Ilayaraja’s day the music died rant

July 20, 2017

Trust Ilayaraja to embark on a bitter rant during his birthday celebrations!  He said the era of music making per se is dead and composers, musicians and singers are only keeping up a make believe pretense (drawing a colourful parallel to make believe fight scenes in the films!), but there are, he asserted, no tunes, no nothing.  He said music had gone to Tirupati and returned with a clean shave (the true meaning of that analogy does not translate at all in English, unfortunately). The rant is in the first couple of minutes of this video:

Uncharitable ones may decry him as a bitter old man but more perceptive observers would sense a profound disillusionment as Ilayaraja senses he is in the twilight of his career and life as such.  Of course, you never know, he may live to be a 100 but as he lives on, he sees everything he believed in falling apart.  My father said perhaps he is going through what Einstein did in later life, wondering whether he had achieved anything of significance in his endeavours.

But let’s go back to what he said.  He referred to music being near-sacred (in not those very words, but it’s a view he’s espoused before) and having once occupied an exalted place.  True enough, the last three decades (since the 1990s) have seen music lose some of its earlier cultural relevance.  Some would say in comparison to how things were at the start of the 90s, it has lost much of its relevance.  Mostly, a song gets talked about when it jumps the shark, like Kolaveri or Gangnam Style.  Hey, I have nothing against funny, nonsense songs and they abounded in the glory days of music as well.  The point is, it’s almost only these songs that now grab our attention.  Music does not command our attention for being beautiful, soulful, touching, exhilarating, a few among its many positive attributes.

Ilayaraja’s observation has a more immediate relevance in the Tamil context and his detractors in particular would no doubt infer that that is in fact what he was harping on.  Yes, the Raja era.  During the Raja era, music occupied pride of place and a hit Raja soundtrack was the best insurance against box office uncertainty.  And…when I look at how things are today, I have to ask whether we are truly better off than we would have been with three more decades of Raja domination.

And, no, I am not a Rahman hater.  And while I would no longer identify myself as a Rahman fan (which I will get to later), I love many of his songs and his music was the soundtrack of my growing up years…along with Raja.

No, Rahman per se is not the problem though he helped unseat the king from his throne.  But along with, music directors like Deva, Sirpi, S A Rajkumar also reaped rich rewards as many film makers abandoned Ilayaraja in the wake of him losing his pre-eminent position.   You have to make a heck of an argument to convince me that the work of those fine gentlemen, along with Messrs. Harris Jeyaraj and Anirudh, is preferable to more of Ilayaraja.

We need not go into the unsavoury details.  It is known that Ilayaraja had many in the industry who held grudges against him and they were on the prowl for an opportunity to unseat him; we don’t need to get into who they were.  History has it that they succeeded. And from the days of commanding a higher salary than stars, Ilayaraja was relegated to second or third fiddle even as the popularity of Rajnikanth in particular (but also Kamal Hassan, Vijay, Ajith) exploded (needless to say, Kamal is different from these other stars and has also worked with IR during this period, though not in the last few years).  From a composer hegemony, Tamil film industry moved to a star hegemony.  And about now is a good time to ask whether that has at all served any purpose.

On the one hand, the soaring popularity of stars ensured their remuneration took precedence by an unprecedented magnitude over that of everyone else.  Ergo, the star now held the key to the film’s success or failure.  The quality of the script or the direction or, much less, the music all paled into insignificance compared to the question of whether the cast included a star and whether the star still commanded the loyalty of a large enough fanbase to justify his remuneration (yes, emphatically his, sadly no gender hyphenation required here).

This extreme dependence on stars has since spawned many a mediocre ‘mass’ film which still did well enough to justify bankrolling a zillion more like it. And here we come to the crucial difference between the Raja hegemony and the filmstar hegemony.  As far as his musical output was concerned, Raja did not shortchange anyone, be it the director or the producer or, most importantly, the audience.  He gave his best time and time again.  The worst that his worst detractors can still come up with is only that he was and is a difficult person to deal with (and I presume the stars are utter Lillywhites in comparison but moving on…).  But they cannot mount much of a case against his music.

The pre-eminent position enjoyed by him may have provoked many in the industry to resent him, but he did justice to this position.  Can the same be said of the stars?  Why are the stars only concerned with boosting their personal wealth in the name of entertaining the masses?  Why do they not aspire to help create a better PRODUCT?  This is what drove Ilayaraja day in and day out, to do better today than yesterday, and his ceaseless efforts gave a couple of thousand goodies for the audience to feast in, many of which continue to be remembered long after they were first released.

No, it’s pretty clear.  Where one man had a genuine passion and commitment to his art form, the others have only been concerned with their personal glorification and short term considerations.  And in their ceaseless urge to dominate and impose their power on the rest of filmdom, stars and their henchmen, the filmmakers, have not spared music directors either.

This came to the fore with Ok Jaanu, the Hindi remake of O Kadhal Kanmani, which featured a remix of Humma Humma, called, bizarrely, ‘The Humma Song’.  Ah, you see, it’s The Humma Song; everything has to be marketed as an event now and likewise The Humma Song is more an event than a musical creation.  The grotesque remix was widely panned with many expressing disbelief at how Rahman could have done this to his own creation.  And it was then that Rahman clarified that he had no part in this (the remix was done by Badshah) and he would not have done it this way.

