Tuesday, September 15, 2009
On Monday, I was again an honored guest, but this time at MCC, my current home away from home. Every year the philosophy department has an endowed guest lecture in honor of distinguished alumnus Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, rather like Elmhurst’s annual Niebuhr lecture. Radhakrishan was a distinguished professor of philosophy at Oxford for many years, and then after independence, India’s first vice president and its second president (not the same as their first prime minister, Nehru, but that’s another story). A highly-respected philosopher from Kerala was brought in to speak on contemporary views of the nature of consciousness, one of the thorniest areas of inquiry in all of philosophy. Well, Dr. Gabriel decided to honor me as well by inviting me to preside over the lecture. This meant providing very brief remarks at the beginning (following a host of other speakers providing words of introduction and felicitation) and serving as a respondent at the end. While I very much appreciated the honor, I certainly felt as though I was in way over my head! When it was my turn to speak, I said as much, and at the last minute was inspired to use a quote I had read while prepping for the event.
Gandhi and Radhakrishnan often worked together, and Radhakrishnan often deferred to the great man’s wishes. One day Gandhiji decided enough was enough, since he very much wanted Radhakrishnan’s full input, so he said to his friend, “I am your Arjuna, and you are my Krishna!” This is a reference to the Bhagavad-Gita, where the soldier Arjuna surveys the battlefield just before the battle is to begin. He questions why he should even bother—there will be much killing and death, and he has many family members on both sides of the battlefield. The god Krishna appears to Arjuna to explain the nature of existence and the importance of dharma (duty, but understood more broadly). At the very end, to put any lingering doubts to rest, Krishna appears in his cosmic form, and Arjuna has a terrifying, humbling vision of Krishna in all times and all places (their conversation has striking parallels to Job’s talk with God at the end of the Old Testament book of Job). In other words, Gandhi was a mere servant next to Radhakrishnan’s godlike presence.
Well that certainly described my feelings at that moment, so I used the quote … and got a good response! As expected, it was a difficult talk. Thank goodness Gabriel suggested I do a little advance reading on the topic. Even so, I couldn’t come up with anything very detailed as a respondent, something they would expect here. I said something about feeling like Arjuna after experiencing the cosmic Krishna—later I realized I should have said, “You are still my Krishna, but now I am only the horse pulling Arjuna’s chariot!” Thankfully, Gabriel came to the rescue and took on the role of respondent for me. The guest speaker, Dr. Kanthamani, must have appreciated what I did say, though. We had a very nice conversation afterward and then over the lunch table with other philosophy faculty members. Not a flawless performance on my part, but good to have had the experience … and another good dose of the Indian love for ceremony!
Changes are afoot at the International Guest House (IGH), too. Just last week I saw a new fellow at the guest house, and before I had too much chance to wonder what he was doing there, he introduces himself as Pravin, the new housekeeper. It was his first day on the job, and he had just left a job at the Hotel Meridien, one of the really ritzy Western-style hotels here in Chennai (and around the world). I gather MCC wanted someone with experience in the hospitality industry to supervise things at the IGH and create a more welcoming climate, especially for Western guests. So far, so good. When they changed my bed linens today, he showed Benjamin how to put on both a bottom sheet AND a top sheet! (On previous visits it’s been a bottom sheet and a thin blanket only.) And he even showed Benjamin how to turn down the top sheet at an angle like they do at the fancy hotels! I’ll know we’ve really arrived when I see a mint on my pillow as well!! Today I came home from tea in the staff room to find Benjamin washing the numerous windows on the east and south walls of the IGH dining room. The place really sparkled! By the time Lynn and I return with students at New Year’s, we may not recognize the place. Best of all, Pravin is a really nice fellow … and his English is excellent. Now I can make my needs known without always pestering my friends on the faculty.
And in the meantime, prep work to do for two lectures in an English department postcolonial literature course taught by good friend Nirmal Selvamony—one on post-slavery African-American music (with emphasis on the blues), the other on Caribbean music (he wants reggae, and that will require some scrambling on my part). More on that later!
