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Are you auto-immune to idlis?

I'm asking because of this jazz singer in America who wasn't. I thought of him because just the day's news, its accidental and premeditated cruelties, can make anyone feel unwell. Renuka Narayanan writes.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2011 09:39 IST

I'm asking because of this jazz singer in America who wasn't. I thought of him because just the day's news, its accidental and premeditated cruelties, can make anyone feel unwell. And when the world seems certifiably topsy-turvy, it's Albert Einstein who seems to have a plan. "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle," he says. That jazz singer was struck down by an idli, in a manner of speaking and then went on to make a whole miracle of it.

See, he was part of a Western classical chamber music group, played the lead in an opera, studied under the daring composer John Cage and formed his own jazz vocal band. Brilliant by any standards, right? Then one day in 1962 in Massachussetts, USA, at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, he saw (better believe it) Bharatnatyam. It was by the last grand devadasi, Balasaraswathi. The jazz singer, torn already between traditional western music and the avant-garde, totally lost the plot.

And it wasn't the dance. It was the music. "I fell into it like a duck into a pond," he said later. Miraculously, his university, Wesleyan, already taught Indian music, though under the non-pc term 'ethnomusicology.' So he got to learn classical Carnatic music under Balasaraswati's brother, T. Ranganathan and wrote an MA thesis on 'South Indian drumming'.

Two years later the jazz singer went on a Fulbright grant to Madras, where he learnt more Carnatic music. He was the first non-South Indian to sing it well. Nobody in Madras could believe it, especially when he sang heavy duty 18th century Telugu compositions by saint-composer Thyagaraja that even regular Carnatic types were afraid of muffing. HMV dashed off two LPs.

And because he sang well, because his voice breathed unmistakably of bhakti, the people of the Big Idli gave him the high title Bhagavathar, meaning 'learned scholar-musician of exalted devotional music', which is like a double doctorate in music and theology because Carnatic music is devotional and if you're learned in it, you'd know Hindu theology at mythological, iconographic, architectural, philosophical and metaphysical levels. Back in the US, he was killed in 1984 in a hit-and-run accident while taking his dog for a walk. But look for 'Govardhana Giridhare' and other songs on YouTube by Jon Higgins and clap with Papa Einstein.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.
shebaba09@gmail.com