Think for a minute would somebody have got away with remixing an Ilayaraja song badly and without the sanction of the maestro himself?  No way, macha, that would have been the end of that filmmaker’s association with Ilayaraja.  The very kind of behaviour for which they heaped calumny on him.  But, you see, he knew what depths the film industry can stoop to in its pursuit of box office success and defended his work with pride.  Today, the situation has changed so much that the much decorated, Oscar winning Rahman cannot stop the makers from doing something to his song against his own wishes.

And that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and why I stopped regarding myself as a Rahman fan.  I don’t sympathise much with him for what Badshah did to his song.  He offered filmmakers a ‘pragmatic’, ‘flexible’ alternative to Ilayaraja’s ‘tyranny’ with an eye on the big prize.  And look where it got him.  Well, yes, the fame, the riches, the many musical projects he has been part of remain.  But of what use are they if they do not give him the power to protect his own work?

And so you see why Ilayaraja said there is only a pretense of making music left now.  It has been reduced to a mere vehicle to be manipulated by the film maker to grab eyeballs for his latest project and has no shelf life beyond that.  For everything else, well, there’s always Ilayaraja.  And I leave you on that note with a timeless melody of his, rendered by SPB and Asha Bhonsle, starring…oh, it doesn’t even matter who!

Man v/s machine in music

July 17, 2017

This write up builds on some discussions (or rather arguments, I should say) I was involved in with other Ilayaraja fans.  It deals with his gradual move away from live instruments to electronic sounds (especially in percussion but also eventually replacing or at least supplementing say string sections with synth-strings).

But before I get to Ilayaraja, I want to talk about a duo of song writers from New York who exerted a lot of influence on the rock scene of the 70s in spite of not performing tours after their second album.  The duo went by the names Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and their ‘band’ was called Steely Dan.  They were indefatigable perfectionists and wanted exactly what they had in mind from the musicians (some of the best sessions musicians that the greenback could buy).  Does that remind you of somebody?  Eventually tiring of having to make musicians perform the same part again and again till they got it right, they ventured into devising a percussion loop with computers (with a lot of difficulty, as technology was primitive in the 70s).  But the results of their labours was a rather stiff, sterile sounding album (though the song writing was still brilliant) –  Gaucho.  It was their last album before they went on a two decade hiatus, ostensibly sick of music making.  In their quest for perfection, they had sucked the life out of their music, a realisation which they half-jokingly allude to in the notes to the remaster of Gaucho.

Why this prelude about Gaucho?  Because the quest to get a perfect sound haunted many, if not most, pop wizards of the analog era.  In today’s retro-chic culture, we regard the imperfect hisses and scratches of analog recordings admiringly and remark favourably about their soul.  But back in the day, the composers themselves seemingly didn’t give a flying shit about all that and in fact coveted a smooth, ‘perfect’ sound.  Ilayaraja was no exception.

In his early days, Ilayaraja’s music, while already bearing his unmistakable and instantly recognisable stamp, often had a very loose and dreamy quality.  He was still exploring possibilities and this seemed to reflect in his work.  Take Engengo Sellum from Pattakathi Bhairavan:

The mathematical logic connecting every note of an Ilayaraja composition to the next is very much present here but not in an obvious way.  The song, especially the melody, seems to meander without rambling and losing you and there are gentle, delicate twists in the interlude.  Though the tempo is straightforward, it doesn’t feel so.  It’s as if he is pausing to take in the scenery.  It is perhaps gentle to a fault in that if you don’t crank it up and pay attention, the song might be over before you listen.  But that is also why it is so rewarding for the intrepid listener, transporting you into another world for its nearly 5 minute running length.

By 1984, some things have evidently changed…

Not much pausing in here.  The Raja juggernaut is on a roll now.  The almost frightening inventiveness is now channeled into a well oiled template.  You no longer have to guess that it’s a Raja song.  There are indicators galore, from the beat to the chorus, to the syncopated pattern in the second interlude.   Aesthetically, it is like much of his work from that period (mid-80s) and to that limited extent is interchangable (though the unique nuances of the orchestration aren’t).  This song lacks the enigma, the mystery of Engengo Sellum but on the other hand, it is far more infectious and grabs you by the collar.  It has more meat, in essence.  Makes sense, because by now he had already been the king for a few years.   He would mention in a later interview that he had a responsibility to deliver to filmmakers music that the audience would like.  At this stage, though, the template is still executed with acoustic instruments.

But by 1987, drum machines are well entrenched:

Again, no lack of inventiveness here, whether in the melody or the orchestration.  But as said above, this track uses drum machines and therefore feels even tighter than Pon Maane, with the corresponding merits and demerits.   By now, most of the pleasure is to be derived from the melodic and harmonic choices rather than an atmospheric, pristine beauty that timeless music can evoke.  As Engengo Sellum did (or most of the Nenjathai Killathe soundtrack for that matter).  Which, again, is not to say that it makes it inferior.  But it does make it different.

The last exhibit is from the 90s:

 

By now, synths are all over the place.  They do help Arun Mozhi’s delectable flute stand out even more than usual.  But aesthetically, there’s little that is particularly attractive about the song even though rhythmically it’s one of his most interesting, particularly the first interlude.  If you did not dig deep and pay attention to THAT part in the first interlude, you could confuse him with somebody else.

Don’t believe me?  So here’s the last exhibit (I cheated!):

Music director Adithyan, who had decent success in the 90s, does a pretty good job of imitating Ilayaraja.  And he wasn’t the only one.  Deva did so too.  Sirpi…well, he tried though he usually gave away the game.  But between them, they took away much of the rural film market from Ilayaraja.  Not by making better music than him but by simply making music that fit the purpose.