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Hard to believe it’s been a week since my last entry. Time either goes very quickly or very slowly here. So what follows must be 3 or 4 entries worth!
I did get a chance to sing with the Heber Chapel Choir on Sunday. Saturday was an unexpected day off due to the tragic death of the Chief Minister (governor) in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. I went to the staff room at the usual tea time only to find the place empty. So out on the walk I ran into the faculty member who supervises the Campus School (we have met on several occasions in previous years). He’s been taking bird songs and layering them over a synthesizer track. Very nice stuff! I’ll have to pay a visit to the school sometime soon. Then off to see if anybody was in the philosophy office (my home department while I’m here)—not a soul. But because I’d been delayed by “birdsong,” I ran into Chaplain Spurgeon on the walk back home. He asked if I had come over for the choir rehearsal. I said no and asked when they were rehearsing. “Right now!” he said. Since I had nothing else planned, I sat in and enjoyed myself. They were getting a couple of special numbers ready for the family service on Sunday (a big deal—lots of parents come). So I went to church Sunday morning, sang with the choir, heard two other choirs (lots of music!), and joined the throngs for a potluck breakfast afterwards. Lots of wonderful food, and more invitations for dinner than I’d had in the previous two weeks! And if it weren’t for the previous day’s series of coincidences happening at exactly the right time … none of this would have happened!
So in between Saturday rehearsal and Sunday worship, Mathivanan again took me into the city for a concert! I got to hear Sanjay Subrahmanian sing (for the third time now! twice previously in Chicago). He’s one of the leading Carnatic classical singers, but he’s been developing a very distinctive style. Such wonderfully inventive music making! Got to say a brief hello afterward and tell him how much I enjoyed it—he met with me at his apartment in summer of 2006, so we know each other a bit. And off to Murugan’s again for some dinner—idli and uttapam. But sadly we were there later this week because of the timing of the concert, so they had run out of potato for the dosai and onion for the onion uttapam (boo!). Oh well, their wonderful sambar helped make up for anything that was lacking!
Sunday dinner with Merlin Isaac and her family was a delightful change of pace. Eating alone is one of the things I like the least here. Today I told a friend they should send company over when they bring meals to the guest house! Merlin is a very outgoing, friendly person (something she attributes to her husband and the supportiveness of the MCC family). Her husband is a man with great curiosity about foreign countries. He works for an American company, so he knows quite a bit already, and we talked and talked and talked about American politics, people, and economy. Most of you know I tend not to be the most loquacious person on earth, but he kept me talking till 10:00 p.m. Fun!!
Shopping in the City!
Mathivan and I went into the city AGAIN on Monday. I felt like I was playing hookey (which I more than made up for getting ready for those history lectures!). Don’t get to do that often. We’d been talking Saturday about some of the great Carnatic classical artists—he knows SO many great stories, they should be written down!—and he wanted to take me down to get some of their CDs and DVDs. I was more than happy to go with him. He knows the musicians and their music intimately—who’s good, who’s not, who’s up and coming, who’s truly great—and he knows the best recordings to look for. I’m not totally ignorant. I know a good number of important names, but I don’t know them all, and I tend to know the current generation better than the older one. Well, for once I didn’t have to stand there and guess whether I was getting something good or not (hmmm … I know this artist is good, but I’m not familiar with that one, but maybe they’re also a good bet since there’s a whole shelf filled with their recordings … etc.). So we got some really fine stuff, including a couple of rareties. And Mathivan even insisted on buying of few of the best things as a gift for me. I am continuously bowled over by such generosity! Then off for a lovely traditional Madras-style tali meal (lots of small portions of this and that in small metal cups arranged lovingly on a big banana-leaf-covered tray). I think that was my first time having Madras tali (had it in Tirupati in 2005, but that’s the next state over, and MUCH more spicy). After lunch the Music Academy in time to check out their new digital music archive. Really nice