Monday, January 31, 2022

Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the funniest of them all?


This is an ode to one of the funniest human beings. A doyen of Carnatic music and a member of the erstwhile royal family (or should I say despite being), he is also one of the simplest men I have ever seen.

Prince Rama Varma or fondly known as Varmaji, a descendent of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal and a disciple of Dr Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, is a well-known figure among Carnatic music aficionados around the world. There is enough and more written about his musical prowess and achievements. However not everyone has a full appreciation of the sense of humour he possesses.

There is a perception that all Carnatic musicians are elitist and a very serious lot.  Varmaji is the first person to admit this in spite of being a Carnatic musician. That is no different from the view I hold of accountants, despite being an accountant myself. The truth is there is no bigger exception to that view about Carnatic musicians than Varmaji.

You may wonder on what basis am I making such a tall claim. Being born with 207 bones (extra one being a large funny bone), I can identify a humour sapien from a distance. I attended couple of his music workshops and got two for the price of one – it was both a music workshop and a standup comedy!

Given his virtuosity in music, I would classify his humour into saptha swara hasya:

Shadjam or ‘sa’ hasyam (sarcasm)

It is funny when Varamaji calls the event organisers as The Boss, Mr Fine Arts, etc and compares them to Mr Universe and Mr World and states that we can do anything in the sessions only with their blessings. However, it is unfortunate that his sarcasm is often lost on people.

Varmaji chided the signers who have a wrong perception that the more complex songs and ragas they sing, the more superior a musician they are. He recollected singing a Nottu Swaram in Madras Music Academy (purported mecca of Carnatic music) and added that if a legend like Muthuswami Dikshitar can compose it, then he can very well sing it.

He also took a dig at the composers saying that the content of all Carnatic music lyrics is normally sad. He feels it will always have them crying to God and complaining that God is not being considerate despite praying for long. This also shows his concern at the lack of variety in the subject of Carnatic music.

Talking about the importance of knowing the language of the song and using correct diction, he gave the amusing example of a famous singer from Kerala who has sung in many languages, which he feels all sounded like in Malayalam.

Rishabham or ‘ri’ hasyam (irony)

In a session, Varmaji asked everyone if they had watched the video he had shared before. When a person replied that she had watched a little bit, he responded saying a little bit is more not watched than watched.

When he asked someone to sing swaras of Valachi raga, a lady started singing without announcing herself. He enquired who is singing to which the lady replied ‘me’. He responded saying we all call ourselves ‘me’ and asked her name. And for the rest of the class, she was called ‘me’.

While teaching a Tillana, he asked out of the blue if the singer could drive a car. Surprised, she answered in the affirmative. To which he replied that if one could drive a car, one could sing a Tillana too because while driving you have to focus on clutch, brake, accelerator, gear, steering, etc and that singing a Tillana is also similar.

At the end of the workshop, the participants presented gratitude messages to him, to which he replied that if he were a millionaire (which he is not because he is a billionaire!), he would have sent flight tickets to all of them for his upcoming concert in Chennai.

Gandharam or ‘ga’ hasyam (caricature)

Varmaji is a great mimic and mimics most famous singers like Balamurali Krishna, MD Ramanathan, etc. He also goes on to explain the method to imitate MD Ramanathan which is by touching the roof of your mouth with the tongue while speaking or singing.

Referring to Mohanam raga, he stated said that the Carnatic musicians’ faces will be so contoured while singing that it will look as if they are experiencing physical pain and that the face will hardly be ‘mohanam’ (pleasant) at all.

While teaching the Kriti ‘Sreesha padmanabha’ in Khamas raga, the first few lines had small ‘ni’. But when big ‘ni’ came, he remarked ‘Big ni was feeling bad since only small ni was coming till now. Now big ni has come and is happy finally’.

Madhyamam or ‘ma’ hasyam (mordant)

The method Varmaji follows to teach is to sing one line at a time and asking the participants to identify the swarams (notes). When asked, one participant guessed the swaram as ‘pa’ to which he blankly replied ‘No, but now you have six more choices.’

