Abode And The Abode Of Dreams, Mumbai

Driving over the Bandra-Worli Sealink, Mumbai, India

As a mathematician, it was imperative that I discern a pattern in the very apparent urban chaos of Mumbai. The city has a rhythm, like any other major megalopolis. It is perhaps not as perceptible at first glance, but upon settling in, one cannot miss it. I landed in Mumbai early in the morning and the city’s daily rhythm was already underway. It was already wide awake and its urban charm was beginning to unravel. The driver took me over the new Bandra – Worli Sealink, as we drove to my hotel, Abode, Bombay. Our route to the hotel took us through some of the most prominent quarters of the city and the hotel’s location too was in its commercial heart, right by the iconic landmarks of Mumbai.

The moment you enter Abode, Bombay, you can sense the informality, yet extremely professional demeanor of the hotel’s staff. There was no ‘reception’ or ‘concierge’ per se, but the warmth with which the clique of young men and women of the staff greet you and attend to you is very pleasant. Abode, Bombay is located in the Colaba area of Mumbai, in the shadow of the behemoths of the hospitality industry and about a four-minute walk from the Gateway of India. In an old restored colonial building, which once served as a private residence of one of Mumbai’s greatest entrepreneurs from the nineteenth century, David Sassoon, the apartments on the first floor then passed hands over the years to a family dealing antiques in 1982 and served as a guest house. Less than a year ago, it was turned into a little aesthetically designed, charming boutique hotel. My first impressions of Abode were just as lovely as those of the city of Mumbai – welcoming and classy.

At Abode, I had the privilege of meeting the couple, whose passion for India and traveling brought forth Kamalan – Rosenda and Jan Meer. They were in Mumbai for a couple of days and suggested I choose Abode for my stay. They greeted me in the hotel’s lobby-cum-café where we had a pleasant conversation and a hearty breakfast. I checked into my room which was no different from the rest of the hotel which had a constant underlying theme – Mumbai. You can see the city unleashed in pictures, paintings and decorations. Mumbai appears in all its colors inside Abode as well. The décor of the hotel seemed to be a labor of love, with a tasteful selection of furniture and great attention to detail and my room was no different. I basked in the ‘Mumbainess’ of my room and the hotel before heading out into the ordered chaos of the great metropolis.

The Meers and I went about the city exploring its nuances and its intricacies. We explored the area around the hotel and walked into an exclusively Parsi colony, which had a Zoroastrian ‘Atashgah’ or ‘Fire temple’ forming the jewel studded into the ring of houses. The residents were charmingly welcoming, letting us click a few pictures, telling us stories. We learned that the Parsis are a small group of Iranian immigrants practicing the Zoroastrian religion who took refuge in India to escape persecution in their homeland centuries ago. Over time they blended in and with their sharp business acumen, rebuilt their lives. When the British came, they saw opportunity and played a crucial, perhaps the most significant role, in making Mumbai the commercial heart of British India and later, independent India. There are many prominent Parsi business families that made their contributions, consequently having several major areas in Mumbai being named after them. Today, Parsis in India number at about 80,000 to a 100,000, more than four-fifths of whom live in Mumbai. This experience was an eye-opener, in that I learned about an ethnic group which is hardly known outside of South Asia.

The lobby at our hotel, Abode, Mumbai, India

We later took the ‘local’ from the Churchgate Station, where we encountered the globally renowned cadre of lunch-box delivery men, the Dabbawalas. The modest group of men whose efficiency has been the stuff of discourses for major management gurus, was silently but nimbly going about their business in the midst of wondrously staring foreign visitors’ eyes. We took the local suburban train to Mahalakshmi, known for Asia’s largest open-air Laundromat, from where we drove to Gandhi Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home in Mumbai which is now a museum in his memory. We stopped by the little known Banganga Lake near Malabar Hill, where legend says that the hero king Lord Rama quenched his thirst while on a mission to find his abducted wife, after his brother shot an arrow into the earth which made water sprout from its bosom. We then had lunch at an old Parsi owned restaurant, Café Britannia. When we ventured into the artistic quarters of the Kala Ghoda area, we realized, it had a curious history by itself. There was once a bronze statue of King Edward VII riding a black horse in the central circle, which was removed in 1965 to the Byculla Zoo, but the name Kala Ghoda which means ‘Black Horse’ stuck. It is also a Jewish enclave and houses a 125 year old synagogue.