collection of older and more recent recordings, some very rare. As they keep adding to it, this should become a really exceptional collection, the kind of place one might go for historical study purposes. Now if they would add video as well … !!! On the very last shelf after a quick browse through the Academy library what do I see but two books by Bruno Nettl, the keynote speaker I introduced at the CMS conference in Normal last year. Knowing that Bruno would like to come back as a Carnatic classical singer in his next life, I dropped him an email to ask if he knew his books were in Madras! (He did not, but was glad to hear it!) Stopped at a khadi shop for fabric. I want some kurtas (traditional Indian style shirts), and there’s no fabric more breathable in all the world than the homespun cotton Gandhiji encouraged. I got a few colors & patterns. And then one last stop to price out some inexpensive cameras (mine is on the fritz—I don’t like that grinding noise—still under warranty, thankfully, but repairs only covered back in the U.S., grrr …). And since there was a Yamaha piano/synthesizer showroom right next door, we couldn’t resist. Mathivan was fascinated by all the instruments, “Mark, I would never go into such a place if I were not with you!” Really classy place. They even had a baby grand displayed prominently. And then the long drive back to MCC. Seems like it’s not taking quite as long as it used to. It has taken as long as 90 minutes in past years, but we’ve consistently been making the trip in just under an hour. The flyovers make a difference, and so does the railroad bridge just east of campus. That cuts off a LOT of the jams around the commuter rail stations, not to mention possible LONG delays at the Tambaram railroad crossing.
Two history lectures back to back was more of a stretch than I anticipated. Seems like that’s all I did between Monday night and the end of my second lecture Friday morning. I really feel the pressure to do well, especially as they are first getting to know me and my work. Perhaps I will feel less pressure as time goes on. Who knows?
New shirts got delivered mid-week, nice Madras-style cotton shirts in plaids of different colors. The tailor made them very nicely loose, so there’s room for the to circulate underneath. A few of the faculty members here caught Joseph and I running to his car after a planning meeting for January and snapped a photo with me in one of my new shirts. I’ll add it to the Flickr Photostream below so you can see what I’m talking about.
Two More Lectures Down!
Well, both history lectures went well. I can’t believe I got through nearly 15 pages of Civil War song material in under an hour! It helps that a lot of it was song lyrics that didn’t fill the whole page from left to right. I sang about 4 or 5 songs (only one complete song—Tenting on the Old Campground). The history department chair seemed pleased with how it went. Major technical difficulties the second day, though. I wanted to run a Powerpoint presentation on songs of the civil rights movement. It took forever to get the projector up and working. Just when I was ready to give up and just read it, somebody got up from their seat, hit a few buttons, and voilà! Sadly, the sound was way too low for the songs to be heard. I saw it at the Onam festival, and here again—when they don’t have the right cables, they will take a microphone, put it by the small speaker, and run it through the P.A. But the laptop I used had very weak speaks, and the P.A. just couldn’t amplify it sufficiently for the large room we were in. Ah, well. I would have used my equipment, but I don’t have the right video output cable. I thought I had one (from my old laptop), but no—the new MacBooks use a fancy new configuration called “Mini Displayport.” I won’t get it for another month when Virginia arrives here, but I ordered one and had it shipped home. Dr. Rukumani and I commiserated afterwards. She suggested that having the lyrics in the Powerpoint would have helped a lot, and she was absolutely right. Even if the sound system was up to snuff, the African-American English used in many of the songs is hard for Indians to understand. Live and learn! Dr. R. is very reserved, and since I don’t pick up on all the cultural cues yet, I find her hard to read. But by the time all was said and done, I came to understand that she was very, very pleased with my lectures. I hope I can keep up the good work!
Funny what tastes good these days. Thursday night it was “finger chips”—what you or I might call french fries! I can’t remember when fries have tasted so good. At lunch Friday there were some lovely small potatoes in a mild sauce, and the carrot slices were really sweet-tasting. Friday night it was a few nicely cooked pieces of chicken.
