Friday, August 27, 2010

Wah! Taj – Personal Photo Album Part 2

The Taj Mahal has always been regarded as one of the great wonders of the world and hence its inclusion in the official list of “New Seven Wonders of the World” in 2007 was only a formality despite the fact that the selection was by popular voting.  I was one of the more than one hundred million voters and had placed this at the top of my list.  The official list includes the Great Wall of China which I had the good fortune to visit last year (see my ealier blog titled “China Diary Part 1”) and the Coliseum in Rome which I had visited in 1967.  The other four in the list are: Chichen Itza in Mexico, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru and Petra in Jordan.
When I first saw the Taj Mahal way back in 1963, I was dumbstruck by the sheer grandeur and beauty of the famed monument.  It made an impact on me far exceding the expectations aroused from my gleanings of the architecture and history of the Mughal period in India.  What struck me most was the perfect proportion and symmetry between different parts of the monument, especially in relation to the huge central dome, as well as its surroundings.  Because of this, one doesn’t really perceive how gigantic it really is, something that shows up very conspicuously in two of my close-up pictures presented later.   I had read great descriptions and seen some breathtaking pictures of it, but these faded away in comparision with the sight of the real thing, a magnificient marble mausoleum built as a symbol of eternal love by an opulent and indulgent monarch.   Unfortunately at that time, I was yet to get hooked on to photography as a hobby and have nothing to show for my experience.  The next time I went to see it many years later with a cemera, the monument was enveloped at several places by some rather ugly scaffolding for major repairs and was not worth photographing.  At the third time I went to see it, my photographic interests had gone into hibernation.  My real opportunity for some serious photography came only relatively recently, in February 2005, when I visited Agra on a ‘guided’ tour from Delhi. This time I was well armed with a recently acquired Nikon Coolpix 8800 digital camera offering 8 MP pixel resolution and 10x optical zoom.
Agra Fort   
Although the tourist bus had left Delhi as early as 7 AM, it was lunch time when it reached Agra and the driver took us straight to a third rate restaurant charging  top rate prices for lunch.  It was well into the afternoon when the bus reached Agra Fort where I detatched myself from the rest of the tourists and began my own exploration with my camera in full readiness. The weather was bright and sunny and I realized I could get some very good pictures during the rest of the evening.
The huge red brick fort is a formidable structure enclosing several palatial marble buildings and even more impressive than the Red Fort in Delhi; both are UNESCO designated world heritage sites.  Here is the entrance to it through the main gate over a small bridge across a moat:
[All pictures in this post can be blown up to their full size by just clicking on them and viewing them in separate windows]
Inside the Fort
One has to pass through another huge gate before reaching the vast interior.  Here is an angular view of one of the buildings, called Jahangiri Mahal, with a large lush green lawn in front:

The Diwan I Am (Hall of Public Audience) seen in the following picture is very similar in appearance and purpose to its equally impressive counterpart in the Delhi Red Fort.

Here is an angular view of the Khas Mahal with a vast ornate garden in front.  The garden has a symmetrical counterpart in front of the building.

The structure seen in the following picture and just noticeable in the previous one has a poignant association with Emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal.  He had been overthrown and imprisoned in the Agra Fort by his despotic son Aurangzeb.  Shah Jahan is said to have spent his last days fondly viewing the great edifice visible from here on the banks of river Yamuna.  The picture captures it right at the centre though not very clearly.   It can be seen much clearer if the picture is blown up to full size.

Oh! The Taj
In the next picture I have captured the whole of Taj Mahal from the balcony of the above building with the camera on full zoom (89 mm focal length).  This picture reveals a lot more than it shows.  While it captures the entire building from a distance of about 2km, it also captures the incredible filth and the squalor lying around the river bed between the Fort and the Taj which happen to be two of the most impressive sights in the world.  What a contrast! What an irony! What an invitation to a grand stand view of one of the greatest wonders of the world!  You will have to blow up the picture to its full size to understand what I mean (just click on it and wait a little while for everything to show up).  Mercifully, this is not the view Shah Jahan would have seen; he certainly deserved not to.

