How a San Jose family Got Over its Fear of Dogs

SANTA CLARA COUNTY –- Sometimes fear disappears when you bravely take it for a walk.

That is what an Indian family discovered as team participants of Santa Clara County Parks online social media game, Parks For Life Challenge.

County parks and the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter joined forces to help promote the shelter’s newest program, Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over. Participants of the Parks For Life Challenge earned game points for taking a sheltered dog for a walk in a county park.

While the program was designed to benefit sheltered dogs by providing an opportunity to explore the outside world and to evaluate the dog’s ability to socialize, the program unexpectedly created a life-changing experience for the Kanagala family.

Their walk in the park, they said, altered the family’s behavior toward dogs and dispelled an ingrained cultural belief. Ajay, the father, noted that in India the dog culture is much different than in the United States. Typically, dogs are not considered pets in India, but more of an animal that people are terrified of. “Unlike Americans, we see dogs as scary animals. My wife and oldest daughter are terrified of dogs and stayed away from them as much as possible because that’s how they were raised.”

Enter Winston, a 10-year old Pit Bull Terrier considered to be a long-term stay dog at Santa Clara County Animal Shelter. The first time the family took Winston out of the shelter they asked for a crate for him to ride in while in the car.

While walking him, only Ajay would hold the leash, and his two daughters would stay behind. Toward the end of the walk, Anika, the younger daughter, began to get closer and pet Winston. On the second outing Ajay asked for a crate, yet didn’t make Winston ride in it. While hiking Ajay noticed Anika interacting more with Winston, courageously asking to hold the leash.

Anya, the older daughter, and Ajay’s wife, Chalana, began to realize there was nothing to fear and became comfortable around Winston. On the third outing, Ajay said he skipped the crate and let Winston share the backseat of the car with the kids. Another breakthrough occurred while the Anika was walking Winston: Chalana and Anya started to pet Winston. In no time at all the gentle pats on the back became warm friendly hugs.

“If it was not for the Parks For Life Challenge, my family would still see dogs as terrifying animals the same way they did back in India,” said Ajay. The family is now strongly considering adopting a sheltered dog.


To find out more information on Foster Field Trip and Shelter Dog Sleep Over, contact the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter at 408-686-3900 or scc.animalshelter@cep.sccgov.orghttps://bit.ly/2EinTPa

#MeToo – Not

At the age of eleven, I discovered nature, when, for the first time in my life, I was taken on a summer vacation.  My aunt worked as a nurse at the Tuberculosis Hospital outside of Pune, and there I roamed the windswept landscape, wading into the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers, searching for colored pebbles.

One hot afternoon, I set off across the dusty fields.  The silence of the noonday hour crackled all around me, faint sounds of civilization hummed in the distance.  A fisher woman’s melody, a baby’s wail, a bird’s caw, floated in the still air.

A dark figure loomed ahead.  But I felt no twinge of apprehension.  I possessed then the invincibility of a pre-adolescent child.

The man halted in front of me and said something.  I understood, not his words, only his intent. Still, I stood there frozen as he undid his dhoti.  

The next moment, I regained my senses and ran away.

At home, I tried to talk to my mother.  But I had no vocabulary to describe my fear, my experience of witnessing male genitalia.  My mother, it turned out, possessed even lesser skills of communication. That day, a wedge grew between us.  From then on, I would solve my own problems, my mother would be only too relieved not to face them.

A few years later, I was walking home from high school when a man from the neighborhood approached me.  A medical representative, he was always dressed in a starched shirt and a tie and went around the neighborhood handing free medicines to our mothers. His status as an outsider – he was either a Christian or a Parsi  – seemed to exempt him from any personal scrutiny so that no one ever questioned why, late into his thirties, he remained single.

That afternoon, he inquired about my schoolwork.  As I responded, his eyes wandered. Then, abruptly, he invited me to a movie.  

My chest tingled.  I imagined the dashing man sitting beside me in the darkness of the movie theater.  I envisioned his arm around my shoulders, my head across his chest. I was a skinny bookworm then; no boy had ever shown any interest in me.  

I agreed to meet the man later at the traffic island.  

But as soon as I turned around, I was overcome by nausea.  A part of me longed for his touch, a part was revolted.

I never went to the traffic island.  I never told my parents. Unable to suppress my secret, I eventually told Viju, my best friend.  She promised to tell her mother.

But nothing changed.  Whenever the medical representative came to our house to give my mother free medicines, I cowered in the kitchen.  I never considered telling my parents even though the fact of his transgression was etched in my mind.

Years later, I wondered, what would have happened if I had gone to the movies with the medical rep?  What would have happened if the dhoti-clad peasant had raped me in that dusty field? More importantly, how had I navigated my way through a childhood filled with dangers that no one ever spoke of?  How did I have the courage and the wisdom to make the right decision?