Another big adventure. Every residence hall here has a big festival sometime during the year. This weekend it was Selaiyur Hall’s Moonshadow. For three days they have special contests and events. They took me over Friday afternoon in time to watch the “Fashion Contest.” Each of the four halls (3 male halls and one female) had a team come up on stage to strut their stuff. First there might be a formal wear set with suits and ties (for the guys), etc. Next maybe something ethnic or novel, and finally something decidedly hip (Bollywood-style, though that also includes imitations of American hip—rappers, for instance). While all of this is going on, a huge crowd of students is watching and cheering (or jeering if it’s not their hall on stage). The halls are very competitive here. This isn’t what I remember from college dorm life. It’s a lot more like the British system (think Harry Potter and Hogwarts) with heavy influence of American fraternities woven in. The guys from the last hall up got rather risqué at the very end of the set—they came out in jeans and wet, ripped T-shirts, a couple of which got ripped totally off and thrown into the audience. One guy even started tugging down his pants, hiphop style, to reveal just the top of his thong-style undies. This was in total violation of contest policies. Now, outside of some hoots and hollers from the students, this would have caused no consternation in most U.S. colleges, but the U.S. is the U.S. and India is India. Bollywood movies notwithstanding, even partial nudity is seen as an embarrassment. (Remember the scene in Lage Raho Munna Bhai where the old fellow takes off his clothing one piece at a time, offering them as payment for a loan he owes to an unscrupulous fellow—who is so embarrassed by this that he forgives the loan!). I don’t know what will happen to those students, but I suspect a stern reprimand at the very least. And today they had me come in as a guest judge for a kind of “battle of the bands”—six acoustic acts and three high-volume rock bands. Fun! I’m discovering that being an honored guest means you have to do a lot sitting, even if you’d rather mill around and chat with folks! Now if my ears would stop ringing ...
Thursday, September 3, 2009
More pomp and ceremony today. In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the self-financed stream of the college (the evening division), there was a full morning of speeches and ceremony. They really know how to pull out the stops! The current principal and the two previous ones were all on the platform along with honored guests and a few major players in starting the new program. After five years, I finally got to connect with Winfred Chelliah, who was the college organist and choir director on my very first visit here. Now off doing other things, he was here as one of the speakers. Also had a chance to reconnect with former principal Philip and, briefly, with one of the church musicians who presented for the 2007 course, Premsingh. I’m looking forward to getting out to his church some Sunday to hear what he’s doing in context!
Still getting inquiries about the India 2010 J-Term. We’ve got a good-sized group already, but the more the merrier! I did some more tweaking on the course website, and will probably put the syllabus online in the next couple of days. Lynn is getting the word out to first-year students at Elmhurst, so we’ll probably get a couple more before long. And this year, once it’s full, it’s full. NO MORE! (Easier to say no via email than when a student is begging and pleading at your office door. I won’t name any names!)
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Good friend Dr. Nirmal is finally back from his conference in China. He’s turning into quite the international celebrity, the fellow everyone turns to in the world of ecocriticism! Sounds like he had a very successful time there—they even named him as one of the Organising Committee members. Good to have him back, and he’s already invited me home for dinner tomorrow night. It will be delightful to have (be?) company—well, not to eat alone in the guest house dining room. Now that my paper is done, I can give myself permission to leave my monastic cell now and then, on my own recognizance, of course. With a little luck, Nirmal can give me some feedback on my paper. It’s the first time I’ve dabbled in ecocriticism, and I’m terrified I might embarrass myself. If anyone can tell me if I’m on the right track, Nirmal is the man.
Well, if it wasn’t true before, it is now. I gave my first lecture this morning, so I must truly be an official MCC faculty member. I’m figuring out where the faculty hangouts are, in the faculty lounge and the philosophy office, and I’m getting more invitations to just come and hang if I’m lonely—I even got one from the principal. I will have to take him up on that some day, though I’m not going to hog his time beyond “Hi” and his asking how my stay is going. But who knows? He might relish the distraction.
