Sunday, December 20, 2009

What song shall I sing ... (reprise)

Most curious of all, as I lay in bed this morning in that strange world between sleep and wakefulness, I was running over an aria in my head, "But who may abide" (from Handel's Messiah). It slowly dawned on me that the ornaments I was adding in the cadenzas were in the style of a Carnatic classical free raga exploration, the alapana (or ragam) ... and it all worked beautifully! Where did that come from?

Home at last!

Okay, so there’s no such thing as “final thoughts.” This is likely to be my final entry, though. Nothing so profound here as in the previous entry, but this one does get me back home with a few insights into the aftermath. Here goes …

The last two days at MCC were filled with worries about packing. How on earth was I going to get all those books shipped and pack everything else into two suitcases and a carry-on? Once upon a time (including summer 2008) you could send things via sea-mail. It took a few months, but it was relatively inexpensive—but that’s no longer available. After checking out the speedy delivery options (very expensive!) and the postal service (perversely, even more expensive—30+ kilograms at 575 rupees/kilo gets into hundreds of dollars in a hurry). So … turns out the least expensive option was to check an additional bag at the airport, for only $150. After hearing such high prices for the other options, that suddenly sounded awfully good! Of course, they didn’t all fit into just one bag, and that made it difficult to get everything else in, but once I figured out, hey, I’m coming back soon, I decided to leave a carry-on bag (with a few clothes, umbrella, Tevas, etc.) behind with Joseph. Then it was no problem to fit in the rest of the stuff. Gabriel was able to pick up the final order from the tailor, but there wasn’t quite time to get the order from the jeweler at Spencer Plaza. And as it always happens, once I was all packed I received a very large gift from the college! Ah, well …

Outside of packing there were things to do on campus. Suri arranged a lovely farewell party in my honor with a few good friends—Jubi, Vimal, and the gang. Saturday was the Seshagopalan concert. Sunday I had lunch with Dr. Kingsley and his family, and Sunday night was the Anderson Hall Carol Service with dinner to follow. As usual, Kingsley was the magnanimous host. Whether it’s a group of J-Term students or just a single guest, he wants to be sure you eat well and are well entertained, and boy, did I overeat! On top of that, it was a great chance to catch up on the news, talk a bit about a possible short-term residency (maybe January 2011?) at University of Madras, and share the news from back home at Elmhurst College (where Kingsley was visiting professor about ten years back). After lunch it was back to the guest house for more packing until Mike and Anne showed up to go to the carol service. Talk about a long program! It’s customary for the college principal to give the sermon at the Anderson Hall (all-college) carol service, and that ran the usual length. What took the time was the music. There were three things listed in the program, but by the time were done, we had heard another three or four things—and they were all good! I would not have minded so much if I were not so eager to hear the choir at the end! The program listed the students in the Sunday School and the Campus School kids (who are always good—well trained by the music master there!). Then we had a faculty choir led by Principal Alex on guitar (the man does everything!), several numbers by students in the Student Christian Movement (a duet, a solo, and the very fine male a cappella sextet we heard in Martin Hall), and another repeat—the truly beautiful candle dance by the Martinians. Finally the choir! I was sitting only a few rows back on the center aisle, and Vimal stood in the aisle just in front of me. It was all I could do to resist the temptation to sneak up behind and give him rabbit ears or horns or something. I decided the solemnity of the occasion demanded a bit more decorum … and if the choir totally lost it laughing before they sang, well, that could be good or bad. Anyway, in spite of Vimal’s warnings to have no expectations, the choir sounded really good! It was a nice mix of contemporary and traditional, they were well prepared, and the choral sound was lovely. A charming end to the service! And dinner was nice, too. Finally had a chance to sit with Dr. Cherian and his wife. Then it was off with Mike and Anne to see their place at the social work department guest house. They really have it nice there! Beautiful tiled floors, a spacious common room with plenty of lounge chairs and a fridge, and a roomy guest room with A/C—even a small kitchen! Worth considering for a future visit, though it is way off the beaten track with some water problems … and no internet! It was a good chance to sit with Mike and Anne in their place, talk some more about St. Olaf and MCC, and say our farewells. Ended up staying pretty late—we all wanted to savor the moments.

After a late night finishing the worst of the packing, it was my last morning at MCC. Jubi and Vimal joined me at breakfast time to say farewell—always hard to know just what to say at times like these, but I was very glad to see them. Then off to a farewell reception hosted by Principal Alex. It was almost intimidating sitting in the room with MCC’s “power elite”—the principal, bursar Soundaraj (the number two man on campus), several deans, and many department chairs. Thankfully, many are now friends, and Mike and Anne showed up, too! Now that I’m so well acquainted with Indian ceremony, I had some idea what to expect, and it was actually quite lovely! The principal thanked me for my service and talked about my visit and the MOU with Elmhurst that is at long last being finalized (now that I’m done and gone!). Dr. Gabriel talked about the specifics of my visiting professorship and all that had been accomplished. I was invited to speak (I should have expected this!) and managed to say the most important things (even with my lack of a good night’s sleep). And finally Alex invited anyone in the room to say something. Several people added their thanks and reflections, including kind words from Dr. William (dean of international studies), Dr. Joshua (philosophy), and others. It was a nice affirmation that my time at MCC had been well-spent. They sent me off with a lovely (large!) gift along with cards and letters for me and for the Elmhurst president … and I was ready with an Elmhurst College tie for Dr. Alex (something every well-dressed MCC principal should have!).

Then it was back to the guest house to relax, have lunch, take care of a few odds and ends (including gifts for the IGH staff), and wait for my afternoon departure. Suri came by during the noon hour to say good-bye—one of many small gestures that were greatly appreciated. Gabriel showed up with the car a bit early, and after a few farewells at the guest house, he took me and my bags to the airport. As we said our own farewells at the airport entrance, I was suddenly a bit choked up and had to tell him I was feeling sad to leave. He was surprised at that, and I had to clarify that I was more than happy to go home to Virginia and family and Christmas celebrations. But as I’ve reported here, four months of my life can’t be ignored, and it was not easy to take leave of those who were such good friends and took such good care of me—my Angel Gabriel and my good Saint Joseph. After exchanging heartfelt Christmas wishes (for each of our families, too!), we said farewell and I went inside.

