Monday, July 26, 2010

Rhythm Riders

Last night I went to a tabla concert put on by Rhythm Riders, a local troupe of musicians and dancers. The event was on Guru Poornima, which is a day where students are to show appreciation to their teachers. This group of artists have been putting on the concert for some years now, in honor of their Guruji a well-known tabla composer named Divyang Vakil.

The concert featured Heena Patel, a fellow Berkeley Alum who has been studying tabla under this Guruji for over three years. Heena's story is really remarkable and inspirational. She graduated Berkeley Engineering at the top of her class, but wasn't sure what to do next. On a lark, she followed Nipun's suggestion to go to Manav Sadhna and volunteer. Once in Ahmedabad, she started doing some impressive work with MS but one way or another discovered a deeply embedded passion for music and the tabla in particular. She immediately took it up in earnest. Fast-forward 3 years and she now has become a full-time tabla artist, practicing 8 hours (!) a day to become the first-ever pro female tabla player from Canada. To me, Heena's an awesome example of following your Inner Voice. She was going on a certain path that did not resonate, then found one that did and completely dove into it. Whenever I meet her I can't help but feel Berkeley pride. My school produced such a person!

Besides Heena, the concert featured artists from beginner to professional. It was my first tabla concert, so there was a lot to take in. I had a few observations that were unexpected and/or surprising to me about the art of tabla:
  • The tabla isn't played so much as it is evoked. When these artists play, the distinct impression is that they aren't using an inanimate instrument, but rather working with a living musician with its own temperament. The artist is co-creating music with the tabla. I got this impression based on the facial expressions as the artists played. There was a lot of squinting and cringing, like they were twisting the tabla's ear to get it to sound right. Also in between sets the artists would tune their drums with a small metal hammer that they would tap on the tabla and then listen for the sound. When they put their ear to the drum after the hammer tap, it was like the music they were trying to play was in the tabla, and they were trying to find it. The other analogy I thought of as I watched was that the artist was riding a "tabla train". Meaning the tabla's intrinsic nature is for music to flow out of it, like scent from a rose, and they were just along for the ride.
  • Tabla musicians express showmanship in creative ways. Since they are sitting and their hands are completely occupied, they have to come up with alternative means of adding flair and personal touch to the performance. Heena, for example, was all about facial expressions and head nods and a *huge* smile. Once in a while she really got into a riff and would swing her hair around wildly. Some of the dude tabla players did the same, it made me finally understand why Zakir Hussain's hair is the way it is. Also, at the end of a riff the artist would put his signature on the performance with a last bang and let his hand go flying in the air. BA DA BAAAAM!
  • Advanced tabla playing isn't about calm soothing music, it is much more aggressive and intense. They weren't performing music as much as they were putting together beats. Naturally for me, I immediately began to hear the hip hop in the rhythms that were being created. It was like a freestyle rap, only using taal instead of lyrics. Virtuosity was demonstrated through the unconventionality of the beat circles (like 5 and a half which goes, 'one two three four five one-and-half one two three four five one-and-half …' with the one-and-half spoken extra fast) and the speed of play. These guys were speed demons, their hands became blurs as they played.
After the concert, I heard more than a few people say how watching it made them feel the urge to take up musical instruments themselves, which in my book is the highest compliment to the artists. As for me, it further added to my regret that I missed the class Zakir Hussain taught at my school on the music of India few years back. Come back Zakir!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, My Mother

Dear Mom,

Happy Birthday! For the past 4 years I've been in India during your birthday, and haven't done much more than give you a call and send best wishes. But this year, I really felt moved to do something more, to give you a special gift. Luckily I have some wonderful friends here that helped make it happen.

When thinking about a gift for you, I thought about what you value most in life. I came up with three things: family, education, and children. With that in mind I thought of doing some sort of activity with kids here in your honor. Maybe playing with some kids, or teaching them something, or feeding them food, or just connecting and adding some value.

With that basic idea in mind I set out with Madhu, Meghna, Jigar, Jumana, Adi, and Anjali to the slum area behind our apartment to meet with some kids. We brought some bananas, peaches, and pears from the local fruitseller, and also some Parle-g's from the local shop. Once we got to the slum, finding the group of kids was really easy. Many of them were just hanging around in front of their homes.