While teaching a song which had the word suhasini, the lady was not getting the notes correct. He remarked that atleast you are looking suhasini which is correct, but you should get the notes also correct.

When one singer got the tune correct after a few attempts, he asked her to keep it there and not to change it even in October or November or December. And when one singer didn’t get it right after few attempts, he asked her to listen to the song later, not once or twice, not thrice, not 10, not 20 times, but 200 to 300 times.

Panchamam or ‘pa’ hasyam (puns)

During one session, Varmaji was teaching a song which had the word ‘varadaayaki’. He said that if we  don’t sing the swaras of ‘yaki’ correctly it will be yucky and added that it will be yummy only if we sing correctly.

When a singer was singing the word ‘srikrishnaayanu’ with a pause after ‘srikrishna’, he said you will get more punyam if you sing ‘srikrishnaayanu’ (without pause) than ‘srikrishnaa nayanu’ (with pause).

During a song when two ‘ma’ swaras came together in a line, he asked the participant to think of her uncle (‘mama’) to get it right. While teaching a song which had the term Ratnangi in it, he called on a participant with the name Rathna as it is apt for her to sing that line.

Dhaivatham or ‘da’ hasyam (deadpan/dark)

One of the sessions got extended beyond the stipulated time and Varmaji was getting late for his next session. He excused himself saying he doesn’t want to be called Late Rama Varma.

Voicing his displeasure about the crowd in Dadar flower market during Ganesh Chathurthi in the midst of the pandemic, he stated that people will first buy flowers for the puja and then they will have to buy flowers for the funeral.

Apparently, a group of well-wishers in Hyderabad celebrates his birthday every year. However, when they called him in August this year, he politely declined saying he would like to be around to celebrate his birthday next year also.

Nishadam or ‘ni’ hasyam (anecdotal)

Varmaji narrated an instance when his friend from France had come to Kerala for a 10-day music festival he was organizing. After a few days, when he checked on his friend, the Frenchman replied that everything was fine except that he did not like coconut being added in all food items. So Varmaji took him to a nice 5-star hotel that served continental food. All was well till the dessert came, when to their dismay, they found that the Chocolate Mousse too had coconut shreds sprinkled on it. Varmaji drew parallel of coconut in Kerala cuisine to how gamakams are overused by Carnatic musicians, whether it is required or not.

Varmaji was teaching a Thillana where the phrase ‘Dhir’ was written ‘Dr’. Seeing the confusion of the student, he recounted the story of a great scholar from Mysore who had released an album of Tillanas. Each Tillana started with ‘Dhir Dhir’ but the CD cover said ‘Dr Dr’ for all the songs and Varmaji said he used to think of this CD as ‘Doctor Doctor’ songs.

Varmaji had once surprised Manna De with the rare recording of the song ‘Poocho Na Kaise’ sung by SD Batish, which he played in one of the sessions. Varmaji seems to have more musical gems in his archives than treasure in Nilavara B of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

Shudha Hasya Sangeetham or Shudha Sangeetha Hasyam

The above are just some examples and I don’t think I have been able do justice to the spontaneous humour he creates with expressions and tone of his voice. If these are the things one could pick from a few formal short group sessions, imagine being a fly on the wall when he is discussing politics or, even better, human behaviour in an informal setting.

In hindsight all that I said above is redundant. Instead I could have just said the man enjoys watching George Carlin, Bill Bailey, Joan Rivers, and Spike Milligan on YouTube!

It really begs the question if he is a comic who is also a musician or a musician who is also a comic.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Joh Dhiktha Hai, Woh Bhiktha Hai

You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough - Joseph Levine

As per Wikipedia (the modern age Encyclopedia), advertising is a form of communication used to influence individuals to purchase products or services or support political candidates or ideas. But this definition is incomplete because it does not state that the influencing is done by misinformation, false claims, and often, lies. This enrages me so much that I think I have reached a state of ‘ADnauseam’ – I get nausea, when I see an ad!

