Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sketches on rainbow slate
-Grandeur...grit...and greed-

The road travel route from Southern California to Southern Utah's Golden Circle of national parks, traces a transect cutting across contours in physical maps and borders in political maps. It is a journey from America's fruit basket through its southwestern deserts, in a road passing through California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. In fertile California, we see Nature's grandeur. In the arid Mojave desert with mile upon mile of stubborn shrubbery refusing to wither away, we see Nature's grit. The plant kingdom has established outposts in the rockiest of canyons and a toehold on the steepest of cliffs. The trees though, seem to be wary guests or harmless intruders in the impregnable sandstone canyons at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park at Utah.

While seen as impenetrable overbearing cliffs when seen from below at Zion, or while seen as an impassable chasm from the vantage points at Bryce; the canyons establish an inescapable presence, proclaiming their permanence to mankind. The cliffs which to our eyes seem permanent, are merely the sands of geological time frozen in a momentary stillness of sandstone in a landscape that was once seafloor and then sand dunes. What now is seemingly an adamantine landscape is to the Forces of Nature the most yielding earth, gorged on and gouged out by the unyielding persistence of the Virgin River. Charles Lyell, one of the greatest geologists of all time and one of the first to suggest that the earth's surface is not 'set in stone' but is being endlessly recast, vividly describes in his 'Principles of Geology' the contest between subterranean Fire and flowing Water; Fire making mountains from the molten rock underneath and Water laying them low. We can witness the most dramatic shows of strength in the battle between the Forces of Nature, most grandly in a canyon. Astronomy is said to be a humbling science, a constant reminder of mankind's irrelevance to the cosmos. Even without looking skywards, the geology of the earth at the canyons is an inescapable and humbling vision of our own impermanence and insignificance.

In the noonday sun, the cliffs glisten with a myriad hues of sandstone, with streaks and swirls of white, black and red rock. In the setting sun, this play of colour makes way for a shadow play on the cliffs. The sandstone of the cliffs is a metamorphic rock, formed when sands of the primeval deserts were compressed by layer after layer of accumulating sand. The encrustation of minerals and oil within these layers has streaked the rocks with blackish and reddish hues, earning it the name 'rainbow slate.' The rainbow slate has been the palette as well as the canvas of the geological masterworks here, where one can see rock that is swirled like water, molded like clay and pleated like fabric by the elements that shape them. One of the notable sights at Zion is the Checkerboard Mesa, where the accumulating layers of rock form horizontal lines and vertical fissures complete an unbelievably perfect checkerboard on the cliff which creates disbelief in the fact that no human hand carved it. One can almost exclaim to the cliff in William Blake's words " What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?". While Blake wrote about 'seeing the world in a grain of sand', here we can almost see a world in sandstone. We see worlds in red, white and black rock which are older than the histories of the exterminated Red Man, the exploring White Man and the enslaved Black Man and will outlive all of them.

To a geologist, a place like Zion or Bryce canyon is a holy ground where wonders never cease. To an artistic observer, the patterns on the rocks seem to give shape to the most fanciful visions and uncannily resemble strange animals and people. Artists and sculptors can find innumerable shapes and forms to stimulate their creativity. Psychologists will find in the rocks patterns which stimulate as much thought and association as any inkblot test. These are rockfaces where one can actually see faces in the rock. To the Native Americans who were the first human inhabitants here, and who too must have wondered what immortal hand framed these symmetries, the rocks are sacred. The cliffs are to the Navajos what Olympus was to the classical Greeks and what Kailasha is to the Hindus. Mountains the world over are shrines older than the religions built around them. In India, the lush tree-bearing lands reveal nature in a nurturing motherly aspect; while in the land of the Navajo Indians, the cliffs reveal nature in a more forbidding overlordly aspect. Whatever the manifestation, the grandeur of nature has shaped the life of men in both matter and mind. The diversity of the flora in India made the ancient Indians at the same time deeply reverent and curious of the life-giving properties of plants, and thus was born an ethos respecting natural cures and environmental protection, which offers valuable lessons to the world community today. The rocks and deserts in North America challenged explorers to a conquest of the tyranny of geography; and the history of America would not have taken the course it has, but for those intrepid explorers who braved it beyond the impassable cliffs and claimed the wilderness for civilization and the enterprising engineers who built roads through the seemingly impenetrable barriers and found hidden treasures of mineral wealth.

