Bonjour from Paris

montmartre steps

Paris. France. April 9, 2013. I have been travelling through various cities in Europe since mid-March, both for work and rest. This post is written from my current city – Paris;  sitting right next to the steps of Square Caulaincourt, Rue Lamarck, Montmartre. 

While in later posts, I shall post pictures from the travels, today marks the first death anniversary of my father, who passed away due to a sudden swift heart attack last year.  Youthful, hyper-active and conspicuously full of life – he remained that way right up till the very end – bursting with frank, undiplomatic outspoken chutzpah, never afraid to call a spade a spade, and  so vibrant that friends, neighbours and his loved ones still miss his vivacity and near-comical foot-in-mouth well-intended but bluntly-phrased verbal gaffes even today.

This morning I had a long talk with my mother – my parents had eloped and got married in their 20s and remained married till his death.  My mother had a Ph.D in Philosophy with a minor in Mathematics, and my father a Ph.D. in Geology with a minor in Physics. Definitely not the most diplomatic nor quiet person around, he complemented my mother’s calm, logical Spock-like reserve.  

I have to hand it to my parents though – that in all the years I know them – I never saw them have fights – no screaming drama, no loud vulgar expletives; no vindictive arguing, no throwing things – none of that; none at all. The occasional short argument for sure, which was usually over things related to infrastructure – such as a broken plumbing fixture, a fridge door accidentally left open too long – and that sort of thing – but never, never the bitter, screaming, shouting matches that I have sadly heard some of my friends say they witnessed among their own parents.

My father certainly loved my mother a lot – although he was self-centred and not a great planner. My mother loved him in her own deep and quiet ways. They had very different personalities, he a scientist/musician who went to work in management later, with a past in athletics and the arts and a straightforward candor; she a composed, complex woman who loved books and solitude, and had studied philosophy & mathematics only because due to the sexist Victorian attitude of her own father she’d been deeply disappointed for life that she was not allowed to enter Medical school despite acing in her school board exams…..

But somehow they made it work – first out of love and the rush of romance in their early years, next for their two children and raising a family; and finally out of the bond and habit that form in couples who have spent several decades together, and no longer can think of other options, but have become more like best friends. She still remains one of the calmest women I have known – stoic, pragmatic and perhaps too emotionally reserved and withholding, an incisive nag at times but very rare and far out in between. Drama and hysteria are as alien to her nature as the color blue to the planet Mars.  Sometimes I wish she would not be so detached and reserved, with a nigh-smugness at her own ability to be so.

My father – on the other hand – was warm, animated, gregarious, accident-prone, dramatic – a bit of a braggart – but a heart that was almost naive in a somewhat childish way of guileless goodness, and a simple, uncomplicated way of thinking. With a Frank Costanza-ish style of overtly hyperbolic gestures, there was never a dull moment around him. My mother’s smugness at her own calmness was matched only by my father’s joy for his own flair of unintended comedy and drama.

I realize now that I was raised by a math-whiz mother who was like a female Mr. Spock – a Ms. Spock, and a father who was a lot like Captain Haddock (from Tintin) minus the swearing and drinking mixed with a generous dose of Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza (minus the “bro” or the “stopping short” antics). He was a teetotaler, as alcoholic drinks gave him non-stop hiccups – much like me – except I can manage a good glass of wine, and an occasional cocktail, but anything else, including aerated drinks sets off those damned and comical hiccups.

My father playing his Stradivarius. My first memories of him, perhaps even from the womb, are of him playing his violin. The Dad with the Strad. When I visited my parents in 2009 I made them tell me their entire story of love, courtship, elopement, marriage, trials, tribulations, togetherness. And it was beautiful how happy and excited they got as they narrated their tale full of plot twists and turns. He had wooed my mother by fiddling music for her when he first met her some fifty years ago. It was love at first sight, he said.

