Monday, October 26, 2009

The Tram Sermon

Sign I saw yesterday inside a Route 26 (Howrah-Gariahat) tram:
Sitting immobile is not encouraged.

As a rule, I don’t use this blog for pushing agendas, but on this post, since I have already brought up the topic of trams, I will make an exception.

As you probably know, Calcutta trams are in danger of being taken off the roads because very few commuters use them, the Calcutta Tramways Company is running up big losses, and tram tracks decrease road-space. If you live in Calcutta, please consider taking at least one tram ride a month. That is, if you are not in a hurry, and if there is a tram service on the route you intend to take. Maybe, in a few months, you will be taking tram rides for their own sake.

Trams are environment-friendly. They are insanely cheap (the highest fare on a first-class coach is Rs. 4.50). A tram ride is a great way to see the city. Even if you find buses too jerky for reading, you can read comfortably on a tram. They look nice – especially the old ones, because trams age gracefully. They even have foot gongs! How can you not love trams?

Trams are brontosaurs.

And if I have bored you with my Tram Sermon, to compensate, I hereby bring you two interesting links. The first is an essay titled Real Programmers Don't Use Pascal. Anasua, who sends me at least one brilliant link every fortnight, introduced me to it. The second is a story called This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself. I found it through Language Log – the only website I know which can unleash something like the following passage on an unsuspecting public and get away with it.

Julian Bradfield […] gave a talk on the phonology and phonetics of the utterly spectacular Khoisan language sometimes known as "Taa" but more usually referred to (at least by those who can pronounce the voiceless postalveolar velaric ingressive stop [k!] followed by a high tone [o] and a nasalized [o], which Julian can) as !Xóõ.
So enjoy the links, take a tram ride once in a while, and mind your voiceless postalveolar velaric ingressive stop [k!]s.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rehearsals

The man in the picture above is Professor Ashis Siddhanta. He is a chemistry teacher by profession, but his passion is directing plays. I’ve had the privilege of being in some of his plays, in diverse roles ranging from lead actor to backstage errand-boy. You may not have heard his name because he works only with amateur student groups in non-commercial productions, but he is, in my humble opinion, one of the best theatre directors in the city.

This year, he is directing a play to mark the sesquicentenary celebrations of St. Xavier’s school and college. I cannot act in the play since I am not a St. Xavier’s student or alumnus, but I would have dearly loved to be involved, and there is always room in a play for enthusiastic people who want to help out backstage. Unfortunately for me, the play is being staged at a time when I will not be in town.

They’ve been rehearsing the play for over a month now, and I’ve forever been meaning to go and attend rehearsals. But until this week, I always found some excuse not to go – inconvenient timings, work, plans with friends. But a few days back, I realised the real reason why I was putting it off – the same reason why, the year I tore a ligament and couldn’t play, I refused to attend a single match in our college football tournament. I wasn’t going because I thought I would feel left out.

So I went.

And I enjoyed it so much that now, I go whenever I can. For plays are magic, and there is a quiet and subtle magic in rehearsals, which is lost in the flashier magic of the stage performance. And I can immerse myself in it even when I am watching rehearsals and not participating; perhaps especially when I am not participating.

The actors are in school uniforms or casual wear, the musicians play unplugged, the bare floorboards are illuminated by a harsh full wash. It is wonderful and strange to see their motions and gestures, and to reflect that one day, all of this will be repeated in a world transformed by full costume and makeup, mixers and amps, strobes and spotlights, though I will not be there to witness it. Does a play really take place if you are not in the audience?

The magic of rehearsals lurks in the interval before consummation, in concerted striving for an ideal, and in the camaraderie and in-jokes that unite theatre casts, study groups and football teams. Being magic, it is indefinable, so it is vain to try, but I can at least tell you what I like best about watching rehearsals.

When you see a finished play, and especially if it is a good play, everything goes off smoothly and you clap with the rest and you file out of the auditorium. But if you see a few rehearsals, you see small triumphs, you see fleeting moments where something – or everything – falls into place, and the actors sense it, and if you’ve been in a few plays yourself, you can sense it too, and no one says a word, but there are other ways of communicating, and for that one moment, everyone – individually and collectively – knows that the moment is special. The moment when the lead actor suddenly delivers a line with splendid and abnormal passion because after all these weeks of saying it mechanically, he has suddenly realised what it means. The moment when the hitherto uncoordinated piano, guitars and tabla somehow manage to all hit it at exactly the same time. Those moments. The ones which call for italics.

An actor friend of mine had this theory that a play has a spirit, and rehearsals are a process of coalescing the spirit, and in the rare moments of perfection that occur at rehearsals, the spirit inwardly smiles. I can’t say about spirits, but I certainly do.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Girl Who Refuses to Dance

As I have averred before, my life is a comic book. This being the case, it is hardly surprising that I should fall in love with comic-book girls. At the age of twelve, I briefly fell in love with Princess Orinjade from Asterix and the Magic Carpet. As I tend to do with things I like very much (e.g. art nouveau posters, the Ferrari 250 GTO), I drew a picture of Orinjade. I was twelve and love-struck, so pray do not judge me too harshly.

