The Balladeer: Sharif Idu

Harmonium

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Sharif Idu is probably the most widely known dhadhi singer in India. Of course, dhadhi is not a massively popular genre. Least of all in the urban, recorded-music consuming markets of India. So the word ‘widely’ needs to be tempered somewhat.

Dhadhi is a genre of traditional music performed mostly in Punjab and some border areas of Rajasthan and Haryana. Its natural audience lives and works in the agricultural villages and small towns of Punjab. While the recent folk music revival in India has given artists like Sharif Idu more ‘fame’ than they would normally enjoy, dhadhi, like so many other indigenous, local forms of singing and playing music is struggling to withstand the forces of digitally-consumed commercial popular music.

Punjab is blessed with an incredibly rich traditional/folk culture which includes a number of distinct styles of singing and playing music. While certain geographic areas of the State are…

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Road Stories: Eating Ash

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After a breakfast of cold TBJ (toast butter jam) at one of the several ‘hippie cafes’ that lined the narrow tarmac road running along Puri’s beachfront, I walked down to the station to buy a newspaper. When I arrived however, I was informed that as today is the day after Republic Day there are no papers.

 

On my way back to the café I stopped to observe a sadhu who was holding court outside a colourfully decorated low-ceilinged temple not far from the entrance to the station.

 

He was toking up when I arrived. The chilam was offered to me but I declined. A group of rickshaw walas and assorted young men squatted in a semi circle near him. Each drew deep on the pipe as it made the rounds.

 

I asked them if they weren’t afraid that the police would round them up.

 

This has been purchased under a government license. No problem.

 

A man with rotting teeth told me that smoking hash was essential to the people’s daily existence. Some people eat paan, others smoke ganja, some like bhang, others charas. Its all for digestion of the food. It is necessary.

 

I reply that I get paranoid when I smoke it.

 

They all laugh. Their tired red eyes remain motionless while their faces move in different ways.   Like all addicts, they agree that moderation is the attitude to be employed. But they exclude themselves from their own advice with a shrug of the shoulders.

 

I am told the sadhu has not spoken for 12 years.

 

He has four more to go before his vow is complete.

 

I wonder if he will still remember how to form words after 16 years of silence.

 

He communicates through gestures and a penetrating gaze but cracks an engaging smile once in a while. His sidekick, also a sanyasi, seems to have sworn the opposite vow: to talk as much as he can in as short a space as possible.

 

He interprets the silent one’s flailing arms and pointing fingers. He details their recent past and spells out their future intentions. (They are headed to Nepal, next). The sidekick tells of fabulous bright silver coins and good charas in Kashmir.

 

We sleep wherever we find a spot. A sanyasi has no home.

 

Do you travel by foot, I ask.

 

He laughs. No. No. No. We are sanyasis. We go by train. Whoever has heard of a sadhu paying for his travel.

 

As I leave, the silent one pinches some ashes from his smoldering fire and signals that I should smear it on my forehead, which I do.

 

Sidekick then rattles, Now swallow the rest.

 

I hesitate but do as he says. I walk away with a gritty taste in my mouth.

 

The Voice of the Golden Age: Noor Jehan

Fresh musings on 1971, war, generals, films and the stellar voice of Noor Jehan.

Harmonium

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1971 was not a very good year for Pakistan. Fighting their third war with India, the Generals, who had grabbed power more than a decade earlier, managed to lose half of the country’s territory and nearly half its population in a matter of a few weeks.

1971, on the other hand, was a very good year for the fledging country that emerged out of the debacle, Bangladesh.

Away from the battlefields and political humiliation that saw the military pushed back to the barracks and the capture of tens of thousands of prisoners of war, the Pakistani cinema industry had been enjoying a pretty neat run.

Indian films had been banned several years earlier which, regardless of your views on such policies, had enlivened the local, Lahore and Karachi based industry. A Golden Age had dawned. Between 1968 and 1971 the country was releasing over a hundred films a year, many…

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The Three Friends: Call of the Valley

An absolute MUST HAVE for any music collection.

Harmonium

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Among the handful of Indian records that have found a significant audience in the ‘west’, Call of the Valley is undoubtedly the most loved. Listeners gush when they talk about it, indulging in multiple superlatives and 5 star ratings. It’s no surprise that George Harrison, the quiet and Hindu Beatle, loved the record. But when one considers that grumpy old Bob Dylan has given it a thumbs up as well, one does take notice.

The album, released nearly half a century ago in 1967, does deserve its reputation as a classic. Probably no other album of South Asian music has sold as many copies. The general consensus is if you only have room for a single Hindustani classical record in your collection, Call of the Valley must be it.

My first encounter with the album came in the 70s when a cassette came my way in wintery Minnesota. I missed…

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3 Fantastic Urban Photographers from India

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Landscape photography is a venerable old art. Who doesn’t love a shot of the sun going down over a beach or the same sun rising brilliantly over Nanga Parbat?

