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Wednesday, January 20, 2016


T.A.S. Mani and R.A. Ramamani

Recently I went to to India, to Bangalore, or Bengaluru as it's now officially known, to visit two great friends and mentors - T.A.S. Mani and R.A. Ramamani, the directors of the renowned Karnataka College of Percussion (KCP), an institute that in 2015 celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. KCP had a festival in October to celebrate this event, but unfortunately I couldn't be there for that, so decided to make a visit later in the year in order to say hello to the Manis, see India again and get some more rhythmic inspiration from these two geniuses of the art.

Bangalore is the IT capital of India and in recent years its population has exploded, and on the way into the city from the airport you can see from the advertising hoardings that line the roads that money has flooded into the city, and that one of the big ticket items for all of these newly arrived and relatively wealthy workers is buying a luxury apartment. There are literally dozens of different advertisements for new developments in different parts of the city. Unlike the west where it might be considered bad taste to publicly boast about buying a luxury apartment, here the more luxurious and exclusive it is the more the advertisers shout about it.

'Step into the Big League!', read one, and 'Limitless indulgence for a limited few....' read another, alongside images of swimming pools, golf courses and palm trees - the utopian imagery and wording flaunted on all sides as you drive in from the airport. Of course you can see advertisements for these kinds of developments in nearly every country, but the sheer amount of them in Bangalore speaks of its nouveau riche status and the revolution in the demographics of the population that IT has brought to this city.

(View from an Auto Rickshaw)


One of the inevitable by-products of this new-found wealth is an explosion in traffic levels. Indian cities are famous for the extraordinary and anarchic traffic that chokes all towns of any size. I've been to Bangalore many times before but this time was shocked at just how the traffic levels have risen. The traffic seethes through every street, huge traffic jams build up at junctions and red lights, and are released in a fanfare of blaring horns, roaring engines and vast billowing clouds of pollution. I took this video to give some idea of the traffic levels in the newly-rich city.

Bangalore Moment 1

A motorcyclist gets hit by a 4 x 4 turning left, falls off his bike, wing mirror gets smashed off and knocked a few yards away, a passerby retrieves it and gives it back to him. An interested crowd gather around to watch the free entertainment. 4 x 4 driver looks exasperated by the stupidity of the motorcyclist for being in the way of his car....

(Motorbike and Auto Rickshaw graveyard)

If you read the local newspapers you realise the carnage that is wrought everyday on the roads - particularly on motorcyclists and pedestrians. Hardly surprising since the roads have just too many vehicles on them and most drivers perform the most hair-raising manouevres with no regard for safety or human life - their own or others. Add to that the bizarrely illogical regulation where all motorcycle drivers must wear a helmet, but pilion passengers do not, and you have a recipe for the huge loss of life that occurs literally every day. One story in the paper described how a motocyclist was killed when he struck an earthmover which was being driven at speed the wrong way down the road in the dark, without lights. Another told of how a student was crushed under the wheels of a bus when two buses raced each other to try and take the same parking slot. Every day in the papers there were reports of at least three separate fatal road accidents - you take your life in your hands every time you go out into traffic in anything other than a car.

Having said that, taking an Auto Rickshaw ride is a truly authentic Indian experience. You really get a close up of the way Indian traffic works when you're twisting and turning in between all kinds of vehicles, squeezing through impossibly small spaces, narrowly avoiding all kinds of obstacles, breathing in great lung-fulls of motor fumes, being deafened by car horns and unashamedly stared at by all-comers whenever you stop at traffic lights. It's definitely not for the fainthearted and I tend to be quite fatalistic whenever I take one of these rides - in the right frame of mind they can be quite exhilarating as you zip through the traffic maze, but they can also be experiences where your heart is in your mouth, and you breathe a sigh of relief, (and exhale quite a lot of polluted air while doing so), when you eventually, and gratefully, reach journey's end.