And now I am in love with another cartoon girl. I found her on Aditi’s blog. She’s in the picture below – the girl on the bottom row, second from left. Go ahead, enlarge it and see.

Note, please, that she is not “the girl who refuses to go to parties”, nor is she “the girl who doesn’t get asked to dance”. She goes to parties, but refuses to dance. She is like the girl in Marx and Engels, and a sort of antithesis of Hermine in Steppenwolf. Look carefully at the picture: you can just see it, can’t you? All the other girls are trying so hard to fit in, but secretly, all they want is to be this girl, who doesn’t fit in at all, and doesn’t seem to care.

Orinjade was a mere fling, a passing fancy. This is the real thing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

215

215 is the smallest natural number that does not have a Wikipedia entry all to itself. If this fact by itself were significant enough for 215 to merit its own Wikipedia entry…

…there would have to be a Wikipedia entry for every natural number. Heh.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Idea for a Story:

December 1936: Eugen Hönig, shortly after his dismissal from the position of President of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, pays an unexpected visit to the house of Adolf Ziegler, his successor as President. Ziegler has a reputation for producing paintings conforming to the Nazi ideal of ‘racially pure’ art – a reputation which earned him the presidency.

Something occurs during Hönig’s visit (something as minor as a chance remark, a doodle on the corner of a napkin; something as major as a fire which causes a wall to collapse and reveal a stash of hidden paintings) which convinces him that Ziegler is a secret admirer of the avant-garde styles which the Nazi regime has branded ‘Jewish’.

Ziegler tries to defend himself; Hönig assures him that he has no intention of denouncing him. Hönig admits that he himself is excited about the new developments in the word of art; in fact, he was dismissed from his position on suspicion of having avant-garde sympathies. In hushed voices and with almost school-boyish glee, the two men discuss forbidden things – expressionism, Henri Matisse, surrealism, fauvism, Picasso.

Hönig expresses astonishment that Ziegler, whom the Führer himself has declared to be an exemplary painter, should be fascinated by the ‘degenerate’ art which it is his professional duty to suppress. Ziegler explains how he too was originally scornful of these emerging styles which were confusing, often incomprehensible; how in the course of inspecting seized paintings, he found himself coming under their spell. He who fights with artists might take care lest he thereby become an artist. And if you gaze for long into a painting, the painting gazes also into you.

Now the two men fall to discussing what a great tragedy it is that an entire generation of Germans will never be exposed to ‘real’ art. Hönig has an idea – can Ziegler persuade the Chamber to organise an exhibition of avant-garde art? Ziegler is aghast. He would be dismissed for even suggesting such a thing. But Hönig explains how Ziegler should pitch his idea - as an exhibition intended to incite further revulsion against the perverse Jewish spirit which is penetrating and contaminating German culture.

***

In all probability, this is not how the idea for the Entartete Kunst exhibit originated. There is nothing in the history books to suggest it was Hönig’s idea, no evidence that Ziegler had a secret taste for modern art. This is just an idea for a story. But I like to amuse myself with the notion that the Entartete Kunst exhibit was the brainchild of two art-lovers who found an ingenious way to bring forbidden art to the masses. There is something strangely seductive in the idea of the oppressed individual putting one over on the totalitarian regime.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Dodecahedron!

Dozens of small dodecahedra, dating back to the 2nd century CE, have been found in Roman ruins all over Europe. No one can figure out what they were for, so everyone has a theory. There are at least 27 different theories regarding their function, ranging from bludgeons to toys, Celtic magic objects to candlesticks. It seems to me that there is a certain breed of people who cannot rest until they have classified and assigned a function to everything in the vicinity.

A visit to my room would give such a person plenty to think about – there is the poster of a donkey shitting coins, for example, and the carved walking-stick in the corner which I am not (yet) old enough to need. The latest addition to the things with no apparent purpose is also the coolest – a regular dodecahedron made of cherry wood.

Like all Platonic solids, it looks somehow timeless. Like all things made of wood, it smells nice. If I am introspecting, I can hold it before me and stare at it intently in the manner made famous by Hamlet. (This does not aid introspection, but I like to strike dramatic poses.) At other times, it sits just above my computer monitor, and when I raise my eyes slightly, its inscrutable pentagonal faces blankly return my gaze. For a dodecahedron has that quality – a vase is for holding flowers, a clock is to tell you the time, but a dodecahedron simply is. Its purpose in life is to be a dodecahedron.

But the best, the absolute coolest thing about the dodecahedron, the thing that gives it an edge in the coolness stakes above even the donkey poster, is this: the dodecahedron comes all the way from Lone Pine, CA, and it was sent by Tommy, and Tommy – may his code always compile – made it himself. If you want to see how it was made, click here. If you want to see the dodecahedron with your own eyes, drop by my place of an afternoon. You can have lunch even.