The year was 1985. I was a teenager enter­ing the Xth grade in school, sub­scribed to an Indian children’s mag­a­zine “Tin­kle”. One item in an issue in 1985 caught my fancy. It was in the Sci­ence sec­tion: “How to build your own telescope”.

By that age, I was already fas­ci­nated by sci­ence in gen­eral and astron­omy in par­tic­u­lar. I had read how Galileo had watched the moons of Sat­urn and I was enchanted. The tele­scope described in the Tin­kle arti­cle would have a mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of 20x with an aper­ture of 2.5 inch. If it were built, you could watch the craters on the moon! I was fas­ci­nated but, how could I build one myself?

Huge rolls of thick paper from cal­en­dars, stuck together with adhe­sive, rolled to form the tube with a slit for the main front lens. Smaller roll of thick paper glued with adhe­sive to form the smaller tube to hold the eye piece, adjusted in dimen­sion so that it could roll in-and-out eas­ily within the larger tube of the front lens. Beg­ging my par­ents for Rs. 175 to then let my elder brother buy those lenses.

Slowly, the tele­scope began to form. But it needed a stand. We had an old, dis­carded table study lamp, with a spher­i­cal base, and a ball-socket arrange­ment for an upper hemi-spherical base for the lamp. It was a gift from the school for my elder sis­ter for her schol­arly apti­tude. I cut off the upper hemi-spherical base, and the cylin­dri­cal socket for it fit­ted the thin­ner eye-piece cylin­der of my tele­scope per­fectly! Wow. My tele­scope was ready.

From that point on, I was watch­ing the craters on the moon, gaz­ing at the Orion Neb­ula, and try­ing my best to observe galax­ies beyond my reach. M42 became a beloved object in my life and has remained so for many decades hence­forth. My pas­sion and my curios­ity had no bound­aries. That tele­scope mag­ni­fied the extent to which my human vision could reach. It taught me that there are tools man invents to reach out­side and beyond the lim­i­ta­tions of our per­cep­tions and our indi­vid­ual experiences.

28 years later, I ask myself, which tele­scope am I using now? Not to gaze into outer space, but to observe within and around myself. The answer came read­ily: it is books, movies, and pri­mar­ily, peo­ple. Books and movies expand our expe­ri­ences beyond what our own per­cep­tion could ever have. Books place you into sit­u­a­tions you’ve never been, make you under­stand the moti­va­tions of char­ac­ters you’ve never met. Movies let you expe­ri­ence sit­u­a­tions you’ll prob­a­bly never expe­ri­ence and allow your imag­i­na­tion to fly. These are tele­scopes that mag­nify indi­vid­ual human per­cep­tion and expand it beyond what would have been nat­u­rally possible.

Peo­ple are the ulti­mate tele­scopes. Every per­son, has a wealth of expe­ri­ence and learn­ing and wis­dom to whomever is allowed access. Every per­son has a wealth of knowl­edge we’ve never learned, a trea­sure of insights we’ve never had, a gold mine of expe­ri­ences we’ll never have. How often do we make use of these read­ily avail­able telescopes?

How much trou­ble, how much effort, I went through to con­struct my first tele­scope! Do I take even a 10% effort in uti­liz­ing the tele­scopes that other peo­ple offer me for free?

Oh no, he lives in such a bad area, it’s a pain just to drive to his home.” “Oh no, she talks too much, I can’t even lis­ten to her any­more.” “Oh no, he is too pre­ten­tious.” “Oh no, she is too much into her own thing she doesn’t care about any­body else.” There are dozens and dozens of rea­sons we have for ourselves.

Each of these human beings is a tele­scope, if only one were will­ing to watch through the eye­piece. The eye­piece, in this case, is the human abil­ity to lis­ten, which we most often abuse — or in other words, don’t use at all.

We reject the view, by not lis­ten­ing at all. Often, we choose not to view through the telescope.

Because, we’re so com­fort­able with our own world­view, that any­thing that changes it, is deeply uncom­fort­able to us. We do not want telescopes.

