Saturday, 21 January 2017

16

[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here: http://a-weekend-in-chicago.blogspot.in/2017/01/1.html]

It was about two in the afternoon when we stepped out to head to the festival. The sun was up and shining bright but Chicago being the windy city there was also a nice cool breeze coming in from Lake Michigan that adjoins it. All five of us were in good spirits and smiled, laughed and chit chatted about this, that and the other on the way.

We took the L (Chicago’s metro train service) to Washington (one of the stations served by the L in Chicago). Millenium Park, the venue for the annual blues festival, was only about a fifteen minute stroll from there.

If you’ve ever been to Chicago, you surely remember the street musicians. That’s quite something, isn’t it? From individual guitar players, saxophonists and singers to full groups with drums, bass, guitars and vocals belting out tunes right in the open and people actually stopping to either listen to them, or just for a moment to drop a dollar or two in their money collection boxes (which are sometimes just hats turned upside down!). Most of these musicians are actually pretty good and one often feels that for some a break to play in proper concerts and have a decent career in music is just around the corner.

I suppose one can view this street musician culture from two different viewpoints. One could feel that it’s a bit unfortunate that there aren’t enough venues for musicians to play in a more consolidated manner instead of making it happen at the street level. On the other hand I suppose its also true that there are perhaps always going to be more aspiring musicians and artists than venues for them to display their art and talent. From this viewpoint, I think its completely to the credit of the city administration, the musicians themselves, and most of all the people who take the time to appreciate and encourage the musicians, that this culture is being sustained. It creates an opportunity for musicians to sustain themselves as they work towards getting a better break, which in turn ensures that an active pursuit and appreciation of music itself continues to thrive.

Actually music (and art in general) are fairly strongly emphasized in the american culture. The story I’m telling right now revolves around one particular edition of the annual blues festival at Chicago. Chicago also holds an annual jazz festival every year. And these are not just features of Chicago. If you do a web search on blues and jazz festivals in america, you will find that many different cities have these. But once again, it must be emphasized that music doesn’t come alive there only in festivals. Pretty much every single city and town, no matter how small, has venues where musicians perform regularly and people collect to enjoy their performances. And not just blues, jazz or rock. Classical music is emphasized as well. There are venues where symphonies and orchestras play regularly. Even this is not the complete story. Most, if not all, universities (and they have a very large number of good universities - there must be at least a thousand good universities across that country) have a thriving school of music where students train to become professional musicians and composers in different styles and forms. Their pursuit of a career in music is not valued any less than careers in science, technology, medicine or law. That country and its people recognize the importance of art, the beauty and benediction it brings in society and life, and ensure that art thrives.

This must have been true at some point in time in our part of the world as well. Else what else explains the rich legacy of Hindustani classical and Carnatic music that has been bequeathed to us? The sheer variety of musical instruments that developed and evolved here: SitarSarodEsrajRudra VeenaTanpuraBansuriShehnaiSarangiSantoorTablaPakhavajVeenaGottuvadhyam and many more (https://www.swarganga.org/instrumentbase.php). It may be interesting to spend some time on a platform such as youtube when you get a moment and explore compositions and performances that have stemmed from our heritage.

Not just music: Art must have thrived here in various other forms as well. Dance comes to mind right after music: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_classical_dance. Then sculpture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sculpture_in_South_Asia): The next time you go to one of the older temples that are still standing (and there are many of them, here are some: http://www.indiatimes.com/culture/travel/13-beautiful-ancient-temples-in-india-that-will-take-you-back-in-time-231535.html) take a moment to appreciate the intricacy of sculpture on display there. I think we had taken sculpture as an art form to magnificent heights. Painting and fine art too: our legacy on this front is perhaps most visible today on fabric.