But would it have fit the purpose if it had required them to also paint soundscapes of untold beauty rather than just putting together a suitably baroque-like arrangement on the synth? Perhaps not.  And thus the irony of this quest to use machines to achieve perfection.  The closer Ilayaraja moved to his goal, the more he let go of qualities that made his work unique.  Not that he ever completely let go of everything that made and makes him unique, but let’s say that for the narrow requirements of film music, these differences became somewhat incidental.

Was he at some level aware of this risk?  I would imagine so, because he has been a vocal critic of the excessive use of technology in music.  But as the frontrunner in Tamil film music in the 80s, he had to stay one step ahead of the rest.  And what must have bothered him in this race but those little imperfectly played parts that we the lay listeners ignore and which however would stick out like sore thumbs to a composer.  Thus, he embraced the machine and for somebody who has done over a 1000 films, it hasn’t panned out too badly, has it?

To conclude, I only want to add that the alleged lack of perfection in Ilayaraja’s recordings is often contrasted with Rahman’s squeaky clean productions and cited as a primary factor contributing to his decline.  I submit that it is the opposite.  It was the quest to perfect and streamline his music into a well oiled machine that perhaps made the soul in his music a touch more elusive than it once was and thus a little easier for the audience to bid him goodbye.

Konta-Vekic, thank you for the tennis!

July 6, 2017

IRL (In Real Life), finding tennis fans in India is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Finding those who watch the early rounds of the slams is even harder (ATP 1000? 500?  Forget it!).  The thinking is these matches simply aren’t worth your time; mostly the top seeds sail through in embarrassingly one sided contests.  What’s there to see?

The key lies in the word ‘mostly’ as devoted tennis aficionados will confirm.  There are always exceptions to the rule and us crazed tennis fans bear with the beatdowns because we hope, nay, we know we will be rewarded with a thriller.

Our ilk reaped a rich reward yesterday, thanks to Johanna Konta and Donna Vekic who played one of the most remarkable matches that at least I have seen in women’s tennis.  And I am certain that I have never seen more clutch serving from both players in a women’s tennis (in singles, to be clear).  7-6 4-6 10-8.  And this was Day 3, Round 2 of Wimbledon.  Yep!

Yesterday, Konta and Vekic played a match worthy of a final.  On a cynical note, I dread the possibility that in fact the final may not live up to the quality both women produced.  The numbers speak for themselves.  The two women produced 23 aces between them, with both getting into double digits. Both made a healthy percentage of their first serves and both won 80% (give or take a few percentage points) of those first serves that landed in. Konta hit 55 winners against 21 unforced errors and Vekic hit 42 against 24.  Those are outstanding numbers.  Also, against most opponents, 42 against 24 would have sealed the deal.  So it’s stunning that Vekic in fact fell substantially short of Konta on that count.

As the high percentage of points won on first serve and number of aces indicate, the serving was out of the world.  Except…that it wasn’t really, in terms of pure pace. Konta averaged 105 mph on first serve and Vekic 106.  The average second serve speeds were quite close to that of the first delivery – 91 mph for both.  Anyhow, not mind blowing pace.  But wonderful placement, great angles, variety as well, particularly Konta who threw in the kicker on crucial second serves.  It saved break point at 8-8 in the third set, as Vekic took a big cut regardless, hoping (but failing) to convert the opportunity.  Kick second serves in the clutch, is this ATP?

The match did have an ATP like quality, considering there were only 6 breaks of serve in a three setter with a long third set.  The other thing that was ATP like about it was a purposefulness that is far too often missing in WTA matches (notably the French Open final).  Instead of seemingly random shot selection leading to a litany of errors, both players used their serve to set up a strong second shot and control the point from thereon.  And with many serves going unreturned, there was an unusual degree of pressure in any baseline rally because it gave the receiver a rare chance to grab a point off the opponent’s serve.

Beyond the numbers and the tactical fine points though was the aforesaid tension.  Not drama but tension.  Tension that those who have watched big servers go at each other at Wimbledon would be familiar with.  This match was settled by fine margins, not wild swings of momentum.  Vekic was in a position to serve out the first set and failed to hold.  Konta took it in a tiebreak.  The second set was the only one with a bit of see-sawing, breaks traded before Vekic held her nerve to close it out.

The third was literally an epic unfolding before your eyes.   You watched both players hold tough on serve, determined to out-stare the other into blinking first.  And then there was 0-30.  This was it, you thought.  And then there were two aces.  Poof!  Gone, no sooner than it had appeared, the chance to break.  And then this happened in the next game on the other player’s serve.  And she too served her way out of trouble.  At 6-6, you thought somebody would wilt.  Somebody looked like she might wilt.  Somebody fooled you right and proper; she was going to play on.

At 9-8, the pressure of serving behind Konta finally got to Vekic, who was probably also dwelling on the disappointment of the previous game where she missed the one break point opportunity.  But no, even at 30-40 match point, she served – you guessed it – an ace!  Konta roared right back to create another match point.  And this time, there would be no next time.  At long last, Vekic made an unforced error at an inopportune moment.  Somebody had to.  It was the only way to declare a winner in the contest.

If that evokes Federer-Roddick 2009 Wimbledon final for you, you are not alone.  It is the match I was most reminded of.  As I said at the outset, a match worthy of a final.  A match where two slender, graceful women played like gladiators, conceding nary an inch to each other, in the process smashing (hopefully) many stereotypes.  So…that’s the reason you should watch Round 2 of Wimbledon.  Because when you don’t expect a match like this and you get it, it’s something else.  Something like Konta-Vekic.