(Hand-painted police warning sign)

One of the things I always do when in India is read the local newspapers. Apart from bringing you up to date on the local political intrigues, they are full of stories that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes baffling, sometimes shocking, and always absorbing. Here are a few of the headlines I saw on this trip:

"Man saves son's life, also takes snake to hospital"

"Ride horses and cut pollution, says Govt Minister"

"Airport bus driver dozes off, rams aircraft" 

"Rookie gang kidnaps realtor's son" 

'Man sets wife on fire for not cooking mutton curry properly

This last headline was a particularly shocking story, and unfortunately does represent one troubling aspect of Indian life - the difficulty for many women in contemporary India. There have been some very high profile cases recently where women were attacked by gangs of men, and which attracted international attention. But reading the papers here one gets a sense that India is a very challenging environment for women, and I saw many heartbreaking stories in the newspapers. But of course one should never generalise about these things and there are many powerful, successful, and resourceful women living and working in India also.

India is always known as a land of contrasts and this can also be seen in the stories in the newspapers. For a country full of friendly, kind, and humorous people, there can sometimes be a level of heartlessness on display, as represented in news stories, in everyday life that is hard to understand. The Times of India reported on an incident in which a flight mechanic was killed when somebody pressed the wrong button on the plane he was working on and he was sucked into the engine. What followed displayed a level of callousness that was extraordinary. Air India, the company for whom the man worked, phoned one of the neighbours of the man's family, and told them, since it would be better if the news came from the neighbours,  to tell the man's wife that her husband had had a 'minor accident'. The logic and heartlessness of that action beggars belief....

On the other hand there are stories of ordinary people going out of their way, and sometimes risking their lives, to help other people. As  a stranger if you ask for help on the street, everyone will do their best to help you, and you are treated in the most generous way. So the contrast of these two facets of Indian life, the kindness and helpfulness of ordinary people, and the callousness of large organisations and of people in power, is very striking.

Bangalore Moment 2

Eating Tandoori chicken outdoors - in a blur of black feathers,  a crow swoops down, snatches a portion and flies off .....

How I spent Christmas Eve.....

On one of my first visits to the Manis on this trip they asked me would I be willing to give a talk on jazz and Carnatic music, the differences, the similarities, how to make them work together etc. I was delighted to do it since it's the sort of thing I'm really interested in and the evangelist streak in me loves to both talk to jazz musicians about Carnatic music, and in this instance, to Indian musicians about jazz!

The event was co-hosted with the KCP by another school, The World Music Conservatory, a wonderful place run by Sangeetha Srikishen, great lady who is very passionate about music and education, and who has created a fantastic school, (with a mango tree at its centre!), where kids can study music, and painting, and the creative arts in general.

A very nice audience of both young people and more mature students assembled and I talked for about two hours on various subjects. I particularly focussed on the African-American rhythmic tradition, not just in jazz but in other related musics, and tried to give a sense of how that differed to South Indian rhythmic practices, and also what the similarities are. It's a fascinating area, for me too, and having to give the talk made me think a lot about these two great rhythmic traditions and the relationship, if any, between them. 

(Corridor of  World Music Conservatory)

To take a broad view, the biggest rhythmic difference between these two traditions is that Carnatic music takes a linear approach to rhythm, with very complex compositional structures, requiring very accurate subdivisions in order to make everything work. Metric modulation plays a very big part in their music, (though they don't call it that, but rather 'first speed, second speed, third speed' etc.). African-American tradition on the other hand is more multi-layered, with the widespread use of the 3:2 polyrhythm as a basis for collective improvisation and groove making. Carnatic music, as complex as it is, doesn't use polyrhythm as an improvisational device, and jazz in general does not use pre-ordained complex rhythmic compositional structures as part of the improvisational fabric. Another big difference is that a lot of jazz (and other western music) structures are grouped in multiples of two, four, eight-bar form etc. This is not the case in Indian music where the requirements of the time cycle and compositions overlaid on them are the generators of form.

The audience were wonderful and stuck with me as I went through the various historical and structural aspects of African-American rhythmic traditions, and I also told of my own history with Indian music, how I came to it, how I learned to understand it better, and how I used it in several compositions and projects. It was a really great way to spend Christmas Eve, one of the best Christmas Eve experiences I've ever had! 