The same night we walked in the southern neighborhoods of the city to get a perspective of the city that apparently never sleeps. Gian, the manager at Abode even assured us that it was perfectly safe to walk on the streets at night. We walked to the Gateway of India and sat by the bay to contemplate. The city does indeed seem to live up to its reputation of being awake all night. We retired to our cozy little ‘Mumbais’ at the Abode a little past midnight. The next morning, after an agreeable breakfast, we went on a guided walk in the southern heritage districts of Mumbai. It was an architectural heritage walk. Our guide, an architecture graduate, was extremely knowledgeable and engaging. We learned a great deal about the city, its history, its significance during the British Raj and then post-independence. We learnt that the iconic Gateway of India, meant to welcome the then Emperor George V and Queen Mary in 1911 wasn’t even built when they came. It still bears the plaque of welcome but ‘His Imperial Majesty’ never got see it! He was so disenchanted by India’s punishing summer that he never crossed the British Isles to go to another country after he went back. More such interesting information was effortlessly disseminated by our garrulous guide Mr. Avinav. The three hours we spent walking from the Gateway of India to the Fort Area, via the MLA Hostel, Catholic Church, Regal Circle, Kala Ghoda and the Bombay University, in his company was unforgettable.

Our driver, who drove us around the city, had his own gems of information to give. The city of Mumbai, to a great many Indians and those from the neighboring countries, is a city of dreams. Being home to the Hindi film industry, known to the world as ‘Bollywood’, it is where stars are made. He told me that people wait by the houses of the stars just to get a glimpse; some wait for days on end; some move into the city to make a niche for themselves in the industry; some make it and many don’t. Those who don’t start new lives but a few of them persist and fewer still, unfortunately, give in to dejection and choose not to live another day. He finally told us that his own brother who now works with a transport company as a driver was one of those thousands who never made it big in Bollywood, but survived to tell his tale. Persistence and will, he said, were keys!

The same afternoon I embarked on the rest of my journey through central and southern India. My two days in India’s largest city in the company of the wonderful, friendly and absolutely amazing couple and staying at the fascinatingly comely boutique hotel, Abode, made for a perfect start to a perfect journey that ensued. As a professor of mathematics the United States, specializing in Number Theory, I had rattled on to my students about the contributions of Indians to my field of study. My journey through India was one of rediscovering the land that taught the world how to count and I was more than just in awe of its beauty and its complexity. My observation of the complexity of this vast and magnificent land began with its microcosm, Mumbai. Its fractal nature and its vibrant beauty were mine to be deliberated upon.

The Gateway of India illuminated, Mumbai, India

An Encounter at the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace

The ornately decorated arches of the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

When I started my journey across South India, I had made my mind up to venture into every historic city and town in the region. I was aware that in the time I had, I could only cover but a handful, yet I was undeterred.Thus far, I have been to some of the most spectacular places ever. As my journey progressed,I made my way to the ancient Tamil capital and the hinterland of the Tamil language and culture, Madurai. The city has a distinct way of charming the visitor with its quintessentially Dravidian temples, with its colors and most of all, its welcoming people. The prominent towers or Gopurams of the illustrious Meenakshi Amman Temple dominate the skyline. The temple itself does indeed dominate the lives of Madurai’s inhabitants. It testifies to the city’s antiquity and to the legends about it.

Siva, my Kamalan advisor, who hails from the city made me privy to one of the great legends about Madurai and her matron goddess Meenakshi. She is a manifestation of Lord Shiva’s consort, Parvati or Shakti, the primordial energy. The tale about the goddess’ manifestation as Meenakshi reveals that she was the result of a sacrifice to beget progeny, performed by the Pandya king of Madurai. The story narrates her journey of self-realization that she is the Mother Goddess Shakti and her ultimate union with Shiva. I found the story to be fascinatingly female-centric, which was a reflection of the region’s underlying cultural motifs. As a woman, to me personally, that the principal deity of the temple is not the ‘God’, but the ‘Goddess’, was even more appealing.