Anjali immediately organized the children and started playing games. She is such a natural, they immediately responded to her. She had them stand in a line, in order of size, and play some simple Simon-says type games. Then all the kids stood in a line and introduced themselves and said what their favorite animal was. After that we had the kids sing for us, and they ended with a special song for you:

Finally we handed out the fruit and biscuits and they gobbled them up like goblins. Anjali made it a teachable moment by letting them know the health benefits of eating fruit and also how they should dispose of the peels so that cows can eat. We left after sharing smiles and gratitude.

Another thing you like is plants and gardening, so in your name we planted a tree at ESI (next to Gandhi Ashram). It was a coconut tree, which Jumana explained was special because every component of the coconut tree from the bark to the leaves to the husk, shell, and of course fruit, can be utilized. I thought that it was fitting to plant this type of tree for you, since you are such a giving person. After planting all of us wished you happy birthday.

I hope you like your gift, it was the least I could do to show how much I appreciate the person you are. You are an inspiration in my life, I have learned and will continue to learn so much from you. You are the best Mom I could have ever asked for, and I hope on your birthday this year you are able to feel the love from me and the many others who have been touched by you. It is the least we can do for all the love you have shown us.

Also special shout-out to my friends for celebrating Mom's birthday with me. You really made the day special.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


There is a traveling carnival set up close to our house, and the other night me, MAM, and Jig went to go check it out. Jig warned that it would be 'bogus'. Our cook Aartiben called it a 'circus'. Earlier I was telling Jayeshbhai how I was looking forward to checking out 'Great Ahmedabad' (after my hometown Great America). But Jayeshbhai himself came up with the best name of all: Desiland.

Desiland is a bizarro amusement park. It's amusing, yes, but not so much because it's fun, more because it's fun-ny. As we walked around the fair I found myself constantly comparing it to amusement parks back home. The main contrast was that the experience was nothing like the thrill I had running around Great America as a kid. I really can't put it nicely, the place felt depressing. It was dirty, the rides were rickety and polluting, the attendants were unkempt and lived in tents behind the park. It was the first time I got on a ride and wanted it to end halfway through. On one ride we watched a woman puke, and then the attendant cleaned it up by splashing a jug of water here and there.

And yet Desiland delivered some serious entertainment value. Here's a tour in pictures (w/ captions):

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

India's Next Top Artist

Last week I checked out an art exhibit organized by Nipun's aunt Shetal Chokshi (she looks so much like Harshida Aunty!). She runs a school called Decent where children practice painting and drawing. The goal of the school is to 'unleash the artist within', which it has been doing for the past 18 years. Kids come to her as young as 4 and 5 and she teaches them art and expression, and by the time they're 14 or 15 an exceptionally high percentage are award-winning artists (the girl pictured below's parents showed me a gold medal prize she won from a competition in Eastern Europe).

The exhibition, 'Creations 2010', was held in a hot but spacious room with all white walls. Each student had a portion of wallspace where they displayed 4-6 pieces. Each artist stood in front of their work and mostly received praise from passing patrons, but also answered questions, etc.. Some held little books for writing comments.

The drawings were absolutely incredible. The first thing that stood out to me was the use of color. Such vibrant color. The students experimented with various mediums, one being crayon. It reminded me how awesome crayons are, why don't more artists draw with them?

The second thing that stood out was the imagination of the artists. The kids demonstrated a vast range from explicit, concrete imagery to abstract and even devotional art. Some of the scenes really brought you back to childhood, both in terms of what we used to do (play tag, dance, do mischief) and how we used to think and see the world. Madhu remarked how looking at the art made him feel the urge to take up drawing again, which is a pretty high compliment. I told Madhu and Nipun how I was in awe of how such beauty and raw creativity came from all those little hands. In contrast I look at my hands and all that comes out is code (though I do believe there is poetry in well-written code).