When prominent women began to share their experiences of sexual abuse during the recent #MeToo movement, I marveled at my generation of Indian women who had fought back.  

Viju and I got fed up of being molested on the streets, for instance, and collared a perpetrator one day and began to hit him with fists until passersby came to our aid.  We spread word through the grapevine about men who we knew to be abusers, a friend’s father, for instance, who always put girls on his lap and slobbered them with kisses, even though, after the age of two or three, girls were never kissed in our community.  Another friend’s brother regularly made passes at his sister’s friends but never dared to touch me because he knew only too well my big temper and even bigger tongue.

And all the while, our parents remained blissfully ignorant, or pretended to be.  It wasn’t that there was no abuse in India, it was just that cultural norms prevented people from admitting to any.

So I longed for America, the enlightened land where feminism had been born.  

Imagine my surprise therefore when I left India where professors had always addressed me as “Miss So and So,” and came to these shores where male professors routinely made passes at their female students, even initiated love affairs with them.  This was in the late seventies when my fellow students were naive enough to be flattered by such advances. It was to them a validation of their allure and smarts.

For a brief moment, I am embarrassed to admit, I felt envious of my classmates.  I mistook their exploitation for liberation.

Until, in the nineteen eighties, when I attended a business conference in Thailand.  On my way home, I found myself at a seedy hotel in Bangkok where the front desk warned me of robberies and rapes.  “They can get into your room even if you lock it,” they said. Therefore, when I ran into an ex-professor from Berkeley who had been a fellow-attendee at the conference, I accepted his dinner invitation gratefully.  But within five minutes he was complaining of campus feminists who had lodged a sexual harassment complaint against him, and I was dreading, not my Thai attackers, but the ex-professor. I tossed and turned all night, and when, in the morning, learned that thieves had robbed my dinner companion – they had entered his locked room and stolen everything just as I had been warned –  I couldn’t help feeling vindicated.

Recently, when stories began to surface, of actresses being abused, of women in the media being viciously raped in the offices of their bosses, a la Matt Lauer, I was flabbergasted.  I could not understand why these powerful women had been unable to fight against their attackers or expose them.

And I felt grateful for my sensory radar, which has, for decades, enabled me to stave off danger.

Date/Time Event
Oct 18, 2018 - Jan 21, 2019
All Day
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA
Oct 21, 2018 - Dec 15, 2018
1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Learn to Meditate Class
Learn to Meditate Class
Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, San Jose CA
Nov 29, 2018 - Feb 16, 2019
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
Events Across the Globe
An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga
DAG, Mumbai Maharashtra
Dec 7, 2018 - Jan 4, 2019
12:00 am
Events Across the Globe
Yoga Teacher Training In India
Rishikesh, Rishikesh Uttarakhand

A Firebrand Poet: Subramania Bharathi

May 27, 1996.

The Indian Parliament is hotly discussing a no-confidence motion. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister as well as a poet, rises in defense of the government and waxes poetic about his vision for Mother India:

Thirty crore faces hath She, yet

    She hath only one body and soul.

Eighteen spoken languages hath She, yet

    She hath only one thought.

A glorious poem, to be sure. But it isn’t his poem, (as he himself acknowledges); it is that of a Tamil poet who lived about a hundred years earlier. The poem doesn’t help Vajpayee stay in power – he resigns after just 13 days in office. And the numbers in the poem are wrong for modern India — we have added a few more faces to the thirty crore since the poet’s days and a few more languages to the list of recognized languages, but these details  do not detract from the grandeur and relevance of Subramania Bharati’s vision for a united India. Like all visionaries, he dreamed big, unfettered by reality and by our frailties. His dream, elusive then, is elusive now too.

For a mere mortal to try to do justice to a giant’s glory is naïve at best, but this mere mortal (aka the author) happened to study in the same school that this giant did — M. D. T. Hindu College School, as it was called then, in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, and walked on the hallowed ground this great one had blessed by his presence. So, he has an irrepressible urge to celebrate his revered idol’s glory which blinds him to his limitations, hence this vain essay to sing his praise. Certainly, the easiest way to destroy fine poetry is to translate it, but he will do it anyway, for the poet’s immortal words are seared deep in his brain.

********

Bharati was born as Subramanian in a humble Brahmin family in Ettayapuram near Tirunelveli on December 11, 1881. When he was just 11, the Ettayapuram king at that time recognized Goddess Saraswati dancing on Subramanian’s  silver tongue and bestowed on him the title “Bharati,” a title that was destined to become his name itself. Bharati studied in Tirunelveli, and, after his parents’ death, he continued studies in Varanasi where he gained a broader outlook. Back in Madras Presidency as an adult, he wielded his mighty pen, both as a poet and as an editor of various magazines, arousing patriotism and resistance to the British rule. When he was about to be arrested by the British, he fled to the French-ruled city of Pondicherry and continued his mission from there. He associated with freedom fighters like Gokhale and Lajpat Rai. After establishing himself as an undisputed poetic genius, he departed this world while he was back in Madras at the young age of 39.  following an unfortunate attack by a temple elephant.