Advertising should be redefined as the art of convincing people to spend money they don't have, for buying things they don't need. In fact, advertisements make people think that they have longed for something all their life that they had never heard of before seeing the ad. Just take a look at the Sky Mall magazine in a flight, where there are products like Hollywood Cookie Diet, Aquabell Sets, Active Sitting Discs, etc.

They say advertising can sell any product and I couldn’t agree more. It is easier done these days as the world today is driven by a lot of hype and less of sense. People are willing to believe anything a scantily-clad sexy woman says on an ad. Appeal to reason in your advertising and it seems you will address only 1.37% of the human race! How else does one explain such products in the market? – Relaxing Magic Showerhead, Nazar Raksha Kawach, etc.

The sad part is that advertising has us working jobs we hate, so that we can buy shit we don't need. Advertising has also changed our thinking. Last week, I saw my wife put on eye shadow, eyeliner and eyelashes. I asked, "What are you doing to your eyes?" She said, "I'm making them look natural."

My biggest grouse against advertising is how it takes gullible common people for a ride. H G Wells said, “Advertising is legalized lying”. What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising? - unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public, ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public.

Advertisers have taken more money from people than what government and mafia have taken put together. Like I saw an ad last week that said, “Buy one and pay for the other”! When I asked a family friend of ours, a clergyman, about his opinion of the advertising business, he refused, but he did offer to pray for those that make their living at it.

However, I have to admit that advertisers are one of the best users of humour and sex. Though there have been no studies that link humour and sex in ads to its effectiveness, more than a majority of ads use both, and use it well. But funny for funny sake could backfire, like the case of a health club whose billboard read "When the aliens come, they'll eat the fat ones first."

It is often funny to hear the claims advertisers make. Like the claim of introduction of ‘lite’ - the new way to spell 'light', but with twenty per cent fewer letters. I am told that the first strategy of any new marketing campaign is to add the word ‘new and improved’ to the product. Isn’t it obvious that a ‘new and improved’ claim is false? - Because if it is new, it couldn't have been improved and if it is improved, it can't be new! I still remember the days when razors used to have one blade. Slowly it became two and then three. Now I hear there are four-blade razors in the market. But the quality of the shave has still been the same! Hear George Carlin’s take on advertising and advertising claims (statutory warning : contains profanity).

However, advertising has become a necessity to stay in business and I doubt if a business can survive without advertising. Though half the money spent on advertising is wasted, the trouble is, you don't know which half. I was shocked when a friend of mine, who had a good business idea, said he failed because of too much advertising. On further probe, he confided that it was from the competitors.

I will end with a quote from Philip Dusenberry, an advertiser, “I have always believed that writing advertisements is the second most profitable form of writing. The first, of course, is ransom notes...”

* This blog is inspired by and dedicated to my cousin-brother Suraj

Friday, December 4, 2009

When you have ‘nothing’ to do, do it on social media

A hacker attack briefly shut down Twitter yesterday. Millions of twitterers were forced to talk to each other the old fashioned way - through Facebook!

We all agree that social media is a wonderful invention of the 21st century which helps us to stay in touch with friends and acquaintances. If you don’t agree or you don’t have a profile on at least one social networking site, I would strongly recommend that you go back to the 20th century, where you belong. If Shakespeare was still around, he might have remarked 't
witterers never quill, and quillers never tweet!'

I am an avid social networking user. However, I have to confess that it has been a love-hate relationship, though mostly it has been love. Despite its obvious advantages and even if one doesn’t misuse it (i.e. where one doesn’t use it as a ‘chat and cheat’ tool), social networking is not without disadvantages. Few years back, when I met family and friends after a long time their complaint used to be that I didn’t write. Nowadays, the complaint seems to be that I didn’t write, I didn’t call, I didn’t fax, I didn’t email, I didn’t page, I didn’t text, I didn’t blog, I didn’t scrap, I didn’t tweet…….

