Our first salon had been a dream come true for me. For years, I had imagined hosting an evening of music, dance, poetry, literature and animated discussion, and the salon, when it finally happened, was outstandingly fulfilling beyond my wildest fantasies. I could have happily basked in the success of this salon for an indefinite length of time, but then the requests and questions started trickling in. When are you having the next salon? I missed the first salon, could you please have another one? I heard all about this salon thing from a friend of a friend and would love to be invited to the next one. And then, from my fellow salon hosts, much younger and infinitely more energetic and industrious than I was, am, or ever will be, an email which countenanced no excuses, dithering or procrastination. The email presented Salon 2 as a fait accompli, complete with date, and a theme: conflict.
And so the second of the Harlem Salons took place, on a frigid night in early March, a night when winter brooked no conflict with spring and established in no uncertain terms who was boss and who held the reins of control over the elements. Spirits were high as old friends - and those formed from the last salon - greeted each other and new friendships were forged. Food, wine, laughter and camaraderie banished the winter blues, and the salon got under way with a reading of passages from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Very soon a heated discussion was underway as Dawkins worshippers and haters argued and crossed swords. A livelier start could not have been hoped for!
The dragon's breath of conflict smolders through every aspect of life and has found expression in every form of human communication. From the clash between science and religion we meandered into the territory of love and emotions, to the ageless story of broken hearts and squabbling lovers. An ancient dance form, Kuchipudi, vividly illuminated the conflicting - and perennially relevant - kaleidoscope of feelings, the desire, the anger, the frustration, the angst of a woman whose lover knocks at her door hours past the time he was supposed to arrive.
We wandered back and forth through time, poetry, music, dance and literature and essays. We marveled at the steadfast, unbending love of Andal for her lord, Vishnu, and the conflicts it posed with the mundane realities and expectations of the earthly realm. We listened to tales of caste conflicts narrated by the Tamil writer Kalki with beautiful simplicity that tugged at the heartstrings.
We read Ivan Ilich’s blistering essay To Hell with Good Intentions in which he laid bare the hypocrisy - as he saw it - of the well-intentioned do-gooder who ventures to poorer lands to sow the seeds of the American Dream and ideals. Proclaiming them no more than “vacationing salesmen for the middle-class American way of life”, he expounds on his belief that these volunteers are patronizing and pretentious, with no more than a shallow understanding of the life, values and culture of the people they so pompously set out to “help” and “save”. It is a powerful, thought-provoking piece of writing, and it resulted in a lengthy debate, in turns somber and spirited, of the points it raised. Many of the people at the salon had done precisely the type of volunteer work that Ivan Ilich condemned and it was a testament to their open-mindedness and fairness that they engaged in the discussion of his essay in the spirit of honest introspection.
A short break to refuel ourselves with more food and drink, and then the salon continued, on into the wee hours of the morning. We enjoyed a tender, soulful rendering of Thyagaraja’s Dwaitamu Sukhama, Advaitamu Sukhama in which he wonders, in song, which of two conflicting philosophies, dwaitam, with its belief in the separate identities of god and the human soul, or advaitam, which holds the opposite viewpoint, that they are one and the same, an inextricably entwined singularity, brings contentment and fulfillment. The haunting notes of Reetigowla were the perfect medium for the message, for this existential query. We discussed Amitav Ghosh's novel, The Shadow Lines, set amid the conflicts of the partition of India, the Second World War and the riots in Bengal in the 1960s.
People left, others wandered in. One young man came in red-eyed and disheveled, long after the midnight hour had passed, straight off a flight from India and proceeded to regale us with stories of his conflict between pain and ambition, between the fragility of the physical body and the toughness of the mind. He was a long-distance runner, in America to run an impossibly difficult 100 mile race through harsh terrain and weather conditions.
The promise of a new day brightened the horizon when this salon finally ended. A rollicking good time was had by all. We were well and properly bitten by the salon bug and it was just a matter of time before we started planning our next one. For the third salon, we tried something completely different. We created a virtual thought chamber in which ideas bounced off each other creating a chain reaction of impressions, interpretations and thoughts. Kalidasa, our wandering poet and Sanskritist started things off with a Tamil poem by Bharatidasan which he translated into English:
It happened on the verandah.
His eyes were fixed intently on his work,
While with a glance fresh as a flower on a stream
She drank him in, this vision of beauty.
In that moment, her doe-eyes struck his eyes,
Lifted just then from his studies, and darted away:
She stood, adjusting her garment,
While he turned through a thousand pages
The universe of possibilities suggested by the tiniest of events was what attracted Kalidasa to this poem.