My Kamalan guide suggested I visit the grand seventeenth century Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, close to the temple. When I arrived at the palace, it was hardly crowded. As I roamed the lofty hallways and the large open spaces in the center, I was absorbed with capturing the palace’s grandeur into the digital spaces of my camera. A few minutes later, I heard a gradual rise in voices from a distance. It was a group of school girls dressed in uniform, on a field trip chaperoned by an adult teacher. I was under the eastern archway when two of the girls curiously came up to me and politely said “Hello! How are you?”

“I’m fine. How about you?”

“One photo?” one of them sheepishly requested.

“Sure” I obliged.

My camera clicked, and the excitement on the girls’ faces was unmistakable.

“Please show!” came the request, promptly.

I showed them their picture. One look at it was followed by a few giggles and a sincere “Thank you!”

“Which country, you come?”

“United Sta…err…America.”

“United States of America? USA?” they screamed in unison and unbridled excitement.

“Yes!! USA!” a little embarrassed.

“What you do?”

“I’m a photographer and designer.” I continued to click pictures of the palace.

“Designer?”

“Yes.” Before I could explain, I noticed another group of girls running towards us. There was a physically challenged girl among them, confidently marching towards me. I was so impressed by her confidence; I asked if I could take a picture of hers. She coyly hid behind one of her friends and said “No”.

The lofty hallways of the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

As the girls gathered, they had a slew of questions for me – about my country; about what I was doing in India; about my work; about how it was living in ‘America’. My answers piqued the girls’ curiosity. Some of them expressed their wish to visit the States, some others said they wanted to become doctors there, while some said they were happy where they were. Their teacher, who had initially come to gather the kids up, soon joined the discussion. She had questions about the school system in the US and about how teachers work. The gathering quickly became a photographic session, an interactive conversation with a group of close to thirty children. It made me realize that children’s urge to learn about the world, their cautiously curious approach to knowledge is universal, and that teenagers everywhere are just the same. I had questions of my own. I may have connected more since I was once like these girls myself –inquisitive, fascinated by the world.

For a while I had forgotten that I was a ‘traveler’ visiting a heritage structure and sat down with this bunch of school-girls, teaching them some interesting phrases and words to use in English. Their English was way more adequate than any other non-native speaker. I told them about how I worked, how I loved traveling. I learned a few phrases of Tamil from them. The girl with the disability was extremely analytical. She had questions regarding what prospects someone like her had in a field like mine. I answered as helpfully as I could. The whole unexpected encounter with these girls was complemented by another group of school kids, this time a bunch of boys around eleven years old. They were more interested in unabashedly getting their photographs clicked than in a conversation. Some did engage in conversation, while others were more intrigued by my camera.

The chance encounter with these children was no life-changing experience, but it was certainly an unforgettably welcome one. In my travels through this magnificent country I have met some amazing people, but here in the land of Meenakshi or the ‘fish-eyed goddess’, this incident was something different. For one, these weren’t the regular adults one would talk to and secondly, it was an unplanned one. These kids were an infinitesimally small fraction of such similarly curious young people across this vast country. Conversations with adults veer in a different direction, but to be presented with a chance to walk through the minds of young teenagers was not something I was willing to pass. I was reliving my days as a teenage girl. I marveled at how despite the stark differences in the environments in which we grew up we were all the same, only with minute changes in our perceptions of the world. I was more excited about talking to the group of young girls and what they thought about growing up in India. The world might have various perceptions about India and her history with women, as contradictory as they might sound one cannot deny Indian culture’s regard for women either. One of the girls proudly declared, “I wouldn’t want to grow up anywhere else in the world”. I had come to India expecting to take a walk into her glorious past, but this little encounter gave me a lovely glimpse into its future.

With school boys at the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

 

 

At Kalari Rasayana, Chef Narayanan Nair unveils secrets of his Ayurvedic recipes

Chef Narayanan Nair from Kalari Rasayana, Kollam, Kerala India

Dear Rita,

We have just come back from our Ayurvedic cure in Kerala and feel completed rested, restored and rejuvenated; Peter’s gout condition seems to have improved radically without any allopathic medicine. We are really happy.

If you and Tom will ever need to go for a cure, you should choose Kalari Rasayana, CGH Earth’s newly opened Ayurvedic retreat in Kollam, not far from Thiruvantapuram.

The quality of the treatments and the hospitality there are impeccable.

