January 19, 2006


(I’ll try and keep this brief, though it is a relative term)

Greetings friends far and wide from the East, or is it the West, South, North?? Depends on where you are....... South India anyhow. I arrived here nearly 3 weeks ago(!!!) and am settled into a groove, mainly based in the bustle of Chennai(formerly Madras).....the Mecca of South Indian music. Through some form of test (that being a snowstorm upon departure from Newfoundland, re-routing to Montreal for many hours, then Frankfurt for a few more and then Dubai for MANY more) I finally arrived on Indian soil about three days later (first to Mumbai for yet another plane into Chennai early in the am). But I hit the ground running so to speak and was up on the go the same morning at 8am in time for a felicitation of my master Trichy Sankaran, a perfect way to start the day/journey with music, food and good vibes.

It has been three years since I was last here yet it feels like I haven't left. Much of my routine is even the same, living in the same apartment, with the same fellow, same room, same restaurants that I eat at, same people living on the street. Of course there are differences as I have changed in three years, I don't have the beloved beard I used to sport, I see things in a different light, more people are here, more pollution (about 70,000 autorickshaws are in Chennai and 5000 more on the way.....think of them as a big lawnmower with a canopy and room for four with congestive blue exhaust fumes...handy for moving around though!!!!) And then there was the tsunami which affected the coast and beach area that I used to frequent. I went there on New Year's Eve to find all the settlements gone...the only remaining aspect was the humble temple that stands there. I went there again today and as cryptic as it sounds, it seemed as though the life was gone out of it. Maybe it was just me.

But it feels right to be here. In fact I have come to become comfortable in any environment these days which is a positive sign, though I do need some green and clean air. So much steel and concrete isn't conducive to a settled feeling in my mind. Thankfully, Chennai has an abundance of trees to balance out the scenario. The only reason I'm in the city is for the music and there is tonnes of it. I came near the end of the annual music season here which boasts something like over 1000 concerts in a month(!!!). Do the math on that. Still there are several kutcheris (concerts) each night ranging from the mediocre (yet still fulfilling) the to divine. There is culture oozing from the ether around here. I was lucky enough to get to hear several great kutcheris with Sankaran as soon as I landed. One of which involved a singer whom I had seen many times previous, but always fascinating. At times he seemed like he was painting with his voice, line after line, different shadings and colours...extremely expressive. And I had a taste of some folk music at a festival which was highly infectious....similar to some African music in fact. Entertaining performers as well. A man/woman team who specialized in unique tricks. She was adept at both threading a needle through a lime with her teeth while having a large pot loosely suspended on her head and also chopping a banana into pieces that was held in another guy's mouth while she was blindfolded. The male part of the duo was particularly skilled at balancing and spinning this peculiar wooden structure on his oily head, neck and back....spinning it wildly to the accompaniment of the drummers (who were extremely funky....the "tricksters" were also good dancers). He could also bend down on his hands/knees and pick up a soda bottle with his mouth, open it with his teeth and then proceed to drink its contents with said wooden structure weighing in the balance. Quite impressive. Then he finished by having the lady start to take a ribbon from his mouth for the next five minutes or so....what she ended up with in her hands was HUGE!!!!! I guess you kind of had to be there.

And just now coming from a Bharatanatyam (classical Indian dance form) arangetram (debut performance). Though it was a debut, the dancer seemed as to be a professional already!!! One particular sequence made her seem like a painting made animate.

And gladly, I got to take a train early on, one of my favorite pastimes, doesn't matter where I'm going. The best part was the journey to the concert 8 hrs away with Sankaran. Being a night train, most people were asleep so it was quiet save for the rhythm of the tracks. Looking outside, the passing landscape was bathed by moonlight. Since the rains had been plentiful and overflowing earlier, much of the land was flooded or at least the rice fields were. Under the moonlight, the different trees and bushes gave themselves a reflection and were made to look as if they were floating in the air….almost as if they were specters of some sort. And in the distance, one could make out a mammoth form, some unknown mountain, but in this night and light it was almost scary.....but pleasant, comforting somehow. Then riding back in the early morning a day later, the land was covered in a hazy mist with scant trees poking branches from the top of it. I had a camera but I don't think it would have caught it.

And of course, lessons are learned all the time. Walking gives pleasure and has taught me something important. First of all, it goes without saying that the traffic and road rules here (or lack of) are chaotic at best...essentially you (be you a car, two-wheeler, cow, cyclist or pedestrian) fit where you can, when you can. A friend says that Indians are more intuitive than logical so they kind of know when and where to go. Might explain why there few road accidents in these parts with whole families cruising down the highway with no helmets next to buses and mad autorickshaws. So how does one cross the road?? Complete faith in your direction and the fact that no one will hit you, just avoid you. But if you hesitate, you are in for trouble. Trust me, it works. Must sleep now.....may start to drive a motor scooter tomorrow.



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