Below are some of my favorite works. These two are so playful and colorful, they brought me back to how I saw the world when I was a kid:

These both are so intricate, I love the top one which I thought was a social commentary on industrialization in India. From a 13-year-old!:

I love this one for the breathtaking expression on the face of the girl. How such a young person could capture that I have no idea:

And finally this one, which just seems fantastically clever coming from a 9-year-old:

Friday, July 9, 2010


Two funny signs/descriptions that I've come across recently:

Who knew eating a mango was so damn complicated? To prepare for eating, place in a certain orientation, wrap in newspaper, wrap in newspaper again, put in a corner of a room, put hard clothes on them? It's almost like a KESAR pooja. I didn't get to taste these, but they better have been one-in-a-million mangoes to go through all this trouble. Also, what happens if you don't do the pooja correctly? Do the mangoes deflate? Mutate into durians? And by the way, for the rest of my life any time I write KESAR I will use all-caps. Because I like to keep it real.

This is the lock we use for our apartment. Needless to say I am thrilled that Hitler protects our house. He even tested it himself, 'OK'? Only in India.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy Rains!

Till recently monsoon season had not begun in Ahmedabad. Anticipation was building throughout the city, especially for me because I find it oppressively hot here. Then the other day Jig and I were walking outside and I remarked to him that the day was particularly humid, which was a sign that rain was coming. Jig said maybe, but he was skeptical because in Ahmedabad the rains are a tease. All the clouds show up but they don't do anything.

But later that night we were having dinner at Seva Cafe and the clouds absolutely opened up and it started dumping rain. And I mean it was coming out in bucketfuls, like nature was having a water liquidation (no pun intended) sale, it just had to push product out by any means necessary.

At Seva Cafe they moved all the tables out of the open area and people went in and started dancing in the rain (the traditional monsoon celebration). Wildly and crazily. There happened to be a group of percussionists who had come to perform that evening. Once the dancing began they decided to stick around and provide the music for the occasion. It was garba, bhangra, high energy monkey-dancing, the works. People were soaked to the bone, but it didn't matter.

The mood was joyful, raucous, exuberant, relieved, blissful. I kept thinking about the parties that must be going on in villages throughout Gujarat. The arrival of monsoon is something that is celebrated because most of agriculture in the state is rainfed (i.e. not irrigated). Every year I come here and hear about the desperation of farmers as they wait for the rains, and every year when the rains come I hear about the jubilation that subsequently ensues. For me personally, it is also a huge source of happiness. The thing I love most is that I finally can feel a cool breeze on my skin, one of the top 5 things I miss from home.

This night it was fun to celebrate the first rain. A Manav Sadhna volunteer from Spain, Jesus, remarked to me how people back home receive the rains with disdain. It's the opposite of celebration. It's true in California too, where people generally dismiss winter rain as an annoying interruption to the normally perfect weather. So when we were leaving Seva Cafe and someone wished us "Happy rains," it sounded odd to my ear. But really, it's the perfect way to describe the feeling of the day. Happy rains!

Morning Tea

July 1st was Nipun and Guri's wedding anniversary. In celebration Jayeshbhai asked everyone in and around the MS ecosystem to do small, random acts of kindness in their honor. I was part of an especially hard-core group whose act was to serve chai to people at the Ahmedabad train station, Kalupur, in the middle of the night.

We began at 12am at Jayeshbhai's where we woke up Nipun and Guri to kick off their anniversary with a cake cutting, which was presided over by idols of all the major religions (a la their interfaith wedding ceremony). After they went to sleep we went to work making chai in a huge vat in Jayeshbhai's kitchen, simultaneously trying to stay awake, get in high spirits for the task ahead, and also keep quiet to not wake up the couple.

The tea was ready by about 2am (I fell asleep on the couch while the others powered through), and then we set out for the station. There were about 10 of us. Once we got there we started by standing in a circle, holding hands, and said a prayer. I like how that grounded us and added a sense of sacredness to what we were about to do. Then we split into two teams, each with a kettle of tea, setting out to gift people a late night refreshment.

