Saturday, 30 May 2020

Sage Advice For A Confucian Civilisation

China's mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, especially its heavy-handed threats against those who have demanded an enquiry into the pandemic's origins, betrays a blindness born out of hubris.

Clearly, China's current leadership believes the time has come to discard Deng's advice to "hide your strength and bide your time" (itself a well-known Chinese idiom "韜光養晦、有所作為 (tāo guāng yǎng huì, yōu suō zuò wéi)" ("Hide strength, bide time, amount to something")).

The mask of China's "peaceful rise" is off, and the dragon has bared its fangs.

I think it's a terrible miscalculation on China's part.

All that China's threats have served to achieve is strengthen the arguments of those who have long warned of the dangers of allowing China too much leverage over their economies. Since China has now shown that it is willing to use trade and economic levers to punish those who question its actions, other countries cannot but take steps to reduce their dependence on China. It will be a change in policy forced by China's own intemperate actions, and even its many allies and sympathisers in foreign countries will now be forced on the back foot. China's decades-long push to inextricably weave itself into the fabric of the world's economy will now receive a permanent setback, and this will be a needless crisis of China's own making.

I can only conclude that for all the vaunted wisdom of a 5000-year old civilisation, hubris has blinded China's current leaders, rendering them short-sighted and stupid.

Did they fail to comprehend the profound wisdom of this old saying?
A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger
-- Proverbs 15:1

If a foreign source of wisdom is too much to swallow, then a home-grown one would have served just as well.

When anger rises, think of the consequences
-- Confucius

All wise counsel would have been essentially the same - Think many times before lashing out in anger. But China's current leadership completely disregarded it.

When the first mutterings about China's errors of omission and commission with regard to the spread of Covid-19 began to be heard, China should have moved with alacrity to disarm its critics, not to threaten them.

A simple apology along these lines would have taken the wind out of their sails:

"We're sorry that a virus that originated in our country has devastated so many others around the world. We mistakenly assumed that we could contain the spread of the virus within our borders without causing panic to our trading partners, but we acknowledge that this delay in communication was a miscalculation on our part. We are willing to work with the WHO and other multilateral agencies to evolve systems to ensure that a repeat of this tragedy does not occur. We will also provide medical aid, supplies and other support to societies impacted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus."

And that would have immediately put to bed any incipient inquiry that anyone around the world had begun to demand. Why bother to investigate the origins of the pandemic when China itself had readily acknowledged its origins and owned up to its failings?

In due course, China would have been forgiven, and the world would have moved on. China's position in the world's supply chains would have been intact and unchallenged. Further, China's image as a benign and responsible power would have received a boost.

Now the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. The sight of China as a bully cannot be unseen, and every one of the countries that China deals with must now be reworking their policies and strategies to reduce China's leverage. They will also be cooperating more among themselves in this endeavour, disadvantaging China geostrategically.

Deng must be tut-tutting in his grave.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Carnatic Music Appreciation For The Once-Scarred

The Trinity of Carnatic Music - Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Thyagaraja, and Shyama Shastry

A North Indian friend of mine posted on Facebook about his frustration at not being able to appreciate Carnatic (South Indian classical) music in spite of repeated attempts with an open mind. He could deeply appreciate Hindustani (North Indian classical) music, and his sense of puzzlement came across in his post. The two genres of music are based on very similar concepts of scale and rhythm, so why did one transport him while the other utterly fail to impress?

I could also see that he was trying hard to balance honesty with a desire not to offend South Indians. After all, there is no polite way to tell someone, "I think my culture is superior to yours," even if that was the truth.

As a South Indian, I realised I could help him out without the constraint of political correctness that handicapped his expression.

I'm reproducing my response to him, suitably annotated and modified:

I feel your pain. There is nothing wrong with you. It's not you, it's Carnatic music ;-)

It amazes me how two genres of music (Hindustani and Carnatic) that are based on similar principles of raag and taal (or raga and tala) can sound so different aesthetically.

One of the theories I have heard is that voice quality is given a lot more importance in the Hindustani tradition. In Carnatic, technical perfection is valued far above voice quality. A Carnatic vocalist is lauded for a performance where they adhered strictly to every beat, note and nuance of the compositions they rendered even if they sounded like a toad. A certain female doyen of yesteryear who was popularly known by her three initials (but who shall remain unnamed in this blog) was one such prominent specimen of the family bufonidae.

I'm South Indian and I grew up in the South till my twenties. I had heard Carnatic music off and on during this period but never warmed to it. Then when I was 22, I heard Hindustani Classical Music for the first time (Check out item no. 6 in this blog post of mine), and my mind was blown. I've been kicking myself ever since for having wasted the first 22 years of my life.