I believe we need to recover this spirit of artistic expression. Yes there are classical music festivals that happen in India too (here are some: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_classical_music_festivals). But I do not feel that this is nearly enough. An appreciation of the finer aspects of culture and life has to soak into our very personas and the fabric of our society. This will only happen if we engage with music and musicians, art and artists, regularly. And while listening to the radio or the gigabytes of mp3 / mp4 files that we have downloaded and stored on our computers or enjoying music on platforms such as youtube does serve to maintain some connect, I do not believe this can ever replace the experience of live music. That is something quite different and I believe central to keeping music as a human aspiration, expression and appreciation alive. So with theatre, so with poetry sessions, so with art galleries.

That would be my central emphasis: we need to have venues in each and every city, town and village which feature regular music performances (light as well as classical, eastern as well as western), dance recitals (classical as well as popular, eastern as well as western), theatre shows, poetry sessions and fine art and sculpture exhibitions and we go to enjoy and appreciate these. This will (a) give an impetus to artists and their art and bring them a much needed economic sustenance and (b) create more avenues for us to step out, connect with the community around us and celebrate life.

Yes, for this to happen in a sustainable manner, which in turn requires that it be economically feasible for the artists, we have to be willing to spend money to buy tickets for these performances and exhibitions. For most of us this requires but a small mindset shift. It has been my observation that many of us are fairly comfortable shelling out cash for material goods: expensive hotel and restaurant food, designer clothes, cars and jewellery but are very very hesitant to spend money towards appreciating the finer things life has to offer. I may be wrong but I think this in turn starts reflecting in our personalities and the overall quality of life we live. A shallowness of thought, emotion and spirit creeps in and one lives a relatively coarse life instead of living with grace and sensitivity. It is my feeling that engaging regularly with art and finer aspects of life can start restoring us to a more balanced mindset and life. So in a sense the money we spend will not just ensure that artists and musicians are able to earn a livelihood while practising their art but will also feed back into increasing the quality of our lives and minds as well.

[I need to make a note here that I believe is fairly important: While I'm emphasizing that we need to take a cue from the americans and their appreciation of art and culture and take steps to rejuvenate the same in our country, I believe they have made one mistake (which we might have made too at some point in the past), which is this: a lot of musicians there get into drugs and alcohol and often destroy themselves. Many of their fans take themselves down the same road since their idols are doing it and end up wasting their potential. You will find a strong presence of alcohol in most venues that feature regular performances of blues / jazz / rock music. I think we can and should avoid this pitfall. We need to break this link. When we go to enjoy music, whether it be film and popular songs in different Indian languages or folk music or ghazals or Indian classical or blues or jazz or rock or western classical, let our appreciation be derived directly and fully from the music itself instead of necessitating the presence of alcohol or drugs alongside. I think that will lead to a far richer and deeper appreciation of music and our enjoyment of it will be cleaner and healthier. Music has the power to move us and bring us bliss by itself - anyone who has loved and appreciated music knows this.]

We came across some pretty good street musicians that afternoon as we made our way to Millenium Park. My personal favourite was a guitar player with a double neck guitar who was quietly finger tapping away Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” – his right hand tapping the chords and rhythms on one of the necks while his right hand tapped out the melody on the other – when we reached him. He had recorded cassettes with his guitar playing that he was selling for a nominal price. I bought one when we were ready to move on. What talent!

(to be continuedLink)

[Talking about the artistic aspect of our cultural heritage, I think we took culinary skills and food to the level of an art form as well, no less. The sheer variety of dishes in this country and the intricacy with which they are cooked is simply mind boggling. Plus it is my impression that many of the herbs and spices we use don’t just provide flavour and aroma – they are good for us as well. Perhaps they have medicinal value; maybe we’ll find more information regarding this in Ayurveda. This is not to say that we need to approach this topic and believe everything blindly. But why shouldn’t we look into things, on a case to case basis if necessary, and appreciate and persist with whatever good we may find? But the way we are going, how long do you think before we are overwhelmed on this front by burgers, pizzas, sandwiches and diet coke?]

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