It was to be a 7:25 pm flight, but we were on the road before 4:00. I didn’t want to be late with worries about the extra bag and all, and it’s nice to have some un-pressured leisure time at the airport. So I checked in, waited to pay for the extra bag at a second counter, went back for the boarding pass at the first counter, sauntered over to the men’s room and then through the security check, took a short walk around the waiting area, and sat down to figure out what to do for a few hours. I happened to look at the sign on my gate and saw that a flight to Delhi was boarding. That prompted me to look again at my boarding pass to check my flight number … and I noticed it was the same as the flight that was boarding! Another quick glance at the boarding pass and I saw I had misread the boarding time (16:25, not 6:25, d’oh!). At the check-in counter I had mentioned that American kept changing my Chennai departure time and that I didn’t care which flight he put me on as long as I got to Delhi and then to Chicago, but I didn’t realize he had put me on the earlier flight!! So I jumped up and presented my boarding pass at the gate. As I walked through the door to take the bus to the plane, wondering what would have happened if I had not double-checked my boarding pass … here’s an announcement over the intercom, “Will Mark Harbold please report to the gate for immediate boarding.” I would have been taken care of either way!!

Frankly, I was glad to take the earlier flight. The 7:25 flight would have put me in Delhi at 10:05, leaving less than three hours to figure out how to transport myself (and possibly my checked luggage) from the domestic to the international terminal, several kilometers apart. I was very relieved to have nearly 5 hours. Now the clerk at the desk in Chennai said he would check my bags through to Chicago, but that I would still have to pick them up at the carousel, transport them to international, and re-check them there (presenting my receipt for the additional baggage charge). Thinking that seemed really cumbersome, I asked the help desk at Delhi domestic terminal if that’s the way it worked. They said no, just go to international terminal—they’ll have your bags there and you only need to identify them. Well, as good as that sounded, I thought I’d better hang out at the baggage carousel for a short while just to make sure. Danged if I didn’t see one of my bags almost immediately! So I grabbed a cart, collected all three bags, and wheeled down to the transfer desk (at least the helpdesk gave good directions for that!). Ten minutes later my bags and I were on a free (yay!) shuttle bus to international. It’s a surprisingly long bus ride. You never leave the airport, but you have to go all the way around the runways. I got off, put my bags on an available cart, took the elevator up, and proceeded into the terminal to check in. There were the usual 20 questions going through line (did you receive anything from anyone, have the bags been in your possession, etc.)—but they mix that up with unexpected questions, to throw you off guard, I think (what electronics are you carrying, how long have you owned them!?). In my tired state, I don’t know that my answers sounded very confident, but they waved me through, re-checked all three bags without further charge (I had my receipt!), and handed me my boarding pass. Then it was on through immigration and the security checkpoint.

I still had nearly three hours to kill, but was glad for the extra time. Since there had been no time for last minute Christmas shopping in Madras, I bought a few things in the duty free shop for once: a couple of CDs, a T-shirt, and a small plastic tuk-tuk (that’s what they call them in Delhi, anyway, the three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are so darned convenient & inexpensive for short jogs). We can keep that around the house for the grandkids or Virginia’s students to play with. I also decided to be the first to wish Virginia a happy birthday—on her birthday! At the stroke of midnight, Delhi time (half past noon in Chicago, where it was still the day before her birthday!), I called both our home phone and her cell phone. She wasn’t available to answer, but I sang happy birthday on her voicemail. (Five days later, she still hasn’t deleted the message on her cell phone!) Then it was time to go home—the looong 15 and a half hour direct flight to Chicago. I sat next to an older Sikh gentleman who was heading back to Indianapolis after a visit to the Punjab. His children had all moved to the States some time back, and when he retired he and his wife had to choose between staying home alone or moving to the U.S. to stay with family. They chose family, and he’s lived in the U.S. for awhile now. He was bemoaning the lack of close family ties in U.S. culture and the alarmingly high rate of teenage pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Knowing the often devastating effects when young mothers are not yet adults themselves, I could not help but agree. I slept as much as possible, but could not manage more than two hours at a time. It would have been less if I wasn’t wearing a nice sweater and my warm wool Nehru jacket (from a previous trip to Delhi)—those planes can get chilly at high altitude! I passed my time eating, sleeping, stretching, and watching TV shows or the flight path on the monitor … and finally we were in Chicago, landing at 5:15 a.m. on Virginia’s birthday! Sitting near the very back of the plane, I was one of the last ones off, so it didn’t take long to march through immigration, claim my bags, hand in my customs declaration, and go out to the lobby. And waiting there for me with a nice warm winter coat was …….. Virginia!!! Hallelujah!!!! The long separation over at last. We went straight home, had a wonderful home-cooked breakfast, opened up my bags to show her my treasures and her birthday presents … and then I went straight to sleep, in my very own bed.

It’s been strange to readjust to life back home. Not difficult at my age—it’s easy to slip right back into old habits—but this time I notice ALL of the little differences. I’m probably driving Virginia crazy with my incessant comparisons and observations! Can’t be helped! I thought I’d try to adjust sleep patterns as little as possible to ease the re-transition to India, but the long flight totally threw me off my schedule, and it’s proven virtually impossible to go to sleep as the sun comes up. So I’ll just have to adjust all over again when I go over with my students. Oh, well! In the past few days I dropped in on my department chair for an update on the past four months, I met with Lynn to make last minute plans for the India J-Term, had a lovely reunion with my middle sister who drove down from Wisconsin to visit, and attended Lyric Opera’s production of Merry Widow (but no Murugan’s idlis afterward—darn!). I don’t have much Christmas shopping to do, did most of it in India, so I’m trying to relax, keep up on my sleep, and make sure I take care of everything necessary for J-Term travels. (Did I mention it's seems really cold here?)