But the highlight of our stay was meeting chef Narayanan Nair again after more than a decade. Back then, we used to meet him at the Marari Beach Resort, a delightful place to spend the winter holidays at the beach under the coconut trees. The children used to love it. Now we are recovering from the stressful urban life the Ayurvedic way.

Chef Narayanan Nair is a man with a purpose. He wishes to contribute to the patients’ healing process by serving them wholesome, curative, vegetarian food.

It all started for him when he was diagnosed with a nasty ulcer that needed to be operated upon.

Narayanankutty, like dear ones and friends call him, would rather die than be cut open.

He had the intuition that by changing his food habits he could heal his condition and so it was. He plunged himself into the ancient knowledge of life, Ayurveda, that lists the properties of all the aliments and for which constitution they are appropriate, and developed a large variety of ayurvedic recipes.

When we shared with him our concern about going back home and loosing the benefits of his healthy cooking, he very generously invited us to come to his kitchen and learn the basics. Chef Narayanan Nair only uses organic vegetables and pulses, does not store any food in the refrigerator, abhors artificial flavouring, colouring, as much as white sugar and margarine.

In his traditional brass pots, called uruli, he tosses the onions without any oil and then adds the ayurvedic spices and herbs required, often adding freshly grated coconut.

We are extremely thankful to him for sharing some of the recipes we have loved while staying at Kalari and I am sure you will be happy to try the few that I am attaching to my message. You will notice how such food will contribute not only to your physical well- being, but also to your peace of mind.

Do let me know about your holidays in St Barth with the boys.

Best,

Claire

Only organic products are used at Kalari Rasayana, Kollam, Kerala India

 

Tomato soup

Ingredients:

2cup of tomatoes cut in cubes

1 carrot minutely chopped

2 tab cilantro stems, roots and leaves cut small

2 or three cloves of garlic

A piece of ginger (about half an inch) finely chopped

A pinch of salt

A pinch of pepper

6 cups of water

Place the tomatoes, the carrots, the cilantro roots and stems, the garlic and the ginger in a heavy bottom pot. Toss at medium flame for few seconds and add the water. Bring to boil and lower the flame. Cover and let it cook for about 10 minutes. Finally, put the soup in a blender and serve hot with fresh cilantro leaves as garnish. Chef Narayan Nair loves this soup for its simplicity and flavour.

 

Khichree

Ingredients:

Half a cup of mung-dal, yellow split lentils

Half a cup of basmati rice (brown rice can also be used)

1 small onion chopped

A piece of ginger (about an inch) finely chopped

1 pinch of cumin seeds

1pinch of mustard seeds

4 cups of water

A pinch of turmeric

A pinch of ginger powder

A pinch of coriander powder

A pinch of asafoetida powder

2 small carrots chopped small (optional)

A few green beans chopped small (optional)

A pinch of salt

A tiny bit of ghee

Few leaves of cilantro

In a heavy bottom pot warm the onion rapidly at medium flame with the cumin and mustard seeds and the fresh ginger. Add the washed rice and mung-dal. Add a pinch of turmeric, ginger powder, coriander and asafoetida. Toss and add some water. Add the fresh vegetables and the rest of the water and a pinch of salt. Lower the flame, cover the pot and let it cook for about 15 m. Stirring once in a while. When the Khichree has reached a mushy consistency, it is ready. Shut off the flame; add the tip of a spoon of ghee and the cilantro leaves. This dish is highly digestible and is called in India “the food of the gods”.

 

Lemon rice

Ingredients:

3 cups of cooked rice

1tsp of chopped ginger

½tsp of turmeric powder

Salt

1tsp of chopped cilantro leaves

1/2tsp asafoetida powder

Few cashew nuts and

1tsp of lemon juice

1tsp of mustard seeds

1/2tsp of cumin seeds

1tsp of oil

Heat the oil and add mustard and cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds crackle add the cashew nuts and the broken chickpeas. Cook them until they roast then add the rice, the turmeric, the salt and the coriander leaves. Stir well, then sprinkle with lemon juice and asafoetida. The lemon rice is ready to serve. This tasty dish is traditionally carried along by travelling South Indian families.

