Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Aquarium Overdose

While not exactly fish aficionados, we have managed, over the years, to visit just about every aquarium in every tourist spot (and not) that we set our feet on. Last weekend was no exception.

Sears Tower: Check
Deep Dish Chicago Style Pizza : Check
Navy Pier and Fireworks : Check
Millenial Park: Check

Aquarium: Sigh....Check

Maybe I have something to settle with aquariums and fish from a previous birth, which would account for this fishy gravitation to them. On the off-chance that it would induce a trance to explain the whole fascination, I rather unwillingly assented to the visit, insisted upon by M and S ("Who wants boring art, at least the fish are alive and moving!")

There's a limit to elbowing the crowd just to get a sideways peek at huge carp (Asian Carp, blared the blurb, " invasive species taking over the pristine lake waters of the Michigan, sound the alarm siren if you inadvertently catch one, do not throw back the largish minnow you fished out, it could be one of the dreaded invaders from Asia!" - I paraphrase, but do not exaggerate).

One tiny side benefit: there was no crowd jostling to see the inconspicuous but remarkable Mexican blind cave fish, that my husband and I had an argument about not long back.

With all the crowds milling around, all of whom had undoubtedly driven hours from the exurbs and corn fields just to see this marvellous custodian of aquatic life, we just lost the heart to try and get our peeks. We stood back, M and S squabbling over their Dippin' Dots ice cream flavors, paying cursory attention to the diver in the Caribbean reef tank explaining feeding time to visitors with eager faces pressed to the glass. Despite the air of electric excitement around the tank, all I could think of was... yawn... a good nap.

We walked down to the Oceanarium for the 4:30 pm Dolphin presentation at least one hour in advance. Passing the tanks of pale belugas, S mused aloud, 'Why don't they have blue whales in tanks, why always belugas and dolphins?"
"Try fitting a blue whale in a small tank. You'll see why it wouldn't work."

We crammed into the far end of a top row. I leaned against the fake rock at the end of the row and promptly nodded off for the next 45 minutes, waking in time for the start of the dolphin show as the microphone uttered a starting screech.
The audience started off with enthusiastic applause that soon became lukewarm and less frequent as the presenter droned on with tired trivia and dolphin tales and the trainers struggled with their charges. The dolphins were either newbies to the animal circus field or too hungry for their treats to perform more than cursorily, so the real entertainment for me was the cute wide-eyed 2 year old in pink who played peekaboo behind her mother's arms next to me.

After a final dose of fluorescent jellyfish, coral reefs and sharks, we walked out of the imposing Palladian style entrance. I heaved a sigh of relief.

All these aquarium trips make me feel curiously itchy, like the river otter that was constantly rolling over in its pool scratching itself, delighting curious spectators who were convinced it was hamming for their benefit. I wonder what the fish and other aquatic animals must make of all the human faces they see looking at them. Are we similar fishbowls for other advanced alien species? (Beloved theme of a gazillion sci-fi writers, I know, but still a humbling thought.)

No matter. From now on, the motto on any vacation trips is "No more aquariums, by Poseidon!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

New Look

To be honest, I've been getting really annoyed with dandelions this year.
It's the season when I see too many of the pesky puffs all over our yard, including the massive one next to our front door, so large and lush as to be practically ornamental. Earlier, I used to think, 'One man's weed is another's wildflower' and was highly inclined to let it go through its full life cycle without disturbance.
But with the inordinate sneezing that I've been suffering from over the last couple of weeks, triggered in part by the pollen, the iron has entered my soul. I am planning a rampage with the Weedhound, inveterate puller-upper of Canada thistles, dandelions, creeping charlie, cinquefoil and the like.
Since I plan to be the Destroyer of Dandelions, I thought it appropriate to go for a new look on the blog as well, replacing my earlier dandelion puff theme with a more neutral and hopefully, easier on the eyes, color and themes.
Please feel free to comment on the new appearance!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Are Suburbs Really Silent?

This columnist seems to think so, musing after a 3-month trip spent in a US suburb.
As I was saying, there are no sounds of leaves rustling in the wind, no bird calls and worse, no human sounds. You can go for days without meeting (or hearing) anyone.
Simply put, his stay has been in a house with completely closed windows, evidently a McMansion of sorts, "
big house, bigger home entertainment system and gas-guzzling SUVs" , as he describes it. The kind that many NRIs like to live in- manicured acres of fresh-sodded lawn, fresh from the nursery trees, imposing brick fronts and chandeliered foyers, ecru walls and granite countertops. Sparklingly new, with minimal furniture, definitely not all stuffed with the detritus of years of consumerism. Lots so huge that it would take you 10 minutes just to walk up to the neighbor's door.
But then, all suburbs are not alike.
In my neighborhood, it's hard to miss the unmistakable sounds of the lawn mowers powering up without fail, every three days.Or the cheep of chickadees and cardinals, harsh squawks of grackles and blue jay whistles, the bustle and rustle of chipmunks playing tag among the mulched leaves. Or the rumblings of school buses, landscaping and remodeller's trucks. Or the quiet monotones of moms taking their morning power walks, dogs straining at leash before them. Or the occasional blast from a teen's car sound system. The squeals of children in the yard, where they are free to scream without waking up babies. The neighbor's dog Shadow, who loves to bark at any walkers, now mournfully confined with a radio-collar based 'Invisible Fence' after the removal of the old pine fence. The high pitched yaps of Daisy, toy poodle, and kid magnet par excellence when she is taken out on her daily constitutional.
The newer suburbs have a raw unfinished quality to them. All they have going for them is their sparkling newness and size. They aspire to the graciousness that will only come with age. But the quality of warmth that comes from having a wooded lot with old (and I mean old, as in 40+ years old) trees is hard to come by. The newer styles of construction lay emphasis on 'more house and less yard' (a sentiment that I'm sure that my husband heartily agrees with... or maybe not. I might underestimate him there.) The lawn and the yardwork may be boring chores, but over the years, I think a sense of appreciation for the cliched- as- it- may- seem term 'communing with nature' has crept into our brains.
Silent suburbs or not, it only takes a practiced ear to listen to and absorb the sounds of silence.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Bharatanatyam Blues