So I think I managed to find a lecture topic of interest to philosophy students—Music and Expression. As I told them right up front, I was going to ask a lot of questions but provide very few answers. If philosophy students can’t deal with that, they’re in the wrong area of study! What can or can’t music express, how have musicians answered that question throughout history, and so on. And after playing an example without any background information and asking what the music expressed (March to the Gallows from Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique—a setup, of course), I asked them to tell me what they heard. And as expected, while they used similar words and adjectives to describe the music, no one could have guessed the detailed programme Berlioz had in mind. The result would have been no different with my students back home. And from there on to concepts in linguistics, music as a language, comparisons between musical and written/verbal languages, music and meaning, physiological studies, and studies of the brain. It was well received, and students had many very thoughtful questions, and conversation continued into the hall afterward. A good start!
In the next few days Gabriel will have my lecture schedule fixed through the end of the first semester (in October, remember!). That will make it much easier to map out my time, squeeze in a few walks or even short trips off campus.
When I got back to the guest house after tea, I was surprised—first by a kolam with each section filled in with brightly colored flower petals (see my Flickr Photostream below), and second by a large group of students gathered for some function in the dining room. The were very well dressed, and some of the women were wearing the traditional white saris from Kerala. Turns out some Public Administration students from Kerala were hosting a celebration of Onam, one of the major festivals there…and I was invited to be an honored guest! So there were songs and games, the lighting of the flame (they asked me to light one wick), a speech by Dr. Benjamin, head of the PA department, snacks, a short video about the festival, and so on. And since they were also celebrating Teacher’s Day (national or regional? I’m not sure which), I even received a small gift along with the other faculty members present (either someone didn’t show, or they whipped it up in a hurry—unless someone let them know ahead of time I’d be showing up at some point). Little and big surprises around every turn here. If there’s a theme for my visit so far, it would have to be “Surprised by Hospitality.” Having been here on four previous visits and thinking I know what to expect does nothing to change the element of surprise…and gratitude!
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Well, I give my first lecture Tuesday, to a group of students in the philosophy department. Not sure exactly what I will say yet. I’ve got the afternoon now to figure that out. Dr. Gabriel has left things wide open for me. There should be a little something to introduce myself, I suppose a little something with some substance, factual info, ideas about music and esthetics, and so on. I’ve had discussions with a few other faculty members about lectures on perhaps some Civil War songs, the blues, music and the civil rights movement, gender equality (or the lack thereof), what to listen for in music (hommage à Copland), performer interactivity with computer/software/multimedia, or one period or another in Western music history. These are easier; the topics are clear. But then I’ve always been good at doing the assignment. Now I must think more like a philosophy professor and become more nimble, less linear and goal-oriented. I suppose I should waste less time gabbing about it and more time planning it!
Now that lunch is over, it’s warming up a bit. It rained most of the night, and there was light drizzle all morning. Not so much that you couldn’t go without an umbrella, though, and you know, this was the first morning I could get out and do a good, brisk walk! Usually I have to take a slow pace because it’s just too darned hot. I end up sweating profusely even at a slow pace. But with the rain and cloud cover, it was delightful!! I’ll have to remember this—it was so nice to walk normally and get a little exercise.
Ran into Prof. Suri for the first time the other day. Wonderful to see him! He’s on top of the world having just sent off his thesis. It’ll take 6 months to a year to get it read and approved (the British system for you!), but it’s finally off his back. He’s all ready, along with Prof. Kurian, to whisk me off to Pondicherry some weekend. It’s a unique place—a former French colony and long-time home to mystics Sri Aurobindo and his disciple, “The Mother,” and nearby is the site of Auroville, a utopian city founded on principles of Aurobindo’s thought. I’m told there’s a Spanish avant-garde composer there—could be an interesting fellow to meet. Might even get a French dinner there…down in the French Quarter (sounds familiar)!