Ostapenko stuns clueless Halep

June 11, 2017

In the run up to the women’s final, I remarked on a tennis forum that Jelena Ostapenko seemed to be on the sort of dream run that we haven’t seen in our sport for a long time and could win.   By beating Simona Halep in three sets in the final, Ostapenko ensured I wouldn’t have the foot in my mouth for making this ‘prediction’.   But it didn’t pan out quite the way I had expected or hoped for.

Early in the match, Ostapenko approached the net and was faced with a pass coming into her backhand.  She used both hands to steer the ball into the open court rather than make a conventional volley.  It was effective (on that occasion) but awkward.  And surely any tennis player with their wits about them would have smelt an opportunity right there.  It’s how Federer used to beat giants like Juan Martin Del Potro.  When you are not confident at the net, even wing span cannot help and Fed would draw such players into the net with a short slice/chip and pass them.  He would make sure the pass would dip, forcing the player to volley up (which is much more difficult).  Angelique Kerber used dipping passes superbly against Serena Williams at last year’s Australian Open final; Serena couldn’t volley up if her life depended on it that day.   A player who uses both hands on the volley would likely struggle to volley up.  At any rate, a gambit worth trying.

And yet, Halep didn’t try it.  Didn’t try pretty much anything other than to “play her game”, the cliched expression used these days in women’s tennis. Fans of Halep have often argued that she compensates for her diminutive stature with her brain.  But there wasn’t much evidence of this on Saturday.  Halep kept feeding Ostapenko in the strike zone and Ostapenko swung with all her might.  She committed 54 unforced errors but also made 54 winners.  Meanwhile, Halep made a measly 8 winners which negated her low unforced error count of 10.

The way to negate somebody playing a low percentage ultra aggressive game is to upset their rhythm, move them forwards and backwards rather than just laterally and give them different speeds, spins and bounces.  Things that Andy Murray did against Stan Wawrinka in the semi final on Friday.  He still lost in 5 sets but that was because Wawrinka was wise to these tactics and by the fourth set had adapted well to them.

We do not know if Ostapenko could or could not have adapted.  Because Halep didn’t try.  She didn’t make her hit low volleys or smash high, deep lobs.  Ostapenko won 7 out of 9 net points but these were juicy swing volleys. With Halep’s weak serve coming for some serious punishment at the hands of the feisty Ostapenko, her best bet was to disrupt her baseline rhythm and force her to hit shots she would rather not.

But that wouldn’t fit into Halep’s gameplan, no?  Which appeared to be to wail louder and longer after every shot than Ostapenko and pound every groundie with all her might.  This was in spite of encouraging results when she did fitfully change the play.  There was one fairly long rally (in a mostly extreme ‘first strike’ match) in the first set where Halep resorted to moonballing and it worked.  But these appeared to be more get-out-of-trouble last resort options and not a switch to a slower pace of game where perhaps she may have had more control over the proceedings.  Instead, she left the match entirely on Ostapenko’s racquet.

And full credit to Ostapenko, she took it.  She persisted with her incredibly simple gameplan of hit and hit harder and did not flinch even when she was trailing by a set and three games. Had she, with an eye on the big prize, second-guessed herself, Halep may well have stolen it from her. But she concluded in pretty much the same emphatic, albeit one dimensional, fashion that she started the match.  She broke Halep in the first game of the match and did so in the final game as well to win the trophy.  And, in her own words, Halep was a mere spectator in the end.

Kerber and the pressure of no.1

May 29, 2017

I am writing on tennis after a long while and as I sit to write, the hot topic is the ‘shock’ exit of world no.1 Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, in fact on the opening day.  On a day marked by a one sided win for Grigor Dimitrov and yet another listless display by Bernard Tomic, it was Petra Kvitova who provided entertainment.  If Kerber’s match against Ekaterina Makarova provided something, it was mostly fodder for armchair psychologists.

Let’s start with why I put the word shock in single quotes. Because it was a defeat that many people, be they journalists or amateur bloggers, had smelt the moment Kerber was drawn against Makarova in the first round. Makarova’s current ranking of 44 (which left her unseeded in the French Open) belies her pedigree and with Kerber being woefully out of form, facing an aggressive Makarova with nothing to lose was not the way she would have hoped to launch her French Open campaign.

By now, defeat is hardly a stranger to Kerber, at least so far as 2017 is concerned.  She has a horrific win-loss tally of 19-13. World no.1s do not notch up so many losses in just the first half of the season.  Elina Svitolina, Daria Kasatkina, Elena Vesnina, Anett Kontaveit, many are the players who can boast of having beat Kerber this year.  That she may lose to Makarova was not a surprising outcome.

What was nevertheless disturbing (and which made for uncomfortable viewing) was her resigned air and diffidence throughout the match.  Her movement was sluggish (she blames it on clay, but look at her losses this year and you will find it has generally been a problem and a pretty big one for a counterpuncher like her), her shot making tentative and her body language negative in the extreme.  As Makarova punished a serve that barely touched 140 ks (screaming forehand winners are sometimes clocked at 160 ks), Kerber’s shot tolerance fell off a cliff and she pulled the trigger way too soon way too many times.  In just over an hour, she had been packed off, managing just 4 games in her straight sets defeat.   Her shoulders slumped pretty early in the match (if not from the get go) and stayed that way till the end, much like Eugenie Bouchard in her prolonged slump.

I have written earlier about Bouchard’s own rise and fall and yet to be concluded struggle for form (by the way, even Bouchard beat Kerber this year!).  At least, Bouchard was a young player thrust into the SW19 spotlight against an opponent who outplayed her in all departments.  It is understandable that a player ostensibly pump primed to believe she was the future of women’s tennis would be shaken to learn the reality (which was more unflattering).