(Note: If you have landed here searching for information on Arangetram expenses, please check the links in my post 'Dancing Impressions'. Those may be of more interest to you.)
I have 'em.

The last couple of days started off a mini-furore about Bharatanatyam(henceforth BN) as an extra-curricular pursuit vs. BN as a lifelong pursuit on Sepia Mutiny. While the actual subject of the post was a profile of Aniruddha Knight, dancer and grandson of one of the greatest of BN exponents T. Balasaraswathi, one of the commenters in the discussion which followed let loose the following volley in response to the words of another poster:

· Floridian said
Bharatanatyam has become the de rigueur ballet class of the Indian diaspora. All the little desi girls go through it while in elementary school, but very, very few continue on beyond that. The biggest roadblock are our bharatanatyam teachers, mostly first generation Indians who were trained by serious gurus back home in the traditional way, with an emphasis on learning and perfection rather than performing and sharing.
all due respect, but i've seen very good samples of the US teacher-taught population (50-70 girls every year at an intensive dance camp for the past 19 years) and the bit about high standards preventing poor little girls from having fun on stage is simply not true. Most teachers are not anywhere near as strict and do not, in general, care to teach proper form (let alone posture!) as their gurus would have been in the Desh. My mother has taught here for over 24 years, and I have accompanied her to both coasts, during the course of which I did find that teachers were driven in large part by pressure from parents to put little Priyanka/Sarika/Radhika on stage within six months, with 18 costume changes so all their friends can come and watch an abomination born of little patience, overbearing parental desires to live vicariously through their child, and general keepin-up-with-the-Patels malarkey that produces the same kind of pick-it-up-and-drop-it mentality that accompanies so many forays into other extracurricular activities.
Ouch! So now I am evidently demeaning the great art of BN by enrolling M in casual weekly classes and not insisting on the completion of 7 years of training before her appearing on stage for a student's day performance!

As a parent of a rank beginner, I would rather wait the 7 years to see my kid have an arangetram, if she were to sustain interest and in-depth training for that long, rather than try to push a full-fledged performance. But I see no problem with occasional (and minimalist) stage exposure in small portions choreographed to match the skill level. This is before a restricted and appreciative audience of near and dear, in any case.Also, let's consider that the gurus here, living in the midst of casual ballet recitals and such, have merely adopted 'casual BN recitals' as a way to conform with American norms.

(Hint to self: OK, relax, take a deep breath.) Evidently, I am not quite (yet) in the same category of 'money's-worth' parents who would like to see their 'prodigies' on stage before it is appropriate. While Nayagan (commenter above) seems to think that BN should be reserved as a privilege for purely dedicated students, the reality is that very few are the parents of kids who live and breathe BN 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. An initial gauging of interest, followed by years of practice will weed out the dilettantes from the dedicated. But the BN tradition will not flourish without that pool of dabblers either. Where else will the audience and new crop of students come from?

While googling for some other BN information, I chanced upon this vitriolic blog whose raison d'etre appears to be bashing or beatifying various dancers on the Chennai dance scene. A sample of the vitriol below:
There were 2 typical errors that took away from the perfection of Divyatha ’s mukha abhinaya. One was the screwing of eyes, and the other error was the smile’s sudden fluctuations (jitters) when the corners of the mouth move unexpectedly down and then suddenly up again and then down and then up. As if the dancer was unsure of whether to smile or not to smile! Divyatha was not as bad here as Urmila Sathyanarayanan and her students. When Urmila is dancing, she demonstrates, “Hey, am I not funny: now I can smile, you see? Now I don’t. You see?” Very coquettish. It is as if the dancer shows that she is not serious at all. The rasikas get the impression, “Huh! This girl is not for real: she is just pretending!”
I was hooked. It was like watching a soap opera of sorts- bad for the brain, but addictive nevertheless, with wonderfully vituperative posts, followed by point-by-point rebuttals by the offended dancing divas or their surrogates. Alas, no updates since the last couple of months, so I can't figure out whether the blog is still alive or merely dormant until the next music season.
It is clear that even a fine arts setting is not devoid of politicking, demagoguery and the like, notwithstanding that Art should be paramount in its own right. One person's ideal of excellence in dance is evidently most despicable to another critic. The dancer can expect kudos from the well-wishers and rotten tomatoes from the opposing schools. Very rarely is the performance seen through unjaundiced eyes.
Where do M's weekly classes figure in this mix, you may ask? Nowhere, if I'm guessing correctly. She will likely go through the years of weekly training. She may drop off at some point if she loses interest, but may continue because of the peer effect, maybe reaching the level of dedication for an arangetram. After which, she will hang up her anklets to continue life with her real career and other objectives, as do so many others whether in India or the U.S.
And the cycle will go on, for another generation, and another...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Morning Newspaper, Coffee... and a Bible?