Looking ahead, I’ve got Christmas celebrations with family (can’t wait!), 26 days in India with the students in my Indian Art & Music course, and then a sabbatical to come home to and a revised version of my monster instructor’s resource manual for Bedford/St. Martin’s Press to get cracking on. Still hard to believe I’ll be away from Elmhurst College for an entire year! At some point I’ll have to work up a slide show and short talk to give for students and faculty colleagues, maybe this spring. I’ve had the title picked out for quite awhile. It’ll be “I Was America, and So Can You!”—a paraphrase of the title from Stephen Colbert’s first book. For my Indian friends, I WAS the face of America. Many of them have had experience abroad and know that Americans are just as varied in their ideas and world-view as Indians are, but I remained the easiest person to consult since I was there, and there were precious few other Americans around. And the “So Can You” part will be a pitch for more Elmhurst faculty to take advantage of the faculty exchange program, now that it is in full swing! I was the guinea pig, as Joseph was fond of pointing out, but I think we’ve got a really good thing going, and it’s time to pass the torch to someone else.

So, to all of you who have followed the blog, whether family, friends, students, colleagues, or others, whether back home or in India: thanks for reading along, and I hope you enjoyed it. I hope the occasional (frequent?) blow-by-blow descriptions were not too tedious, and I hope at least some of my insights were of interest. And since I had no way to monitor who was logging on, it was especially nice to hear from some of you that you WERE reading and enjoying. That made for a special kind of connection both with friends in India and with friends and family back home, and it helped ease the occasional loneliness. Concerning the loneliness, I decided part way through my stay that a certain amount of it was inevitable for anyone attempting to do what I have done. Joseph confirmed this in conversations, reflecting on his own visiting professorship at Elmhurst ten years back. But if you stay lonely, it’s your own fault! Wherever in the world you are, you’re still responsible for your own happiness, and with so many warm, friendly people around inviting you to drop in anytime (even though I’m never totally comfortable with that), you can always find points of connection. Doesn’t take care of homesickness, but it sure helps.

Well, that’s it for now. Thanks for sharing the journey. Please accept all of my wishes for your health and happiness, and have a wonderful holiday and a blessed new year … and please convey my best wishes and season’s greetings to your family as well! Cheers!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Final Thoughts (Is there such a thing?)

One of my greatest fears lately has been that I may have worn out my welcome here. In the U.S. we have a saying that guests, like fish, after three days, stink! Well, it hasn’t been three days, it’s been closer to four months, long enough to tax anyone’s sense of hospitality. I worry that I may have taken Gabriel (my “boss” and trouble-shooter for any problem I experience here) or Mathivanan (my rasika friend and guide to Carnatic classical music) away from family or work obligations once (or thrice!) too often. If the Indian tradition is to treat a guest as a god in your midst, well … I suspect there are times when even gods can become insufferable with their demands on one’s time and patience! Still, if the burdens I placed on them were unreasonable, they have never shown it. They have been unfailingly kind, patient, helpful, and generous. I find this incredibly humbling. This is the nature of the hospitality I have experienced at MCC since my very first visit, when I quickly realized that we Americans don’t do hospitality very well. Knowing that many of my American colleagues really don’t understand this about Indians, I have made a point of helping out in any way I can when Wally Lagerwey, Elmhurst’s director of international education, sends a note asking for help with guests from MCC. As I mentioned on this page way back in August, MCC visitors have noticed my efforts to be welcoming back home, and they continue to make reference to it when I’m introduced to one group or another here at MCC! And while I know I’ve received much more than I’ve given, it’s nice to think that I’ve learned enough about Indian-style hospitality that even the Indians notice. But again I am in their debt—this too I have learned from the wise gurus at MCC!

Yes, the December Season is finally here, and while it’s wonderful to experience it, it’s bittersweet because it means it’s nearly time to go home. This is perhaps the biggest surprise right now. In previous, shorter visits I have enjoyed each and every moment of the trip, but whether it was a two-week stay or a one-month stay, I was good and ready to go home on the final day or two. In 2005 and 2007 I was pretty well worn out by the hectic pace of the January course in which I was participating. In 2006 and 2008 it was mostly the July heat in Jaipur and Delhi (respectively) that did me in at the end. So I am surprised, well, more than surprised, but not really shocked … I am amazed to find that I feel very differently this time about my impending departure. It’s not that I don’t want to go home; I have many reasons to go back. I am more than eager to see Virginia again. I’ve often remarked here that this has been a long and difficult separation. I am also anxious to see my family. Worries about my father with his M.S. and my sister with her amyloidosis have weighed heavily on me during this long stay, and I want to see for myself how they are managing. Our children have been moving on with life, and four months away from my three grandkids has meant missing a lot of growth and change in their lives. Things change soooo fast when they are so young. On top of all that, I’m going home for Christmas. Christmas with the Harbold family has always been an incredible love-feast, and I can’t wait to relish their presence (and presents) and do a ton of catching up with brother and sisters, significant others, nieces and nephews, and so on. As joyous as the occasion will be, it will also be bittersweet. There’s a good chance this will be my father’s last Christmas on earth. He’s been in hospice care since late last spring, and in some ways it’s a miracle he hasn’t gone yet. Yet … he’s been perking up a bit over the past few months (without me around to worry about?).