Having said that, I have learnt to re-appreciate Carnatic music in limited contexts, and I will share some of these approaches with you.

The Carnatic style has certain advantages. The songs are typically in a faster tempo and mercifully short. Also possibly a positive from your perspective is that the lyrics are all religiously-themed, unlike much of Hindustani music which is of the "piya nahin aavat, souten ghar jaavat" type.

[Connoisseurs of Hindustani music may squirm here, but too many lyrics are devoted to the theme of faithless husbands who leave their wives pining for them while they enjoy themselves in the company of a mistress.]

And so, my approaches:

1. Try instrumental if toad vocals don't appeal. Saadhinchane in raga Aarabhi (I don't know the Hindustani equivalent) by the late U Srinivas on the mandolin is absolutely rollicking. You will probably tap your feet to it on the first go, and by the third time you play it, you'll be hooked. It's incredible.

2. Some ragas sound distinctly better than others. NaaTTai and Shahaana are two that I like. The closest equivalent to NaaTTai in Hindustani is JogNaaTTai is very majestic, more so than even Darbaari, IMO. Maha Ganapathim in NaaTTai is one of my favourites, and this piece also has relatively pleasing vocals. You may hear echoes of the Dil Se title song, since that is in Jog.

3. A lot of Carnatic music has been composed for dance (Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi), and is hence strong on rhythm and quite catchy. (I have an analogous rant on how the Andhra-origin Kuchipudi style is so much more graceful and elegant than the more famous Bharatanatyam style of my home state Tamil Nadu). Watch Sandhya Raju perform this Kuchipudi piece which is again in Raga NaaTTai.

4. There's quite a bit of Carnatic fusion music going around, and some of it is quite good. Agam is, I believe, a Bangalore-based group that has come up with some good numbers. Being from Bangalore myself, I like to think Bangalore types are a lot more cool than their cousins from staid old Chennai. Try their Dhanashree Tillana, originally composed by King Swati TirunaaL of Kerala (or by one of his many court composers who signed over their IP to him!)

[As an aside, this particular piece (Tillana in Raga Dhanashree) seems extremely popular for dance and fusion. See my blog post on this.]

5. When Carnatic fusion and dance combine, the effect can be doubly pleasing. Watch this dance by two talented girls, choreographed around "Swans of Saraswathi", Agam's rendition of BanTu Riiti KOlu in Raga Hamsanaadham

6. The old mainstay for small, bearable doses of Carnatic music is of course film songs. I grew up in Bangalore in the 70s, and the Kannada film songs of the period were often based on classical ragas (mostly Carnatic but also Hindustani on occasion). Since you posted Raag Malkauns, here is a film song in the Carnatic analog (Raga Hindolam, not to be confused with the Hindustani Hindol). The blurb on an old Music Today cassette on Night Ragas talked about "the sublimity and sense of cosmic movement" of this raga, which always comes across for me, whether I listen to Malkauns or Hindolam.

Avoid watching the cringe-inducing visuals if possible, although you will no doubt wonder about the context. A boy's family has come to a girl's house to "see" her in regard to marriage, and as is often the practice in South Indian arranged marriages, the girl is asked to sing. The lyrics are about Krishna who came from Brindavan to see Bhama (his second wife Satyabhama after Rukmini).

7. Comic relief: You probably know the "ruk-ruk-ruk" song from the Bollywood movie Vijaypath featuring Tabu. In the Tamil movie Avvai Shanmugi (remake of Mrs Doubtfire/Chachi 420), Kamalahaasan (in disguise as a respectable "mami") sings this song in a sabha, but in the Carnatic style. The Raga is Shahaana, which I had mentioned earlier as one of my favourite Carnatic ragas.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Hindutva And Its Steadfast Ninda Stuti

When I was a kid, my father told me about an intriguing concept in Hindu theology called "ninda stuti" (worship through insult).

The idea of "ninda stuti" is that abusing God is also a form of prayer

Apparently, there was a man who hated God so much that he spent every single moment of his waking life cursing Him. When he died, he was surprised to find himself in Heaven with a beaming Almighty. He enquired as to why he was in Heaven when all he had done was curse, and God replied, "Yeah, but you were thinking of me all the time, and that's what counts."


Why do I bring this up?

I'm astounded at the devotion that some of my friends display towards Hindutva. This is the only religion-based ideology, as far as I know, that demands a fierce, unwavering obsession with *another* religion. From the moment they open their eyes in the morning to when they drift off to sleep at night, all they can think about are Muslims and Islam. Hinduism itself is just an afterthought.

"Jai Shri Ram! %@#^^$ the Muslims! Jai Bajrang Bali! ##$@$* the Muslims!"

