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.
Weddings are big in India: huge numbers of guests, masses of flowers and decorations, tables groaning with food and whisky. The loudspeaker volume is cranked up to 11. The organisers need special venues where professionals can manage all the arrangements. These emporia congregate along Mahatma Gandhi Road (AH1) in Azadpur, from the “Royal Pepper” to the “Celebration Banquet”.
This is the “Pushp Aleela”, by day and by night, with blue-lit columns of bubbling water in the window.
Now the heat and humidity of the summer has departed, we are in the cool of the popular wedding season. But the pandit/astrologer will still have to decide on the exact day of the ceremony. When the heavenly bodies are in the most auspicious alignment, he fixes the time of the wedding. There is even a banquet hall called “All Heavenss” (sic).
This is La Mansion.
During the inauspicious times, other citizens hire the halls for parties on a grand scale. I have been fortunate to have attended two birthday parties in the past month, one at the “Mosaic Banquet Hall” and the other at “Cherish”, pictured below.
Being British, I made the mistake of turning up on time. I was even fashionably late (30 minutes) for the second event and was still an hour too early. So when the invitation says 7pm, this means 8:30pm. As I had dressed in my best outfit, I had no problem breezing past security. The servants ushered me to a sofa and plied me with cold water, cola, fruit juice and mocktails. I settled down to read an electronic book on my smartphone (2016 Man Booker prize winner, “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty) while I waited for the action to begin.
I should have felt embarrassed, but I am used to being regarded as strange by the Indians. I knew no one at the parties apart from the people who invited me. As the hall filled up, I wandered around making conversation with people whom I thought would be fluent in English – young, university types. Then I sat with the old men and watched them put away large amounts of scotch while their wives tut-tutted.
The entertainment was lavish, with children’s entertainer, a small dance floor with DJ, and a magician. He wore a black top hat and a capacious suit. The card tricks were interesting. He asked me to pick a card, remember it, put it back into the pack. He said abracadabra and all the cards turned into the Queen of Spades, including the one I had chosen. He never did get back to my chosen card.
His other trick involved two interlinked loops of rusty metal. He slid them apart in front of the audience to show it could be done. Everyone around the table had ten seconds to try to pull the loops apart again. The magician counted down from ten to one, piling on the pressure like the late Richard Whiteley. No one managed to extricate the links. He whisked them away before I could try thinking laterally about the puzzle and do the opposite of what you think should do.
One party had a photo presentation and live video feed of proceedings showing on screens around the hall. A photographer snapped everyone as they came into the hall, posing them with the hosts. I have noticed that it is very rare for Indians to smile in front of a camera. It is as though they are posing for an official passport photograph. When I am behind the lens, I take one serious shot and tease them about their stern expressions. As soon as they start to smile and laugh about this, I squeeze off another few shots surreptitiously. My camera has a silent electronic shutter, so they are oblivious of my stealing some more images. But when I show them the results, they are usually delighted.
Another photographer took pictures of guests and beamed the images by WiFi to a computer. Following some digital jiggery pokery, the images were printed and thermally sealed onto mugs as a souvenir.
After the birthday boy/girl has blown out the candles on the luridly decorated cake, it’s a free for all. At one party, guests smeared the host’s face with icing and cream while sticky fingers tapped on smartphone screens to record the event. The cake is much less dense than a traditional British birthday cake. It doesn’t cut cleanly, so everyone ended up with a messy dollop of sweetness and light on their plate.
The amount of spirits Indian men can drink impressed me. A bottle of 100 Pipers whisky lasted less than twenty minutes for a table of eight men. A barman with one white glove and a silver hostess trolley doled out less generous portions of Johnnie Walker Black Label to individual guests.
This amount of alcohol needed mopping up with some food. Waiters brought snacks of papadums, spring rolls, dry roasted peanuts coated with a mix of salt, pepper, chilli and spices. Carrot and cucumber batons sprinkled with the same spice mix was the healthy option. We shared bowls of dahi veda and finished off with whorls of soya curd which tasted of nothing but the texture reminded me of tripe.
It was after 10:30pm when the cooks brought food from the kitchens for the banquet. All the dishes were pure vegetarian North Indian dishes, apart from some “live pasta”. I guessed that this meant fresh, rather than dried pasta. Most guests lined up to serve themselves from the buffet, but this didn’t stop some impatient, hungry men from barging into the queue.
I had been snacking all night but I had a yearning to try all the dishes. So I had a dessertspoonful of each, including the sweets. On my way out, I saw an ancient espresso machine at the bar. I couldn’t resist and asked for a coffee. The barista heated up a pot of milk with the steamer, added a diabetogenic amount of sugar, and tipped in some Nescafé powdered coffee. I was disappointed it was not true espresso, but it tasted excellent.
It was only a twenty minute walk back to my shared apartment. I took a short cut and encountered the night guard patrolling behind the locked backgate of our alley. He pointed to my watch and said, “What time do you call this?” Or words to that effect. “This is the last time I let you in here at this time of night.” It was just after 11 o’clock.
Poor people in India work hard. Manual labour is cheap. Here are some photographs of men carrying loads on their heads, pushing and pulling handcarts, straining to pedal their human and inanimate loads.
The light was fading as I took the pictures, so they are gritty and grainy, but I think this adds to the character. I don’t use flash in street photography.
What do you think?
Too many photographs, so I will put a few compilations below:
Two large men to transport. Look how his saddle is angled for better purchase.
A troupe of young lawyers from Delhi University came to Jahangir Puri today to put on a street play about gender based violence. This is a great way to reach lots of people and educate them on the subject. This is the rape scene.
The troupe will be sitting their examinations at the end of this month, so we were lucky to drag them away from their revision and onto H block near the jhuggi (slum).
The audience really appreciated it (look at the children’s faces during the rape scene).
And of course we needed the group photographs at the end…with the inevitable selfie.