My heart tells me it’s time to go, but my heart also tells me that I am going to miss India more than ever. Unlike previous visits, this time I came to live here for nearly four months, to be part of the MCC family, to involve myself in the musical community here in the Madras area, and to explore more and more of this extraordinary place called South India. Compared with back home, life here has been simpler and more spartan, and there have been some hardships. The heat was often oppressive for the first couple of months, and the rains and the mold created many difficulties once the monsoons came, but it seems a shame to be leaving just when it’s drying out again and the weather has become quite delightful! And without the climate obstacle, I’m (finally!) just now achieving a degree of independence here in Chennai! I feel no hesitation about getting out and about, and there is a great sense of freedom and relief to just go for a long walk or hop the train to go see something, anything! It’s almost a shame to be going home just when everything is getting good around here … but that’s not what’s causing the emotions I’m feeling right now. I survived the heat, I survived the monsoon, I managed to avoid malaria, swine flu, and other nastiness, and except for some discomfort the first couple of weeks (I won’t name it here for the sake of my daughters and their acute sensibilities, but you know why if you’ve been following my blog!), I survived the food and water, so I suppose there’s an element of satisfaction and perhaps even triumph knowing that I made it to the end without major incident. But even that doesn’t explain what I’m feeling.

While I can’t put a finger on it yet (osmosis happens very slowly), I think I have learned something important about what it means to live in India. As I pointed out while making cross-cultural comparisons in my lecture for Public Administration students, four months in India does not make me any kind of an expert, but I have learned and experienced a great deal. I have spent time in Indian cities and villages (and LOTS of time in the greenery and serenity of the MCC campus), and I have seen how people live, what’s important to them, and what they think about the world they live in. I have glimpsed how the caste system affects what people do (and won’t do!), even right here on the MCC campus, both in terms of occupation and appropriate daily tasks. I have seen the religious devotion of many Indians, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or other. It could be the stripes on the forward that denote Shaivite or Vaishnavite Hindus, it could be pilgrims in the temple in a state approaching ecstasy as they approach the idol for a darshan, it could be a pair of Muslims kneeling and praying on the overnight train’s bench seats because they’re not near a mosque or their own prayer mat, or it could be a group of Christian students gathering on a Friday night for Bible study and to sing contemporary praise songs around the electronic keyboard.

The richness and diversity of Indian life is amazing, and it is quite frankly impossible to generalize about the Indian people or Indian society. Most Americans know this to be true of the U.S., but the contrasts in India are much sharper than back in the States. South India alone has four states, four main languages, and thousands of dialects and other languages. Each region has its own history and a unique personality and identity forged long before there was such a thing as the Indian nation. Opinions about politics, religion, and everything else run the gamut from very conservative to very liberal. If I were to make one generalization about Christians here, it would be this—there are very few half-hearted Christians here in India. Christianity is very clearly a minority religion here (as many as 10% Christian in Kerala, but only 2 to 4% in India as a whole). It would be the easiest thing in the world to go with the flow and be a good practicing Hindu, but if you’re going to be a Christian, you need to have a very clear sense WHY you are Christian and not a Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, and so on. There may be cultural Hindus here, but unlike the U.S., there are very few “cultural Christians” in India. Still, even looking only at Christians, there are many different denominations and worship styles and many different ways of reading and interpreting the Bible.

Some things you don’t learn until you come to India and stay awhile. After her first visit to India, my friend and colleague Lynn Hill talked about learning things she didn’t know she didn’t know. As a for instance, I have had some notion of the monsoon for a long time, but I had to spend four months in India to find out that I didn’t really understand the seasonal cycle here. Every time I come to India, Indians joke about their three kinds of weather (hot, hotter, and hottest), and given the absence of snow in most parts of India, it would be easy to think they don’t have seasons here. It’s certainly true that they don’t have the same four seasons we have back home, but there’s a definite seasonal rhythm to life in India, and the monsoon is the linchpin for understanding it. I can report that the monsoon season is no longer an abstract concept for me. Even for Indians, the summer heat is oppressive and seemingly never-ending. The long-awaited, eagerly anticipated rains bring climatological, physical, emotional, psychic, and spiritual relief (and I experienced it on EVERY level). Indian history, Indian lore, and even Indian music and art reflect the importance of the monsoon. The Indian concept of raga is much richer than the Western notion of a musical scale. In music appreciation courses in the West we often talk about using the major scale for happy feelings and the minor scale for sadness. Indians also link their scales (ragas) to particular emotions (rasas), but where we have only two primary scales, South Indian classical theory lays out 72 ragas in the melakarta system (with more theoretically possible)! Each raga is linked to a particular emotion, but historically ragas have long been associated with particular times of day (morning, evening, late night, etc.) and even particular seasons of the year. According to Indian lore, the raga Megh has the power to bring rain. Among the seasonal ragas, some are appropriate for monsoon season! But even all of these learnings do not explain what I’m feeling.

What I am experiencing are the first twinges of a sense of loss, the beginnings of withdrawal symptoms, if you will. This has been my life for nearly four months. I have made many new friends and contacts, I have developed my own daily habits and routines, and I have found many pleasures, large and small, in my everyday life here. In short, I am going to miss all of this when I go back home. It may have been a lonely place at times (though I’d nearly forgotten that since the Furman students arrived!), but I will miss sitting on the porch at the guest house. That was restricted to early morning and late afternoon during the first month or two, but by late November it was easy to sit for hours with the Furmanians! The guest house yard really is lovely, and it can be a very peaceful experience to watch the clouds pass by and listen to the birds and animals (and traffic noises and the mosque’s call to prayer and the church’s hourly chime and the air force base’s planes and choppers and …). I will miss walking around the campus. I will miss hanging out with faculty colleagues in the staff room at break time. I will miss the rhythms of spoken Tamil, even though I don’t understand much of it! I will miss the sprawl and bustle of Chennai city. I will miss the occasional visits to the ocean. When I go shopping, I will miss thinking how much I am “saving” due to the extremely favorable (for me) exchange rate. I will miss easy access to Carnatic classical concerts and musicians. I will miss the sense of the ancient that lurks around every corner. I will miss … India. This has been MY life for the past nearly four months, and I will miss this part of my life very much.