Lemon rice served at Kalari Rasayana, Kollam, Kerala India

My Guru’s Musical Journey

One of the younger students of Mrs. Akhila Krishnan, the Carnatic stalwart - New Delhi, India

“Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu Andariki Vandanamulu”

“To all the great souls, I offer my humble salutations”

Saint Thyagaraja

This is the first line of a Kriti, a composition, by the eighteenth century musician saint. As I navigated the flights of stairs to my Guru’s second floor apartment in Ashok Vihar, West Delhi I could hear a muffled chorus of voices singing this composition in Telugu, in the Raga Sri. The unison of voices got louder as I approached their door and my thoughts began to race as the song echoed out of the walls and into the recesses of my mind. I wondered if the lines aptly represented my impressions of my septuagenarian teacher of Carnatic classical music, Mrs. Akhila Krishnan and her husband Mr. P. N. Krishnan.

I entered the living room of their apartment, the hallowed enclave of resonating music, where about twenty of their advanced students were devoutly rendering the last of Thyagaraja’s “Ghana Raga Pancharatnas”, the ‘five gems in the greatest of Ragas’. I humbly touched her feet and sat down to chime in. In one corner of the room was a portrait of Thyagaraja adorned with garlands of fresh flowers and a reverently glowing lamp. The occasion was special too; it was the anniversary of the saint composer’s birth and every year for the last forty years, the Krishnans and their students have invariably paid tributes to him by singing his compositions with unflinching devotion and heart-warming humility. Given their ocean of knowledge and musical experiences spread over six eventful decades, the couple’s endearing modesty is, to me, their most conspicuous attribute. Every time I go to class, I am overwhelmed with a sense of adoration for them that compels me to prostate at their feet once before class and once afterwards. I feel they deserve the reverence, because they don’t demand it.

Born in 1937 and hailing from the little Tamil Brahmin enclave of Palakkad in Kerala, my Guru, Mrs. Akhila Krishnan trained in Carnatic music under several stalwarts of the time, starting with her own father, the violinist Erode Vishwanatha Iyer. She belongs to a family which boasts of six generations of classical musicians and is also a gifted violinist herself. In 1955, she was a Grade-A Carnatic vocalist in the All India Radio station in Calicut. She even met her husband through music, who was a student of her uncle’s, the flute maestro, Nochur Krishna Iyer. As a twenty year old bride, she devoutly followed her husband, Mr. P. N. Krishnan to Delhi in 1957. Mr. Krishnan, himself an eminent flautist and singer, made sure his young wife’s musical skills didn’t go to naught. In the fifties, the young, independent India’s new capital Delhi was still grappling with the scars of Partition, and there were hardly any takers for Carnatic classical music. So Mrs. Krishnan went to Madras, the cultural nerve-center of the South, in 1961 to pursue her “Vidwan” course from Central College. “Vidwan” loosely translates to ‘maestro’ and is a highly advanced level of learning in Carnatic music which she effortlessly managed in one academic year, during which time she also had her first child. After her return to Delhi, over the next four decades – she had sung for the greatest names in the fields of Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi and other classical dance forms, performing across the world; learnt from illustrious musicians, all the while grooming some great musical talents under her own tutelage. Both she and her husband have had the privilege of nurturing some spectacular musicians, including their own two sons who are violinists. Some of their students now perform on national and international levels.

A student of Mrs. Akhila Krishnan, the maverick Carnatic musician - New Delhi, India

