Carnatic keys

Ragas in the rain: Playing the blues in flood-wrecked Chennai

The spirit of Chennai is not in its music and dance. It is in its people.

It is evening in a rain ravaged Chennai. Between my dad and I, there is the sound of a fan, and some late evening cicadas making some ambient noise somewhere far away. We’ve lived a lifetime in the last fortnight, and my dad, already ill, is somnolent. In dreams, where clarity breaks through like golden sunlight after the deluge, he talks of a different time, a different set of ideals, other people. I am torn between the past and the present, and the uncertain future, and with a feeling of molten lead settling down into the crevices of my heart, I listen in. Tempus Fugit.

In all of the madness during and after the Chennai floods, the question to me is not the self indulgent moral dilemma facing Carnatic musicians.  Although I face it too.  Deeply and profoundly. On a fateful evening just a week ago, I had to stand guard for about 19 corpses that surfaced after two feet of water drained away.  Ragas? I asked. You’ve got to be kidding me.

My dear friend and jazz pianist extraordinaire Madhav Chari passed away just a month ago. It seems like years, as so much has happened to eclipse that particular sadness. Not only because he was one of India’s rarest jazz talents, but also a personality of a different cut. Madhav Chari wouldn’t have been surprised with myopic views from anyone – indeed, he kept cautioning me not to look for too much goodness in people. Madhav would have helped, I know – and would have been calling me incessantly to find out how he could contribute. He was one of those sorts of people. Against people, but curiously enough, on humanity’s side in the final reckoning. As most of us artists are.


Parisian Thoroughfare


So the music and dance season is on. The usual suspects, the usual sabhas, the concerts, the discussions and whatnot. There is of course a tinge of sadness throughout it all. Sometimes, I feel I am part of a giant burlesque act, and sometimes I feel I am with some of the most wonderful people. This, I’m sure, is how everyone feels. Confused, hurt, angry and yet eager to keep contributing.

To me, as it is for many other citizens of this music-soaked landscape, many important questions remain unanswered. Why the state machinery was lax. Why it failed in galvanising those of us willing to help in more systematic and meaningful ways. Why we didn’t see our chief minister in person or giving out a strong message of solidarity during the deluge, but had to endure two weeks of poor information, lack of timely messaging before her voice could be heard.

What we shouldn’t have been asking was whether there should be a music season. What was the moral dilemma? Performers could choose to do so if they wanted to, contribute if they wanted to through art or heart, or choose not to and instead work on the field or show consideration in other ways. Why were these questions even pertinent? The question of the music season is a private one. Among a select group of music and dance supporters. Live and let live.

Instead, we should have been asking why many other things failed, or were overlooked. We should have been highlighting the good to garner more traction. Like for instance, we should have expedited action on private public partnerships through concerted information gathering. Or just talked.  About how even now private entities are partnering with the Corporation of Chennai and other civic bodies, heroes in this struggle, and contributing to a smarter and more empowered Chennai.


Chennai deluge


The spirit of Chennai is not in its music and dance. It is in its people. And it is in the hearts of everyone from other cities who stood by its people.

As for the kutcheris, go listen to one if you feel up to it. Or don’t. But let’s conserve our energies for the more critical debates we need to have.

To me, the 24 hours we struggled to find a generator for my dad who needs this for his medical support would probably replace thoughts of concerts and whether or not I feel like doing them. Nor would any amount of virtuosic playing on my part help me face the horror of trying to find folks to claim bodies left behind.

Chennai has already triumphed. But time will tell us whether the learnings will prove useful in the long run.


Bharat Sangeet Utsav 2015 | Indian Music Medley | Sashank 


Anil Srinivasan is a well-known pianist and music educator based in Chennai. He was personally involved in rescue and relief operations during the Chennai floods. 

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.