To this Tejomaya, the Courtesan of Sentences, responded with an interview excerpt from Steven Millhauser:
"[T]he world is there, presenting itself to us ceaselessly, and yet it remains largely invisible. I remember being struck by a passage in a philosophy book that pointed out how no object is completely present to sight. If you look at a cube, you can see only three sides. The passage went on to distinguish seeing from imagining—in imagination, I immediately apprehend all six sides—but for me the simple fact that objects don’t reveal themselves completely to sight became a symbol of the general invisibility of the world. Even the three visible sides of a cube are barely visible if, when it hits your sight, you happen to be meditating the murder of your wife’s lover. And what about hollow cubes, like houses, that contain invisible spaces, filled with unseen things that we can only guess at? To say nothing of cubes that once were there and are there no longer. We walk through a world continually disappearing from view. One thing fiction does is restore the hidden and vanishing world. It makes the blind see. It gives us the mystic’s vision: the universe in a grain of sand."
Tejomaya saw the Bharatidasan poem as a galaxy of of nothings, somethings, and everythings.Those thousand pages he turns, are like a "world continually disappearing from view." A flash of action, or thought, diffused by infinity. Time in the Bharatidasan poem, and time in storytelling, are erratic -- and therefore thrilling -- metronomes.
It was now my turn to react to these two gems presented to me. And the first thing that came to mind was the song Yaaro Ivar Yaaro. The Steven Millhauser passage wrote about the world presenting itself to us, yet remaining invisible. I thought of the converse: where we see, but know not what we see. In this song, a man catches sight of a beautiful woman (or it could be a woman glimpsing a handsome man) and wonders who she might be.
The song is from the 18th century Tamil poet Arunachala Kavi's Rama Natakam, a drama composed of a string of episodes and stories from the Ramayana. The song Yaaro Ivar Yaaro is sung when Rama and Lakshmana, accompanied by Vishwamitra, arrive in Mithila, the capital city of King Janaka, the father of the beautiful Janaki (Sita). The two - Rama and Sita - catch a glimpse of each other; there is an electric ripple of attraction, with a subtle undercurrent of deja vu from having been together for aeons in lives past. At the more immediate, urgent level, this magnetic pull urges them to want to find out more; at a more profound level, the song is a reflection on the mystery and wonder of a human being. Do we really know who anybody really is?
Here is a version of this song, sung by D.K. Pattammal. The raga alapanai in Bhairavi that precedes it sets the stage for the song to follow. It threads together reverie, wonderment, enchantment, mystery and beauty, all of which find concrete expression in the song.
Here is a rough translation of the lyrics of this song:
Who can this be? What could her name be? I do not know!
In this beautiful city of Mithila, with its bounteous clouds and symbols of wealth,
Who is this, standing in front of the ladies chambers of the palace?
With her moon-like face turned towards me, is she looking at me?
We have loved each other in times past, and now she is here, before my eyes.
Carried aloft virtual carrier pigeons, these three loosely strung together ideas were dispatched into cyberspace, to alight gently into the email inboxes of the salon’s invitees along with this comment :
Those of you who attended the previous salon may remember that we explored the theme of "conflict" through poetry, song, dance, literature, philosophy and religion. This time we have both broadened and narrowed the topic by presenting you with three pieces of art, rather than a single theme. The three pieces are below -- 2 pieces of text and 1 song -- and we invite you to respond to them: connect them, disconnect them, contradict them, re-translate them. Do it through music, dance, literature, poetry, theatre, painting, any artistic medium you choose.The floor is yours!
The theme was ambiguous enough to spawn a delightful range of responses. It was fascinating to see the varied journeys through music, dance, literature, poetry, philosophy and science that people were inspired to take by a particular angle, or aspect, of the theme.
My parents were with us, and this salon was hosted specially for them. My mother got things underway with a beautiful, tragic poem by William Wordsworth, Laodamia. The song Yaaro Ivar Yaaro aroused in her the memory of this poem from her school days, in which the awe, wonder and joy that Rama and Sita felt when they set eyes upon each other was matched by another beholder at another time, place and moment.
The poem tells the story of Laodamia, the wife of the Greek hero Protesilaus who sacrificed himself as the first victim of the Trojan War so that the Greek army might be victorious, in fulfillment of the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi. Devastated with grief by the death of her beloved Protesilaus, she implores “celestial pity” to restore him to her sight. Moved, the gods allow her a three hour gift of time with him. How beautifully Wordsworth describes her first sight, her glimpse, of her dead husband:
Oh terror! what hath she perceived?- O joy!
What doth she look on? Whom doth she behold?
Her Hero slain upon the beach of Troy?
His vital presence? His corporeal mould?
It is - if sense deceive her not - ‘tis He!
And a God leads him, winged Mercury!
The idea of a glance, the sight of a loved one - these are themes present, but in such disparate circumstances, in both the song, Yaaro Ivar Yaaro and the poem, Laodamia. (As an aside, I was surprised to see that many of the young people at the salon had never read any Wordsworth; I suppose that with so much more that they have to learn these days, one dead English poet knocked off the list should not be a big deal.)
