Thank you for the music… Not

‘Donna donna’ — Joan Baez at her soulful best. It’s a melancholy but melodious Yiddish theatre song about a calf being led to slaughter, its lyrics filled with solemn symbolism.

Not exactly what you’d call a children’s song.

But some folks in Chinese toyland thought differently:

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. That is what they did to ‘Donna donna’ (please don’t miss the electronic barnyard chirps in between). What I really want to know is, why? What was the thought process here? Why this particular song instead of, say a ‘Baa baa blacksheep’ or even a ‘My bonnie lies over the ocean’?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there was some sort of American folk music bias in the song selection. So what were the companion pieces, you ask? Some Dylan, some Simon & Garfunkel, maybe some Joni Mitchell? Nope. Pressing each successive button (green and fish shaped, please note) was an adventure in musical randomness. What followed in tinny, cacophonous succession was: ‘Polly put the kettle on’, ‘Jingle bells’, ’12 days of Christmas’, ‘Oh Susanna’ and oh yes, not to forget Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (I’d upload that too, but it’s just too heartbreaking).

Of these, ‘Donna donna’ was the hardest to figure out (it was the most mangled by far) and if it wasn’t for one of those Android apps that name a tune for you when you hum it, we wouldn’t have figured it out at all. It was the husband’s brilliant idea, and so, to the daughter’s increasing annoyance, mummy and daddy sat hunched over her (usually unpopular) toy, playing the tune over and over, and then humming it into daddy’s phone. Not our finest hour as parents, but the sense of elation we felt once we’d placed the song made it all worthwhile. As we played ‘Donna donna’ on youtube, it was as though, finally, one of life’s mysteries had been solved. A puzzle piece fallen into place. Things made sense again. As we high-fived and the daughter whined, it seemed we would prevail over the diabolical designers in Chinese toyland.

But, alas, it was not to be. Fired up by our success, we tried, tried, and tried again to place the last two unidentified, elusive green-fish button songs. But they were just so tuneless, so utterly random, that even the musical app finally threw up its hands in despair and crashed. It really gave its all first though… it suggested everything from classical pieces to Spanish dance songs. But we had to admit defeat at last. Whatever technological strides man makes, some mysteries must remain. It is the way of the world (and really crappy toys).

(Just out of curiosity — can you, dear readers, do better than the app? Can you figure out what these dratted tunes are? The husband and I would be very grateful):

Edited to add: Woohoo! My 100th post on this blog! :)

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Interview with… K. Muralidharan

Photo credit: R. Raghu

It’s hot, burning hot, in K. Muralidharan’s white-walled second floor studio. But still I linger, taking in the colours glimmering off the beautiful canvases in the noon-day heat. Elephants and monkeys and deer in burgundy and violet, mythical beings all in ivory and gold against a deep-blue celestial ocean, goddesses on a glowing golden yellow canvas…

“Colour is an endless joy for me,” says the senior artist, one of the stalwarts of the Madras Movement, as we retreat to the cooler lower floor of the house. “Any combination can be played with.”

That, of course, is one of the hallmarks of Muralidharan’s famous abstract figuratives — bright, playful colour, sometimes kitschy, sometimes earthy, always eye-catching. The other element that makes his works instantly recognisable is his use of mythological and animal figures and motifs.

“Indian mythology is like an ocean,” he says. “Each time I dip into it, it gives me something new.” He adds, “I grew up surrounded by mythological stories and folklore at home. It all came back to me later when I began working on my art.”

Cities and canvases

His current burst of inspiration, visible in these new works in his studio, however, come from a different source — the time he’s spent in Kolkata on and off since 2008, when his wife was transferred there in her public sector job. “At first I hesitated; Chennai was my home,” he says. “But going there was a boon. It’s a place steeped in art and culture, and once you live there, it engulfs you slowly.”

He spent his time there absorbing the art scene (“so lively and fresh”) and getting to know artists such as Jogen Chowdhury and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya. “It was like the conversations I’ve enjoyed with the artists of Cholamandal here; it rejuvenated me, sharpened my vision.”