But most of all, I will miss my friends. It’s not possible to spend so much time in a place without growing close to some of the people. I have nothing but profound thanks and gratitude for all who have taken time to befriend me, knowing full well that I would be leaving in a few months. I will not attempt to name them all here, but Joseph, Gabriel, Joshua, Mathivanan, and the rest of the Philosophy Department have been and remain good friends, and it has been a joy to spend so much time getting to know Gabriel and Mathivanan. Brief but intense encounters with professional musicians like Dr. Kausalya (my new sister!), Dr. Havaldar (my new brother!), Dr. Premeela, or Srini have been deeply rewarding. The instant bond with new American friends has also enriched my experience here. Getting to know wonderful folks like Claude, Veena, their Furman University students, and now Mike and Anne from St. Olaf, has provided a great way to stay connected with home and at the same time to compare notes on the incredible experiences we are having in India. I have learned much from these encounters. And the guys in and around the choir—Vimal, Jubi, Anand, James, and Danny, with Suri as ring-leader—have been fantastic. I have treasured our evenings full of conversation, music, and lots of conversation about music! Yes, no question about it, most of all I will miss my friends …

So with all of these things in my heart, bubbling up, jostling each other, and seeking my attention, I will go home. And I will convey all of the good wishes my friends have asked me to express to my family. Some of them know Virginia, and some don’t, but knowing me is enough, it seems, and many have asked me to convey their heartfelt Christmas greetings, starting with Dr. Kausalya way back in September, and most recently Mathivanan just last night. I will carry these messages, along with a letter from MCC Principal Alex (to Elmhurst president Alan Ray) and a treasure trove of incredible experiences and adventures, new ideas and perspectives, and friendships new and old. I know I will never come to India for such a long stay ever again, not without Virginia, at least. And except for my upcoming January course, I have no idea when I will come back. But I know that when I return, I can pick up where I left off. I will never again have to start from scratch in south India. I can look forward to building on the friendships I now have, and to deeper, richer experiences as a result. This is an end, but this is also a beginning. It’s a big world out there, bigger than I knew, and I am curious (and eager!) to see what will happen next.

Last talks

I gave one final guest lecture last Friday at Satya Nilayam Academy, a Jesuit seminary associated with Madras's Loyola University, one of the most prestigious colleges in India. Dr. Gabriel, my "boss" while I'm here, has contacts there and was able to set something up. My talk was on Music and Expression: An Esthetic Perspective, and the students (all future Jesuit priests) had all kinds of good questions and comments in the Q&A that followed! The free lunch that often follows my off-campus give talks provides extra opportunities to get to know some interesting people. My host, Father Dr. George, was familiar with the Baptist missions in northeast India and in Bengal-Orissa that I’ve been hearing about since I was a young P.K. attending the Missions Nights my dad sponsored every Sunday night in February at the church in LaCrosse! Apparently a good number of students at the seminary are tribals (India's equivalent to our native Americans), since historically these groups were more responsive to the Christianity than the upper-caste Hindus (who had much more to lose)! Anyway, the students had lots of good questions and comments in the Q&A time that followed my talk.

And this past Wednesday was my final day of official duties at MCC. I started with a morning lecture on U.S. Presidential Elections in the Political Science department. I don’t think I said a word about music this time, and it was fun to talk about the election process and especially about the 2008 election, which was so exciting and historic in so many ways! I’m no political scientist, but I’ve been following presidential election campaigns and political conventions since I was 9 year olds, which finally paid some dividends! My final “gig” was to give the meditation for the carol service at Martin Hall, the main women’s residence here at MCC. I’d attended several hall festivals in September and October, and I saw how seriously they took those events, but I didn’t stop to think this might be an equally big deal … and it was! As I came down the drive to the hall entrance, I saw Christmas lights all over the place, and the yard was mobbed with people hanging out, talking up a storm, and enjoying snacks. I was recognized at the entrance (surprise, surprise), and ushered in past the activity to a room in the back, decorated with balloons and lined with chairs. My host said, “You’re right on time!”— which in India usually means I was the very first one to arrive. As others were ushered in, former principal Dr. Philip, chaplain Spurgeon, senior administrator Soundaraj, Anne from St. Olaf, and so on, I realized this was the VIP reception room. We were all served snacks and cakes and tea, and then it was time to move to the auditorium for the carol service itself. Just as I saw with the hall festivals a few months back, it takes a long time to square away the technical details, do the sound checks and light checks, make sure all of the participants are present and accounted for, etc. What an elaborate program they prepared! There were congregational carols, carols in various Indian languages, two very lovely dance numbers, and a Christmas play written and produced by the Martinians themselves. My meditation came nearer the beginning, and I decided to use a favorite Christmas song, “I Wonder as I Wander,” as the theme for the talk. I sang all four verses, but with breaks in between for three reflections on the words and the meanings implicit in the song. The Christmas play that followed my talk was an absolute stitch! The hall residents were dressed up as angels and sheep and and a shepherd and Mary and Jospeh and three kings and two camels (who could not begin to see where they were going under those sheets!), with some nicely penciled-in beards and moustaches for the male roles. The rambunctious group of angels and the noisy flock of sheep were very cleverly done, and the play pointed up some of the same incongruities I had just described in my talk. What fun! I think my meditation came off well enough. I got lots of positive feedback afterwards, including Anne’s comment that I had picked one of her very favorite songs! I also got some very lovely compliments from Jubi when some of “the guys” got together last night for an impromptu farewell celebration. Hard to believe everything is wrapping up so quickly now! Will I have enough time to do the things that need to be wrapped up before I go … and finish packing, too?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December Season!

