Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cobwebs, Cobras and Luck

The other day, the main door of our house happened to be closed for an unusually long time in the evening. I happened to be the first one to open the door, and walked straight into a cobweb. I "Ewww!"ed and went hastily inside, wiping my face and neck. My Mother-in-law saw this and said "You know, walking into cobwebs is supposed to be very lucky". I felt a little better. (No, cobwebs are not common in our house :D)

But that got me thinking. I am not aware if this happens in other cultures also, but some very unpleasant things are regarded as lucky in India. Take, for example, the sighting of a cobra with its hood raised. That is supposed to be a very good thing to happen to somebody. Of course, I assume that this works only if the person keeps his/her head and walks away from it and not towards it, in reach of its fangs! There are loads of other such superstitions(?) about not-so-pleasant things, like squint-eyes and wisdom teeth growing at awkward angles.

I wonder what the reason is, behind this. I can think of one explanation. It is probably just a way to make a person feel better about an unpleasant experience. Imagine what it would do to the morale of the squint-eyed person if someone referred to him as, you know, the lucky one! Suppose somebody is shaken because of his encounter with a cobra, what is a better way to console him than to say "You know, you're really lucky!"?

That said, what is luck? We wish others luck before exams and before weddings. We carry lucky pens that hardly write and wear lucky dresses that are ragged. And at home, I am not allowed to watch any cricket match when India is playing, because that's supposed to be bad luck for the Indian team. I really wonder how much more presumptuous we can get, thinking that one person watching or not watching India play can influence their victory or defeat.

Is it a good idea to make Team India visit the Snake Park before their upcoming match against Australia? :))

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What the Indian wore

When I was reading Aram's comments on an old post, I felt that I had to write something about dressing, however ill-qualified I am to write about good dressing. I am like Bertram Wooster writing 'What the well-dressed man is wearing', while wearing a bright red cummerbund. However, here goes...

The celebrated commentator on Kalidasa's works, Mallinatha, was once teased by a few urchins about his tattered clothes. Immediately Mallinatha retorted "kim vAsasA chIkiri-bAkirENa ... vaiduShyamekaM viduShaam sahaayam" (= what if the clothes are tattered, ... knowledge is the only companion of the learned). Clothes, though often derided as superficial and a token of vanity in both men and women, reflect the culture of the society.

Even from very ancient times, the traditional dress of the Indian male has remained unchanged. A dhoti and an uttareeya are enough to dress him elegantly. Some men wear turbans and other head-dresses, but I do not know if it is common. Shaving the head of all hair except a tuft called shikhe, is required. This is mostly the mark of professional priests, these days. But folks at ISKCON also sport a shikhe. I know of a gentleman in the US who crops his hair regularly, but leaves a few hair intact.

The distinction between a brahmachaari and grihastha in the matter of dress, itself is a nice thing to know. In the uddhava gIta in the twelfth skanda of the Bhaagavatam, some rules are laid down for the brahmachaari to follow. A brahmachaari is not supposed to shave his beard or moustache, not supposed to look at himself in the mirror and not apply perfume. In short, he is not supposed to pay any attention to how he looks. His sole aim should be to learn. (My Mom actually enforced this rule of no-alankaara on us when we were students, though we were girls!) Only after he completes his education, when he becomes a snaataka (graduate), is he to pay attention to his dress.

As far as I know, the grihastha is required to be clean-shaven and should always wear the uttareeya (the upper garment). The uttareeya can be worn in different ways - put on the left shoulder and wrapped around the chest from below the right arm, so that the right shoulder* is exposed, or draped around the shoulders so that the back is covered. Some people tie the uttareeya around their waist, because it is convenient.

In the olden days, it was necessary to wear clothes that were not stitched (asyUta-vastra). DVG, in his 'vaidika-dharma sampradAyastharu' remembers Chandrashekhara Avadhaani, tying up all the torn places in his dhoti, because stitching was not allowed. Even now, some people follow the no-stitching rule, but it is restricted only for times when religious ceremonies have to be performed.

As it is to be expected, women even in the olden times were fond of adorning themselves. Hardly any sanskrit poem is bereft of the description of women's dresses. Kalidaasa mentions lip-paint (OShTharAgaH) in Vikramorvsheeyam. In both Raghuvamsham and kumArasambhavam, he describes incompletely dressed ladies rushing out to see the newly-weds, Aja and Indumati in the former and Shiva-Parvati in the latter. In the fourth act of shaakuntalam, he describes various garments and jewels that the trees of the forest brought forth, to adorn Shakuntala.