Bangalore Moment 3

We are stuck in traffic in an Auto Rickshaw, a Hijra is working the traffic, not so much begging as demanding money. Our driver pretends not to notice the Hijra, but  for that he receives a rough slap across the shoulder, and a look of utter disdain - he reaches into his pocket takes out some money, hands it over and we drive off......


Another fascinating read for the interested visitor are the ads in the matrimonial section of the newspaper. It seems that parents place the ads and they're quite consistent in what they describe, both in their offspring and the desirable attributes of a mate for said offspring. Generally the boy will be described as handsome, and an IT or engineering graduate with a good job. The parents will often describe themselves in glowing terms ('doctors', 'high status'). The desired girl will be described as having to be beautiful, (or 'B'ful'  - to save money on the letter count...), from a business family, and, sometimes, 'non-working'. Often the advertisers are so broadminded that they don't worry too much what caste the girl is! 

Another apparently desirable attribute in a bride, that one often sees described in these ads, is being 'fair'.  India is very conscious of skin colour, and the darker you are the less chance you will have of being seen in advertisements, magazines, movies etc. Looking at the models - male and female - in the ads in India, they are so fair skinned that one could be forgiven for assuming they are from Spain or Italy.  People of darker skin are pretty much ostracised from visual advertising of all kinds. To be 'fair' is also a desirable trait in a prospective bride it would seem.

The Manis and The KCP

(With the Manis in their home in Bangalore)

The main purpose of my visit was to visit my very good friends, masters of Carnatic music,  and rhythmic mentors, T.A.S. MANI and R.A. Ramamani, and their legendary school the Karnataka College of Percussion. This year they celebrated fifty years since the foundation of the school by Mr. Mani. It's worth noting what an amazing thing it was to create a school in those days. Mr Mani is trained at the highest level of the traditional way of learning in Indian classical music - the guru system. Traditionally, to learn this music you had to study relentlessly over many years with your guru, and he or she would themselves be a respected performer at the highest level, who may or may not take you on as a student or, more tellingly, a 'disciple'. Even though he was a brilliant product of this system himself, Mr Mani had the vision to decide that there could be a different way to impart the knowledge of this great music, and one that could be more inclusive and allow the knowledge to be spread to a wider number of people - by opening a school.

The result of this foresight and innovation, was the creation of a school that has become an institution around the world, that has attracted many great internationally renowned musicians such as Charlie Mariano and Steve Coleman. I've written previously about the KCP, Mr. Mani and Ramamani, and their work with jazz musicians - you can see it here.  Ramamani has herself created a wonderful body of work that simplifies the complex Carnatic structures to make them more accessible to jazz musicians and allow cross-genre collaboration more easily. 

But on this visit to Bangalore, I was once again bowled over by the work they do in spreading the knowledge of Carnatic music among people of all ages and backgrounds. It is a truly egalitarian artistic project that they have been developing for fifty years, an extraordinary achievement. I took the opportunity to learn some new Mukhtais (complex rhythmic compositions), from Mr. Mani and here he is showing me one of them.

But not only do they teach visiting international musicians and amateurs and professionals from their own country, they also teach children these fantastic techniques, both in percussion and in singing. To give an example of the incredible work they do and the extraordinary talent and accomplishment of some of their young students, here's an edited clip of some of the lessons I witnessed -  Ramamani teaching an 11 year old singer, and Mr. Mani teaching Konnekol to an aspirant percussionist, also aged 11.

Everything that can be said about India has already been said, usually by people far more eloquent than I. This was my seventh time in the Subcontinent and for me it remains as unique, wonderful, challenging, and creative as the first time I came here. Bangalore had changed somewhat with the big influx of people and money and the strains on the infrastructure that this has brought. But one thing that hasn't changed is the generosity and brilliance of the Manis and the wonderful way they help to preserve Carnatic music's deep tradition by sharing it with anyone who is interested, and by giving access to information that was hitherto only for the chosen few. Here's to India and the next fifty years of the Karnataka College of Percussion!