At long last, 'tis the Season! When I originally set the schedule for my time in India, I thought I would try to come for most of MCC’s first semester, arriving in July and heading back home in November. Several things encouraged me to move things later. First, Nirmal Selvamony pointed out that his course on music and literature was taught only in the second semester. Then I stopped to think how bloody hot July and August can be in Chennai. And I really didn’t want to give up the mid-August week Virginia and I often spend on the north shore of Lake Superior—one of the most beautiful places I know. But the thing that clinched it was the possibility of staying just long enough to catch a good number of December Season concerts in Chennai. And now that Dr. Nirmal has accepted a position with the newly formed Central University in Tiruvarur (did I get that right?), it means even more time free to “do the Season”! This is one of the biggest music festivals in the world, with something like 50 concerts going on every day during the last weeks of December. In this second week of December there have “only” been 20-some concerts a days, but still plenty to choose from, and more than I could possibly catch if I wanted to. For rasikas (fans and connoisseurs of Carnatic classical music), this festival is heaven on earth, and I didn’t want to come so far for so long and miss out completely!

So, the Season is finally here! From Sunday to Tuesday, Mathivanan and I took in four-and-a-half concerts in three days, and we’ll attend one more on Saturday night. If I didn’t have packing to worry about, I might just move into the city for a few days and do nothing but concerts. Still, I’m getting in just enough to say I’ve had the experience, and I’m seeing a nice variety of things, too. Mike, Anne, Mathivanan, and I went in Sunday night to hear Sudha Ragunathan on the concert series at Meenakshi College for Women. We arrived over an hour early and I was thinking we might have time to go out for tea before the performance. But when we saw the huge crowd already gathered (turns out it was a free concert!), we were very lucky to find four seats together in the second row. By the time the show started, the area between the seats and the stage was packed with fans seated right on the floor, and it was standing room only in the back with crowds clustered around every entrance hoping to hear something. Mathivanan pointed to the floor-sitters and called them the real rasikas, and noting Sudha’s interactions with the audience (and their response!), Mike and Anne commented that she was like a rock star! Mike and Anne had wanted to see at least one December Season concert, and I figured we couldn’t do better than Sudha, so I invited them to this one, and Mathivanan had absolutely no objection to my bringing friends along (“That’s beautiful, Mark!”). Sudha more than lived up to expectations. She is a beautiful person with a beautiful voice who sings with all the depth of expression she learned from her guru, M.L. Vasanthakumari (MLV for short), one of the most famous Carnatic singers of the past 50 years. As the concert began I could not help but remember my reaction at my very first Carnatic concert in Chennai in 2005 (Gayathri Girish)—this is where this music lives! Sudha confirmed over and over again what I love so deeply about this music, and at one point I found a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Such expressive music! Afterwards, Mathivanan took us for the obligatory tiffin at Murugan’s Idli Shop (they loved the masala dosa—yum!) and then to the train, and Mike, Anne, and I spent the whole train ride home buzzing about the concert. They even brought it up a couple of times over the next few days, so Sudha was definitely a good choice for a first experience. I myself am still basking in the afterglow of such wonderful music-making!

The next evening we went to hear Dr. Premeela from the University of Madras. This was the first Carnatic concert I have ever attended where they handed out a program—a really nice touch! As someone learning my way into the style, it would be REALLY helpful to have one at every concert. I said to Mathivanan, “She must be an educator!” As we laughed heartily, the woman in the row in front of us turned around and scowled. She didn’t know we were both educators ourselves, and I expect she thought I was being snide. Anyway, it was a lovely concert with especially sensitive exploration of the raga in the ragam-tanam-pallavi, and the musicians who accompanied her were outstanding (these were some of the fellows who regularly work with Premeela’s doctoral student, Sowmya, already a distinguished artist in her own right). Tuesday morning it was back to Meenakshi College to hear Geetha Bennett on veena. Sadly, you don’t hear many veena players these days, even at December Season-time, but she is a virtuoso and gave an outstanding concert. Her father was an revered musician and teacher, and even though she married an American and lives in L.A., she has clearly kept up her skills and does her father proud. With the plucked string sound’s quick decay time, the performer has to work harder to convey the same expressiveness that comes easily for a singer. This made her performance all the more remarkable. As Mathivanan pointed out after T.M. Krishna’s concert that evening (they had both performed one song in common on their programs), Geetha had offered the more expressive, soulful rendition … and Krishna is no slouch! After lunch we headed over to Narada Gana Sabha for Krishna’s concert only to find that main floor tickets were completely sold out! Fortunately, we could still get general admission tickets in the balcony. So we grabbed a couple of seats in the middle of Abhishek Raghuram’s concert, but we didn’t dare leave them (at the same time) for fear of losing them before Krishna’s program began. If the main floor was sold out so far ahead, we couldn’t take the chance. We heard half of Abhishek’s concert, which was nice enough. He possesses a very pleasant tenor voice and plenty of virtuoso skill, but he is a junior artist who still lacks the depth and variety of expression one hears from mature artists like Sudha or Sanjay or Aruna or Krishna. I’ve heard T.M. Krishna’s name for some time, but this was my first chance to hear him in concert. He’s a very gifted, very expressive singer, if a bit uneven on occasion. One of the first numbers on the program was incredibly virtuosic, the kind of thing you might save for near the end! With his very physical hand and arm gestures, I turned to Mathivanan after this song and said, “He’s a wild man!” The ragam-tanam-pallavi was extraordinary, and the tension he built in his final extended solo was staggering—it kept growing and growing until it was almost unbearable. A masterful performance! I could not help but compare Krishna with Sanjay Subrahmanian. Sanjay is also very effective at building tension in his performances, but there is always a sly playfulness about it. With Krishna, music-making and artistic expression is a very serious matter! Interesting to see how their personalities emerge in the music. Sadly, one of the shorter numbers nearly the end (the same one Geetha played in the morning), lacked expressive depth. Still, it was easy to see Krishna’s great artistry, and it was no fluke that he sang to a full house!