Over the last few months of my musical journey with Mrs. Akhila Krishnan, whom we students endearingly address as ‘maami’, I’ve not only learnt music, but also learnt a few life lessons. Every class with her is more than just a lesson in music; it is a conversation about her life, her experiences, and her undying will to learn even in her late seventies. She always has stories to tell. She once told us about how she, as a young student, used to sit in the center of a circle of Mridangam players – all of them, students of the legendary Mridangam maestro, Palghat Mani – and sing a composition in Raga Bhairavi set to a beat cycle or Tala of fourteen beats called Khandajaati Ata Tala. She’d sing the composition several times so that with each time the percussionists have the opportunity to improvise different ways of negotiating the rhythm cycle. In all, she remembered, she sang the composition about three hundred times. This exercise gave her mastery of the Tala and also of the beautifully complex Raga or the melodic concept, Bhairavi, letting her explore its true Rasa or essence. Her mastery of several Ragas is made evident from the way her voice sails the river of Swaras or notes as she loses herself in a fit of euphoric improvisations and the way she effortlessly switches from one Raga to another while demonstrating their differences and their innate beauty. She has had the fortune of learning from Carnatic legends like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, K. V. Narayanaswamy, G. N. Balasubramaniam, T. K. Jayarama Iyer, the sister duo Brinda and Muktha among others. Her repertoire now includes at least a thousand compositions by various composers, including some extremely rare gems, making her knowledge enviable. She and her husband have several compositions to their credit as well. She recalls fondly, her days as an active, coveted musician in the Delhi Carnatic music circuit and tells us stories about her glorious days singing for great danseuses like Yamini Krishnamurthy and Sonal Mansingh, touring the world with them. Now, thanks to a major spinal surgery performed twelve years ago, she rarely travels. Despite all this, when I once sang a rare kriti that I had learnt from my first Guru, she said, “I’ve never heard this Kriti. Can you record it and give it to me, I’d like to listen and learn it.” I was rendered speechless.

My journey as a student of Carnatic music is an ongoing one and, although discontinuous, is a little over six years old. Over these years, I’ve learnt from quite a few Gurus, but none quite like ‘Akhila Maami’. In my few months of training under her, my understanding of the world of music has grown manifold; my love for it, even more so. To the Krishnans, music is more than just a medium of interpretation of their world, it is something that is worthy of worship. I, for one, have always had an undying love for music and grew up around it, my mother being a classical dancer and my uncle, a violinist and singer. Through the Krishnans, I’ve unearthed from within myself, a passion for music that transcends the mere physical, neurological responses it induces and reaches for the inexplicable. The mystical Rasas of the Ragas, the blissfully galloping pace of the Talas, the ephemeral nature of the seven individual Swaras, the trance induced by bouts of Manodharma or improvisations – have all taken on a very special meaning in my mind. They don’t just represent elements of music; they illustrate the abstractions of one’s own life substantiated into a garland of sounds and rhythms. One’s life is indeed replete with a kind of mysticism, calculated rhythms of routine, a transience that always threatens and fascinating unplanned events. Understanding aspects of music is understanding life – this is the lesson I learnt from the Krishnans. I now begin to wonder if another of Saint Thyagaraja’s compositions applies to life, where he poignantly asks Lord Rama if salvation can be attained by the soul that does not possess the knowledge of music.

“Sangeetha Gnyana Viheenulaku, Mokshamu Kaladaa”

“To the soul devoid of the knowledge of music, is there salvation?”

- Saint Thyagaraja

Mr. P. N. Krishnan and Mrs. Akhila Krishnan, the Carnatic musician couple - New Delhi, India

 

Stimulating the Intellect

Artwork welcoming visitors at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

“The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing”

Although not a great admirer of Sigmund Freud, this quote of his made sense to me as I skimmed through a corpus of quotes by famous people about the human intellect and our power to think. These words rang hard in my head as I sat down to write about my experiences at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. In this age of reason and excessive information, that the voice of the intellect needs to be heard might seem counterintuitive. But the very spate of information drowns out the incidence of reason and thought. Some venues lend a potent voice to that muffled scream of thought, reason and intellectual debate and the Jaipur Literature Festival is one of them. Some might not agree with my assessment of the festival as thought-provoking, but I found myself attending talks, discussions and debates on a range of subjects that had me thinking throughout.

I hail from a British family of professors, literature enthusiasts and voracious readers, and grew up amidst a sea of books. That clubbed with the fact that the Jaipur Literature Festival is touted as the largest literary event in the world and being a ravenous book-gobbling scientist myself, my attending the festival was just an obvious choice. I had the fortune of going to the festival with Kamalan’s Executive Director in India, Dheeraj, his colleague Karthik and two volunteers from the Tushita Foundation, Ivana and Federico, all of whom had more than just a flair for literature. We attended the festival on two of the four days that it was held. The fact that we spent two entire days at the festival attests to the captivating nature of the event. I, for one, had even met with some prominent authors, biographers and musicians, especially those whom I’ve read and listened to. I wouldn’t say I was star-struck, but I was certainly more than pleased. The lively, yet perceptive audience was a delight to watch. Each day’s events ended with dazzling music performances by established and budding artists.

