I had a brainwave. I could solve the problem of buying Christmas presents for the ladies in my life by photographing the display cases of jewellery at the National Museum shop. This is strictly forbidden, but when I explained my plight to the manager, he was happy to let me go ahead.
“Take your pick, girls,” I said. “Anything you fancy. Far better you choose something you like and will wear than a gaudy geegaw that I have picked out which you will keep in your jewellery box and never use.”
“We just want you home for Christmas, Dad,” they said, “That will be the best present we could have.”
There’s nothing quite like a bit of raga in the morning. Raga means “the act of colouring”, a metaphor for arousing love and desire, joy and delight. The improvised songs use between five and nine notes to form a melody. According to Wikipedia, “the way the notes are approached and rendered in musical phrases and the mood they convey are more important in defining a raga than the notes themselves”. Just what the doctor ordered, I thought.
After the Senior Citizens walk/jog on Sunday, I decided I needed a bit of culture, so I went to an Indian Classical Music concert at the Habitat Centre. I arrived early and found a seat in the amphitheatre, situated in the shaded courtyard.
The lady in the seat next to me told me that I was privileged to hear Dr Ashwini Bhide Deshpande sing. She is from the famous “Jaipur-Atrauli” Khayal Gayaki tradition of Indian Classical Music. Her original training was in biochemistry and microbiology, but she abandoned a scientific career to become a musician.
She arrived fifteen minutes late, then spent another fifteen minutes correcting the sound levels. Just before starting, the organisers of the event presented her with flowers. Then we were off.
She was accompanied by Paromita Mukherjee on hand-operated harmonium. She was sitting in the shade on the right of the stage. Her vivid red lipstick was so striking that my attention kept being dragged to her, away from the singer. Vinod Lele was playing tabla in his usual lively style. Two other ladies accompanied Ashwini playing tanpuras and occasionally singing a refrain.
The tanpura is a fascinating instrument. The base is hemispherical, made from a hollowed out gourd. It has a long neck, with five strings, but no frets. The musician plucks the strings rhythmically and this keeps the singer from going “off key”.
The audience of 250 was 95% Indian. There were some French people behind me; a Chinese lady who applauded over-enthusiastically; an old Brit wearing the same Clark’s Active Air sandals I have, without socks; and a young man who looked like Gregg Allman from the “Eat a Peach” (1972) period. The Indians in the audience were mostly elderly. They were well dressed, with smart Nehru jackets for men and resplendent saris for the ladies.
Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the names of the ragas she sang for us. She is famous for her rendering of “Kabir Bhajans” (devotional religious songs), so I suppose this is what she performed. She repeated the lyrics over and over again, each time with a slightly different tone for each phrase. To emphasise the subtlety of this, Ashwini would slowly twirl the fingers of her left hand as she smiled or closed her eyes in reverie. Her right hand was plucking her tanpura.
Once or twice, she stopped for a quick beverage. She made a comment to the audience, unscrewed the top of a steel thermos flask and poured herself a drink. On one occasion, she motioned to her vocal accompanist to carry one with the raga for a few repetitions until she could take over the lead again.
The ragas would gradually build up to a climax and then subside. I could see members of the audience copying her hand movements, almost as though they were conducting the concert. After a particularly beautiful section of singing, they would nod their heads laterally in approval. Clearly she had struck a chord in their hearts.
In a sentence, it reminded me of the permutations of Johann Sebastian Bach, with jazz improvisation in the style of Miles Davis, using the voice as a musical instrument.
Some younger men sitting in the back row were more interested in the brilliant tabla playing of Vinod Lele. They would be mirroring his rapid hammer-like finger movements on their thighs. Forget air guitar in India – this was air tabla.
Finally, the raga would come to its ultimate climax with the tabla and harmonium players speeding up. Polite applause. She only sang four ragas during a two hour set, finishing at 1pm.
Afterwards, I wandered around the Lodi Gardens on my way to a Metro station. I was truly spell bound. The music was still pinging off the inside of my skull. I didn’t understand it intellectually, but I could feel it. It made musical sense to me. And that’s what it’s all about.
There are three clips I have uploaded to my Google Photo account which you can access at https://goo.gl/photos/uo8FiRXH5jHFXqMbA
This weekend the Times of India has arranged a festival of talks about art, politics, music, film and literature at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. William Dalrymple is my favourite author at the moment (“City of Djinns” is my bedtime reading). He was scheduled to speak at 4:30pm, so I got to the auditorium early and just caught the end of a talk on how Pakistan will never be a democracy. As people left, I sneaked into a chair and nodded my way through the next session on how India will advance in the future.