But Kerber is no greenhorn.  She has been around since 2007 and made deep forays into grand slams from 2011.  She has on occasion beaten both Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep among other top players.  She is not new to this as such.

And yet, she has increasingly looked tormented on the court  and unable to get on with the business of playing tennis (in one article, she mentioned paying too much attention to where she was in the race to Singapore and such other noise).  Her mental strength has, as expected, been called into question with her ignominious run of defeats this year (she hasn’t won a title in 2017 yet).  But it was her mental strength which was praised when she overcame Serena last year at the Australian Open.  Besides, a counterpuncher cannot consistently remain in the top 10 or so of tennis, as she has, without mental strength because by definition, a counterpuncher doesn’t rely on huge weapons to win.

Instead, the problem is simply that she is no.1.  The pressure of being no.1 is not easy to handle for many players as her travails this year show (or Andy Murray’s for that matter).  In the immortal words of Shakespeare, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and right now, Kerber seems to be more ill at ease than Macbeth himself.

Some players may manage to get to no.1 but only a few of them in turn can hold on to it for a long time.  For one thing, the tour wakes up and starts chasing them and in doing so picks holes in their game.  For another, the weight of expectations, self imposed and external, may become a hindrance to free expression of the player’s talent.   Let me take this opportunity, then, to close with a tribute to the ultimate hustler in tennis and the man who spent more consecutive weeks at no.1 than any other barring Roger Federer – Jimmy Connors.  It’s not easy to stay at no.1 and he stayed there for 160 consecutive weeks (and a career total of 268).  Many great players have left their mark on the game since his time but on these two parameters, he remains firmly in the all time top five of men’s tennis.

Ever since Pete Sampras chased Roy Emerson’s tally of 11 slam titles, slams have become the key factor in determining a player’s greatness.  I do not contend that it is not, but there is a tendency increasingly to forget about how long the player could hold on to no.1.  Because there is no truer measure of domination than the no.1 ranking.  There is also no greater measure of just how much the player thrives (or doesn’t) under pressure.  As Kerber’s 2017 suggests, sometimes no.1 can even be a curse.  For Connors, it secured his place in the pantheon of all time greats and any time somebody scoffs at ‘only’ 8 slams, remind him or her that only a very few like Federer, Sampras and Lendl could vault over Connors in the true test of domination, indeed the ultimate pressure cooker in tennis.

 

Triumpian times a nightmare in the making for India

March 12, 2017

In the run up to Donald Trump getting elected as President, one ethnic community/nation that was conspicuously sanguine about the prospect was Indians/India.   The rationale was that India doesn’t depend so heavily on foreign trade as China and has not taken away so many manufacturing jobs from USA.  So Trump’s war will be with China, not India.  A group of US-based Indians even formed a Hindu coalition in his support.  Oh, wait, there was also the hope that Trump would be less pro-Pak than previous US presidents.

As has been the case before, the above showed both a neglect for data, for facts as also a lack of understanding of geo political realities.  When one power decides to take on another, it has to size up how many friends it will have by its side in the fight.  So what happens if USA takes on China?   The EU may turn against USA, for one.  China is EU’s second largest trading partner. behind USA.  USA accounts for 17.5% of EU’s total international trade and China for 14.8%, so the gap is narrow.  Where’s India?  Only 9th, behind Japan, South Korea,  Russia etc.   Heck, even USA’s good friend UK may not go along with an all out trade war on China.  USA Inc may not be comfortable if Trump declares (trade) war on China.   A war on China could plunge USA into majestic isolation and accelerate the transition to the hegemon in waiting, namely, China.

But India?  It’s a very different scenario.  India has a relatively low volume of trade with USA with a disproportionately high surplus.  This is at least partly on account of high import duties (within WTO rules) to push foreign corporations to set up shop in India to at least assemble stuff here.  India is also a major operator in outsourced services, evidenced by the fact that its share of worldwide exports of services is twice that of its share of merchandise exports.  With its growing population and relative proficiency in English (compared to China or other East Asian tigers), India presents a greater threat to service jobs in USA.

So here’s what Trump CAN do (and he dropped a hint with his reference to Harley Davidson): either launch an assault on India’s high import duties and make India curtail outsourcing in exchange for maintaining these barriers to merchandise trade.  OR strike outsourcing and push India to drop import duties in return for continuing to provide services at the expense of American employees.

MY guess (and I could be wrong) is he is more likely to do the latter.  After all, where will service sector jobs in say IT or accounting return to?  Places like NYC, San Francisco or Seattle which are in states that roundly rejected Trump and will likely do so again in 2020.  But if Trump can get countries (including India) to lower trade barriers and simultaneously compel American companies to make in USA, the Rust Belt, which swung in his favour last year, will be delighted. Basically, easy reaping of political capital for Trump with relatively low risk.  It will be a terrible waste of Modi’s zillion cries of Make in India but he would probably also prefer to keep high paying service sector jobs in exchange for putting India’s manufacturing sector under greater stress.  He might also reason that USA does not have products tailored for the high volume segments in India.  Whether this will be the case remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, it behooves the GoI to think seriously about what Trump could do to India (rather than for India as Indians allowed themselves/ourselves to believe) and act decisively to protect our position.  The Budget, made in the knowledge that USA could deliver the bazooka of a sharp cut in corporate tax, did not seem to acknowledge this reality and indicated a preference for business-as-usual.  But going beyond economics, India also urgently needs to mend fences with China, its 800 pound gorilla of a neighbour, and Russia, once its good friend and now aligning with Pakistan, a nation that helped topple the Soviet Union.  Failing that, a bear hug with Trump and roll out the red carpet for the Trump Organisation (you know what I mean).