Just one more concert on Saturday night, this time by the distinguished artist, T.N. Seshagopalan. It was my first time hearing him. He’s giving something like 18 concerts during the season, at different sabhas throughout the city. That’s a lot, even for seasoned veterans like Seshagopalan. Rumor has it he was taxing his voice so much with lessons and performances in one recent Season that his voice gave out part way through the concert. No evidence of that last night, even though he had a bit of a cold, and as if to prove it was not a problem, he sang for over three hours (more than the 2 and a half hour limit strictly enforced at the Music Academy!). This is a younger sabha, however, and one of the upcoming concerts they are advertising will be a real marathon performance, so they may be encouraging older practices as a way of garnering an audience. For a prime-time concert by an established artist, the hall was no where near full, however—maybe people were staying home because of the cyclonic storm predicted to roar in from the ocean (and about an hour in, the rains did start coming down heavily!). That’s a shame, because this was a very fine concert. TNS has an incredibly wide range, and he uses a much greater variety of vocal timbres than some of the other artists I’ve heard, ranging from humming to ooh-ing to full throated song. The virtuosity I’ve heard in other artists was there in full force, but he always used it in the service of expression. If Sudha was a fitting way to begin my December Season forays, TNS was a good way to end.

Though we considered snacking at the Sabha’s own canteen, we decided against it when there was no masala dosa to be had. And since Mudhra is right on North Usman Rd. in T. Nagar, it was only a few blocks down the street to enjoy Murugan’s idlis for one last time before going home. I told Mathivan it would be very difficult to find such good idlis and dosas in Chicago, and he said that was good, that I should have something to look forward to when I come back. I told him I would miss a great many things! And then the short trip back up the street to Kodambakkam station and the suburban train back to Tambaram and MCC. (Note to self—Mudhra is a good place for future concerts when staying at MCC; easy access on foot to sabha and Murugan’s from train!) As we drove and then waited for the train, I thanked Mathivan profusely for being such a wonderful, guide, companion, and friend—and for taking time to show me so many concerts. He said he had always noticed foreigners attending December Season concerts and thought he would enjoy taking one of them around and showing them the ropes. I told him I was glad he found me and not someone else! One last bit of conversation on the platform, a quick hug and back-slap, and then a train ride through the rain. I’ll see him again in January and probably not before, but this is the way I’d like to remember him.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


While I was happy to be away from the east coast monsoon rains over in Karnataka, I came home from Mysore and Bangalore to discover that my room had become Mold Central! The odor poured out as I opened the door, and it didn’t take long to discover that leather was especially susceptible. One pair of sandals and a leather belt were covered in mildew, so I took them out to the guest house porch and started wiping it off. Benjamin sees what I’m up to and rushes over, “Sir! Sir! No!!” He takes the sandal out of my hands along with the 2nd sandal and belt and goes off to take care of it himself. A few hours later he brings them back, thoroughly cleaned off (better than I would have done) and baked in the sun for good measure! I’m not sure if this is a service/hospitality thing or a caste thing. I know the drums made of animal hides in many villages can only be handled, tuned, and played by dalits, the “outcasts” (literally, out of the caste system). Benjamin always seems to be the one to do the “dirty work” around the guest house. Back home my immediate reaction would be to say, “Thanks, but no thanks, I can do this for myself.” But if you maintain that attitude in India, you’re putting someone out of work, and work is really important here. If you’ve got it, you work hard to keep it! In the meantime, I’ve set the A/C in “Dry” mode to keep the humidity down as much as possible, and I’ll throw open the door to let the air through when the weather is warm and sunny! As much as the rain is needed here, I’ll be glad to see it end so things can dry out again.

Due to the rains, 2nd semester got delayed two more days, and my Physics lecture (on the physics of sound—acoustics!) got postponed from Wednesday to Thursday, same day as my Public Administration lecture for MCC’s dean of international studies! Not so easy to do two on the same day. I had finished the Physics lecture a couple of days ahead of time, so there were no worries there, but the Public Admin lecture was the source of some anxiety, especially since I didn’t get the topic request till the day before—first time that’s happened! He asked for a session on “Cross-Cultural Analysis.” In the world of music scholarship, analysis is a detailed, formal scholarly exercise, and since I’m not a social scientist and haven’t been in India so very long (in the grand scheme of things), I had to stew a bit to figure out what to do. Turns out he really just wanted my informal reactions to India and comparisons with the U.S., which, thankfully, is what I decided to do!