Posted in Personal | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Music Composition as an Artistic Process

[This post is #8 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

Every block of stone has a statue in it, and it is the task of the sculp­tor to dis­cover it — Michelanglo

The beauty of an art­work is not just because of what the artist has included in the work, but also because of what the artist has excluded from it. I find this to be true of most forms of cre­ative art, whether it is music or pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing or lit­er­a­ture, sculp­ture or architecture.

In a sculp­ture, it is easy to visu­al­ize this aspect of the artis­tic process — a statue is ini­tially a block of stone from which the sculp­tor removes parts, and the result is the work of art — the statue. We are eas­ily able to visu­al­ize the artist’s work in remov­ing the unnec­es­sary parts of the stone. In paint­ing, one can visu­al­ize the col­ors not used. And so on. In music, how­ever, it is dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate this aspect, because we are almost never aware of what the com­poser has excluded. As casual lis­ten­ers of music, we only respond to what we lis­ten to, what the com­poser has included, we do not wear the hat of a com­poser and think about what the com­poser has excluded.

This aspect of music appre­ci­a­tion is cer­tainly not a pre­req­ui­site to appre­ci­at­ing WCM, but it does help us to appre­ci­ate Form. We have dis­cussed Form in WCM before, and it is worth­while reit­er­at­ing its key lesson:

Form is a series of strate­gies designed to find a suc­cess­ful mean between the oppo­site extremes of unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion and unre­lieved alteration.

The key is to find the bal­ance between the two. Which aspects of the imag­ined work has the com­poser excluded because they were too repet­i­tive? Which aspects of the imag­ined work has the com­poser excluded because they were stray­ing too far away from the theme? Is the music lead­ing you sub­con­sciously on a pre­de­ter­mined roadmap in which the com­poser ulti­mately wants to take you through a jour­ney to his cho­sen des­ti­na­tion? When you love a piece of music, this is exactly what the com­poser achieves — take you through a won­der­ful jour­ney to a destination.

There are very, very few instances where this can be stud­ied and expe­ri­enced in the field of music. If you have expe­ri­enced a musician’s com­po­si­tion process, it is an insight­ful expe­ri­ence. With WCM, the only way we can engage in the com­po­si­tion process is to go back cen­turies in time and study the notes of the com­poser. This is, for­tu­nately, what musi­cal schol­ars have done. How­ever, their archived scrib­blings of musi­cal nota­tions and their explo­ration mostly remains exclu­sive to the elit­ist schol­arly domain, leav­ing us casual lis­ten­ers with no way to appre­ci­ate or under­stand them.

This is quite sim­i­lar to sci­ence. There are many fas­ci­nat­ing areas of sci­ence that remain beyond the reach of the main­stream, because their appre­ci­a­tion requires spe­cial­ized knowl­edge. There is a gulf between the higher ech­e­lons of art and sci­ence and the main­stream pop­u­lace. There are very few peo­ple who attempt to bridge that gulf. I have the most pro­found respect for them, because they attempt to enlighten us.

Carl Sagan epit­o­mized this role in Sci­ence. Leonard Bern­stein epit­o­mizes it in Music. Leonard Bern­stein is to Music what Carl Sagan was to Science.

They were them­selves a sci­en­tist and a musi­cian, but in look­ing back at their role in his­tory, their bridg­ing the gulf may be deemed more impor­tant than their pro­fes­sional careers.

With no fur­ther eulo­giz­ing, let us now learn from Leonard Bern­stein teach­ing us about the com­po­si­tion process that went behind Beethoven’s highly regarded and most loved 5th Symphony:

Watch and lis­ten. I need not say any­thing fur­ther. This is a unique expe­ri­ence for us to learn to appre­ci­ate WCM and we should for­ever be grate­ful to Lenny.

P.S. The Man­del­brot set is a unique excep­tion to the rule of Form, where unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion ulti­mately results in what some may say is Art.