But something needs to be done and something needs to change, that much is for sure.  It is understandable that the ruling party would presently be punch drunk with the stupendous results in the UP elections.  But if Ramraj is not to end up becoming a laughable and sad parody for social media memes, then India must formulate a pragmatic and realistic strategy to handle the gigantic disruptions that may be coming our way in the Trump era.

PS:  Why do I think Trump won’t risk majestic isolation in taking on China?  Because he is a populist and badly needs the love and affection of his core constituency.  India’s prospects, on the other hand, were better under Bush Jr and Obama, who tried to make India a counterweight. Yes, Trump loves Hindus, because we are as easily flattered and more easily deceived.

 

Mohd Rafi – a thank you note

December 24, 2016

Mohammed Rafi (generally abbreviated to Mohd) was born on Christmas Eve!  Pretty apt for a man about whom the worst that was said was that he did not back Lata Mangeshkar in demanding royalty from composers.  It is his birth anniversary today, but Times of India decided it is not worth remembering him.  So, I decided, I will.

Ironically, in my childhood (which wasn’t that long back…not yet!), Times played a significant role in introducing me to the living and long dead cultural icons of India, simply by making it a point to remember them on their birthday, whether it was Rafi saab or Kishoreda or Shammi Kapoor or Dev Anand (who were still alive at the time).  Not many among my schoolmates really cared about these tributes but I did. I was the ridiculous kid who stood up and proclaimed that old is gold (not sure that I’d still say THAT!).

Rafi mattered a heck of a lot to me.  He was the first singer who made an impression on me.  Enough of an impression to want to learn his name.  Perhaps, it was just me growing up because not too long after this ‘discovery’, I would spend afternoons wearing out an Asha-OP Nayyar tape and earning rebukes from mum.  But I do still remember the exact song which made me, then ten years old, a fan:  Jo Unki Tamanna Hai Barbaad Ho Ja/Toh Ae Dil Mohabbat Ki Kismat Bana De.

Not quite one of his oft-repeated classics, is it?  But that’s the thing about Rafi, which I didn’t know at the time.  Rafi is a gift that keeps giving.  There are so many songs stored away in that vault of timeless melody that you can never quite say that you’ve heard it all.  In the spirit of sharing, here’s another melody I had heard at the time:  Dono Ne Kiya Tha Pyar Magar.

Yes, a word or several more about the composers who came up with lovely melodies and tasteful arrangements for Rafi to sing over.  But he was verily the sone pe suhaga and added something extra to nice enough songs to make them unforgettable. And not once or twice, but hundreds, maybe thousands of times in his career.

As I grew, Rafi remained a constant in the playlist of my life.  Contrast that with Celine Dion whose show I had watched on TV in school with a lot of excitement and simply couldn’t care to return to anymore. That’s not a knock on Celine Dion, just saying that for me, Rafi was not a one time fad to grow out of; rather, the songs he sang came to occupy a special place in my heart.

My appreciation of his work only grew with time, as I got introduced to more of his songs and to more artists, including from the Western hemisphere lately.  When I realised that after hearing so many amazing singers from the world of rock and pop, I really hadn’t heard too many, if any, tones as silken as Rafi’s, it really put his achievements in perspective for me.

When I was 15 or so, we bought a 4 cassette compilation of Rafi songs, which is how I got introduced to the light-as-a-feather Jag Dil-e-Deewana or Aise to na dekho.  We bought it at the stylish Planet M store at the Times of India building near CST (Mumbai). We played it to our hearts’ content (my father is a huge fan of Rafi, needless to say, and introduced me to his songs in the first place) before giving them away to an aunt.

Or did we?  Can’t recall anymore.  We don’t listen to music on cassettes anymore.  And the swanky store I mentioned above is long gone too.  Much water has flown under the Vashi bridge since then. A lot has changed, including a burgeoning retro-culture in Mumbai.

Yes, Mumbai has not one but maybe three (don’t know if more have sprung up) radio stations featuring exclusively retro playlists.  And these are apparently the most successful stations; at least 92.7 is anyway. At a Rafi-Mukesh shradhanjali programme I attended a few months back where amateur/semi-professional singers presented their songs, somebody even took on Tu Ganga Ki Mauj and commanded the rapt attention of the audience where only a few years back, the mere selection of the song (forget about the quality of the singing) would have produced disinterested, restless fidgeting.

And now, yours truly, the old is gold guy,is the one trying to tell older generation people to just give a Rahat Fateh Ali Khan or a Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan a chance because they are damn good singers too.  Maybe I am just a compulsive contrarian, always ending up on a path that diverges from contemporary culture.

However it may be, one thing is for sure.  I am not going to stop listening to Rafi.  Have already knocked down a few of his gems for the day and surely will listen to a few more by the time it’s Christmas.  There are times when I am not sure if there is a God but Rafi reaffirms my faith in Him. Thank you, Rafi, for the music and thank you God for creating Rafi.

From best to worst for RBI?

December 21, 2016

When the Reserve Bank of India announced on Monday that there would be restrictions on deposits in excess of Rs.5000, I thought of composing an irate post on this blog, criticizing the rampant ad hoc-ism.  I did not get the time to and fortunately so, because the RBI has since done a U turn, saying the restrictions will not apply in the case of KYC compliant bank accounts.  Phew!

