What’s New for the 4th of June: Some Things India

Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own. ― Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

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Ahhhh there you are.  What’s the lovely music playing in here, you ask? ‘Tis ‘Vatapi ganapatim bhaje ham’ which celebrates Ganesh, also called Ganapati, which is the elephant-headed god who is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Although technically a subsidiary figure in the Hindu pantheon, Ganesh’s importance advanced markedly during the 20th century, and he is celebrated and revered as a god of prosperity, prudence, and success. And, for us here at Green Man, he’s important in his guise as the patron god of scribes! IPAs for all!

So let me set aside the most excellent novel I’ve been reading, Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, one in the Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator series. I’ve a fondness for mysteries set in the Indian sub-continent as they’re usually quite excellent at describing the culture and history of the place they’re set.

So in this edition, you’ll find music from that region,  a look at Darjeeling tea,  a most unusual cricket match and other things as well. Give me a few minutes to finish it up and do enjoy your IPA while you wait…

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Cat leads us with alternative history novel, The Peshawar Lancers, in which the British Empire decamps to India: ‘The much more Indian than English culture is a brilliant re-visioning of British history that reads like vintage Poul Anderson, particularly his Dominic Flandry series. It features rugged heroes — male and female — vivid combat scenes, exotic locales, and truly evil villains. Hell, it even has Babbage machines, the great analytical engines that Sir Charles Babbage never built but which also play an important role in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.’

Donna leads her reviewing off with four novels in a murder mystery series set primarily in India (The Last Kashmiri Rose, Ragtime in Simla, The Damascened Blade and The Palace Tiger): ‘These books by British writer Barbara Cleverly form a murder mystery series. Although I have read other serial fiction and other murder mysteries, this is my first encounter with this particular combination. I found the first two books in a recent remainder catalog at prices much reduced from their original suggested retails. They were sufficiently enjoyable to prompt me to seek out the next two, which are readily available from the usual on-line sources. They are probably also available in the mystery section of any relatively large bricks-and-mortar bookstore, if you prefer to shop that way. They all run about 300 pages in length and are relatively quick reads — probably good fare for summer travel.’

Donna looks at two non-fiction books regarding ‘the Raj, the British rule over large parts of the Indian subcontinent.’ She read David Gilmour’s The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj and Lawrence James’s Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, and concluded that ‘although these are both serious and well-researched history books, they are readily accessible to the general reader.’

She finished off with Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. Of this history of the final years of British rule of India, Donna had this to say: ‘Von Tunzelmann has done a fine job of writing a very detailed history in an interesting and generally readable style. She makes good use of direct quotes from the correspondence of her main characters and from contemporary news and other official courses. She follows a careful chronological order and makes use of chapter and section headings to guide the reader’s attention among the characters, thereby avoiding the usual pitfalls associated with writing a relatively complex historical work. She also manages successfully to walk the fine line between the significant biases of her sources — no easy task!’

The novel Gary looks at in this review is set in a richly imagined future India, Ian Mcdonald’s River of Gods. And it’s a bloody good read as well: ‘You can hold whole universes in your hand, between the covers. And as with those old faery tales, you need to pay attention to books like River of Gods. They contain important truths, hidden inside entertaining stories.’

Gary has a truly epic novel for us: ‘The world is groping for a new mythology, one that makes sense in a world that has seen nuclear devastation and sent humans to the moon; a world that encompasses both communications satellites and children starving to death in the midst of plenty. Perhaps the new mythology will be found in the multiple collisions of cultures, histories, arts and religions; maybe it will be birthed through the agency of pop culture, which has supplanted classical music and art. Or so Salman Rushdie seems to be saying in his sprawling, entertaining and challenging novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet.’

Gary also watched a DVD called Ravi Shankar, The Extraordinary Lesson, filmed at a concert in Paris in 2008. ‘Ravi Shankar’s legacy is an impact on the world’s music that will reverberate for incalculable ages. This little DVD reflects but a tiny bit of that legacy, but it does so with reverence and beauty.’

And he looks a difficult subject in reviewing  The Raga Guide. He notes that he knew little about ragas but ‘Well, now I know a little bit more, thanks to this impressive book. Subtitled A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas, The Raga Guide is an exhaustive and scholarly work, aimed primarily at musicians and serious students of music. It comes with four CDs, each containing 18 to 20 “condensed” versions of classical ragas. The ragas themselves feature either sarod (a sitar-like stringed instrument), flute, or male or female vocal soloists.’

Grey looks at Kirin Narayan’s Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales noting she ‘is an anthropologist who collected these stories in an extended series of interactions with Urmila Devi Sood, a Hindu Indian woman from a the small town of Kangra. Narayan maintains the careful structure of scientific “field work” in this book by writing it as an extended narrative. She faithfully relates the conversations that lead up to the telling of each tale, and inserts breaks in the tales to record the interjections of the listeners who are present, as well family members who enter or leave the room.

Pinky, who resides in India, looks at Rainbow and Other Stories, a collection of short children’s stories by Indian author Maneka Gandhi. Pinky enjoyed the book overall, but has several criticisms to make.

Tammy Moore has a review particularly worth noting if you read River of Gods: In Cyberabad Days, author Ian McDonald returns to the technologically brilliant, parched and i-Dusty India of 2047, an India first visited in his award-winning novel River of Gods. The seven stories collected in this volume follow the rise and fall of this new India, from the luxurious, robot-monkey guarded palaces of the super-rich to the slums where the robotwallahs rule like tinpot gods.