A roaring flame was thus extinguished prematurely. Sad indeed.

********

As a poet, Bharati was as diverse as he was prolific, treading multiple landscapes with ease: nationalism, bhakti, nature, women’s amelioration, and his vision for a casteless society. Stylistically, he was a Hemingway among poets; he revolutionized poetry by employing simple Tamil, thus making it accessible to the masses. We’ll try to sample his glory along three dimensions: patriotism, his revolutionary spirit, and bhakti.

Bharati’s patriotism is set in the context of colonial India.  Of Winston Churchill’s rousing, patriotic speeches to his nation during WWII, Edward R. Murrow famously said that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Bharati did much the same, employing Tamil against the British. In his poem “vandE mAtaram,” he asks:

A thousand may be the castes we have, still

    A foreigner to rule us, is that just?

Those born from the same mother’s womb,

    Even if they quarrel, siblings are they not?

Bharati’s artillery of rhetorical questions (especially when read in Tamil) never fails to arouse an intense feeling.  

But, if Bharati’s criticism of the British rule was scathing, his disapproval of his own brethren for their disunity and petty squabbles was scorching. In his famous poem “nenju porukkudilaiyE,” (My heart can’t take it), he laments:

“It’s a five-headed snake,” the father would say, but

    “It’s six-headed,” should the son say,

Their hearts will part ways, and then

    For long they’ll remain foes.

Behind the façade of an amusing analogy lurks a searing pain in the poet’s heart, intense and unmistakable.

Bharati never allowed himself to be circumscribed by regional boundaries. In his poem “Bharata Desam,” in the verse “sindu nadiyin misai,” which is set to a delightful movie melody, he says:

On the Indus river, under a (lovely) moon,

Surrounded by (pretty) young women from Kerala,

Singing songs (heartily) in beautiful Telugu,

We will row the boats and play (in joyous merriment).

The river chosen is from the far northwest of pre-partition India, the women are from Kerala, the language of the songs is Telugu, and the poet is Tamil. Is there an iota of parochialism in this divine poet?

********

In his revolutionary spirit, Bharati was way ahead of his times.  He denounced casteism with full throated fervor. In “vandE mAtaram,” he says of the so-called low castes:

“Lowly” pariahs they may be, but

    Do they not live amongst us?

Does it make them Chinese? Or,

    Harm us, do they, like those foreign?

Another volley of uncomfortable rhetorical questions leaves us squirming with shame! (The “Chinese” here is just a proxy for someone from an alien culture.)

Bharati championed women’s upliftment tirelessly. His “pudumai peN,” or modern woman, retains the best of our culture while discarding her shackles. In his “peNgaL viDudalai kummi,” or, a dandiya raas dance celebrating women’s liberation, the women sing:

To talk about chastity they’ve come, but

    It’s common to both parties, we’ll insist.

In a land where the monogamous hero of the Ramayana is venerated, requiring chastity exclusively of one gender  is a clear abomination but society had legitimized it, and Bharati’s pudumai peN would not take it lying down. In “pAnchAli sabadam,” or “Draupadi’s Vow,” Bharati’s rendition of a portion of Mahabharata, this pudumai peN dons the mantle of Draupadi. When she is dragged to the royal court after she had been gambled away as property and lost, she demands to know what right Yudhishthira had, to gamble her away after he had lost himself. When the illustrious pitamaha, Bhishma, dolefully responds that the shastras do allow it, Bharati’s Draupadi drips with sarcasm and says (in section 27):

Speak well did thou, Sir, of dharma.

Back when Ravana, with deceit, abducted,

And imprisoned Lady Sita in Ashoka Garden,

And called his counsel and connoisseurs of shastras,

And apprised them of the tidings of Sri Devi’s capture,

“Thou did well, Sire; with dharma, this act

Fully conforms,” did rejoice these connoisseurs!

When ghouls rule, shastras will recommend a diet of cadavers, (won’t they?)!

If words could kill, this last line of Bharati’s Draupadi would have incinerated that entire court, including the guilt-ridden Yudhishthira.