The first of the talks I attended was one by the biographer Andrew Graham Dixon, who penned a fascinating account of the rebellious Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s life. His talk involved the influence Caravaggio had on the Renaissance and the post-Renaissance era art. His tumultuous and often violent life had overshadowed much of his contribution to the world of art. Dixon spoke about how Caravaggio’s revolutionary depictions of the Greek and Roman mythological characters and his subtle admissions of guilt for his actions, his submission to the will of the divine often find themselves being camouflaged motifs in his paintings. Dixon also spoke about the extensive research that he had to undertake for his book and the wonderful journey that his research had taken him on. Having seen some of Caravaggio’s works during my visits to mainland Europe, I may now see them with new eyes. I decided I had to get his book “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane” and have it signed by him, which is precisely what I did after the talk.

I then sat in on a talk by the famous Indian photographer, Dayanita Singh who also has several books on the art of photography to her credit. Directed at young adults, the talk was aptly named ‘Everyone’s a Photographer’. She made her session a very interactive one, giving them little assignments like asking them to take 36 different shots with their mobile-phone cameras standing right where they were. She addressed young women specifically and spoke about how she never let her gender take control of her life as a photographer, a male-dominated profession. Her contention that you don’t need a camera that costs a fortune in order to take pictures and become a photographer had struck a chord with me. She revealed that, in this age of digital photography, her choice of camera is still a Laika from the 1970s that uses a film with 36 shots and advised that one must connect with one’s subject in order to make it a ‘good shot’. The kids at the talk were equally enthusiastic about listening to her and posed some stimulating questions. It certainly was a delight to watch her engage with teens of the digital age.

Umbrellas used in the canopy made at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Ivana, Federico, Dheeraj, Karthik and I had split our time between various sessions and attended some together. The event had some very interesting themes this year, with focus on women authors, endangered languages, democracy, crime and punishment. We found ourselves attending so many talks and discussions during the course of the day, that we hardly found time or even realized that we needed to eat. We had a stark revelation in the evening that we had skipped a meal – all this, despite the presence of numerous food-stalls strewn all over the place. After each talk we’d gather up to discuss the subject and share our own opinions with each other. Two of us were even lucky enough to pose questions to the panelists directly. The subjects of the talks were absorbing, to put it mildly. We attended some extremely riveting talks on ‘The Art of Biographies’, ‘Symmetry in Nature’, ‘How can the Sacred be Sensuous?’, ‘The Price of War’ among others. We found that the five of us were good conversationalists ourselves, capable of both humor and thought in equal measure. This whole experience at the Jaipur Literature Festival was not just one of being in the midst of a gripping onslaught of cerebral matter, but was also one of introspection.

Both evenings, after all the neural activity, concluded with some stunning music performances. We danced all our exhaustion away at the concerts. The first day, a group called Ska Vengers, a neo-reggae and blues group from Delhi sang a few songs with social themes and really grabbed the audience’s attention, constantly keeping them on their feet. A duo called God’s Robots performed next featuring another extremely talented young musician. With their unique blend of Indian Classical, electronic and blues, they certainly had my full attention. The next evening, the concert included two different groups performing together. An electronica duo Midival Punditz, the previous night’s duo God’s Robots and an independent musician Karsh Kale, had the whole venue on fire, with the young and old equally revved up for the whole duration of the concert. The five of us barely mustered up our energies to go for a lavish dinner and a couple of drinks after the concerts.

The two days at the Jaipur Literature Festival was time well spent, despite the fact that I barely visited any of the popular ‘sights’ around the royal ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur. I did take a couple of hours to give the host city its due by going around, but my mind was entirely occupied by the festival, its series of talks, their subjects and its music concerts. My visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival also reminded me of India’s deep love for the written word, its laudable attempts at intellectual emancipation and its affair with knowledge. It’s no wonder then that the country hosts the world’s largest event that celebrates the beauty of the written word and soulfully probes into its depths. I have decided to come back for the Jaipur Literature Festival again, to do just what I love doing the most – Stimulate my intellect. My bouts of reveries await me as I skim through those quotes and come across another brilliant gem by the beloved French poet Victor Marie Hugo – “Thought is the labor of intellect, reverie is its pleasure.”

An absorbed listener at one of the talks at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India