The motif of the glance was then explored in Adi Shankara’s Kanakadhara Strotram, a series of verses beseeching the goddess Mahalakshmi to bestow the devotee with a glance, a glance that would engender a shower of wealth. Let her who is the Goddess of all good things Grant me a glance that will bring prosperity. It was a joy to listen to young Kalidasa, who was born and raised in the United States, recite these beautiful lines with so much fervor and feeling, and perfect pronunciation.
While discussing the theme with my daughter, she, the mathematician and science lover that she is, latched onto the “invisible world” mentioned by Millhauser, but, in a twist that revealed how fascinatingly diverse people’s thinking and responses can be, she thought of the quantum world of atoms and subatomic particles. She is also an ardent devotee of Alice in Wonderland, both the book and the Disney version, and in between solving inhumanly difficult mathematical problems, she can be seen rolling on the floor with laughter over some scene in the book or the movie. One such scene is the Mad Tea Party, in which the Mad Hatter asks Alice, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Well, here’s the answer:
Hello there, everyone, I’m the Cat in the Hat
I’m here so that we can all have a nice chat
I have a strange tale to tell,
Getting you to believe it will be quite a hard sell.
It’s a tale that’s a real paradox,
A story about a cat who was put in a box.
A box, you say, in horror and shock,
You mean, he couldn’t even go for a walk?
Oh, calm down, you’ll see it wasn’t so bad,
There’s really no reason to get this mad.
Besides, this tale is from the 1930s
At a time when animal rights were no big cheese.
So there was this super smart physicist,
Who tried to study how different states of matter could coexist.
He is famous for his equation of the function of the wave,
That displayed the likelihood of how a particle might behave.
Schrodinger is his name and he studied the most infinitesimal of things,
Of quantum physics he, Bohr, Heisenberg, DeBroglie and Dirac were the kings.
Ah, quantum physics, its concepts are so difficult to learn,
Wave particle dualities, mass, amplitude, there’s so much to discern.
Dealing with the tiniest elements of life,
In the world of physics they have caused much strife.
But I have strayed from my original tale,
It’s something so strange it will make you quail.
So let’s say we have a cat in a box,
A box firmly closed with several locks.
With the cat are a poison-filled flask
And some radioactive substance in a small cask.
And now at last, some action, perhaps,
Maybe an atom decays after some time has elapsed.
Maybe the flask shatters, the poison drips out,
It should kill our cat - but there’s a doubt,
Is it alive? Is it dead? And here lies the paradox
Of our protagonist, the cat in the box.
Things get curiouser and curiouser as Alice would say,
From the simple probable act of an atom’s decay.
Thanks to an idea called superposition,
We have an astounding paradox about the cat’s condition,
For until we open that box and measure and observe,
Judgement about the cat’s state we must reserve.
Until then the cat is both alive and dead,
Now do you see why the confusion is widespread?
I think Schrodinger has the last laugh and such acclamation,
With his quantum states reductio ad absurdum speculation.
Now that I’ve teased you and messed with your mind,
I’ll leave you with a question that has intrigued mankind,
Why is a raven like a writing desk? asked the Mad Hatter
Why, they’re both waves and particles, dual states of matter!
There was so much more - dancing, graceful, sinuous Kuchipudi, with Vilasini choreographing a poem by Tagore just for this salon, about the longing that Radha feels for a glance of love from Krishna. We enjoyed an amazing recital of Carnatic music with the singer accompanied, for want of a percussion instrument, by konnakkol, or vocal percussion. Why don’t we see and hear this more often, particularly in a chamber setting? It was mesmerizing. And so it went on, and the salon wound to a close long after I fell asleep. The young ones did the cleaning up, and a great job they did of it!
I will make but a brief mention of our 4th salon, which took place just last month. One of our salon regulars, an amazing young lady who is a physicist and dancer and avid reader and one of the nicest people I know, was returning to India and wanted one last salon before her departure. And she picked the theme, somewhat apt, given the circumstances: Exile.
I would say this was our best salon so far. We had people from Egypt, Lebanon and Sweden in addition to the Americans and Indians and Indian-Americans, and it was poignant to see that every single person present felt a keen sense of exile, a sense of not quite belonging. And they expressed this through song, poetry, dance, literature. The Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, in both of which exile figure so prominently, were delved into through song (Swati Thirunal’s lovely Bhavayami Raghuramam), dance ( a Kuchipudi shabdam with episodes from the Ramayana) and dialogue (where their quality of understanding of these epics impressed me); there were readings from Edward Said, stunning poetry written by two of our participants, one, utterly unique and brilliant about the exile of city and desert from each other; the other, about an immigrant from her country of birth. We had the oud with Lebanese songs, and a rousing number from Sweden.
I have gone on for too long. Now, you tell me, what would you have to sing, or dance, or talk about, apropos our topics? Imagine you were a guest at one or all of the salons. What would you have shared with us?