Earlier this year, the artist returned home to Chennai, and has been working on a new series of large-scale works, with a 3-D wooden and bronze sculpture component worked in. His experiences in Kolkata are especially visible in his explorations of the feminine form — a blend of the contemporary and the mythological — and in a fresh fascination with texture and textile-like designs on his canvases.

But experiment though he may with texture and installation art, his primary focus remains the drawing, which, he says, is his gift from the masters of the Madras Movement. “Right from our days at the Government College of Arts and Crafts (he graduated in 1970), we learnt from the great masters such as L. Munuswamy, Alphonso Arul Doss and A.P. Santhanaraj not to lose sight of the drawing. It was always our forte.” He pauses. “That was truly the Golden Era of the Madras Movement.”

How it all began

Muralidharan owes his career in art to his elder brother, who, he says, wanted to be an artist himself, but wasn’t able to, due to family obligations. “When I finished school, he put me in the College of Art,” he says. Later, when the young artist gave up his job as a lecturer in the college (“I resigned within one week!” he laughs) and the entire family was furious with him, his brother was steadfast in supporting him. “He was so happy when I started getting recognition later on,” he says. “My sister too allowed me to stay with her when I was struggling… I’ll never forget all of their support.”

His turning point as an artist came with a scholarship to Sweden in the 1980s, when he was exposed to artists from around the world. “I realised the importance of creating work that reflected my experiences, and that was taken from our own soil,” he says.

Still, he struggled with finding a visual language that captured his thoughts. All that changed when he visited Hampi at the end of the decade. There, amongst the majestic religious ruins, he found “a new vision” for his paintings. “That is when I began the ‘Mystic Valley’ series, one of which won me the National Award in 1994,” he says.

And he’s never looked back, going on to exhibit internationally to wide acclaim. It was only recently, in 2010, when tragedy struck his family, and he lost his only son to cancer, that Muralidharan found himself unable to create. “It was a fatal blow to us. I didn’t work for nearly two years. Then I created a darkly personal set of works I’ve never let anyone see,” he says.

Back in the city which has always been his home, Muralidharan and his wife have been picking up the pieces of their life. She has devoted herself to religion and charity work, and he, once again, to his art. “Now I am a karmayogi,” he says. “I work 17, 18 hours a day, and don’t have time to think about anything else.”

“I live moment by moment. When I work, I’m happy. Art gives me a purpose for living.”

This article originally appeared in The Hindu Metroplus. You can find it here.

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Confessions of a much-married woman

I found myself home alone with the daughter this past week and a half, since the husband has been travelling overseas. Of course, the daughter’s a big girl of two and a half and I’m a big girl of… well, nevermind how old, and we managed just fine. But the experience did show me how much-married I’ve become in these five years. I always prided myself on being an independent woman, and being fine with doing things alone through my 20s, but clearly, marriage has changed me.

For instance, from being the tech-savvy (ish) young comp sci major who used to troubleshoot family computer issues, I’ve become an e-damsel in distress, who calls her husband in office, mid-meeting, and whines petulantly, “but it’s not working!” . Since the husband is something of a wiz with anything electronic and just handles any and all tech issues in our house, his parents’ house, my parents’ house, and the homes of sundry family friends (he tends to be loaned out like he’s a trusty eggbeater or something), I’ve gotten worse and worse since marriage. It doesn’t help that our house is filled with all sorts of electronic gadgets and complicated wiring that makes me nervous. It’s not like I could keep up even if I tried; a new thingamabob arrives in the mail (via eBay) every other day.

Anyway, I realised just how bad I’ve become when I went into panic mode by day two of his trip over some gadget not working, and my first instinct was to patch through an SOS call to China and wake up the husband. As I took deep breaths to calm down, the daughter observed wisely, “Daddy can fix it!” I realised I say that to her whenever something isn’t working right, and I was deeply ashamed about the sort of example I was setting for her. I wish I could tell you I rolled up my sleeves and figured it out myself, while my baby watched, her eyes shining with pride at the sight of her capable mommy. But no. No, I muttered, “yes, well, right now you’re stuck with mummy” (which she dutifully repeated) and set it aside carefully in a pile, along with the not-working hard drive, the malfunctioning tablet and other miscellany labelled “for daddy to fix”.