I think when they die, Allah will take them straight to Jannat and give them 72 Houris each. Surely He must be pleased with this special kind of Kafir. Not even devout Muslims think about Islam so steadfastly. They're something special.

(I don't think they will mind being in a Muslim paradise either. A lot of them already work for petrodollars in the Middle East without blushing.)

It's A Sick Society That Sees Frugality As A Threat, But Not Social Inequality

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was a lot more left-leaning than I am now. This was true even when I was at the capitalist bastion of B-school.

I could not bring myself to take a single elective in Marketing because I believed it was an evil profession. My classmates tried to assure me that Marketing only performed the benign function of determining people's needs and ensuring that they were met. I was convinced it was all about determining people's insecurities and exploiting them to create demand, which could then be satisfied by producing goods and services at the highest price the newly-created market would bear. I also detested the definition of "market" as including only those who could afford to pay.

Wants or needs? And can everyone afford what they want?
("The Toy Shop Window" by Timoleon Marie Lobrichon)

I often dreamt of a world where people would go to a shop and see plainly-packaged products labelled simply "soap", "toothpaste", etc. My observations were deemed amusing. My B-school classmates went on, almost without exception, to become captains of industry. I too followed, just at a more modest level in the corporate hierarchy. We all benefited from the existing world order.

Today, we're hearing it reported, entirely without irony, that the world is in danger of going into a deep recession because people are only buying essentials!

If that isn't an indictment of our society, I don't know what is. It's a bad thing when people only buy what they need? This is as jaw-dropping as banks classifying people who pay off their credit card outstandings in time as "bad customers" (true story).

We've been selling ourselves the narrative that growth at all costs is necessary for prosperity, and so staying out of recession is in itself a virtue. We've completely ignored increasing inequality as long as growth has continued in terms of aggregate numbers.

Now, elites hopefully understand that inequality threatens them too. The fact that Boris Johnson, who is as elite as they come, could find himself close to death, has no doubt shocked the entire cohort at the top of the pyramid. (At a human level, I'm glad he's out of danger now, but maybe it was a good thing someone from the elite did go through a scare in a high-profile manner.)

When we rebuild society after this pandemic (and there will be pandemics in future too, so going back to the way things were is not an option), we should pursue growth in a more equal fashion. Do what the profession of Marketing professes to do - determine the needs of *all* people (and satisfy them), not just the wants of those who can afford to pay for things. Better yet, ensure that everyone *can* afford to pay for the things they need. Then we can still have a multi-trillion dollar world economy, but not one that produces non-essentials for anyone who can afford to pay, but essentials for everyone.

If you don't like the word Socialism, let's call it something else. Rebranding is a capitalist skill, after all.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Not Invented Here - The Real Reason Non-Western Cultures Resent The Values Of The European Enlightenment

One of my friends sent me a link to a Twitter thread.

Journalist Sadanand Dhume (handle @dhume) had earlier tweeted:

Calm, dignified and hopeful address by Queen Elizabeth II. Commonwealth countries that have her as head of state are fortunate.

The response from Twitter handle @shrikanth_krish - one Śrīkānta Kṛṣṇamācārya (who seems to have given his name a deliberately hard-to-parse (although phonologically correct!) spelling as a personal symbol of cultural assertion) followed from there.

In case the link disappears, let me re-post the entire text below.
What @dhume is hinting at here is -

India should've opted for the British monarch as our ceremonial head of state in 1947

Instead of an indirectly elected Presidency we have today

Clearly that view stems from the massive chasm that exists between the Indian elites and the Indian masses

The old Anglophone elite has always retained an affinity towards Britain and the English speaking world

While the masses nurse deep ill-will towards Britain

India is not quite Australia.

Race matters.

In countries like Aus, NZ, the population was predominantly Anglo-Saxon. Their struggle was one for self-governance.

Not cultural liberation

In India, the revolt against Britain was not merely one for political independence or representation

That angle was predominant among the Anglophone moderates. The Dadabhai Naorojis and Srinivasa Sastris of the world.

But once the movement involved the masses (starting with Tilak and Gandhi), the revolt was in large measure a cultural one.

A movement to rid India of the foreign yoke.

To this day, I think the "elites" haven't quite understood this aspect of the "freedom struggle"

There is a tendency to regard the independence movement in purely political terms

Ignoring the racial, cultural element

In my view, Gandhian struggle was as much about "cultural liberation" as it was about "political independence / representation"

But once Gandhi passed on, and the narrative moved to the Nehru-led Congress post independence, the emphasis changed

Post independence, there was an attempt to underplay the "cultural independence" part - v much a part of Gandhi's movement.