Las Vegas occurs on the route via Nevada from Southern Utah to Southern California. After the sights of the natural wonders, Las Vegas is an assault on the senses and sensibilities, a rude return to current civilization in its most decadent aspect. After sights affording contemplation of Nature's bounty, Las Vegas is the very picture of human greed. Greed is only presence here and there is neither grandeur nor grit; for all the grandeur is make-believe and all the grit is foolhardy. Overlooking the casino-lined tout-infested streets are garish replicas of world wonders like the Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty; seeming to proclaim that here's the world and it's all yours if you are greedy enough. The blinding pyschedelic neon lights on the casinos and clubs are lights that lead to darkness; which the unscrupulous and unwary are condemned to. If the American Dream is to stretch the limits of human possibility, then Las Vegas reduces it to just pushing one's luck. If American cities and corporations are built to make the most of human strengths, Las Vegas has been built to exploit every human weakness. If America is the world's greatest marketplace for goods and services, Las Vegas is a fair of evils and vices.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Physicians and musicians

This weekend, I got to hear two piano concerts: one by a physician and another by a musician, one by a celebrity and another by a debutant. That I was able to attend two concerts within the space of two days, speaks a lot about the opportunities for cross-cultural experiences which university life in this country offers an interested visitor. The first concert was a lecture demonstration by Dr. Richard Kogan entitled 'Music and Medicine: George Gershwin' on Friday, 10th August 2007 at the Mayer Auditorium in USC Health Sciences Campus. I learnt from the online USC Arts and Events Calendar that Dr. Kogan " has a distinguished career both as a concert pianist and as a psychiatrist...and The Boston Globe wrote that 'Kogan has somehow managed to excel at the world's two most demanding professions.' " At the outset of the lecture demonstration, Dr. Kogan outlined his mission as promoting 'music as a healing modality' and cited some examples from antiquity to show that the view that music and medicine are totally disparate disciplines is a fairly recent one. In the Greek pantheon, Appollo was the god of both medicine and music. The shamans of old were both physicians and musicians.

The theme of the lecture was a biographical presentation on George Gershwin, who in the opinion of the speaker is the greatest American composer of all time. In all of 38 years tormented by childhood conduct disorders, hyperactivity, almost pathological narcissism and cut short by an untimely death due to a brain tumour, Gershwin has left behind a life's work that still captivates audiences and offers valuable insights into the masterly creations of the so-called 'idiot savants.' As part of the demonstration, Dr. Kogan played 'Rhapsody in Blue', one of Gershwin's best-known works. It was a piece as astonishing and as full of surprises as promised by the speaker's introduction. I found it compelling, but far too capricious to be good music, though I quickly warned myself that this may simply be because of my almost total ignorance of this form of music. When Dr. Kogan himself said many of that those who first heard 'Rhapsody in Blue' lambasted it for its total lack of any form or structure, I felt a little relieved! Dr. Kogan repeated some of the more pulse-quickening parts of the rhapsody with some light-hearted, though not entirely unfounded, comments on how such music could be composed only by someone with chronic hyperactivity. The lecture was generously sprinkled with a series of anecdotes offering vivid illustrations of the 'idiot savant', notably one in which Gershwin took home from Paris some Parisian taxi horns to be included in his concerts, since he found their honking irresistibly musical! I've read of the irresistible Song of the Sirens in Greek myths, and chuckled to myself that this was the Song of the Horns.

Unlike the audiences of the few Carnatic concerts I got to visit back home in India, the audience here seemed less pedantically erudite and parts of the audience consisted of incidental and even indifferent participants. Biographical presentations of the lives of composers are a staple in the Harikatha performances in Carnatic music, and they are more suffused with religious sentiment and devotional fervour. By contrast, this concert seemed to be a less emotional exercise almost like a documentary. But I was not disappointed and got an opportunity to quickly correct myself. Dr. Kogan introduced his audience to 'Porgy and Bess', a folk opera considered by many to be Gershwin's magnum opus. The devotional fervour that I had missed was made up for by the human interest in the story of the opera, a grim tale of the hardships of penury, racial abuse, physical handicaps and bereavement. The pieces Dr. Kogan played from Porgy and Bess were especially moving, and would have been more so had I a little more grounding in music. But he played the piano with a very visible angst that would touch a chord even in someone merely watching. In an active audience questioning session, Dr Kogan agreed with a questioner that most of history's greatest music is born out of deep sorrow and spoke as if it was almost intuitively obvious, and borne out repeatedly by his studies of the lives of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Tchaikovsky among others.

