I love New York City with a passion, but as happens in any love affair, there are times when I cannot stand the place and wonder why I continue to live in this maddening city with its myriad aggravations. Just the other day, I had occasion to visit friends in a nice clean suburban place that had nice broad roads on which everybody drove nicely, and nice orderly supermarkets with nice wide aisles and nice ample parking. How nice it would be to live here, I thought, stretching out in a nice big room that looked out over a nice empty street. By the end of the day I had had my fill of niceness and was ready to embrace my beloved, mad, messy, noisy, crazily chaotic New York all over again.
And just last Sunday, I enjoyed a delectable couple of hours of food for the mind, soul and body, that reinforced to me just why I love this city so much. It was an evening that brought together science and art as part of a series called Entertaining Science at downtown Manhattan’s iconic Cornelia Street Cafe. The series is in its 14th year and is run by two extraordinary scientist - artists who pursue their passions in these seemingly disparate fields: Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, poet, playwright and philosopher, and Dave Sulzer, a neuroscientist and professor at Columbia University Medical Center who wears his artist’s hat under the name Dave Soldier, as whom he is a composer and musician across a variety of musical genres including jazz and western classical. Until his death last year, Oliver Sacks was actively involved in this series. And providing the encouragement, guidance, venue and ambiance for this and many other wonderful ventures is Robin Hirsch, a co-owner of the cafe and himself a writer and actor, who understands perfectly - and has acted on that awareness - that there is a need in this world for a space where writers, musicians, performers of every ilk, famous and not, can share their passion and talents with an audience. Cornelia Street Cafe has hosted a wonderfully eclectic range of events, including the Carnatic Sundays series, and keeps the bohemian spirit of the West Village vibrantly alive.
I have attended several of the Carnatic Sunday performances at Cornelia Street Cafe, but about the Entertaining Science series, I was shamefully ignorant until, a few weeks back, a dear friend and someone I admire very much, Neela Zareen, told me about it. Neela is an amazing young woman. I met her around 3 years back when I sang for her Kuchipudi Rangapravesham (debut performance) and since then our friendship has grown and deepened. Neela straddles the worlds of science and art with a dedication and pursuit of the highest standards that fill me with awe and admiration. She has a PhD in Neurobiology from Columbia University and is an accomplished dancer of Kuchipudi and Kathak. She had been invited to be the art part of the Entertaining Science program last Sunday that was dubbed The Dance of the Molecules. She was to perform Kuchipudi to (quoting from the program's announcement) “show how elements, such as intricate footwork, expressions and sculpturesque poses can be structured to weave complex events, ideas and emotions to tell a story”. The science portion was to be presented by Latha Venkataraman, a professor in the Applied Physics department at Columbia University, and her talk was to be about “how one creates circuits where the active element is a single-molecule, an inherently quantum mechanical piece of this world.”
Just reading these lines thrilled and excited me. Then another line in the blurb caught my attention: “Join us in our annual victory over the Super Bowl!”. I have lived in the United States for nearly 3 decades and have remained largely unmoved by and almost wholly ignorant about the entire Super Bowl spectacle - the hype, the ads, the food, the game itself. It took me the greater part of a decade to learn what exactly the Super Bowl was, and then, most years since, a kind and patient friend or family member has undertaken to explain to me the goings on on the football field. For just a few seconds, I come close to grasping the significance of the actions; for a heady moment all that mad running about and crashing into each other seem to make sense; and then the curtains close on that brief glimmer of understanding and all is darkness once again. So I was delighted to discover that there is a community of kindred spirits who are as indifferent as I am to the whole Super Bowl enterprise.
Neela wanted me to be the “sutradhar”, or narrator for her portion of the program and I was delighted to oblige. We talked about what we would like said and agreed that, in addition to a brief introduction about Indian classical dance in general and Kuchipudi in particular, and an explanation of each item that Neela would be dancing, there should be something that would link the two parts of the program, the physics and the dance, together. We decided that I should say something about the elements of Kuchipudi, and its structure and foundation, concepts that form an integral part of both the sciences and the arts.