William Dalrymple turned up five minutes late. By then, the auditorium was packed. The aisles were full, people were sitting on the floor in front of the dais, and a handful of foreigners had joined me in the audience.
The session was chaired by Sam Miller, another travel writer but primarily a journalist. Dalrymple talked enthusiastically about Delhi, “I have no time for people was say Delhi is a boring, smoked out city.” When he was asked about how he started writing, he said that he applied for a travel scholarship grant only available to mediaeval historians at his Cambridge college. He did some research and found that the longest journey of the mediaeval period was Marco Polo’s expedition to Mongolia, so he asked for funding to repeat it. He received £750, most of which went on air fares at the beginning and end of the journey. He wrote “In Xanadu” at the age of 21 and it was so successful that he decided to become a writer.
He read some short extracts from his books, (“City of Djinns” and “From the Holy Mountain”) which were hilarious. His next book about the Koh-i-Noor diamond will be published in nine days. But his magnum opus about the East India Company is two years away from completion.
Lots of Indians had brought their copies of his books to be signed. I caught sight of a young lady with an old orange Penguin version of City of Djinns. After the lecture, I thought of joining the queue to speak to him and have him sign my book – but it would had to have been an electronic signature, as my copies are on my Kindle.
I bet that phrase caught your attention. Those of you who are acquainted with me know I am not a runner. But the MSF team wanted to participate in the event, so I signed up with them to do the 6km run. However, during the application process, I had to give my age. I was diverted to the Senior Citizens 4km walk/jog. I asked to switch, but this was denied by the organisers. This meant I could not join the team, unfortunately. And I had to get up at an hour earlier than the others at 5:30am to get to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Perhaps they think old people don’t need as much sleep.
One of the benefits of being a Senior Citizen is that I got two running shirts. My official yellow “Shiv Naresh” (Slazenger logo) polyester, polo-style running shirt and a white MSF team running shirt (“MSF goes the extra mile”). The yellow shirt was sponsored by “harmony celebrate age” (on the front) and “Widex” high definition hearing, (the) World’s No.1 in digital deaf aids (on the back). Perhaps next year the sponsor should be suppliers of incontinence products.
No one uses the term “grey-haired”. Instead senior citizens are known as “silvers”. The documentation stressed that “silvers” would not be able to participate in the race if they were not in the holding marquee by 7:30am. I got to the JLN Stadium Metro station before 7am and in ten minutes I was at the gate. But it was the wrong gate. I needed gate 5, about a kilometre away around the circumference of the stadium. I was directed to walk anti-clockwise and after five minutes my route was blocked by a stream of 35,000 half marathon runners pouring out of the stadium. Together with some fellow silvers and a few “differently abled” runners, we waited until 7:40 when the police finally allowed us to cross the route in front of some serious stragglers who were walking after covering less than 500 metres.
We jogged around to the marquee and, of course, this being India, we were able to walk directly into the holding area despite being late. There was even time for a paper cup of coffee and a biscuit. Silvers are just as bad as other age groups in India when it comes to queuing. People were barging in and pushing me away from the refreshments table. A line monitor saw me and told me to go to the back of the queue. I protested my innocence and the chief pusher behind me bore witness on my behalf, so I kept my place.
Every time I saw someone queue jumping ahead of me, I sneakily alerted the line monitor. He shouted and blustered, but the silvers took absolutely no notice at all. When a tray of biscuits appeared on the table, it was emptied in seconds as silvers grabbed handfuls and stuffed them in their pockets. I found a paper cup of milky, sweet coffee which had been left on the table and drank it.
The medical tent had beds, a defibrillator, some phlebotomy equipment, a glucometer and a sphygmomanometer. It was filled with large ladies wrapped in shawls, sitting on beds, drinking coffee and eating biscuits. Luckily, no one was taking finger prick tests for blood glucose. A sign from Max HealthCare stated that anyone with chronic heart disease or heart failure, asthma or chronic lung disease or who had a chest infection within the past 15 days should not run, but cheer on the others from the sidelines. This was because of the recent poor air quality (“prevailing climatic conditions”).
There were also some medical centres en route, as well as additional urinals, presumably for silvers with prostate problems. But some chaps were caught short after the coffee and biscuits and needed to water the hedgerow.
I imagined that the holding area would be where silvers could stretch or jog to get warmed up. Instead, there were rows of chilly-looking silvers sitting on fold away chairs in front of a disc jockey who was playing rap and house. But when he put on some Bangra music, that really got the audience going. The front rows rose up and started dancing.