And finally it was Thanksgiving! Of course, they don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving here in India, so we decided to have our own celebration. At first there was talk of everybody pitching in and cooking, but while I was away in Karnataka, they decided to ask the cooking staff to prepare a special meal for us … probably a wise move! Since Thursday was a working day for me and for Mike and Anne, and since a group of St. Olaf students doing a semester in India could join us at the guest house on Friday night, we celebrated Thanksgiving at dinner time on Friday. What a crowd! There were something like eight St. Olaf students who came in from Pondichery, Auroville, and the Nilgiris (in the Western Ghats). Add to that Mike and Anne, the 16 students and two faculty from Furman University, their faculty coordinators Suri and Jubi, and myself, and we had quite a crowd! It was a lot of fun. The Oles and the Furman students talked and mingled like long lost cousins while Suri kept the tunes spinning on the stereo system. Pravin had decorated the dining room with towels wrapped up to look like a swan and a couple of elephants! And the meal was wonderful. There weren’t enough mashed potatoes, and the roast chicken wasn’t really roast chicken (they don’t have ovens here, as a rule!), the sweet potatoes were sweetened white potatoes, and they didn’t understand that cranberry sauce isn’t really a sauce, but none of that mattered! It was a wonderful time, and we all had plenty to eat. I must say, though, that I didn’t eat nearly as much as I would have back home. It didn’t seem right, somehow. Growing up, American parents always tell their kids to think of all the starving kids in Asia or Africa and eat everything on their plate. It never works that way, but I think that’s supposed to guilt the kids into feeling grateful they have something to eat (even if it’s a dish they don’t especially like). But when you’re actually here in Asia, it’s hard to avoid thinking about all the people who could eat for days on the food we consumed in one evening. The few times anyone in our group of 30-plus thought to complain about one dish or another, someone else would gently challenge them on it! And without parents to lay it on thick, we were indeed grateful for everything we had to eat, but perhaps most grateful of all to be celebrating Thanksgiving with American friends new and old.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mike and Anne took me into the city to see a textiles exposition featuring organic dyes. And finally … I took the train! I’ve wanted to take the train in for some time now, largely to feel a greater sense of freedom, but I’ve been enough of a chicken that I waited for someone to go with so I could see how it all works. We left early in the morning to go to St. Andrew’s Church (the Kirk). I went there in October, but since Mike and Anne wanted to go, it was worth it to go again so I could see Arul and Anna Siromoney. After church we stayed to chat with the Siromoneys and with Mike and Anne’s friend Moses, who helps coordinate India programs for St. Olaf College. Then it was off to the exposition. Some really lovely and unusual stuff was on display, and there were artisans on hand to sell their work, much of it done using traditional methods and organic materials—sustainability at work! I often walk right by such booths, but this was really lovely stuff, and we all bought things to take home. Then we walked to lunch (north Indian-style tali meals) at a place Mike and Anne knew from previous stays in the neighborhood off Pantheon Rd. From there we walked to Spencer Plaza. Anne got a really beautiful salwar chameez at a clothing place on the ground floor, and one level up at the Landmark we all found books and supplies. About a kilometer up Mount Rd., we made one more stop at Higginbotham’s. Not only did they have some good scholarly books on Indian music, I finally found something I’d been seeking for weeks! I wanted to find some nice Indian children’s books to take home as Christmas presents for my grandkids, but all I could find were generic books—ABCs, Rapunzel, books about fuzzy worms, etc. I searched shelf after shelf, and found nothing that was distinctively Indian in its stories and illustrations … until I got to Higginbotham’s! There I found three beautiful books created by Indian authors and illustrators using handmade paper, no less! Skiaya, Kele-De, and Tannas may be too small to fully appreciate them now, but there is much to appreciate at any age. While they look nothing like Maurice Sendak’s work, they are equally imaginative! I can’t wait to get home and share these with the family!! And after a rickshaw ride that was more of an adventure than we bargained for (it kept stalling out after he took several potholes too fast and jarred a wire loose!), we took the train home. Once I got back I wondered why it had taken so long to use the train, but then it all came back to me. Only a few weeks earlier, it had still been beastly hot! The commuter trains are definitely NOT air-conditioned, and the city was even hotter than the MCC campus. And once the torrential monsoon rains came, a car seemed by far the better option. But now that the weather has cooled down and the rains have slowed, now is a great time to take the train! In fact, I’m all ready to take the train in for some December Season concerts! Bring them on!!!

Mar Thoma Church

I wanted to include this when it happened, but it was at the beginning of that very busy week before leaving for Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Mysore, and Bangalore. Better late than never. Went on a Sunday morning with the Furman group to a church right near the edge of the MCC campus. It was the Mar Thoma Church, associated with a denomination known as the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Both this group and the Syrian Orthodox Church were formed in Kerala, and they both trace their origins right back to the churches founded by St. Thomas (“Doubting” Thomas) when he came to India’s west coast (a chapter my sister Janice might be interested in!!). In the last years of his life Thomas ended up here in the region later known as Madras, and the place where he lived, died (martyred), and was buried (three in all) are still pilgrimage destinations for Christians here. Whether Thomas was really here or not is still a matter of speculation for some, but there is no question that Christianity arrived here not long after Christ’s life on earth. This is, of course, a matter of great pride for Indian Christians, and it is crucial for them to be able to say that Christianity was definitely NOT a British import, though the British certainly put their own stamp on Protestant Christianity here in India. C.S.I. (Church of South India) worship services follow the Anglican rite very closely (some more rigidly than others!).

Mar Thoma Church (and I assume also the Syrian Orthodox Church) is a different matter, however. Their worship style is much closer to Eastern Orthodox practice and has few of the elements one expects from either Catholic or Protestant services (western European Christianity). In fact, it was different enough that Portuguese (and other) missionaries did their darndest to “convert” these Syriac Christians to the one true faith! (Jan, is this John vs. Thomas all over again?) Nonetheless, this was one of the most beautiful worship services I have attended in many years. Fortunately, we were there on the one Sunday of the month when they worship in English, so I could follow along easily! It was a very liturgical service, but unlike C.S.I. services where the liturgy is spoken, here it was sung almost all the way through. Mostly it was chanted on just one or two pitches with an extra note or two for cadence formulas, though there were also full-blown hymns. (Curiously, the hymns were mostly Western style Protestant hymns!) The liturgy itself placed great emphasis on asking God’s mercy and forgiveness, on a sense of our frailty and weakness in the presence of the divinity. In most Catholic and Protestant services, we get the penitence, confession, and words of forgiveness out of the way early on, but here it was a theme throughout. Added to that was an element of real drama. The altar itself was behind a screen, and the opening liturgy took place in front of the screen. About 20 minutes in, with music and incense (another Eastern Orthodox feature) going, the curtain opened to reveal the priest and the altar, and it was like the sun coming out—magical! And at the very end, the final prayer was for God’s mercy on the priest himself. The last thing you saw as the curtain closed was the priest on his knees leaning all of his weight against the altar as if he needed it to support his very life. Many, many years ago I attended a service at the Milwaukee Greek Orthodox Church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and while there were a few common elements, this one made a much deeper impression. Perhaps it was due to my deeper knowledge of worship styles (hard to teach music history for 20-plus years and not learn a lot), perhaps this really was a very different service, or perhaps it was the intimacy and the sense of shared experience in this rather small church. Whichever it was, I’m glad I went.