********

Finally, Bharati’s bhakti is tender, uplifting, and imaginative. His “kaNNan pATTu,” a collection of songs about Krishna, is legendary and extends the imagination of the Azhvar saints of South India, who had already viewed Kannan (Krishna) as their own child (Periyazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in Yashodha-bhAvam) or as their beau while imagining themselves to be a woman (Nammazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in nAyika-bhAvam). This latter view is often seen as the longing of the individual soul for the Supreme Soul. To these traditional views, Bharati adds several more: Kannan is his belle (how dare he?) with a name of Kannamma, his servant (o, what chutzpah!), his friend, his mother, his father, his king, his sishya, and his guru. It is indeed  Bharati’s imagination and revolutionary spirit to view Kannan in these non-traditional ways, but regardless of the particular view, he always expresses quintessential bhakti. In “Asai mugam marandu pochchE” (Alas, His face is gone from my memory), the pining damsel conveys a haunting anguish about being unable to recall her separated lover Kannan’s face vividly. A musical rendition of this poem conveys that heart-rending heartache through its sublime melody (though one must be willing to overlook the singer’s annoying mispronunciation of the first word of the poem). In “kaNNan en sEvagan” (Kannan, My Servant), the poet voices his frustration about the previous servants he’s had:

“Why a no-show yesterday, pray tell?” – Should I ask,

“That scorpion in the pot bit me with its very teeth, Sire,” – they’d say

“The wife was possessed by a demon, Sire” – they’d say

“’Twas the 12th day of my grandmother’s passing, Sire” – they’d say

Always a lie they’d tell; If I tell them one thing, they’ll do another.

While we’re still picturing with amusement that Guinness-eligible scorpion that is blessed with shark-like teeth, the poet is already describing the bliss that Kannan brings him as his servant:

A friend, a counsel, a good teacher – He’s all.

In character, a God; in looks, a servant;

He came from God-knows-where; “a cowherd, Sire,” announced He,

To be blessed with Him here, O, what penance have I done!

As the poet holds forth on the glory of his divine servant, our heart brims with unspeakable gratitude at His love and caring, and we get ready to prostrate at this servant’s feet.

Finally, in “KaNNammA en kAdali – 6” (Kannamma, my sweetheart), the poet describes how complementary he and Kannamma are to each other (Sudha Raghunathan’s rendering here):

A star, You are to me; the cool moon, I am to You;

Bravery, You are to me; triumph, I am to You;

All the bliss in this world and heaven,

Blend so well into your form, O, my sweet nectar!

Isn’t that how all relationships with the significant other ought to be?

We conclude with Bharati’s prayer to Siva Shakti, or Goddess Shakti. Bharati saw the human being, including himself, as the ultimate in divine creation. In “nalladOr veeNai seidE”  (Priya Sisters soulful rendering here), he uses the metaphor of a finely crafted veena to refer to himself. For the Mother Goddess to let him waste his life is tantamount to Her throwing that exquisite veena in trash. So, he says:

Will you not bless me with the ability

    To live so this land gains from me?

Tell me, O, Shiva Shakti,

    Will you rather let me live as a burden on this land?

What a noble aspiration! So, here’s hoping that we, those metaphorical veenas, forever fill the air with the sublime melody of usefulness to others, the melody that She intended for us to create! The poet’s immortal spirit will brook nothing less from us.

Hamsanandi (real name: Vijay Pitchumani) is an engineer living in Fremont, California, with his wife, Sheela. Together they run an effort called Heritage-of-India classes, which currently teaches the Divya Prabandham online. They can be reached at the gmail id of hoiclasses.

 

Mirzapur: a Roller Coaster Ride

The first thirty minutes of Mirzapur dish out thrilling flavor samples for a first taste with a seasoned chef. The delicious ingredients aka the key cast are introduced with careful precision in the first episode — Karan Anshuman, Puneet Krishna and Vineet Krishnan — each character, significant or minor, except Golu (Shweta Tripathi). We meet Golu later, but she stays with us. lawless and fearless, she is much needed soft, strong female energy in the next eight episodes not only for her clear conscience, providing relief from the macho, ruthless reality of the show, but also for her desire and free expression.

Some character journeys are predictable but most of them deviate, surprise, and conquer with finesse. Casting is perfect in this slow-cooked, gripping crime feast set in a fictitious-real world which runs into a total 421 minutes.

Set in the Purvanchal region of Uttar Pradesh, the only law of this land is guns, drugs, rivalry, crime and power. Backed by taut screenplay and brilliant performances, the bar is set to the sky from the start and delivers right up to the racy, breathtaking finale. Mostly shot in Mirzapur, it also scores high on authentic locations. 

The opening scene introduces the main antagonist Munna (Divyendu Sharma), man-child brat of local don Akhandanand Tripathi aka Kaleen Bhaiyya (Pankaj Tripathi), setting the tone. Staring into the camera, Munna barks ‘Kaleen Bhaiyya – King of Mirzapur’ after a snort of cocaine. His next sentence is “To hum kaun hue… Prince”. (“And who am I… Prince.”) Next, second antagonist Kaleen Bhaiyya is introduced in a chilling scene where he watches stone-faced as a faulty gun, manufactured by his factory, explodes in his customer’s hand. 