A few days ago, I opened my morning paper to a surprise news item crowing about a plan to distribute free 'Pittsburghized' New Testaments to over 250, 000 subscribers. Now, I am well used to eating my morning cereal from the little sample boxes that I pick up with my newspaper, or using the free samples of Advil and Aleve for particularly trying news days. I could surely have done with some of the latter for the headache this gushing news induced in me:

Tears spring to Suzonne Smith's eyes when she talks about her effort to distribute Pittsburgh-themed New Testaments to Allegheny County residents.

"It's our hope that God's word will transform and change lives and the whole city will be impacted," said the Sewickley resident, who with her husband, Tom, is co-chair of CityReachers Pittsburgh.

If all goes according to plan, on Sept. 7 when Allegheny County subscribers to the Post-Gazette unwrap their Sunday paper, they will find a New Testament in an advertising pouch like those used for sample soaps or cereals.

Tears spring to my eyes too, when I think of the massive amounts of trash likely to be generated by this effort. By their own account, they expect reverential treatment of the free Bibles by about 36,000 people. This means the paper and ink spent on printing about 214,000 are wasted ( translating to $418,000 in printing costs and another $100,000 or so in delivery costs.) My, my, these people have about half a million dollars to waste on trying to bring salvation to a grand total of maybe 14% of the target population. Hallelujah!
( And I just must borrow Hillary Clinton's lines here, they are too apt not to use : "the sky will open, the light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing" .... and the world will become a happier place for all the people receiving the bible with their morning paper and coffee.)

Now if we could just see similar outreaches putting a mini-Koran or mini-Torah or mini-Geeta in everybody's daily paper, we could simultaneously deforest all the Canadian pine forests and hasten the Apocalypse or Qayamat or the end of Kaliyuga or whatever you wish to call your version of the end-times!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A Riproaring Ramayana

Inspired by Usha's post RAMbles on her blog Agelessbonding about her memories of various versions of Ramayana seen on the screen and small screen over the years, I remembered the early days when I was addicted to any and all movies that had people in period costume.

My dad would take me by scooter to the rickety Shakthi theater at the (then) outskirts of the city to watch the likes of 'Sampoorna Ramayanam' (Tamil B&W version from 1960), with Rama, Seetha, Lakshmana, Vanaras galore, Ravana et al, all suitably attired in glittering costumes and declaiming with all the mellifluence and sonority of their stage drama training.

Recently, the kids in our local Hindu Sunday School classes have been going over the various chapters in the Ramayana, along with worksheets, word searches, quizzes and crafts to keep them engaged. One of the regular monthly highlights is watching the video of a 1971 version of the Sampoorna Ramayana. Originally in Telugu, we run it in Hindi with English subtitles, based on the demographics of the kids. Here are some of their gems of comments:

M: Why is Shoorpanaka turning into a fat lady to dance? (This is after her transformation into a alluring damsel- How do I explain to her that rolls of fat were considered beautiful and de rigueur at that time, unlike today's anorexic size 0 heroines? That's why it's called 'shakin' your booty', I guess!)

D: Why is Hanuman crying all the time when seeing Seetha in Lanka? Isn't he supposed to be strong and fearless?

We thought of having the kids enact a scene from the Ramayana using the script listed helpfully in the workbook we were using. The grand consensus was that it was to be the Final Battle between the army of Rama and Ravana. One of the moms tried her best to dissuade them "Let the girls have a voice in selecting the scene too. Not just you boys who want to fight all the time." Turning to M, she asked "What scene do you like, M?"
M: "I want to do the battle scene!" (Oops... I should have warned her that M has a long-standing battle training arrangement with her elder brother and is unlikely to pick a 'girly' scene, given a choice.)

So, the battle scene it was. Roles were being assigned and with the 'No discrimination' policy and drawing of lots based solely on age/ability to read lots of dialog, the plum roles of Rama and Ravana went to the older girls. M was Sugriva the monkey king, and overjoyed at the prospect of designing a monkey costume to match (I'm thinking monkey mask and princess tiara to accent the look.)

The rehearsals have been going on for the last couple of weeks, and it invariably degenerates into mayhem when the armies fight, followed with dramatic interruptions with Lakshmana, Indrajit and Ravana falling (in that order, I think.)

The final performance is going to be next month. I cannot wait to see what is sure to be a riproaring performance and will be sure to report on it.