This latest flip flop has earned it the dubious title of Reverse Bank of India.  It’s a tragedy because the RBI has long been respected as one of the best institutions of the country. And under former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, its stature rose further with investors like Jim Rogers and Marc Faber hailing him as perhaps the best central banker in the world.  

Indeed, it is as if Raghuram Rajan had provided the anchor that this government sorely misses now.  His trenchant criticism which stung their thin skinned selves in fact provided a solid counterweight that forced the government to eschew short cuts and take hard decisions.  Forex reserves swelled, the rupee held relatively steady and the current account deficit shrunk.  It has been argued that the last aspect wasn’t necessarily a positive for a country at India’s stage of economic development.  But in an environment of declining global trade and anti-globalisation sentiment, it was worth settling for. 

The situation is so different only three months since his exit that it is almost surreal to behold.  From the beginning of the demonetization drive, the RBI has fielded strong criticism of its perceived rubber-stamping of the govt’s decision.  Current governor Urjit Patel stoutly defended the decision during the press conference held after the December policy review but he may have to field tougher questions from a Parliamentary Panel on the 22nd of this month. 

It may have been possible to sympathize with his – and indeed the RBI at large – plight in having to go with the government decision.  While criticism for not upholding the independence of the RBI is valid, Rajan was also a singular incumbent, capable of withstanding persistent pressure from multiple flanks…and paid the price via a most ugly and unbecoming smear campaign to rush him to the exit door.

But the latest U Turn is a different matter altogether.  Surely, if the RBI did see that there was no need to cross question those depositing old notes into KYC compliant notes, they could have taken this position while issuing Monday’s circular.  Is it not too elementary to have even required a rollback under public pressure?  

Even if one presumes that there is somebody pushing buttons on a remote control to make the RBI do his/her bidding,  there’s got to be pushback against elementary blunders if at least one soul in the RBI has a semblance of  a spine.  If such pushback is not viable, it would be advisable for the key personnel of the RBI to step down with honour (or at least whatever remains of it) so the public may come to know what is happening.  

But every day that there is no pushback or no thought, as applicable, is a day that results in yet another ad hoc decision that makes the RBI, North Block, GOI et al a laughing stock and an all too easy target for cartoonists. The mocking, unfortunately, will not be restricted to the Indian media.  Thanks in part to our rapid economic growth and in part to our vociferous breast-beating brand of jingoism, what goes on in India attracts international attention and you can be sure that newspapers and magazines that normally do not pay much attention to developments in India nevertheless won’t miss the opportunity to deride the administrative failure that we are currently witnessing.    

Perhaps, the ruling dispensation is prepared to brazen it out and turn a deaf ear to criticism so as to pursue its agenda through to the end.  But it should bear in mind that the cost of destroying confidence in an institution like the RBI will not be trivial. It could mean dwindling foreign portfolio investment (already under the pump thanks to the Trump rally) and a dimming outlook in the eyes of credit rating agencies.  

Under Raghuram Rajan, a much awaited rating upgrade wasn’t out of reach.  Now the best we can hope for may be to avert a downgrade!  As they say, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  India has paid a heavy price for under-appreciating the importance of institutions in a democratic government. 

Shreya Ghoshal concert: An evening of melody and soul

December 20, 2016

‘Tis wedding season in India and this has been a particularly busy one for moi.  So amid attending weddings, overeating and falling sick, I simply did not get time to review a concert of Shreya Ghoshal I attended last month.  It was at the well known Shanmukhananda Hall (Mumbai) that once hosted Shankar Jaikishen’s concerts too. Ghoshal said this was her first concert at the venue.  When she wound down (or should I say, up) with Mere Dholna, most of us in the hall were hoping it wouldn’t be the last.

Speaking of hopes, while travelling to the venue, I wondered if the demo fracas would dent attendance at the show.  Any such ‘hopes’ were dashed by the familiar sight of traffic gridlock near the hall (I was fortunately walking it down from good ol’ GTB station).  It was a sold out show (would later learn it had been sold out for weeks) and patrons waited eagerly with enthusiasm.  I watched with not a little curiosity.

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the show.  I did figure it couldn’t possibly be too bad but, mostly, I was curious to hear for myself what playback singers sound like live.  In the case of Ghoshal, the answer is pretty simple: way better.

Ghoshal’s voice sounds much thinner on studio recordings than it does live. The recordings also don’t capture very much of the dynamism of her voice.  Dynamism in this sense isn’t quite what the word might lead you to expect:  rather than explosiveness, I mean that she has a way of producing her voice in waves, soft ebbs followed by a powerful (but not overpowering) surge, all delivered effortlessly with nary a note out of place. These ebbs and surges (rather than a constant volume) keep the listener on tenterhooks, eagerly anticipating what the next note will bring.  Somehow, the studio recordings simply don’t seem to capture this quality at all.

Ghoshal is also adept at using the advantages of the live setting over recordings – both singing wise and ‘performance’ wise, to borrow Indian Idol terminology.  Performance wise, she is on the move almost all the time, making eye contact with left, center and right columns of the audience (no, not ideologies).  Unlike many playback singers, especially of the older generation, she does not refer to the lyrics on a notebook or tablet for most of the songs.  This already liberates her to express herself in ways that the older singers were constrained to because they needed to consult a notebook to make sure they didn’t mess up the lyrics.  And boy does she express herself!  At the millionth or so variation, I stopped keeping count.  And yet, all these variations on the recordings are conceived and executed very tastefully; it doesn’t feel like she’s showing off.