I had a tryst with some of the greatest composers in the Western world the very next day at the United University Church on the 11th of August 2007. The pianist here was Abraham Currameng from USC's Thornton School of Music performing as part of the requirement of his Masters of Music programme. The programme included pieces by Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Debussy, Prokofiev, Chopin, Granados and Liszt. After the unorthodox pieces of Gershwin, this was as classical an introduction to European music as I could get. The pieces sounded melodious and showed beauty of form and structure even to uninitiates like me, and the performance was undoubtedly first-rate given the responses of the more discerning audience in the church. The piece I found especially memorable was Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections in the Water) of Claude Debussy. I don't know if I allowed myself to simply be guided by the name of the piece, but it did have a languid, pellucid, tremulous feeling. Fancifully enough, the gentle movements of the pianist during this piece, made me think almost that his fingers were the feet of angels walking on water. The genius of the composers seemed to find adequate expression in the skill of the debutant. Some years ago I remember reading a heated conversation between two estranged bickering pianist parents of the protagonist of the book 'Eat Cake' by Jeanne Ray, where the runaway father scorns at his prim and proper wife, 'you play as if you never set foot outside a Methodist church!'. Here I was in a real Methodist church at a classical piano concert and am beginning to see sense in the choices of those hear and play nothing but classical. The beamed wooden roof, the stained glass windows and the Corinthian colonnades of the Methodist church, completed the classical experience. Perhaps, the 'music of the spheres' is simply a philosopher's metaphor, but my experience of the 'music of the spires' was most memorable.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Roots and Riches

During my flight to LA, the book which kept me company was an anthology, 'The Best of Ruskin Bond'. It is well-known that frequent and familiar references to flora and fauna is the hallmark of this author's writings. However, I think that apart from their charm and evocativeness, these descriptions of nature are motifs illustrating a world-view of harmonious and joyous acceptance of one's natural circumstances without struggling against ones own nature and the workings of nature. Bond quotes this Japanese proverb in the book, "In the marketplace, there is money to be made, but under the cherry tree, there is rest!" This proverb is not a dictum, but a question in disguise.The hustle of the marketplace is the din of busy activity and ambition. The shade of the cherry tree is the very picture of contentment and passive acceptance. It is choice we must all make. If man must indeed live according to his natural yearnings, then what comes naturally to man: acceptance of what is or ambition of what will be?

Elsewhere in the book, Bond writes about his restless stay away from India in the United Kingdom, and how staying away from his home country troubled him, even though he was not a territorialist. In keeping with his life's message to live in harmony with one's natural circumstances, he appears to suggest that living abroad places you in surroundings which are unnatural to you and hence undesirable to your inner well-being. It was a coincidence that I read this on my flight to the USA where I must come to further my academic ambitions and must stay away from home;for a couple of years certainly, but possibly indefinitely. What makes so many of my compatriots forsake the cherry-tree of comforts and familiarity back home and rush almost penniless to the marketplace here with nothing but the hope of making a fortune? How do they so readily make the tradeoff between five-star comfort in their third-world setting, and survival with minimal amenities in what is outwardly the first world? Has ambition won over acceptance and they are willing to undergo hardship to follow their dreams? Or has acceptance won over ambition with the resignation that they cannot have their riches where their roots are, and must necessarily uproot themselves?

Staying rooted safely and taking wing adventurously are both natural yearnings though at any given time, one or the other does seem unnatural. Swami Parthasarathy says often in his lectures that people at Malabar Hill in Mumbai are extremely prosperous, but they are not happy. People in the village of Malavali are always happy, but they are not prosperous. I have observed that several people in the so-called creative professions of media and entertainment are extremely adventurous, but somewhat lacking in discipline. On the other hand, several people in the mainstream software industry are extremely disciplined and committed, but sometimes thoroughly lacking in creativity and adventure.

How can we have both prosperity and peace, both the thrill of adventure and the security of discipline? How can we have closeness to our roots and also have the riches within reach? Why go to the marketplace? I could have cheerfully spread out basketfuls my wares in the shade of the cherry tree and sold them singing. Even now at the edge of the marketplace where my stall will be, I will plant my cherry trees who will in time put their roots down as the riches bloom in their shade.