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Richard brings us Bend It Like Beckham,  a film about ‘…Indian cooking, cultural absurdity, family love, and an abiding desire to play what the English call ‘the beautiful game’…’ That game, of course, would be football; what we in the States call soccer. What happens when a young Indian girl dreams of playing football like English football star David Beckham? Culture clash, among other things — but Nathan says that ‘[t]he underlying theme of culture clash is better because it is underlying, rather than politicised and angry. Instead of favouring either the Indian or the English culture, the writer shows how the two manage their uneasy coexistence.’

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Someday I should tell you the fascinating story of Kedgeree which is considered a traditional British breakfast dish but its origins are rooted in Indian cooking having started its life as khichari, a simple dish of rice and lentils. Due to the British Raj and the colonization of the sub-continent the dish was taken, adapted and turned into something more suited to those serving in India, and it came to Britain during the Victorian era.

Jeff Koehler and Fajer Al-Kaisi’s Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea audiobook gets reviewed by Reynard: ‘Tea is my favourite beverage since I was resident in southern Asia some decades ago as it was much easier there to find good tea than it was to find even one cup of coffee that was anything but horrible except in the high-end tourist hotels which I generally didn’t frequent.’

So how about an Indian classic from Trader Joe’s? Robert says, ‘I got stopped at the frozen foods section when I ran across the Indian dinners, which were quite reasonably priced — about $3.50 each. They had three varieties in stock, so I grabbed a couple of the Chicken Tikka Masala entrees.’ Check to see how that turned out.

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This nation shaped the British Empire every bit as much  the British shaped India over the centuries of oftimes brutal occupation. Peter Milligan’s John Constantine: Hellblazer India says Cat, as this story ‘neatly plays off the British experience in India and what happens when that experience takes a horrible turn into the supernatural world that Constantine knows all too well.’

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Big Earl Sellar starts us off with a look at a Jahan-E-Khusrau recording: ‘I’ve dwelt in the realm of Sufi music a lot lately. As these varied musical idioms surface in Western markets, I’m often struck by how little of this music has been available until fairly recent times, especially given the high quality of musicianship that remains constant through artists and releases. The Realm of the Heart (A Festival of Amir Khusrau) is another fascinating cross-cultural musical blend, which keeps these high levels intact.’

Jack has a look at the Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India soundtrack. Now Hindi pop music is not me cup of black tea, but, as I note in this review, ‘Bollywood music, or at least that by this composer, is bright, bouncy, and full of lyrics that, if you translated them into English, would be at home as the plot for a soap opera. But the music is much better than that statement would suggest. After I watched Lagaan for the first time on some cable channel late at night a few winters ago, I had to find the soundtrack…’

So interested in a collection covering all of this fascinating nation? Well, Liz is in a celebratory mood, thanks to The Rough Guide to the Music of India: ‘Hurray for Bollywood!’ she says, and ‘three cheers for Ken Hunt, the compiler who has unearthed a treasure trove of fabulous music!’

Richard has been celebrating in a West-London Asian style to Rahmania from the Bollywood Brass Band! This is a group who ‘spontaneously morphed (according to the liner notes) from the world music street band Crocodile Style into an Indian wedding brass band during a long Diwali procession down the length of Ealing Road through partying crowds.

His next review is of Shubhendra Rao and Partha Sarothy’s Ancient Weave which ‘brings together the considerable talents of two of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s most acclaimed students, Shubhendra Rao on sitar and Partha Sarothy on sarod. The album is comprised of two ragas, the first a Shankar composition entitled ‘Raga Charukauns,’ the second the more traditional ‘Raga Manj Khamaj’ … All in all, Ancient Weave contains some of the best playing by the current generation of Indian classical music stars, proving this generation to be a capable successor to the one which gave us such geniuses as Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Ravi Shankar.’

When we think of Indian music, especially Indian classical music, we think “raga,” something popularized in the West by no less than the Beatles through George Harrison’s association with Ravi Shankar, which also imprinted indelibly on our minds the association of raga with the sitar. Needless to say, that’s not always the case, as Robert demonstrates in several of our reviews of classical raga, starting with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s Raga Shuddh-Sarang and Raga Piloo-Kafi: ‘Amjad Ali Khan is among the most widely recorded and heard performers of Indian classical music, having appeared at festivals and concerts worldwide. He claims as an ancestor the inventor of the sarod, and has become widely identified with that instrument, producing innovations in technique and style that have become standards of Indian performance practice.’

Next is a look at a performance on another not-usual instrument, the sarangi, in Pandit Ram Narayan’s Raga Puria-Kalyan: ‘Narayan was the first to perform the sarangi as a solo instrument; initially meeting with a less than enthusiastic reception, he persevered, adapting the sarangi and bow to meet his own demands as a soloist. After several years of experimentation and public performance, he became an overnight sensation in 1957, and an acknowledged master of Indian art music.’

And moving away from stringed instruments as the major voice in raga, how about a set of flute duets? That’s what we get, along with a blending of two major traditions, in Dr. N. Ramani and Hariprasad Chaurasia’s Together: Raga Hindolam/Malkauns and Raga Pahadi: ‘When we think of Indian raga, most of us will think of the sitar, and perhaps the sarod, the most common instrument used in performing this classical Indian music. What we don’t think of is flutes. . . .’

And now for something a little more normal, to wit, Ustad Shahid Parvez’s Magnificent Melody: A Tribute to Dulal Babu: ‘Shahid Parvez began studying the sitar at age four, and gave his first performance at age eight. He belongs to the seventh generation of the Etawa gharana, a tradition begun in the early nineteenth century by Sahebad Khan.’

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Our coda this week is not Indian music, as such, but rather, music about India — or at least, about one of the key figures in modern Indian history: here’s the final scene from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 staging of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, based on the life of the Mahatma, Mohandas K. Gandhi.

About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.
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