And so it was that on Super Bowl Sunday, I made my way to Cornelia Street Cafe, at the other end of Manhattan from my Harlem home. The streets were largely empty of traffic; many people were no doubt settling in for an evening of football, food and friends. I arrived early, so that any mike-checking and other preliminaries could be dealt with and was introduced to a lively lot of characters, whose names and affiliations I promptly forgot. They were all in some way involved with the Entertaining Science series, that much I gathered and remembered. One of them, a delightful gnome of a man with twinkling eyes and an impish smile, came up to me and said, “I was told you sing Carnatic music. I love Carnatic music!” I have long ceased to be surprised by the range of people who have developed a passion for this music, and yet I was intrigued by his statement. I asked him how that came about and he told me a fascinating story.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he said, he was a student at Moscow University. Relations between India and the Soviet Union were very strong, and the Indian government sent students to Moscow University, known for its solid programs in science and technology. His roommate was a young man from Madras, Swaminathan, and the two struck up a close friendship. Swaminathan would play Carnatic music in their room, and he grew to love it. He also became friendly with the other Indian students who were there. Moscow, grim, cold, dreary, with its bland, unpalatable food, was a cause for unrelenting misery for the Indian students. If only they could have access to some spices, just a few basic ones, life would be so much more bearable. So this gentleman, whose wife was then in an embassy in Stockholm, arranged to have a suitcase full of spices to be despatched via diplomatic pouch from Delhi to Stockholm, and from there to Helsinki, and finally, Moscow. The spices were received with cries of joy by the Indian students, and life-long friendships were sealed.
The little gentleman recounted this tale with a sparkle in his eyes as he brought alive memories that were more than half a century old. Swaminathan returned to Madras, and he was invited to visit and stay with him which he did, several times. He went to many Carnatic music concerts, including one particularly memorable one by a young up-and-coming violinist whose name he couldn’t recall. Alas, Swaminathan passed away and he no longer had occasion to visit Madras. But his love for Carnatic music endured, and he was delighted to meet a fellow lover of this music.
Things got busy after that with all the last-minute tweaking and setting up that happens before any performance. The event space at Cornelia Street Cafe is tiny and cramped and decidedly unglamorous but it has a charm and allure of its own because there, the performers and the performances shine and all else fades to the background. There is nothing else to distract the audience. The space filled up fast and was alive with the buzz of conversation and friendship. And then it was 6pm and time to begin.
Robin Hirsch, the charismatic part-owner of the Cornelia Street Cafe got matters rolling. Crouched next to him so that he would remain invisible to the audience, his impish sparkle in full play, was my gentleman gnome. Robin Hirsh began by saying, “It’s not every day that I have a Nobel Laureate crouching at my feet”....I sat up. What?! This sweet, charming, utterly modest elf of a man was a Nobel Laureate??!! The Nobel Laureate, in the meantime, was grinning and pulling at the end of Robin Hirsch’s belt, which was dangling down. “And certainly”, continued Hirsch, “I have never had one attempting to pull my pants down! Ladies and Gentlemen, Roald Hoffmann, your host for this evening’s Entertaining Science program!” Enthusiastic applause as Roald Hoffmann rose with an alacrity that belied his age and acknowledged Hirsch and the audience with a broad smile.
I like to believe that truly brilliant people are never arrogant, because they know just how much they don’t know, how much there is left to learn, but alas, I fear I may be wrong. But Roald Hoffmann certainly strengthened my belief. Here was a man of ineffable brilliance, taking such delight in ordinary mischief, talking with engagement and enthusiasm with a nobody like me. How refreshing, how charming, how inspiring!
The program began with Latha Venkataraman’s presentation that she called the Dance of the Molecules, on how she and her fellow researchers attempted to take nanotechnology to its smallest possible level, that of the molecule. She spoke about how electronic devices and chips are getting ever smaller, faster and cheaper, but now a roadblock of sorts has been hit. Nanotechnology has to explore new frontiers if it is to continue the smaller-faster-cheaper trend, and the molecular level is as small as it can get. Latha’s work lies at the intersection of physics, chemistry and engineering, all at the most minuscule scale possible. She has succeeded in using a bottom-up approach to form circuits from single molecules that fit into a molecule’s width gap between two electrodes. How these molecules twist and “dance” affects the strength of the current they conduct.