It’s amazing, also, how much companionship there is in doing nothing together in marriage. I mean, I’m constantly complaining that we don’t go out enough, we don’t socialise enough, etc etc. Most weekday evenings are spent vegging out on the couch in front of the TV. And most weekends are spent… well, ordering food in and vegging out in front of the couch. You wouldn’t think unscrewing your brain and staring glassy-eyed at the screen requires company. But apparently it does. Even watching the rom-com of my choice while eating paneer pizza wasn’t much fun alone. (Of course, that was at least in part because I went and chose the godawful ‘Austenland’. Note to the women reading this: if you find yourself with a free evening and decide to treat yourself to a chick flick, choose anything but Austenland. Especially if u actually like anything Austen has written.) Anyway, after a week of being a solo couch potato, I feel I might even be able to tolerate a frame or two of a Jason Statham movie for the husband’s sake… actually, no, scratch that. I couldn’t (sorry darling, but on the plus side, no ‘Austenland’ for you!).

Well, my tech support team should be landing at the airport anytime now. Welcome home! The couch, the TV and a host of non-functional electronics await you. Isn’t marriage fun?

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To all the Divya Ks out there – Part IV

As you can tell from the title of this post, I’ve written on this subject — i.e. the infuriating commonness of my name — several times. In fact, it was one of the first subjects I wrote about on this blog, given my glee over grabbing the domain name divyakumar.com out of the clutches of the many other Divya Kumars out there.

It’s been a while now since I wrote about it last, but nothing’s changed in the interim. I still regularly get emails meant for all those other Divya Ks. One of the most annoying instances was when I received a flood of resumes from a bunch of desperate job seekers. Obviously one of the Divya Ks was recruiting freshers and, as always, there had been an email address mix up. Or had there? In this instance, I began to suspect that she’d given the wrong address on purpose to the least promising/most aggravating candidates. Because, from what I could tell, none of these kids could spell or construct a grammatical sentence. And at least a couple had some form of severe short term memory loss, since they just kept sending me their CVs again and again in spite of my repeatedly telling them they’d got the address wrong…

It’s amazing what insights I’ve gotten into the lives of all these Divyas over the years, though. Bank and credit card statements (so much for secure online banking right, Divya Kapoor?), flight booking details, phone bills (that Divya Khanna sure has been talking up a storm)… these, of course, I’ve written about before. What’s new is the peeks I’ve been getting into their online shopping habits recently. With the internet shopping boom that’s happening in India, I now regularly receive emails from various online stores about all these goodies they’ll be shipping to ‘me’ soon — saris, electronics, books, you name it. It’s kinda fun… for a little while, I live vicariously through the Divya Ks out there, getting that virtual retail therapy rush without actually burning a hole in the credit card (though I can’t say I like Divya K. Sharma’s taste in clothes much. Not all that glitters needs to be on your sari, m’dear).

But recently, I got some emails that were less fun. Actually, with each one that arrived, I started getting increasingly jittery. You see, for the first time, I was feeling the pain of a fellow Divya K parent. Her child, it appears, studies at this institution that emails parents their child’s grades at the end of the term. Clearly, parents’ email ids is not the only thing that this school was screwing up on, because, let me tell you, the report cards weren’t pretty. Subject after subject was marked ‘FAIL’ in bold red. By the time the third email arrived, with the child’s language scores, I was a nervous wreck, and found myself desperately hoping it wasn’t another big, fat F. Thankfully, the child had – just barely – passed English and Hindi, so I could breathe again.

As I get older, I’m getting more philosophical about this whole having a common-as-heck name thing. After all, it gives me a glimpse into these women’s lives, and I realise we share a whole lot more than our names. We share the stresses of parenthood, we share the joys of shopping and troubles on the job too. So, to all the Divya Ks out there… I salute you. We’ll make through. And to the Divya K whose son is flunking so dreadfully… hang in there. And maybe look for another school?