For most of us, the way we imagine a country, at least initially, is through images of its land. We like to know how high its mountains are and how fast its rivers flow. When we visit a travel agent, we flip through brochures covered with landscapes. For some reason we equate country with land. And based on photographs of sunsets, green fields, rugged mountains or rugged farms, we convince ourselves we have an idea of a place.

But in a country like India that is rocketing forward in its urbanisation, is the natural landscape still the best way to capture its soul?

Within 15 years, nearly 600 million Indians will be city dwellers. While today, only about 32% live in urban areas, the economy is largely urbanised. India’s cities are bursting and new ones will be sprouting up by the dozen if government planners are to be believed. Statistically, India may yet be a rural country, but energetically, it is a pumping urban nation.

In a situation like this, traditional landscape photography seems to be less relevant to grasping the essence of India. If the heart of the nation is its cities, what does photography tell us of that India?

Urban landscape photography is nothing new but it has become somewhat more codified in recent years. It is photography that seeks to find a country’s essential sprit through the way it lays out, develops, and manages its cities. The landscape in question is not the natural world but the physical world of concrete, steel, glass and plastic. And unlike traditional landscape photography its purpose is not necessarily to depict an idealised image of the scene.

Urban photography is, more often than not, photography of the ugly, the “in-the-way”, the dilapidated and the abandoned. Alienation is never faraway. Where there is beauty it is usually accidental. It is a photography not suited to travel brochures. But when done by talented photographers it is exciting stuff. [Full article originally published in Scroll.in]

The Design Mind behind Hipstamatic

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Several years ago, I began experimenting with an ancient Samsung mobile phone camera. The ridiculously cheap lens and complete absence of functionality produced quirky lo-fi – short for low fidelity, typically taken with poor-quality equipment – images that delighted me in a way SLR photography had not for years.

In just a few years and with an irresistible inevitability, mobile phone photography has gone from fringe to mainstream. Photo apps have stormed the kingdom of photography and dethroned the SLR.

About a decade ago, a camera was a minor feature on your phone. Today, Apple markets itself through giant reproductions of images taken with its iPhone 6.

But in late 2009, before the first photo had ever been posted on Instagram, an app designed to look like an old-fashioned camera went on sale on the Apple Store. The name appealed to a generation that wanted to be cool and sought something easy to use. Hipstamatic had arrived.

For the wired generation, it was love at first sight. Within a couple of years, more than four million people had downloaded the app. Hipstamatic groups sprouted around the globe. Exclusive Hipsta competitions and exhibitions were established. And for the first time, professional photographers admitted to using an app on assignment.

With its interchangeable lenses, assorted films, oddball flash guns and brightly coloured cases, Hipstamatic introduced an artist’s sensibility to photographic gear. The eccentricity of analogue toy cameras had been updated for the digital era. Hipstamatic’s mission seemed to be to make so-called ugly images beautiful. Light leaks, frayed and torn borders, overexposure and problematic focus were, it seemed, just what the times required.

Today, Instagram may monopolise the social media space for retro/lo-fi photography but Hipstamatic remains the photographer’s choice when it comes to apps. A lot of Hipstamatic’s appeal lies not just in the retro feel of the camera and the ever-growing volume of films and lenses but in its aesthetic.

Hipstamatic has style. Each lens looks as if it has been lovingly handcrafted by an expert artisan. Every film is unique and comes packaged in its own box. Both have a back story, often inspired by professional photographers that the developers particularly admire.

The app has an India connection too. Although all of Hipstamatic’s founders are design professionals, it’s the Creative Director Aravind Kaimal whose vision is most visible on Hipstamatic.

Kaimal was born in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the South Indian state of Kerala, and spent his childhood drawing. Tintin, the hero of a comic series by Belgian cartoonist George Remi, and his dog Snowy, served as the inspiration for much of his art at the time.

At the age of 17, Kamal landed in the US and went to art school in Chicago. At his first job, he crossed paths with graphic designer Lucas Buick, who, years later, asked for Kaimal’s help in designing a new photo app, tentatively named Hipstamatic. And the rest, as they say, is history. [Full interview with Aravind Kaimal here]

Everybody must get stoned

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The exact moment that India finally embraced Flower Power is captured forever in the hypnotic and groping guitar riff that opens the hippie anthem “Dum Maro Dum” in the film Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971).

That this cultural milestone was designed by director and film lead Dev Anand to warn Indians about the loose, drug-addled lifestyle of hippies, rather than embrace it, is the very definition of irony.

“Dum Maro Dum” became an instant hit. Along with Asha Bhosle’s sultry vocals, the acrid smell of charas (hashish) seemed to seep out of radios all across North India. The composer, RD Burman, used the song as a platform to fly at the loftiest levels of popular music for the next 15 years. A young Zeenat Aman, on whom the song had been picturised, shot to “national sexpot” status overnight. Even Anand confessed he had fallen in love with his co-star.

The song remains one of Bollywood’s all-time favourites, as evergreen as eternal young man Dev Anand himself.

Over the years, as reputations of Bhosle and Pancham da (Burman) grew internationally, “Dum Maro Dum” became a source of inspiration for a slew of artists all over the world. [full article and songs]