Interestingly, the early part of one of Conan Doyle’s great mystery novels, The Sign of Four featuring Sherlock Holmes, is set in the Agra Fort.  Having read the novel, I tried to relate the pertinent part of the story to the Fort, but found no sign that Doyle had any first hand knowledge of it.  After all, it was only fiction.
The Taj
To improve the quality of air around the Taj complex, the authorities do not allow any motorised vehicles to approach it within a certain distance.  This concern does not seem to extend to the area just behind the monument on the banks of the river.  Nobody seems to mind all that filth and squalor.  On the way to the Taj, tourists have to get down at a designated point and either walk up to the complex or take an expensive electric vehicle.  While this is certainly laudable, what follows is just the opposite.  Once the tourists reach the entrance to the complex they are subjected to some of the stiffest and most irksome security checks anywhere in the world.  This is quite an ordeal and dampens their enthusiasm in no small measure.  The one saving grace is that cameras are allowed unlike many other tourist attractions in the country.
Foreign toursits, who are identified only by their appearance, have to cough up a hefty entry fee which is about fifty times what their Indian counterparts have to pay!  Such discrimination, not to speak of the sheer scale of it, is a monumental insult to the injury already inflicted on tourism in the country by way of poor facilities.  Nowhere in the world have I come across such discrimination against foreign tourists.  This is quite shameful for a country like India which is among the least popular tourist destinations in the world.  During my sight seeing visits in China last year, I did feel that the entry fees in most places were unreasonably high, but they were no more than what the locals had to pay.  Also, there were no restrictions of any kind on photography.
One enters the Taj through its main gate in a massive red brick building (see picture below) which is in itself a great sight.

Standing at the entrance gate, the sight of the great marble monument at the far end of two long pathways on either side of a waterway is a breathtaking experience.  As one steps inside, the whole of the complex with its rich greenery and gardens comes alive.  I wanted a photograph of myself highlighting the monument in the background and was lucky enough to find a foreign visitor who understood exactly what I wanted and shot this picture for me with my won camera.  Of course he couldn’t avoid the conspicuous people nearby and the not so conspicuous ones farther away.  I have cropped the picture to make it more presentable, shifting the attention to the monument as much as possible. It is one of my prized possessions.

The following two photos from a close range indicate how gigantic and impressive the monument really is:

At one place on the periphery of the quadrangle I saw the huge dome of the monument behind the beautifully bare branches of a tree and captured the combination, a creation of nature blending with one of man.  Here it is – one of my best photographs of the day.   It can be better appreciated when seen in full size.
My last picture here was aimed from the elevated platform in front of the monument towards the entrace gate and captures the wonderful central waterway, the long pathways and gardens on either side of it and parts of the greenery elsewhere.  The entrance gate also stands out in all its glory.

Au Revoir
After the short but memorable visit to Agra the tourist bus took us on a night time visit to Mathura and returned to Delhi well past midnight.  I wish I had spent a much longer time at the Taj.  I could have done so only if I had stayed in Agra for a day or two.  This is what I intend to do during my next visit wehenever it be.  Till then I will continue to cherish the memory of my last visit.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tagore and Einstein on Music


During the formative phase of my professional career in the late sixties at the Regional College (now, Institute) of Education in Mysore, Professor Praful N Dave was my mentor and a major influence on me.  He taught me the principles of educational evaluation through Bloom’s taxonomy as well as his own modified version.  More significantly, he introduced me to the wonderful world of western classical music through his impressive collection of LP records.    I got hooked to the compositions of great masters like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and a host of others and developed an abiding interest in them.  I built up a small collection of taped western classical music and used to listen to them whenever possible.  Beethoven’s seventy minute long Ninth Symphony was, and still is, my most favorite piece of music and I have listened to it with the greatest of joy a countless number of times.  

Once long ago, while traveling with three friends in a first class railway compartment in central India, one of them persuaded his Bengali friend to entertain us with some music in his native language.  This person, rather reclusive up to that time, opened out with a few pieces of Rabindra sangeeth which enthralled me greatly with its distinctively melodic style and depth of feeling though I could not understand any of the words making up the music.   This was my gateway to Rabindra sangeeth which I have enjoyed ever since, as much as western classical music, though these are poles apart.  

My interest in Rabindra sangeeth received a huge boost from my esteemed friend and former professional colleague, Professor Somnath Datta, and his wife, who are both strongly addicted to all forms of Rabindra sangeeth, especially Tagore’s great dance dramas.  I have attended a number of sittings at their home and listened to their orchestral duets.  I still don’t understand most Bengali words, but this has certainly not hampered my enjoyment of this great form of music.  With their help I have built up a small collection of Bengali music to add to my collection of western classicals. 