***

This was written for the “Power of names” weekly writing challenge over on Daily Post.

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The Toddler Exercise Regimen (TER)

Watching my toddler and her BFF (yes, apparently you can have besties that young) bounce around our flat this evening, I had a moment of inspiration. We don’t need to pay thousands of rupees for gym memberships we never use, or sign up for the latest neo-hippie fad workout in the city in a desperate effort to lose weight. No. All we need to do is to the incorporate the Toddler Exercise Regimen (TER) into our daily lives, and we’ll be burning off calories even as they’re ingested right through the day. Much like your average, live-wire two or three year old does.

Allow me to elaborate on some of the ways you can make the TER part of your life:

1) Wake up in the morning and bounce on the bed 10-15 times. Singing/yelling at the top of your voice is optional.

2) Finish breakfast and promptly run round and round in circles around your dining room/kitchen.

3) Hop like a frog/kangaroo/rabbit all the way to the car and again from the car to the office/store/miscellaneous destination. Animal sound effects optional.

4) While taking a break during the workday, climb onto your desk/chair and jump down. Repeat 10-15 times. Yelling “wheeeeeeee” is optional.

5) Instead of chatting on the phone or posting on Facebook or gossiping at the watercooler, zoom up and down office or apartment building corridors playing tag with friends/colleagues. Alternatively, if you’re feeling kinda anti-social, just zoom around by yourself, pretending to be an aeroplane or a superhero.

6) Instead of vegging out in front of the TV in the evening, jump up and down squealing (it might actually make whatever braindead TV show you’re watching seem more interesting).

7) Before you sleep at night, bounce on your bed another 10-15 times. Having a tickle-fight with a loved one is optional.

Easy as that. With these few simple steps, you can keep your weight down, your heart healthy and still eat pretty much anything you want to. If you ever find yourself slipping, just go around and spend time with the toddler closest to you. He or she will be happy to keep you on your toes. Literally.

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Results of this morning’s Bored Toddler Olympics

 Throwing multi-coloured balls onto pink blow-up chair (note: participant disqualified for not maintaining required distance from chair while throwing)

Emptying contents of salt shaker onto dining table : Gold awarded to Disha for spreading the salt evenly at fastest speed, but subsequently taken away for trying to mix diaper rash cream into salt

Running round and round in circles in the drawing room: Gold awarded to Disha for miraculously not stumbling over the few hundred toys on the floor

Tickling and rolling around the floor giggling: Gold shared by Amma (tickling) and Disha (giggling) for superb coordination and teamwork

Pooping in the potty (sort of): Gold to Disha! Go go go Disha!

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The tree that remembers

Note: This piece of fiction was inspired by marsowords’ hauntingly beautiful entry for the three’s weekly photo challenge: ‘The oddly scenic threesome.

He used to live there, in the house under that tree. The tree would flower in the spring, blooms blazing bright red and orange under the California sun. There’d be a carpet in the colours of autumn on the ground and the sun would glint gold between the leaves above.

We sat there, on that carpet, many an afternoon. It felt like we were the only people alive. Even then there was an uncanny silence surrounding us. The green orchards, fruit and busy workers that were just miles distant seemed a world away, and that dusty road never saw any traffic. Just barren land all around, and this one, single spot of colour, bathed in the light of life.

When he was gone, the light went away. I go there every week to his house, and keep it perfectly clean, as though he’s just away on a trip and will be back home any day soon. I go there every week, but I can’t stop the life seeping out of it.

The flowers don’t bloom any more, the branches have curled up as though in sorrow. Even the light doesn’t glint golden; everything is grey and brown, just as it is all around. The ground is dry and burnt, no carpet to soften it, just spiny seeds.

All that remains are the memories that linger in the air, haunting that tree and that house like so many spirits of the dead. Now I go there not to exult in the present but to drift into the past, a past that was golden and warm. I exist like that tree, alive but bereft of life, warped by the past and uncaring of the future.

***

This was written for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Threes over on Daily Post.

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