I like staying in touch with friends. I would like to know about their whereabouts and updates. But do I really need to know that Sanjay is enjoying his ravioli, or that Sarah’s flight has again been delayed, or that Tina is feeling sleepy during her meeting? I don’t think I do. Nor do I like navigating the minefield of postings about picnics and parties, or worse, Farmville, Fortune Cookies and Quizes.

Secondly, there is the uneasy feeling about being
at the epicenter of ALL the friends and acquaintances of my ENTIRE life AT ONCE. They may no longer be the people I knew, and I, certainly, am not the person I was even two years back. I worry if I will be able to ‘effectively’ communicate through my updates without offending anybody or making them feel as if I am a stranger.

Imagine my situation where I have all of the following and more on my contacts - three of my old girl friends, my school mate who knows that I once cheated on my test, another school mate who knows the teachers and girls on whom I had crush, a college mate who knows that I was the one who wrote the love letter which was blamed on another college mate, a neighbor who saw me peep at the bedroom of the beautiful girl who lived across my house, a fellow intern who knows that I once cheated on a travel claim, a colleague whom I backstabbed during my previous job, etc. To add to the complexity, it also has my current friends who think I am decent guy, my current colleagues who think I am a good colleague, my current boss who thinks I am an okay employee, my (current?) wife who thinks I am a not-so-okay husband. Above all it has a certain set of people who look upto to me (such people do exist, atleast in my imagination).

And so, how do I communicate to ALL of them at the SAME time? I come up with one-liners and (not-so-)wise-cracks that is so impersonal that they will never know the ‘real’ me! I am getting accustomed to such impudent social behavior. Because I don’t want to land in this kind of situation. If what I write on my blogs and social networks can be used as evidence, my wife would divorce me, my employer would sack me, my neighbour would sue me and my friends would leave me. But thankfully there is no handwriting detection on the net as anybody can write in Arial 10 font!

The other mistake people do is being injudicious about the folks they add to their contacts and add anybody who invites them. They seem to have more school mates on their Facebook than they ever had in school! I just hope they are comfortable sharing their personal moments with these strangers. I am not. I add only people whom I have met or atleast know very well. Despite that, I have 200+ contacts. Can you imagine how many hours it would take to just do the “hello, how are you doing?” bit with everyone!

Thirdly, there’s the whole voyeurism issue. I always believed that if someone followed me, I should be worried. Now because of ‘tagging’ there are thousands of people, albeit friendly, who have access to places I have been and people I know. And worry about it, I cannot, because that is the cost of virtual existence.

The other unique problem that I have is that if I secretly meet somebody (why, because I am a married man, you see), the person immediately puts up an update with a photograph disclosing the meeting. Hence, I have stopped dating women with Facebook profiles! Also if I conduct a party and invite a few friends over, as per my estimation, the chance of it hitting the net the SAME day is 82.34%, for the entire majority who were NOT invited to see.

Above all, the biggest drawback with social networking is that it deprives a person of the much more valuable ‘real life experiences’. More often than not, people who are active on social networking sites, do not have many ‘real’ friends. Soon we will need to set up social networking rehab centers, like where Bill Zucker was taken. But one also have to admit that it is not a new demon in the house – television has had its share in making humans less social and sociable.

However, as I said I have more love than hate for social networking. I have found and interacted with people in a way that I never imagined possible. In the older days, you really had to DO something to be social - helping your friends, baby-sitting the neighbour’s child, giving a poor guy something to eat, and other terrible selfless things. Nowadays, you just have to tweet every few hours via your cellphone and you are done!

And I just love the way it works; instant karma at its very best. Don't you agree?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

No excuse for no exercise

The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you would rather not - Mark Twain

Virgil once famously remarked that the greatest wealth is health. I think people ignore that advice. They spend their health to gain wealth in the first half of their lives, and then spend their wealth to regain their health in the latter half. In fact, a person's health can be judged by which the person takes two at a time - pills or stairs.