Protagonists Guddu (Ali Fazal) and Bablu (Vikrant Massey), are introduced in a classroom, giving a sense of their life, dreams and moral fiber before life takes a U-turn. They are plonked with the dilemma of choosing a path with no return. Their decision plays a big role in setting the direction for their own lives, as well as events that follow.

An upright lawyer Ramakant (Rajesh Tailang) picks a prickly legal case, setting forth a chain of events. His commitment to justice for a murdered groom stands tall despite obstacles. His wife Vasudha (Sheeba Chaddha) is not happy with his truthful choices.

While the men are out playing with guns, the women get naughty. Golu is as comfortable masturbating in a library, with books for company, as she is trying to score votes on college elections. Her older sister Sweety (Shriya Pilgaonkar) has her eyes set on Guddu and his muscles. Then there is Beena Tripathi (Rasika Dugal), Akhandanand’s wife, who is consumed by her sexual desire as her husband is unable to satisfy her. Vasudha is dazzled by power and riches. Dimpy (Harshita Gaur) is spunky but cast as the proverbial sister, which is disappointing.


There are choices and then there is that one choice which comes with consequences. Every moment is an ominous one for Guddu and Bablu, keeping you on the brink. I usually avoid movies with pointless violence. Although come to think of it, isn’t every violent act pointless? What Mirzapur does extremely well is break violence into slices, amalgamating it into everyday life so mundane and real it is terrifying.

The story is pretty stock standard but the fresh perspective of its narrative is what gives Mirzapur its edge and quality stamp. Some scenes are designed to make audiences squirm, while others are paisa wasool on their entertainment value.

The writers are aided by a cast that live and breathe their characters perfectly. Divyendu conquers the messy, complex, layered Munna with finesse: his shifty body language, reckless behaviour, crazy streaks, and dark emotions blend into a powerful turn almost reminiscent of good old Gabbar. Alicharms as the soft and unpredictable Guddu – he wears his innocence like a burden even as his character peels it off bit by bit, with the shifting goal post. Vikrant is excellent as the sensitive, practical Bablu caught in a vortex of descent. Pankaj plays the measured evil don with panache. Veteran actor Kulbhushan stays in the background, occupying his wheelchair with the confidence of an assured performer as well as patriarch. Amit Sial and Shahnawaz Pradhan are effective as cops on opposite ends of the spectrum of duty. Rajesh is effective as the keeper of justice, Ramakant.

Quite easily, Rasika and Sheeba shine as Beena and Vasudha. Rasika is laidback and spunky, voicing her sexual needs and opinion freely, her superbly balanced act lending grace to Beena.  asudha is pushing boundaries of a different variety as she fulfils her material desires and tastes power for the first time. Sheeba plays her skilfully with candid innocence, as a woman  who does not think beyond the corners of her family’s existence. Shweta packs a punch as Golu. in her delicate frame, every time she appears.

Mirzapur is definitely worth taking the roller coaster ride.  Full of steep twists, it also has a thrilling climax that keeps you on edge until the last second, leaving unanswered questions for season two. Bring it on…

4 out of 5

Mirzapur. (2018- )Writers: Karan Anshuman, Puneet Krishna and Vineet Krishnan. Director: Karan Anshuman, Gurmmeet Singh, Nisha Chandra and Mihir Desai. Players: Rasika Dugal, Pankaj Tripathi,  Shriya Pilgaonkar, Ali Fazal, Shweta Tripathi, Vikrant Massey, Amit Sial, Divyendu Sharma, Shahnawaz Pradhan, Rajesh Tailang, Sheeba Chaddha, Harshita Gaur and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Prime Video Network Release: Excel Entertainment

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, tv, culture, women, and social equity. 

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

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Vasundhara Gupta: From Kolkata To Boston

 

We’ve all heard the saying – music is truly universal. But, how many musicians can truly claim to “know” and “feel” the truth of this statement? Meet Vasundhara Gupta, young musician and sound designer from the Berklee School of Music in Boston – “ Every class that I took at Berklee had 9 out of 10 musicians drawn from different parts of the world,” she said in wonderment. She used that exposure and has moved forward in ways that truly demonstrate confidence and artistic leadership.

Growing up in Kolkata in a large joint family with cousins, uncles, and aunts, the musical influences in her life were varied and started when she was very young; some relatives listened to Western classical music, her father listened to the Beatles, her brother to Bryan Adams and her mother to Hindustani music. From this musical amalgam, emerged a keen student of Hindustani music groomed under the watchful eyes of her mother and grandmother. Both of them played the Hawaiian slide guitar and even when she went on vacations to her maternal grandmother;s house in Varanasi, lessons continued through the hot, summer months. This early discipline nurtured the young girl and soon she was singing and practicing on her own with true love and dedication.