While the other group set out for the periphery of the station to offer to the rickshawwallas, my team went into the station itself. We wanted to go onto the platform where trains were coming and going, but the police officer at the security entrance did not let us through. We explained as best we could that we were simply trying to serve with no strings attached, but the guard refused. So we made due with roaming around in the front lobby of the station, where a hundred or so people were huddling about in groups on the floor. We started to ask people if they would like tea. At first there were just confused looks and refusal, and some of our group began getting a little restless and frustrated. But then our first cup of chai was accepted, then another, then another. Things were starting to pick up when another police officer who was watching us called us over. "You can't do this, you will have to leave," he said sternly. We tried to explain that all we were doing was offering tea to anyone who would want it, and that we considered it seva. "You call giving away tea seva? That is not seva," he said. Considering what we were doing as an act of kindness was completely off his radar, a paradigm he had no familiarity with. He started to threaten us, saying he will end things forcefully if we don't leave immediately. The tension had clearly escalated, so we left.

Some in our group got really rattled by the cop, upset and confused. Why are they hassling us? Why don't they get it? We are never going to be able to serve all this tea. Should we just give up? Go somewhere else? Frustration, doubt, fear. It was a surprise to me that these emotions came up, since for some reason I had it in my mind that doing random acts of kindness in India was much easier than in the U.S. Back home, where we organize hear the homeless or similar events, you expect these emotions, some level of fear for new volunteers, and confusion for those we encounter, because you assume it's a sharper shift for our me-first culture. But in India? People should be seva veterans, it should be smooth sailing. But here we were at 3am in a train station with a jug full of chai, getting hassled by cops, rejected our offering by a half dozen people, wondering whether we were crazy for what just 15 minutes ago seemed like a holy act. To me it was a realization that small, random, radical acts of kindness is a language that is a challenge to speak no matter where you are in the world.

What was remarkable was our group's recovery. First, we realized that the cops were just doing their jobs. What if we were lying to them about free chai, and were actually trying to sell? Even worse, what if we were trying to do harm to people with spiked tea? The more we thought about it, the more we felt that the cops were not at fault. So we let that go. And we kept on going, one cup at a time, eventually catching the spirit back. We soon had given away all our chai, and received gratitude and many smiles in return. After the chai, we stepped it up by buying 26 packages of biscuits from a vendor in the station and offering those out. For the biscuits, I walked around with an open package for anyone and everyone to take, only I made a point to always be eating one myself to assure people that they were safe. I ended up eating a package of them, even though I don't particularly care for Indian tea biscuits, especially at 4am. Brutal.

The recovery from the cop run-in was complete at the end of the night when Parul, one of the volunteers with us, reported successfully serving tea and biscuits to a police officer in the station. Persistence pays off!

There were a few small stories from the experience that stuck with me. The first is about Meghna, who was serving in my group. Watching her in action was incredible. When you try to do an act of kindness for a stranger, the most crucial part is creating context for the act with the person you are serving. Even a well-intentioned act, if not set up properly, can lead to mis-interpretation and/or suspicion. For example, what didn't work was going up to a person and asking, "Would you like some tea?" They can interpret that so many ways. Maybe you are trying to sell, maybe you are trying to play a prank, maybe you're just some nut with a jug. The person has little basis to assess the offering you are making, they don't know you. The key is to create context and comfortable report simply and quickly. What worked for me was starting by explaining who we were and why we were serving: "We have two close friends whose marriage anniversary is today. These friends have served others in many wonderful ways. In their honor, we have come here to do a small act of service. Would you allow us to serve you a cup of chai?"

What does this all have to do with Meghna? Well, she is the queen of context. It was amazing how effortlessly she was able to connect with people and bring them in. She is such a caring person, people can just feel it. I loved watching her and studying how she engaged people, how she spoke, her smile, her fearlessness. She had no hesitation approaching the poorest, sickest, dirtiest. And all with boundless energy. What an inspiration.

One rickshawwalla, after having his chai, was moved enough to help us clean cups for the next recipients. Pay-it-forward!

Last thing I'll share is this picture, which is of us serving tea to a chaiwalla! It's like selling water to a well. But he accepted our offering and enjoyed it. Hopefully it was up to his standards.