As I approach middle age, I realize what 'middle age' means : it is when your age starts to show around your middle. A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths. I have been employed for the last 12 years, and my only savings have been the added girth around my equator. But I feel better off than a colleague of mine, who has what one would call a soldier's stomach - everything that he eats goes to the ‘front’. He also has flabby thighs, but fortunately his stomach covers them. If he had acted in the place of Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the character would have been named Gluteus Maximus instead of Maximus Decimus Meridius.

For a large part of my life, the only exercise I got was eating and sleeping. I can imagine a lot of readers nodding their head as they read this. No, I am not implying that that is the case with them (though honestly, I am). In fact, if it weren't for the fact that the TV and the refrigerator are so far apart, some of us wouldn't get any exercise at all. I guess women are better off, since they get a lot of exercise doing shopping, as they walk up and down giant shopping malls, occasionally resting to make a purchase.

Then computers arrived, and I started getting my exercise by swiveling on the computer chair, typing on the keyboard, and clicking the mouse. Once I got employed, I got plenty of exercise at work by jumping to conclusions, beating around the bush, dodging the issue, going back on my word, swimming against the tide, and pushing my luck.

Despite all this, I have always ‘wanted’ to be healthy and fit. But as they say if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. I have this constant fear that if I don't take care of myself, the undertaker will overtake that responsibility for me. In fact, I have become so obsessed with health these days that I sense there is something fundamentally ‘unhealthy’ about it.

I do exercise once in a while, if only to hear heavy breathing again. As I have to force my body to exercise, I do it early in the morning before my brain figures out what I'm doing. At other times, when I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes. Like every one else, I have 'joined' several health clubs and spent a lot of money. But I haven't lost a pound. Apparently, you have to show up! I guess if I were born in UK, I would have lost a few pounds (GBP).

Though there are a host of health books, articles, blogs, etc, I never read them heeding to Mark Twain: “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” Also I never bought any home exercise equipments, because everybody I knew used them as clothes hanger. In fact a friend of mine argued that his food is enriched with high iron content because he uses his dumbbells to bash meat.

Walking/jogging/biking could help stay fit. As per research (my blog, my research!) for every mile that you jog, you add one minute to your life. This enables you, at age 85, to spend an additional 5 months in a nursing home at $5,000 per month. Talking of that reminded me of the famous joke – “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60; now she's 97 years old and we don't know where the hell she is”. How I wish I could say that about my wife one day (Rakesh, this joke is dedicated to you). By the way, I do enjoy long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.

Then, there is dieting. It is an alien concept in the part of world where I come from, where people think that they exist on this world to eat. When I heard about the benefits of a healthy diet, I switched to 'fat-free' chips and 'light' beer. The diet experts claim that red meat is bad for you. I don't believe them because I have never seen a sick-looking tiger. If you see blue-green meat, now, that might be bad for you. By the way, have you heard of the cardiologist's diet: If it tastes good, spit it out!

Everybody these days are advising me to buy Wii Fit. Of course, I would need to buy a TV and Wii before that. But isn’t it ironical to think that you could be fit by playing games on TV? However, it is not too funny if you consider that most people do seem it logical to 'drive' to the gym doing their best to avoid walking, or to order a 'diet' coke along with a 'double cheese' burger.

I got to work out. I keep saying it all the time. But it has been about three months since I have worked out. And I just don't seem to have the time. That is funny considering that I do find time to go out on long lunches and dinners. To watch movies. To update my Facebook status message and to write blogs. But the question that I keep asking myself is - Do I exercise to keep fit? Or do I need to be fit to exercise, in which case do I need the exercise?

So my dear readers, here’s wishing that you live as long as you are fit, but no longer. Or, may you rather die before you cease to be fit, than after. Ok, if that sounded awkward, then here’s a tip to keep fit!