In high school, unsure of what to do next, a friend’s suggestion to apply to the Berklee School of Music changed her life. She first went to Mumbai for 3 rounds of interviews with music professors from Berklee. The fact that her in-person interview with two professors turned out to be an impromptu jam session must have guaranteed her admission to the highly selective institution, I surmise, as she talks of how her mind opened to global musical influences on arrival in Boston. Sound producer, sound engineer, music orchestrator – when she heard these various paths to making and producing music, her first reaction as a student was to exclaim – “My God – you can do so much in music! “I was amazed that all of these pursuits originated from that same place within – a deep love for music,” she said with visible excitement.  

Apart from these various career paths that opened up in front of her, her musical sense resonated with an understanding of history, migration and acculturation. For instance, she was able to examine Indian music, the music that she was most familiar with, “in a different way.” The Middle Eastern Berklee ensembles, bore the same root as forms of Indian music since they originated in Persia centuries ago, she realized.  She described the Berklee environment as “an explosion” of music from all over the world that stimulated her fertile artistic mind in myriad ways.

As part of the Indian ensemble at Berklee, she took on leadership roles, and helped produce mega shows that involved multiple moving parts in terms of sound design, production and performance. “I gained a lot of confidence as a musician as well, since I was encouraged to sing solo sharing the stage with eminent musicians like Vijay Prakash.” AR Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Shreya Ghoshal were the other artists who worked with the students through their work with the Indian ensemble.

Given these multicultural musical influences, it is no surprise that her first collaboration in college was a multicultural one with Olivie Perez, a Spanish pianist.  “We didn’t know each other’s capabilities and slowly we learnt a lot about listening, and through musical sensitivity developed a piece together.” Here’s a clip of their performance together.

Live Performance of ‘Together’ at Berklee Performance Centre in 2015:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGGH5ZlYKoU

Song from an EP released in Dec. 2017:

http://vasundharagupta.bandcamp.com/track/goburine-song

The name she chose for her first EP – One – reveals the coming together of this growing international musical sensibility within her.  Fittingly, the journey for this EP started in Spain, moved to Kolkata and then came together at Boston. All the music was composed, produced, mixed and recorded by her. Using her ear for music, she has also been working in all aspects related to sound post-production at Slick Sounds in Southern California under David F. Van Slyke, a formidable name in the music business.

Talking of her dream of bringing artists on various paths – dancers, visual artists, writers and musicians within one physical space to create art, Vasundhara seems poised, confident of her unique musical abilities while articulating her vision – something that only artistic leaders can do at such a young age!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.

Singing For My Pizza

Last summer, while traveling with my wife through the Canadian Rockies, I sang for my pizza at Gus’ Pizza in Hinton, Alberta.

This is how it happened.

Looking for dinner on our last night in Hinton, a tourist town servicing Jasper National Park, we settled on pizza at Gus’ Pizza, a local Greek restaurant. Hungry, we were glad it was open. And since this was late June, the restaurant curtains were drawn closed, due to the blazing sunshine outside so It seemed dark inside as we entered.

As my wife, Lynn, and I were finishing our pizza, the clock was inching towards 9 pm.. Grabbing my sunglasses and while getting ready to pay the bill and leave, I saw a large group of people, maybe 25 or so, come in and sit down at the open tables around us. 

Lynn, who spent her career in high tech, turned around and asked a person seated at the next table where they were from. New Jersey was the answer, but they were from India originally. Where in India, she asked? From different parts of India –  was the response. The places included Orissa, Mumbai and many other cities across the rest of the sub-continent. They belonged to one family and were visiting Canada together. In the past, Lynn and I have traveled to India twice. Lynn then mentioned casually  that I am a “Carnatic singer,” and that I’ve taken some lessons.

“Wow! Really? Can he sing something?” came the immediate response.

Uh, OK,. But I don’t feel ready. Vacationing. I haven’t sung in over a week or so and don’t have the words for any of the songs with me.” I was having an internal conversation as I scrambled to come up with something, fast.

Quelling this, I decided to open up and sing – on a full stomach, standing right there at the table with my backpack in hand I sang the pallavi lines of Thyagaraja’s Yochana in Darbar ragam. I had sung the same song  at the most recent Thyagaraja Day and it was the first song that occurred to me. I turned on the  shruthi on my iPhone for accompaniment and just sang.

I actually got through the pallavi, and thought to myself, “I hope they like this.”

The place erupted with applause. They wanted more and commented about how good I was. 