At 7:55am, we were told to move to the starting gate. To get there, we had to pass through two metal detectors at security. Some people tried to avoid the crush by walking around the detectors, but the police would not allow this. No one was checking people who set off the alarm when they passed through the metal detectors, so it was all rather unnecessary.
A few male silvers asked me to pose with them for photographs. I had been taking so many photos that I couldn’t refuse. Official photographers were working the crowd, too. There was boom with a video camera filming the start. As the only foreign silver, I stuck out like a sore thumb, so I guess I will feature in the movie.
I trotted down the road leading out of the stadium, weaving between grannies and grandpas. When I reached the main dual carriageway, our side of the road was divided into two lanes. Coming towards us were the “differently abled” participants who had set off half an hour before. Most of them had a helper, usually a parent. They waved and smiled for my camera.
I rejoined the jog and stopped at a stage with two drummers and two dancers, wearing fans on their turbans. Several photographs later and I was even further behind the leading silvers. We passed the Sai Baba Temple and yet another disc jockey playing Indian cover versions of Western pop hits from 30 years ago. Then we turned left along Lodi Road where we found some Indian cheerleaders, complete with pompoms, dancing and encouraging us to keep going. I took some more photographs of silvers already on their way back. Everyone was smiling and happy. It really was a joyous occasion.
On the way back, there was a disorderly queue, well, a mob, really, at the medical station. There were several more urinals and I saw a group of runners who had decided to have a sit down at a bus stop. I started chatting with a man aged about 80 who told me that he was a retired general who served with the Rajputana Rifles. We swapped stories about the Prime Minister in power when I first visited India in 1978, Morarji Desai, as we marched at military pace through the finishing line.
Back at the marquee, I joined the queue for breakfast. This was a South Indian dish called upma, made with creamed wheat and served with a mildly spicy sauce. I chatted with a former bank manager about demonetisation and he told me what a great thing this would be for the nation.
I tried to find the rest of the MSF group, but failed. There was yet another stage, this time with Rajasthani drummers and female dancers with heavy blue eye shadow. I guess that this is what a nautch girl might look like. She would dance with you and pose for photographs if you put money between her fingers.
I walked out of the stadium and watched some of the serious half marathon runners coming to the end of their run. Almost all of them looked pained, but some were still able to check WhatsApp on their smart phones.
Before the Second World War, Lady Willingdon*, wife of the Governor General, landscaped the area around several mausoleums housing the remains of rulers of Delhi from 1444 – 1526. This required evicting people living in settlements around the tombs. Lady Willingdon Park was renamed Lodi Gardens after Independence. It is well worth a visit for a calm, pleasant walk.
It is a charming spot with beautiful lawns, stands of native trees with lots of birdlife, an ornamental lake traversed by a stone bridge. Each morning there are yoga classes on the grass and middle-aged Delhiites walk and jog around the paths in an attempt to keep fit.
The first tomb I visited was the oldest, built to house the remains of Mohammed Shah, last of the Sayyid rulers of Delhi. It is a mixture of Persian and Rajasthani architecture.
The gardens are popular places for newlyweds to have the photographs taken. A photographer had posed this couple under a palm tree whilst an assistant held up the bride’s orange scarf, flinging it up in the air to drift down while the camera snapped away at ten frames a second. I still managed to get his hand in the corner of the shot.
In the centre of the gardens there are two domed structures (gumbads), the Bara Gumbad (big dome) with an attached mosque and the Shisha Gumbad (glass dome), which retains a few blue glazed tiles on its roof. The latter is a tomb.
I took some photographs of young people walking through the gardens and the gumbads.
Two of the security guards were eating a late lunch inside the Bara Gumbad. They offered to share it with me, so I tore off a bit of roti and dipped it into the sauce. It tasted great. I passed on the unpickled onions.
In the northern part of the gardens stands the tomb of Sikander (Alexander) Lodi, the last Sultan of Delhi whose army was defeated at the Battle of Panipat by Babur, heralding the beginning of the Mughal era.
At the southern end, there is a miniature forest of bonsai trees. If you have walked the 90 acres of the gardens, reward yourself with a drink and a snack at the posh Lodi Garden Restaurant.
*Lady Willingdon also gave her name to a road in Lutyens New Delhi – now renamed Mother Theresa Crescent, an airfield – now renamed Safdarjang Airport, and a hospital – now renamed Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.Sic gloria transit mundi.
Chawri Bazar Road used to be where the nautch girls lived before the Mutiny in 1857 in Old Delhi. Some just danced, others were courtesans. They plied their trade above the ground floor shops so clients would have to go through narrow doors and ascend a steep staircase to get to the seraglio.