality - and let's face it, there's far more to the country and it's people than that. So when TV programmes can get away with glorifying India's crowds and slums and poverty, why blame Aravind Adiga?