But the high point of the concert, at least for me, was her rendition of R D Burman’s Kya Janu Sajan (originally sung by Lata Mangeshkar).  She was able to capture that haunting quality which the song has and convey the sensation of the voice coming from some distant, even lost place.  It is amazing that she was able to do this in a live performance without overtly appearing to do anything different to achieve this effect.  In this performance (though not only this one), technique and soul were in perfect harmony (it is very difficult to sing the stretch from sau diye/jab liya tera naam cleanly without a break in the middle and she did it twice).

This and her many other outstanding performances of the day also brought home to me why hearing a singer in their prime is something else.  I have heard Bruce Dickinson and Klaus Meine give damn good shows, also Shankar Mahadevan with Shakti.  But – and this is even though I would take Shakti/Iron Maiden/Scorps over Tujhme Rab Dikta Hai any day – their singing did not quite blow me away the way Ghoshal did.  It felt like I had found in my backyard what I had searched for far and wide (had the same feeling when, a few years back, I went on a Ilayaraja binge after a gap).

So…my point is even if you just sort of like her but enjoy attending music concerts, please do not give it a miss if you get the chance.  Because (a) she is outstanding and (b) it may not be quite the same thing if you finally make up for it years later. Now, but for the fatwa issued by a certain political party in Mumbai, I would express my wish to hear a well known singer (who shall not be named) in concert….Bas itna sa khwab hai.

Why Manmohan Singh was right on demonetization

December 18, 2016

Former Prime Minister, Finance Minister and RBI Governor Manmohan Singh spoke out strongly against demonetization in the Rajya Sabha on November 24, characterising it as an organised loot and legalised plunder of the common people.  The sharp use of adjectives to describe his position stood out as uncharacteristic of his usually mild mannered approach.  More surprisingly, there was a lack of a substantial rebuttal from the government or the ruling party with the exception of questioning what right did the man who preside over the scams of UPA have to talk about loot and plunder.  Nobody questioned why such words were used in the first place.

In light of a seemingly innocuous clarification given by Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia in a press conference on Dec 16, though, the description assumes significance. Adhia clarified that under the Income Tax Act, 1961, deposits made by political parties are exempt as long as their donations are properly accounted for.  When this led to an outcry by the media and the public at large, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stepped in to put on his best appearance of indignation and ‘clarify’ that the government was taking a tough stand against political parties as well (while only reiterating the law as it stands).

Let us then examine the law and how it works in practice because there is a huge gulf between theory and practice:

  1. Political parties are of course allowed to accept donations.
  2. Donations in cash are allowed.  No amount is specified for the same except that all donations (cash or bank) above Rs.20000, name and address of the donor is to be provided to the EC.
  3. The problem is, it is ridiculously easy to make multiple donations of below 20000 each and not have to report them at all and thus escape tax.
  4. Tax, how?  Well, a person holding black money in (old) 500 and 1000 rupee notes (which have ceased to be legal tender) can simply make a donation to a political party in multiple installments, each below 20000 to escape being taxed on the black money.
  5. But wait, hasn’t the FM said that it is illegal for a party to accept donations in old notes post demonetization?  Right, but you can always backdate the receipt (if any)!  Has been done by lesser mortals than politicians so why wouldn’t a political party be able to get away with it?
  6. Is there a law that says that all receipts must be issued by an automated computerised system that does not allow manually editing the date?  Afraid not!
  7. If this was so, why did the government still go through with demonetization?

Now we are talking!  You see, it stretches credibility to say that the government did not consider such a massive loophole in the chain while rolling out demonetization (with its attendant costs). I mean, if they are really so incompetent, they need to tender their resignations forthwith and publicly own responsibility for such a Himalayan blunder.

But what if they knew?  Once you open your mind to such a possibility, you get a different view.  Remember the tall promise made by the govt to eliminate black money? Something considered impossible by conventional wisdom.  Well, the govt has done exactly that and how!  They have afforded to all black  money operators an opportunity to convert all black money held in cash to white with no questions asked.  The price for that, of course, is ‘donating’ the money to political parties.  But that is perhaps a small price to pay for those who would be overcome by gratitude to the govt for their benevolence.

While the Indian tax administration has hitherto been spectacularly unsuccessful in recovering their rightful claims of tax from black money operators, they have at least had a claim to the same by law.  Black money operators needed to exercise due care whenever they needed to convert black money to white to avoid getting caught.  Not anymore.  Here at last is a one time window to whitewash your sins with not a finger being waved at you.  In 67 years nobody has thought of such a beautiful scheme.  No need to disclose income either, just donate.  Ah, if you won’t donate, that’s too bad.  After all, with several state elections lined up, political parties could do with the extra cash which, and this is the best part, will be totally legal.

Perhaps I am too cynical.  Perhaps I have got it wrong.  Perhaps a man as learned as Manmohan Singh got it wrong too.  But in that case, it is up to the government to offer some substantial rebuttal instead of unleashing trolls who label people as cangi or whatever bullshit to obfuscate the issue. There has thus far been a paucity of clarity from the government, all excused of course under the garb of confidentiality.  But in this instance, the nation really does need to know how exactly does government plan to bring colluding politicians and businesses to book?  That is, if the horse hasn’t already bolted and there’s a good chance that it has.

In the grand tradition of conservative/ Tory parties, the BJP too has arranged for a brutal redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.  Only, they have succeeded, thus far, in convincing the people that they are in fact playing Robinhood and doing the exact opposite.  Their UK and US counterparts must be watching their genius with astonishment and not a little envy.


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