In between, my liking for and interest in the traditional Hindustani style of classical Indian music has also grown considerably.  I enjoy listening particularly to the vocal renderings of great masters like Paluskar, Jasraj, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur, Bhimsen Joshi and a host of others belonging to a rich variety of styles or Gharanas.  Needless to say, I have built up a good collection of Hindustani classical music as well.

In 2005, which marked the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s great discoveries in Relativity and Quantum Physics that heralded what is perhaps the greatest revolution in human intellectual history, I had to dig up information about Einstein’s life as well as his work for a series of lectures to students and teachers of physics.  I stumbled upon an article* summarizing the conversations that took place in Germany during two meetings of Rabindranath Tagore with Albert Einstein.  Music being the obvious common factor connecting these two extraordinary stalwarts of the twentieth century, a considerable part of their conversation was centered round the similarities and differences in the western and Indian classical styles of music.  In view of my great admiration for both of them, one for his revolutionary work in science and the other for his lasting contributions to music in particular, I read this article with tremendous interest.  I had casually mentioned this to Prof Datta during one of our meetings.

Recently the Dattas had invited me with a number of their other friends to an evening of Rabindra sangeeth commemorating the 150th death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.  The highlight of the evening was some orchestral duets rendered by the Dattas and a few of their friends.   Prof Datta also wanted me to speak about the Tagore-Einstein conversation on music during this get-together.  I obliged with a mildly edited version of the conversation I had come across.   I later felt that this could go into one of my blog posts since most people appear to be unaware of what transpired in the Tagore-Einstein meetings.  Here it is.

Tagore-Einstein Conversation on Classical Music

Tagore and Einstein met through a common friend, Dr Mendel. Tagore visited Einstein at his residence in the suburbs of Berlin on July 14, 1930, and Einstein returned the call and visited Tagore at the Mendel home. Both conversations were recorded......... The July 14 conversation is (partially) reproduced here:

Tagore: ...........the musical system in India, which is not so rigidly fixed as western music. Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling within the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation. In creation we follow the central law of existence, but if we do not cut ourselves adrift from it, we can have sufficient freedom within the limits of our personality for the fullest self-expression.
Einstein: That is possible only when there is a strong artistic tradition in music to guide the people's mind. In Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own.
Tagore: You have to be absolutely obedient to this too complicated music. In India, the measure of a singer's freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer's song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of the melody which he is given to interpret.
Einstein: It requires a very high standard of art to realize fully the great idea in the original music, so that one can make variations upon it. In our country, the variations are often prescribed.
Tagore: If in our conduct we can follow the law of goodness, we can have real liberty of self-expression. The principle of conduct is there, but the character which makes it true and individual is our own creation. In our music there is a duality of freedom and prescribed order.
Einstein: Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?
Tagore: Yes. In Bengal we have a kind of song-kirtan, we call it - which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment added by the singer.
Einstein: Is the metrical form quite severe?
Tagore: Yes, quite. You cannot exceed the limits of versification; the singer in all his variations must keep the rhythm and the time, which is fixed. In European music you have a comparative liberty with time, but not with melody.
Einstein: Can the Indian music be sung without words? Can one understand a song without words?
Tagore: Yes, we have songs with unmeaning words, sounds which just help to act as carriers of the notes. In North India, music is an independent art, not the interpretation of words and thoughts, as in Bengal. The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself.
Einstein: Is it not polyphonic?
Tagore: Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?
Einstein: Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether.
Tagore: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.
Einstein: It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music also seems to be so.
Tagore: It is difficult to analyze the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music; I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.
Einstein: This is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer; we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural, or a convention which we accept.
Tagore: Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.
Einstein: It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.
Tagore: Once I asked an English musician to analyze for me some classical music, and explain to me what elements make for the beauty of the piece.
Einstein: The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.
Tagore: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.........

Some Remarks
Tagore’s musical accomplishments are very well known.  Einstein’s credentials in this respect were considerably lower – confined to being a highly accomplished non-professional violinist who performed in private just for the pleasure of doing so.  However, it has been said of Einstein that, had he not become the outstanding scientist that he was, he might well have attained a comparable status in music.
In the conversation documented here, Tagore is understandably the more dominant and authoritative partner while Einstein is seen more as an admiring student.
The conversation brings out in an unambiguous manner the basic differences between western and Indian classical music.  While the former is dominated by harmony, grandeur and a high degree of rigidity the latter is dominated by melody, rhythm and a high degree of flexibility.  I find both equally edifying and enjoyable.