I was awestruck by her talk, by her. People talk about the arts being creative, but creativity is just as critical a component in science. As I listened to Latha detail all the incredibly clever, ingenious ideas she developed, tried and rejected, the countless attempts she made, the trials and errors, the tedium and frustration of working in the dark with no visual proof or evidence of any of what she was trying, I wondered to myself, “How do you even think of these things?!”. For every tiny step forward in science, there are a thousand missteps, and the work demands endless creativity to think of different steps, new scenarios, another way forward.
Latha presented her work in terms that even somebody like me, with a pathetically wobbly grasp of science, could understand and appreciate.
The Dance of the Molecules over, it was time for a dance of a gazillion molecules, Neela’s Kuchipudi!
Kuchipudi is one of the eight classical dance forms of India. It gets its name from its place of origin, a small village in Andhra Pradesh called Kuchipudi. I adore this dance. I have watched it several times - but not often enough - while growing up in Madras, and to this day vividly remember being mesmerized by amazing performers like Yamini Krishnamurthy, Swapna Sundari, and the dancing couple with the soap-operatic life story, Raja and Radha Reddy. I love it for its unabashed coquettishness and unrestrained sensuality, its effervescent joyousness that sets it apart from what I think of as its more prim and proper sibling, Bharata Natyam.
Kuchipudi was originally practiced by male Brahmins. An interesting incongruity was that in this dance, performed primarily by males, female roles and characters were predominant. The men who depicted them took to performing with an exaggerated sensuousness, perhaps to mask their maleness. Unburdened by the myriad societal mores and norms that constrained women and their behavior, they had the freedom from fear of social opprobrium to be very explicit in their portrayal of erotic sentiments. In the 1950s, one of the greatest legends of Kuchipudi, Vempati Chinna Satyam, left Kuchipudi village for Madras, the hub of dance in South India. A brilliant pioneer, he introduced the style to women, breaking the bonds of male dominion over this form. Initially, shocked perhaps by the open eroticism of the dance, audiences criticized it for being vulgar and crude. Vempati Chinna Satyam and others responded by toning down this aspect of the dance and making it more palatable for an urban, more uptight public.
For her performance at Cornelia Street Cafe, Neela performed three short items: a Ganesha Slokam, invoking the blessings of the elephant-headed, broken-tusked, pot-bellied Ganesha; next was the high-energy Koluvai Unnade that described Lord Shiva and the earth-shattering power and energy of his cosmic dance; and finally, a thillana, another item full of verve and fire, this one depicting the Goddess Durga, whose compassionate tenderness can turn to searing rage in a flash.
I tried to link the two parts of the program with my introduction. Here is what I said:
The ideas of structure, foundation and the elements are crucial components of both science and the arts and find meaning and expression in very different ways in these areas. The three major elements of Indian classical dance are natya or drama; nritya, which is mime or expression; and nritta or pure dance. The foundation and structure are provided by the movements of every part of the body, the guidelines for which have their origins in an ancient text called the Natya Sastra. Indian classical dance is believed to have evolved from divinity and has been linked with gods and goddesses for generations. These dances were very often performed in temples, and mostly depicted stories from the epics, Puranas and other mythological accounts, thus making them a great medium for the people to understand their themes, messages and stories. Of the eight distinct styles of Indian classical dance, Kuchipudi is a well-known tradition originating from the state of Andhra Pradesh. This evening’s repertoire was chosen to convey to the audience how movements of the limbs and expression, built on the structural foundation of poetry, music and rhythm, can shape the narrative and evoke sentiments. Today’s dancer, Neela Zareen, learns Kuchipudi from Smt. Sadhana Paranji.
Neela danced brilliantly. The stage was tiny, but that did not restrict or restrain her in any way. She was nervous - and understandably so. After all, this stage has played host to many legends, including Suzanne Vega, Oliver Sacks and members of the Monty Python troupe. But once the music came on, she immersed herself in the dance and did herself, and Kuchipudi, proud.
It was a wonderful evening, just another New York Sunday!