Posted in Arts, music | 4 Comments

Learning about Photography

A pho­to­graph cap­tures a moment. Moments in time are fleet­ing, time passes you by, there is no other way to be able to reflect and con­tem­plate a moment in time with­out the aid of pho­tog­ra­phy. Before pho­tog­ra­phy was invented, man had no con­trol over time. Time relent­lessly moved for­ward, man had no way of press­ing a “Pause” but­ton. We were slaves of Time. Until pho­tog­ra­phy was invented.

Pho­tog­ra­phy enabled us to cap­ture Time and imprison it. Time could no longer sneak­ily slip away. We are now able to press the “Pause” but­ton in a moment of fleet­ing Time. We con­quered Time thanks to photography.

A pho­to­graph also has dif­fer­ent eyes than yours. When you are in a sit­u­a­tion, you see and per­ceive it accord­ing to your fixed atti­tudes of see­ing and per­ceiv­ing. When you see a pho­to­graph of the same sit­u­a­tion taken by a dif­fer­ent per­son, it often sud­denly opens up a whole new world. Pho­tographs are a way of see­ing the world through dif­fer­ent eyes. They can encour­age us to look at sit­u­a­tions in dif­fer­ent ways. Pho­tographs are not just ways of see­ing the world dif­fer­ently, they often epit­o­mize ways of think­ing about the world around you differently.

I want to learn not to be prej­u­diced by expe­ri­enc­ing a sit­u­a­tion in the ways that I usu­ally do. I want to open my mind to other pos­si­bil­i­ties of expe­ri­enc­ing the same sit­u­a­tion, through dif­fer­ent eyes. And if pos­si­ble, cap­ture them as a moment in time.

It is with this goal in mind that I am join­ing the free mas­sive open online course to explore and learn about pho­tog­ra­phy. I am afraid it will take me more than a year to com­plete what is sup­posed to be a 4 month course, but the best part about it is that you can take your own sweet time about it, so I need not worry. Inter­ested? Do join!

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Good­byes can be heartbreaking.

A good­bye in an air­port is the worst. You hug your dear friend, say good­bye, after which you see him stand in queues, then dis­ap­pear, but you know he’s still there. You wait in the park­ing lot out­side, wait­ing to catch a glimpse of the plane when it takes off. And you silently say good­bye again to your friend who is no longer vis­i­ble, as the plane zooms towards the sky.

Good­byes in buses are a mixed affair. After a deep-hearted good­bye, your friend boards the bus, and then you see him in a win­dow, wav­ing as the bus speeds away. Often, it takes quite a while before it does so, leav­ing you dis­en­chanted as you and your friend can see and com­mu­ni­cate with each other with­out expe­ri­enc­ing the inti­macy of your friendship.

Good­byes in trains and cabs are the most ful­fill­ing of all. Till the last minute as the cab or train begins to move, you try to express your entire rela­tion­ship in the firm grip of a hand­shake, your fin­gers trem­bling to let go, while your heart flut­ters. Despite the most ful­fill­ing of all good­byes, they are all quin­tes­sen­tially painful. Because we just never want to let go of our friends.
Posted in Personal | Tagged , | Comments Off

Relating, Relationships & Relativity

There are some peo­ple who, many times, say things we our­selves would have said. Their thoughts seem to mir­ror ours so often that it is aston­ish­ing. We relate to them, their ideas, their feelings.

This does not hap­pen often with whom we call rel­a­tives. Blood may be thicker than water, but noth­ing quenches thirst as well as water. The thirst for a con­nec­tion, a mutu­al­ity, a bond. When a thirst is ful­filled, a rela­tion­ship is born.

Rela­tion­ships are at angles. One’s line of approach towards a rela­tion­ship usu­ally lies at an angle to the other’s think­ing. The acu­ity or obtuse­ness leads to com­plex­ity; orthog­o­nal­ity, though at right angles, usu­ally doesn’t feel right. Some­times, rela­tion­ships that are par­al­lel seem the most inti­mately con­nected, though par­al­lel lines never meet.