Really?” I was flattered.
I then started the pallavi of Sriman Narayana, one of my favorite songs, in Bowli ragam. I had one of the party look up the “rain ragam” for me (I had a senior moment and forgot the name) as I wanted to sing that krithi in this arid place in the high Albertan plains.  Finding the ragam to be Amrutha Varshini, I then sang the pallavi of Anandamrutha Varshini. Studying Maharajapuram Santhanam’s version of this song  seemed to pay off at that very moment; I was able to recall it in my mind as I went along. Thanks to my guru Kalpagam for pointing out that version to me!
More applause accompanied me to the cashier as I finished my mini-concert. 

The owner, Gus, was waiting for me. He shook my hand saying, “Thank You” and said  that he wanted to pay for my dinner! The offer felt “weird” to me; I offered to pay half of the bill amount and leave a tip instead.
“Yes, that’s fine” he said, saying that he just “loved singing in his restaurant.”

Lynn paid and left a tip, while Gus handed me a small bag of Ouzo candies. For a moment, I felt like I was in a Hindu temple receiving prasadam after a festival performance.
Stepping outside, I put on my sunglasses to meet the blinding setting sun, and we drove back to the hotel.

All true

Goes to show, sometimes you just never know what will happen.

Keep practicing!

When he’s not traveling, Burton Winn enjoys life in San Anselmo, California with his wife, Lynn Poirier.

A semi-retired pop and blues musician, he continues his studies in Carnatic music with guru Kalpagam KowsiK and believes that music is a universal language, bridging both time and cultural barriers.

He has previously been published in India Currents.

 

                            The Ouzo Candies. (Photo in natural light)

Designer Babies Are Here — Ready or Not

A Chinese scientist from a university in Shenzhen claims he has succeeded in creating the world’s first genetically edited babies. He told the Associated Press that twin girls were born earlier this month after he edited their embryos using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene, which plays a critical role in enabling many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.

Whether the claims are true or false, one thing is clear: We are entering an era of designer babies. Scientists will soon be able to edit human embryos with the aim of eliminating debilitating disease, selecting physical traits such as skin and eye color, or even adding extra intelligence. Our understanding of the effects of the technology is in its infancy, however.

The technology is CRISPR: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Discovered by scientists only a few years ago, CRISPRs are elements of an ancient system that protects bacteria and other single-celled organisms from viruses, acquiring immunity to them by incorporating genetic elements from the virus invaders. CRISPRs evolved over millions of years to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another. And this bacterial antiviral defense serves as an astonishingly cheap, simple, elegant way to quickly edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.

Until recently, experimenting with DNA required sophisticated labs, years of experience, and millions of dollars. The use of CRISPRs has changed all that. CRISPRs work by using an enzyme — Cas9 — that homes in on a specified location in a strand of DNA. The process then edits the DNA to either remove unwanted sequences or insert payload sequences. CRISPRs use an RNA molecule as a guide to the DNA target. To set up a CRISPR editing capability, a lab only needs to order an RNA fragment and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes, costing only a few dollars.

Because CRISPR is cheap and easy to use, it has both revolutionized and democratized genetic research. Thousands of labs all over the world are experimenting with CRISPR-based editing projects. There are few regulations worldwide, even in the United States, largely because regulators don’t understand what has become possible. China has taken the lead because it puts scientific progress ahead of all concerns. It has made the most astonishing breakthroughs.

In 2014, Chinese scientists announced they had successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage.  In April 2015, another group of researchers in China published a paper detailing the first ever effort to edit the genes of a human embryo. The attempt failed, but it shocked the world: this wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. And then, in April 2016, yet another group of Chinese researchers reported it had succeeded in modifying the genome of a human embryo in an effort to make it resistant to HIV infection.

The intentions may be good, but this has transgressed a serious boundary. We know too little to predict the broader effects of altering or disabling a gene. In the 1960s, we imagined rather naïvely that as time went by we would understand with increasing precision the role of each gene in making us what we are. The foundation of genetics for decades, once biology’s Central Dogma, was the hypothesis that each gene codes for a single protein. Knowing the correspondences, we would have tools useful not only for research but also for curing and preventing disease with a genetic basis and perhaps for augmenting human evolution.

The one-gene-one-protein Central Dogma, though it continues to pervade our common beliefs about genetics, underwent conversion when scientists realized many proteins comprise several polypeptides, each of which was coded for by a gene. The Dogma therefore became one gene, one polypeptide. But what sounded the entire Dogma’s death knell was the discovery in the early 1970s that a single gene can code for more than one protein. The discovery that the human genome contains only about 30,000 genes to code for some 90,000 proteins brought that home; but what makes our understanding appear spectacularly inadequate is the discovery in 2000 that a single gene can potentially code for tens of thousands of proteins.