When it comes to clothes, unlike the men's, women's dress has undergone a lot of change. In the olden days, women also used to wear un-stitched clothes. As far as I know, it used to be a three-piece garment. But now, the traditional dress is the sari and a blouse. While dhotis are worn in the same way throughout India, there are at least ten different ways to wear a sari. In Karnataka itself, we have the Kodagu type, the North-Karnataka-type of kacche and the usual city-way. Bengalis, Tamilians, Maharashtrians all wear their sarees in distinctive ways. While women in many parts of North India cover their heads with their pallus, South Indian women (except in North Karnataka, I guess) do not. This custom is probably because of the weather, or because of repeated invasions of North India by outsiders.

To quote a cliche, change is the only constant thing in life. Old costumes give way for new ones, which give way for newer ones. Fashion should always follow comfort. But it is always nice to reminisce about old costumes, just like old times. While we cannot relive old times, we can still wear the old costumes, right?

*The right shoulder is regarded as the place where Gods enter the body at birth. A part of the first samskaara, jaatakarma, is medhaajanana, where the father touches the right shoulder of his just-born, before the umbilical cord is cut. Supposedly, this will make the child follow the tradition of the father. This information from Devudu's mahaadarshana.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Jaiajaiavanti, Dvijavanti and Dikshitar

Hindustani and Carnatic raagas are often easily distinguishable. While Carnatic raagas use all kinds of gamaka (kampita, jaaru and flat notes without gamaka), Hindustani music has more of jaaru gamaka and flat notes. This difference in the nature of the raagas itself, however, has not prevented Carnatic musicians from adopting Hindustani raagas and viceversa.

Muttuswami Dikshitar, a revered name in Carnatic music, belonged to a family of glorious experimenters, whose creations thrive even to this day. His brother, Baluswami Dikshitar, brought violin to Carnatic music as a side-instrument (pakkavAdya). His father, Ramaswami Dikshitar, created Hamsadhvani, an extremely popular raga. Muttuswami Dikshitar's erudition in Sanskrit, Shrividya, Vedas, Astrology and many other branches of knowledge, resulted in some of the finest compositions in Carnatic music. 'akshayalinga vibho' of Shankaraabharana, 'maanasa guruguharUpam bhaja re' in Anandabhairavi, 'mInAkshi me mudam dEhi' of pUrvikalyANi and a few other kritis of his are my favorites. And I added a new favorite to my list just today. 'chetaH shrI bAlakrishnam bhaja re' is a very beautiful kriti by Dikshitar. It is set in Dvijaavanti, the Carnatic adaptation of the Hindustani raga Jaijaivanti.

When I heard the name 'jaijaivanti', I could not place it immediately. Then a google search told me that the song 'manmohana bade jhoothe' from the movie 'Seema', was set in the same raaga. (Is it coincidence that today is Krishnajanmaashtami, and all the songs I come across are related to Lord Krishna? Incidentally, 'manmohana...' is also one of my favorites.) It is a night raaga, born from the Khamaj thaat. The scale is (from
Sa Ri2 Ga2 R2 Sa Dha2 Ni2 Pa Ri2, Ga3 Ma Pa, Ni3 Sa
Sa Ni3 Dha2 Pa, Dha2 Ma, Ga3 Ri ga2 Ri2 Sa

The modern Dvijavanti is a direct derivative of the raaga jaijaivanti. However, Dvijavanti (named thus because of two 'jai's in the name) as conceived by Dikshitar, though said to be derived from Jaijaivanti, resembles not only jaijaivanti but also sahana in some places, and yadukulakaambhoji in some others. The result is a mellifluous melody which leaves one with longing for the divine child of Yashoda. (I could not find the scale for Dikshitar's Dvijavanti. Will post as soon as I find it.)

In the kriti 'chetaH shrI balakrishnam', Dikshitar has used the mood from all the three ragas in a masterly way. The first line of the charaNa, 'navanIta-gandhavAha-vadanam' (= one whose mouth smells of butter), the svaras are arranged in such a way as to remind one of cold breeze. Not a wind, not a tempest or a storm, but just pleasing, soft and cool breeze. In fact, this is the greatness of Dikshitar. The mood of his music always enriches the mood of the sahitya, and viceversa.

My salutations to Dikshitar and his Dvijavanti on the day of Gokulashtami.