Fur­ther, one’s per­cep­tion of angles in a rela­tion­ship also dif­fers from the other’s. One may idol­ize a par­al­lel, much to the con­ster­na­tion of the other who per­ceives orthog­o­nal­ity. After few meet­ings, one may think of another as some­one one knows for many life­times, while being just a new­comer to the other. The frames of ref­er­ence are very dif­fer­ent, the pas­sage of time unequal. In this way, rela­tion­ships are relative.

Posted in philosophy, psychology | Comments Off

The Cycle of Life

There was a young boy in a vil­lage. He went to school in the morn­ing, worked on farms in the after­noon and played with his friends later in the day. He was asked to obey his teach­ers at school, dis­ci­plined at home by his par­ents, and bul­lied by elder kids in the vil­lage. He was always being taught the right way to think and the cor­rect way to do any­thing. He did not always agree with what elders taught him about the dif­fer­ence between right and wrong

He hated being young and small and wanted to grow up soon, so that he could start giv­ing orders to oth­ers and expect oth­ers to obey him. He would grow up and be strong, so nobody could bully him. He hated school, hav­ing to study and do lessons that were not at all inter­est­ing. He dreamt of being a grown-up so he could be smart. When he was an adult, he would have his own farm, and have oth­ers work for him. He would not have to beg for money any­more, he would have his own money and spend it on what­ever he wished. He would have his own fam­ily, and he would be respected as the head of the family.

The boy grew up, mar­ried and soon had his own chil­dren. He hated being a farmer. Their crops would suf­fer when there was no rain. A lot of the farm­ing equip­ment was so expen­sive, he couldn’t afford it, and he strug­gled to pay his work­ers’ wages. Man­ag­ing the house­hold finances was so dif­fi­cult! His wife was always dis­sat­is­fied, not hav­ing this and that and always hav­ing to work around the house, and always want­ing this and that. Being mar­ried was such a curse! His kids always wanted the lat­est toys he couldn’t afford, didn’t do their stud­ies, and hated school. Dis­ci­plin­ing kids was such a headache! All the blame for every­thing was always put on him, because he was the head of the house­hold. Respon­si­bil­ity was such a pain!

He looked at his kids play­ing with their friends and thought how nice it is to be a child! Those kids didn’t have to worry about money. They had no resp­n­si­bil­ity on their shoul­ders and could sleep peace­fully at night, unlike him. They didn’t have nag­ging wives, lazy work­ers to man­age, dis­obe­di­ent chil­dren to raise. They didn’t know how cruel the world could be. They were so inno­cent and care­free! He lamented not being a child anymore.

Posted in children, psychology | 2 Comments

Idea and Embellishment

An idea or thought is pure and unadul­ter­ated. An idea can be about any­thing. It may lead to a trip, a fes­ti­val, a rev­o­lu­tion, a war, a book, or even poetry.

Unadul­ter­ated, an idea is just what it is, an idea — a thought.

But ideas and thoughts have become pow­er­less and inef­fec­tive on their own in our civ­i­liza­tion. Unless they are embellished.

Embell­ish­ing an idea or a thought takes many forms. What was the idea behind a fes­ti­val? Nobody remem­bers, we cel­e­brate the embell­ish­ment. What was the idea behind a book? We cel­e­brate the dis­cus­sions. the reviews, the book club dis­cus­sions, or the bans about it. What was the idea behind a pho­to­graph? We dis­cuss whether it was taken from an iPhone or a Sam­sung Galaxy S3 or an SLR and whether and what zoom lens was used. What was the idea behind com­pos­ing poetry? We adorn it with vocab­u­lary most don’t have. What was the idea behind a script that was made into a movie? We embell­ish it with music and songs and dance that have no integrity with the idea.

Adorn­ing any idea with an embell­ish­ment has become a way of life in our cul­ture. With­out embell­ish­ment, it seems, one can­not reach the mass audi­ence. Do we need to reach the mass audi­ence every time? We have lost the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate ideas to each other.