My father playing his Stradivarius. My first memories of him, perhaps even from the womb, are of him playing his violin. The Dad with the Strad. When I visited my parents in 2009 I made them tell me their entire story of love, courtship, elopement, marriage, trials, tribulations, togetherness. And it was beautiful how happy and excited they got as they narrated their tale full of plot twists and turns. He had wooed my mother by fiddling music for her when he first met her some fifty years ago. It was love at first sight, he said.

On the night of his death, I was attending a concert by Anoushka Shankar in New York City – whose father’s music had been introduced to me at a young age by my own father.

On the first anniversary of his death – I am enclosing this mesmerizing concert – the one she played at Lyon, France. It was her exploration of the Indian gypsy roots of Spanish Flamenco music. Unquestioningly one of the most elegant, exotic and beautiful series of compositions I have ever listened to.

Lyon – a city not far from the one from where I am writing this…..

Strangely, just as my dad passed away a couple of days around Ravi Shankar’s birthday, the latter passed away that same year in December a couple of days before what would have been my father’s birthday. I had met both of them a few years back in Montreal, and coincidentally share the same birthday as Anoushka – June 9th. 

To a rainy evening in Paris, the timeless winding streets of Montmartre,  to flickering lights against a wet dark Spring sky, to love and loss, to friends and family, to life and travel; to new beginnings and forever-goodbyes……..

To closure and to letting go.

To memories – which can never be forgotten. And to the seeds from whence we come from – before we disperse like nomads into the sands of time or scatter like dandelion clocks unto the winds of change……….

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Related post:

“In memory of my Dad’s birthday”

And still my sitar gently weeps.”

and “The Four Mothers”

12.12.12. and still my sitar gently weeps

12.12.12. and still, my sitar gently weeps…

…as yet another maestro passes away! (Really, these last 3 posts have been more like lengthy obituaries!) Just days after a legend of the Jazz world left, the greatest ambassador of Indian classical music in the West, and one of THE finest musicians of the world passed away. I feel very fortunate to have met him several times over the years and several of his immediate and extended family members, to have listened to him perform on many occasions, and most of all feel very blessed to have worked on the architectural design for the building that nests his school of music.

ravi-shankarThis year, my own father passed away just 3 days after Ravi Shankar’s birthday. In a strange twist of fate, the night he passed away, I was listening to Anoushka Shankar (who coincidentally has the same birthday as me) in concert in New York City. My ringer was turned off, so I could not hear my mother’s frantic calls.  After that, although I have always loved the music of the sitar, and am myself trained in the classical dance style of Bharatnatyam under the tutelage of Jaya and C.V. Chandrashekar from the rigorous and disciplined Kalakshetra tradition of Rukmini Arundale and I was a classical dance performer for 16 years, (besides also learning the Flamenco dance style later,)  the strains of the sitar’s strings would remind me of the day my father (who was a violinist as well) passed away. My father’s first birthday since his death would be this December 15th. And then in a strange circle, last night just three days before my father’s posthumous birthday, I received the news that Robindro-ji (Ravi Shankar) had also passed away. I fondly remember the last time I had met him, his wife and his daughter Anoushka. He kept cracking jokes with my French boyfriend – about his accent mainly and his resemblance to a certain movie actor. My partner, Guillaume, couldn’t stop raving for the next several weeks what a beautiful goddess Anoushka was and how good-humoured her father was. “Yes, he was,” I laughed..”considering just how you couldn’t take your eyes off his daughter!”) It was in Montreal, Canada, and he was happy to chat with a fellow Bengali-speaker in the largely Francophone city. I had met the maestro several times before, but I had a feeling then that it may have been for the last time. It was.

Rest in peace, Ravi Shankar.

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And, a well-written tribute to him in the New York Times this morning. Spot-on, especially the part on how the ‘other’ is so often ‘exoticised’ or faces reductionism in the West, when there is so much more to this music that had developed in the Indian sub-continent over centuries:   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/arts/music/ravi-shankar-indian-sitarist-dies-at-92.html?pagewanted=all

An excerpt:

Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso and composer who died on Tuesday at 92, created a passion among Western audiences for the rhythmically vital, melodically flowing ragas of classical Indian music — a fascination that had expanded by the mid-1970s into a flourishing market for world music of all kinds.