In a nutshell, we don’t know the limits of the new technologies, can’t guess what lifetime effects a single gene alteration will have on a single individual, and have no idea what effects alteration of genes in sperm or ova or a fetus will have on future generations. For these reasons, we have no knowledge of whether a particular modification of the human germline will be ultimately catastrophic, and no basis for considering that tampering with heritable genes can be humane or ethical.

With an awareness of our ignorance in this area, the 2015 announcement of genetic modification of a human embryo led to global debate, and a handful of governments temporarily banned gene editing of live human embryos as well as the genetic modifications of the human germline (the DNA that will create future generations) for imparting beneficial traits such as height or intelligence. But in February 2017, an advisory body from the National Academy of Sciences announced its support for using CRISPR to edit the genes of embryos to remove DNA sequences that cause serious heritable diseases. And the Chinese are clearly proceeding with experimentation too, as the announcement by Shenzhen researchers showed.

The reality is that we have arrived at a Rubicon. Humans are on the verge of finally being able to modify their own evolution. The question is, can we use this newfound superpower in a responsible way that will benefit the planet and its people — or will this be a race for scientific glory and profit?

Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and Harvard Law School. This post is partly derived from his book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

Vasundhara Gupta: From Kolkata To Boston

 

We’ve all heard the saying – music is truly universal. But, how many musicians can truly claim to “know” and “feel” the truth of this statement? Meet Vasundhara Gupta, young musician and sound designer from the Berklee School of Music in Boston – “ Every class that I took at Berklee had 9 out of 10 musicians drawn from different parts of the world,” she said in wonderment. She used that exposure and has moved forward in ways that truly demonstrate confidence and artistic leadership.

Growing up in Kolkata in a large joint family with cousins, uncles, and aunts, the musical influences in her life were varied and started when she was very young; some relatives listened to Western classical music, her father listened to the Beatles, her brother to Bryan Adams and her mother to Hindustani music. From this musical amalgam, emerged a keen student of Hindustani music groomed under the watchful eyes of her mother and grandmother. Both of them played the Hawaiian slide guitar and even when she went on vacations to her maternal grandmother;s house in Varanasi, lessons continued through the hot, summer months. This early discipline nurtured the young girl and soon she was singing and practicing on her own with true love and dedication.

In high school, unsure of what to do next, a friend’s suggestion to apply to the Berklee School of Music changed her life. She first went to Mumbai for 3 rounds of interviews with music professors from Berklee. The fact that her in-person interview with two professors turned out to be an impromptu jam session must have guaranteed her admission to the highly selective institution, I surmise, as she talks of how her mind opened to global musical influences on arrival in Boston. Sound producer, sound engineer, music orchestrator – when she heard these various paths to making and producing music, her first reaction as a student was to exclaim – “My God – you can do so much in music! “I was amazed that all of these pursuits originated from that same place within – a deep love for music,” she said with visible excitement.  

Apart from these various career paths that opened up in front of her, her musical sense resonated with an understanding of history, migration and acculturation. For instance, she was able to examine Indian music, the music that she was most familiar with, “in a different way.” The Middle Eastern Berklee ensembles, bore the same root as forms of Indian music since they originated in Persia centuries ago, she realized.  She described the Berklee environment as “an explosion” of music from all over the world that stimulated her fertile artistic mind in myriad ways.

As part of the Indian ensemble at Berklee, she took on leadership roles, and helped produce mega shows that involved multiple moving parts in terms of sound design, production and performance. “I gained a lot of confidence as a musician as well, since I was encouraged to sing solo sharing the stage with eminent musicians like Vijay Prakash.” AR Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Shreya Ghoshal were the other artists who worked with the students through their work with the Indian ensemble.

Given these multicultural musical influences, it is no surprise that her first collaboration in college was a multicultural one with Olivie Perez, a Spanish pianist.  “We didn’t know each other’s capabilities and slowly we learnt a lot about listening, and through musical sensitivity developed a piece together.” Here’s a clip of their performance together.

Live Performance of ‘Together’ at Berklee Performance Centre in 2015:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGGH5ZlYKoU

Song from an EP released in Dec. 2017:

http://vasundharagupta.bandcamp.com/track/goburine-song

The name she chose for her first EP – One – reveals the coming together of this growing international musical sensibility within her.  Fittingly, the journey for this EP started in Spain, moved to Kolkata and then came together at Boston. All the music was composed, produced, mixed and recorded by her. Using her ear for music, she has also been working in all aspects related to sound post-production at Slick Sounds in Southern California under David F. Van Slyke, a formidable name in the music business.

Talking of her dream of bringing artists on various paths – dancers, visual artists, writers and musicians within one physical space to create art, Vasundhara seems poised, confident of her unique musical abilities while articulating her vision – something that only artistic leaders can do at such a young age!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.

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