When was the last time you encoun­tered an idea with­out embellishment?

An idea can be at the level of genius. It is often orig­i­nal. We have come to dis­re­spect orig­i­nal­ity and dis­re­spect ideas. Even a god needs to be embell­ished by a huge church or a tem­ple with dozens of flow­ers, with­out which one is appar­ently not able to expe­ri­ence the god­li­ness. Embell­ish­ment is being used to draw atten­tion, rather than the idea itself.

We have come to want and need embell­ish­ment. But.

Embell­ish­ment turns an idea into mediocrity.

Posted in Humanities, philosophy | 14 Comments

Shala (2011) Movie Review

A refresh­ing break from all kinds of main­stream movies, Shala (2011) pro­vides a glimpse into teenage love dur­ing school­days, in a rural set­ting and back­drop of Maha­rash­tra, India. It is a movie that will take many Maha­rash­tri­ans on a trip down the nos­tal­gic lane.


The lead char­ac­ter is Mukund, a stu­dent in the 9th grade, who falls in love with the charm­ing girl, Shi­rod­kar. Mukund is among the bright­est in his class and the movie does a good job in por­tray­ing him as one of those who are intel­lec­tu­ally a level above their peers, with­out being snob­bish about it. There is the usual palette of teach­ers, from kind and lib­eral to the harsh dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ans, that one finds in any aver­age Indian school. There are the admon­ish­ing but lov­ing par­ents, and there are groups of class­mates who hang out together after school to secre­tively stare at the vil­lage girls as they pass by the road. There are lakes where one sits by the rocks in intro­spec­tion or for close talks with a friend, and there are moun­tains and sun­sets evok­ing the earthy fla­vors of rus­tic life. Diego Romero’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy cap­tures all this vividly, with a mix of close ups and vis­tas, with a level of sophis­ti­ca­tion that was absent in Marathi films for decades.

Teenage love is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject, and Shala’s endear­ing aspect to me is that it does jus­tice to it, treat­ing it with del­i­cacy and care. Teenage love is almost always sur­rep­ti­tious as it hap­pens under the sus­pi­cious super­vi­sion of grown-ups; it starts out in a psy­cho­log­i­cal state where one is unaware of it at the begin­ning and real­iza­tion dawns slowly; it is pure, dri­ven by romance and not lust; it is infan­tile in the sense that a meet­ing of the eyes feels like a pas­sion­ate kiss; and finally, it is almost always doomed to be lost for­ever. Shala encom­passes and treats all these aspects with sen­si­tiv­ity and charm.

Ketaki Mategaonkar’s cast­ing as the charm­ing Shi­rod­kar is a huge state­ment. She is not beau­ti­ful in any con­ven­tional sense, but the movie makes her beau­ti­ful as it makes you look at her through Mukund’s eyes. Mate­gaonkar does a pass­able job with her role, pri­mar­ily exud­ing shy­ness and charm, but also reveal­ing that unspo­ken acknowl­edg­ment of love in her eyes. On the other hand, Anshu­man Joshi’s per­for­mance as Mukund is the back­bone of the movie and he shoul­ders that respon­si­bil­ity with amaz­ing grace. He is mas­ter­ful in the entire reper­toire of emo­tions, and is a nat­ural actor.

Most of the back­ground cast of grown-ups do a pass­able job, with some scenes becom­ing awk­ward due to ama­teur­ish per­for­mances. The music is pleas­ant and unob­tru­sive for the most part, which is an achieve­ment in Marathi cin­ema. Sen­ti­men­tal­ity oozes beyond accept­able lim­its only once or twice, and the emo­tional quo­tient is held in admirable restraint through­out the movie.

All in all, a pleas­ant movie that could have been bet­ter with a bet­ter sup­port­ing cast, but nev­er­the­less can be enjoyed thoroughly.