In particular, his work with two young semi-apprentices in the 1960s — George Harrison of the Beatles and the composer Philip Glass, a founder of Minimalism — was profoundly influential on both popular and classical music.

And his interactions throughout his career with performers from various Asian and Western traditions — including the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the saxophonist and composer John Coltrane — created hybrids that opened listeners’ ears to timbres, rhythms and tuning systems that were entirely new to them.

……Last week Mr. Shankar was told he would receive a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in February, said Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

Though linked with the early rock era by many Americans, Mr. Shankar came to regard his participation in rock festivals as a mistake, saying he deplored the use of his music, with its roots in an ancient spiritual tradition, as a backdrop for drug use.

“On one hand,” he said in a 1985 interview, “I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad — something that is very common in Western countries.

“People would come to my concerts stoned, and they would sit in the audience drinking Coke and making out with their girlfriends. I found it very humiliating, and there were many times I picked up my sitar and walked away.

“I tried to make the young people sit properly and listen. I assured them that if they wanted to be high, I could make them feel high through the music, without drugs, if they’d only give me a chance. It was a terrible experience at the time.

“But you know, many of those young people still come to our concerts. They have matured, they are free from drugs and they have a better attitude. And this makes me happy that I went through all that. I have come full circle.”

Ravi Shankar, whose formal name was Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, India, to a family of musicians and dancers. His older brother Uday directed a touring Indian dance troupe, which Ravi joined when he was 10. Within five years he had become one of the company’s star soloists. He also discovered that he had a facility with the sitar and the sarod, another stringed instrument, as well as the flute and the tabla, an Indian drum.

The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer.

“My brother had a house in Paris,” he recalled in one interview. “To it came many Western classical musicians. These musicians all made the same point: ‘Indian music,’ they said, ‘is beautiful when we hear it with the dancers. On its own it is repetitious and monotonous.’ They talked as if Indian music were an ethnic phenomenon, just another museum piece. Even when they were being decent and kind, I was furious. And at the same time sorry for them. Indian music was so rich and varied and deep. These people hadn’t penetrated even the outer skin.”

Mr. Shankar soon found, however, that as a young, self-taught musician he had not penetrated very deeply either. In 1936 an Indian court musician, Allaudin Khan, joined the company for a year and set Mr. Shankar on a different path.

‘I Surrendered Myself’

“He was the first person frank enough to tell me that I had talent but that I was wasting it — that I was going nowhere, doing nothing,” Mr. Shankar said. “Everyone else was full of praise, but he killed my ego and made me humble.”

When Mr. Shankar asked Mr. Khan to teach him, he was told that he could learn to play the sitar only after he decided to give up the worldly life he was leading and devote himself fully to his studies. In 1937 Mr. Shankar gave up dancing, sold his Western clothes and returned to India to become a musician.

“I surrendered myself to the old way,” he said, “and let me tell you, it was difficult for me to go from places like New York and Chicago to a remote village full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, lizards and snakes, with frogs croaking all night. I was just like a Western young man. But I overcame all that.”

And here, a stunningly reflective-yet-joyous piece by his daughter Anoushka (who herself is also a trained Bharatnatyam dancer) from her new album ‘Traveller’ which traces the Indian origins of the gypsy music of Flamenco. The video catches the tail end of the sitar-guitar duet before breaking out into a heartfelt cante flamenco and then finishing with a joyous Bengali folk tune. The cameraman seems mesmerized by Anoushka’s beautiful face – no complaints  but it would have been nice to catch just a glimpse or two of the other musicians playing in this piece as well. Really, sometimes I wish Raviji had fathered many more daughters, besides Anoushka and Norah Jones ;) This performance, at the City Winery is bitter-sweet for me, because this is what I was watching and where I was, right up there in the front row, the night my own father (who is seen here with his violin)- the man who had first introduced me to the music of Ravi Shankar, passed away.

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A little extra: another gem….recorded in Madrid.

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