Instead the "political freedom" angle was overplayed

The "cultural" conflict with British Raj became something that only the Jana Sangh/RSS picked on

So what was "mainstream" before 1947, became a right wing talking point post 1947

I think this hurt Indian politics

Instead of having a bi-partisan cultural consensus, and having the Right-Left division on policy issues, "Culture" became the bone of contention b/w Rght and Left

Now the retort to this would be -

Hey ...

Countries like Jamaica and Antigua have Queen Elizabeth as head of state

Why not India?

The answer is politically incorrect

The fact is -

India is not just a proud, and ancient civilization. But a world unto itself

Jamaica is not, with all due respect.

Deep down Indians do not believe the "Enlightenment" has all the answers to humanity's problems

They have a distinct religious and moral world view that is antagonistic to that of the West

The Caribbean nations lack such an intellectual counter-view. They're part of the West

I found the thread very enlightening, especially this one sentence:

Deep down, Indians do not believe the "Enlightenment" has all the answers to humanity's problems.

I believe the thread author has hit the nail on the head. This indeed is the core issue.

The European Enlightenment - a pivotal point in human history

As philosopher AC Grayling said, the 17th century was "the epoch in the story of the human mind". At the start of the century, the European worldview resembled its predecessors [I would add here that it also resembled its contemporaries in every other culture], but by the end of the century, it had become modern. "The Earth was no longer the centre of the universe; monarchy, disrobed and beheaded, was no longer sacred; and science – methodical, empirical science – was no longer in thrall to magic and superstition."

I can't find a source for this, but it's a pretty fair picture of the core components of the Enlightenment

All cultures and civilisations around the world started off being superstitious and feudal, and most were also extremely sexist. No ancient civilisation was free of gods, and even "democratic" Greece had slaves. I believe every civilisation needs to have an Enlightenment in order to cross the chasm from superstition, feudalism and sexism to a more progressive society.

Unfortunately, only Western civilisation has had an Enlightenment that is home-grown.

What we have seen in the history of the modern world is the Western-owned model of a progressive society being thrust upon other civilisations in the form of post-colonial constitutions, which don't resonate with the cultural soil of former colonies. This therefore leads to resentment against the basic values themselves, which is a pity.

I don't believe there is a real alternative to the values of the Enlightenment, because every "solution" offered by nationalist advocates is either a defiant return to regressive traditions or simply old Western wine in a new culturally-resonant bottle. Much as nativists may protest, I have simply not seen a real challenge to the values of the European Enlightenment.

For example, I've often heard the phrase "decolonise your mind" used in this context, but what does it really mean?

The following clip is a rather dystopian one - from South Africa, I believe. The objective of the meeting is laudable - to spark a genuinely native approach to knowledge that is not shackled by colonial modes of thinking. Then one of the speakers goes on to talk about witchcraft as an example of what science cannot explain. When a member of the audience protests that witchcraft isn't true, the panel triumphantly seizes on that objection both as a sign of a colonised mind and as a sign of disrespect for the native culture and the gathering. The person is forced to apologise.

If these are examples of "decolonised" minds, give me colonialism any day!

I believe there is no alternative to the values that the European Enlightenment was the first to discover. I've seen many of the putative alternatives, and they range from insufficient to unacceptable. I think non-Western civilisations are rejecting progressive values only because of their source, i.e., because those ideas were "not invented here".

And so, I'm forced to the conclusion that the only viable solutions are either to let non-Western civilisations meander through a few more centuries of ignorance and injustice until they arrive at these values through their own painful experience, or to somehow enable them to develop feelings of ownership over the values of the Enlightenment.

Because it's really all about a sense of ownership. The Enlightenment itself is just fine.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Progressive Side Of Soviet Revolutionary Art

Say what you will about the evils of communism, there was an undeniable progressiveness about the professed ideals of the movement that resonate with me to this day.

Here's a selection of my favourite Soviet revolutionary posters. They make one's heart swell with idealism. Tell me if you disagree.

(Click on a picture to expand.)

Poster exhorting youth to study
("The challenge is to study!")

"Glory to Soviet students!"

"All roads are open - Choose!"
(The textbooks shown are those of physics, literature, history, mathematics, social sciences and chemistry)

Notice how boys and girls are treated equally.

"I will be a chemist!" A girl and her teacher

The romance of rockets and space exploration

Role model Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space
("Glory to the first cosmonaut Gagarin!")

Catch 'em young - Children with a rocket
("Happy New Year, guys!")

"The rocket models made by students lead to real ones"
(Note the cool space station in the background)

More on the "Space is cool" theme - Youth and rockets
("In the 20th century, rockets rush to the stars, trains leave for the land of exploits")

International Women's Day

Women of the revolution, including an engineer and a farmer

The ideal communist says "Nyet!" to alcohol

Religion - The little girl is stretching her arm towards school ("Shkola"), while the old babushka is pulling her by the hair towards the church