Posted in Arts, cinema, India, marathi | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Mathematics and Music

Pierre de Fer­mat was born in in the first decade of the 17th cen­tury. He was an ama­teur math­e­mati­cian, but one who became very famous for his “Last The­o­rem”: no three pos­i­tive inte­gers a, b, and c can sat­isfy the equa­tion an + bn = cn for any inte­ger value of n greater than two. This decep­tively sim­ple the­o­rem, eluded a for­mal proof from the most gifted math­e­mat­i­cal geniuses for over three cen­turies. The the­o­rem was not proven until Sep­tem­ber 1994, when Andrew Wiles finally achieved his life­long ambi­tion and proved it.

Once a math­e­mat­i­cal the­o­rem is proved, it becomes like a law of nature. Plants are green, the sun is yel­low, the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled tri­an­gle is the sum of the squares of its two sides, and so on. There is no mys­tery about it, it doesn’t engage our minds any longer because there is noth­ing to engage, only to learn. Once you study it suf­fi­ciently to learn it, there is noth­ing else left to learn. Fermat’s chal­lenge to human­ity lasted over three cen­turies, but it is a chal­lenge no longer.

Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart was born in Jan­u­ary 1756. He is world famous for many of his com­po­si­tions. Over 250 years later, his com­po­si­tions still con­tinue to baf­fle lis­ten­ers. We can study a com­po­si­tion and learn it, but it will con­tinue to engage us and we will find there is yet more to learn. Our learn­ing of great com­po­si­tions is never complete.

Math­e­mat­i­cal truths are eter­nal and time­less. But the genius math­e­mati­cians who dis­cover them for the first time are dis­tanced from that truth. The beauty of the truth does not belong to the dis­cov­erer, it belongs to the universe.

Musi­cal com­po­si­tions are eter­nal and time­less too. But the genius com­poser who cre­ates them remains an inte­gral part of them. The beauty of the truth in great com­po­si­tions belongs as much to the com­poser as to the universe.

Math­e­mat­i­cal beauty is innate to the Uni­verse and gifted to mankind. Musi­cal beauty is cre­ated by man and gifted to the Universe.

Posted in Arts, music | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Kaande-Pohe Ritual in Maharashtra, India

In my cul­ture, when a prospec­tive bride­groom vis­its a prospec­tive bride in the con­text of an “arranged mar­riage”, it is a cus­tom for the girl to pre­pare “kaande-pohe” and the guy is sup­posed to then assess her cook­ing skills based on how good they have been pre­pared. (“Kaande” is Onions, “Pohe” is flat­tened rice). This is a cus­tom that has been fol­lowed for gen­er­a­tions, so much so, that we urban boys when jok­ing about prospec­tive cou­ples just men­tion “kaande-pohe” and the rest is understood.


I have always been curi­ous why it is this par­tic­u­lar, spe­cific prepa­ra­tion that has come to be asso­ci­ated with this mar­riage rit­ual. The answer, as always, lies in the agri­cul­tural and eco­nomic roots of Maharashtra.

This is a region where rice and jowari was plen­ti­ful. On the other hand, wheat was a del­i­cacy. “Poha” is flat­tened rice, that was used by bat­ter­ing rice at home in ancient times. It was read­ily avail­able any­where you went. Cha­p­ati, on the other hand, is made out of wheat, which was a lux­ury few could afford. Also, one fam­ily vis­it­ing a prospec­tive fam­ily was not a close enough acquain­tance for a full-fledge meal, in which cooked rice, and Bhakri would be served. Fam­i­lies often went scout­ing for mul­ti­ple brides in one day.

Onion (“kaanda”) and Pohe were guar­an­teed to be avail­able any­where you went. The need of the hour was for a sim­ple snack, eas­ily afford­able, whose ingre­di­ents were avail­able uni­ver­sally, irre­spec­tive of eco­nomic sta­tus. Thus, the rit­ual of the girl prepar­ing “Kaande-Pohe” became the ‘norm’.

Posted in culture, society, women | Tagged | 2 Comments