The Baggage of Culture III: Whose Culture is it anyway?

In an earlier column, I had written about the controversy in South Africa regarding ballet being now viewed as “Eurocentric” and “colonial”.

More recently, it is the turn of Shakespeare as well. I watched a news item on BBC World about Shakespeare being seen as “not relevant” to South African children today. This is echoed by Wits University Professor Chris Thurman, who admits he might be “talking himself out of a job” as he teaches Shakespeare at university level and enjoys it. He doesn’t seem too worried if Shakespeare is dropped entirely from South Africa’s school curriculum, although he argues for a place for it at extracurricular levels and in higher education.

He makes the case for Shakespeare being encountered in performance, in translation, and in context to contemporary politics, and even agrees to the use of the term ‘decolonising’ Shakespeare.

The controversy has been brewing for a while. Thurman himself reviewed a book “Shakespeare and the Coconuts: On post-apartheid South African culture” by Natasha Distiller, in 2012. The term ‘coconut’ is familiar to us as well, its derogatory sense, as describing “someone, who due to their behaviour, identifications, or upbringing, is ‘black’ on the ‘outside’ and ‘white’ on the inside’”.

In his review, Thurman puts forth the argument of the book, that in essence “we are all coconuts”, and therefore should celebrate our “coconutiness” (that “messy in-betweenness, the mixed-up inside-outsideness”) and “take a political stand, one which refuses to see colonial history and its aftermath as containable by binaries: coloniser/colonised, oppressor/oppressed, European/African”.

I would heartily agree with this view. We have seen through the brilliant films of Vishal Bhardwaj, how Shakespeare can both be translated and put into context and made extremely relevant for an Indian audience.

Shakespeare means different things to different people in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was moved by him: one of the exhibits in the British Museum’s 2012 “Shakespeare: staging the world” exhibition was a unique edition of the Collected Works of Shakespeare, dubbed ‘the Robben Island Bible’ as it was circulated among Mandela’s fellow prisoners there. Interestingly, it was disguised as the Hindu scriptures by fellow political prisoner Sonny Venkathraman, as mainstream literature would be confiscated by prison authorities. In the book, Mandela highlighted Julius Caesar’s soliloquy “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/ The valiant never taste of death but once./ Of all the wonders that I yet have heard/ It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/ Seeing that death, a necessary end,/ Will come when it will come.”

 

shakespeare south africa

One can see how Mandela drew solace from these lines. The book was passed around among political prisoners and used as starting points for many a debate on moral, ethical and political issues. Other prominent political prisoners also marked their chosen passages from the plays: Mandela’s close confidante Walter Sisulu chose Shylock’s “Still I have borne it with a patient shrug,/ For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe” from ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Another close friend Ahmed Kathrada earmarked “Once more unto the breach” from Henry V.

“Somehow Shakespeare always had something to say to us”, Kathrada reminisced to Anthony Sampson in his authorised biography of Nelson Mandela. Sampson observed “Shakespeare became politically more relevant than the Bible or Marx…Successive generations saw his plays as an inspiration for their struggle and for humanity.”

I would have thought that, for this reason alone, Shakespeare ought very much to remain in South Africa’s academic curriculum, even if just as a reminder of the role played by his plays in the freedom struggle.

In all, 32 political prisoners dipped into the Robben Island bible, and their most popular choices among the plays are quite revealing: Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and The Tempest.

The chosen passages of each inmate almost came to define them, not only on Robben Island, but even in their lives as free men. Mandela would often quote Shakespeare in his speeches, as did another South African politician Thado Mbeki.

The author, journalist and iconic politician Sol Plaatje translated ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and ‘A Comedy of Errors’ into the Setswana language.

But Shakespeare is also seen as the poster boy of ‘high western culture’ and ‘white English liberals’. Parallels are also drawn between Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the legendary Roman leader banished from Rome for refusing to bow to the will of the people; and Thado Mbeki, (who considered Coriolanus one of his favourite Shakespeare plays) who was banished from the African National Congress (ANC) and his general fall from grace on account of his high-handedness.

Thurman argues that such parallels with contemporary politics are what can keep a sixteenth-century English bard relevant far from those shores, and in our time. God knows we have several parallels of our own in contemporary Indian politics and popular culture, with so many Shakespearean comic, heroic and tragic characters from his plays. Sometimes it is easier to resort to allegory as a means of teaching and commenting upon contemporary politics and unrest.

Part of the ‘problem’ with Shakespeare is also the fact that his oeuvre is in the English language, with all the baggage that comes with it, as we know all too well with our own MoI (Medium of Instruction) storm-in-a-teacup. And with Shakespeare, it’s not just English, but English from another era, needing to be deciphered and understood almost line by line.

It is in how we approach or are exposed to culture, especially that which did not originate on our land that we react with love or loathing. Thurman cites his own experience with first-year students: “Students who love Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts alive, accessible and relevant; students who hate Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts dull, incomprehensible, irretrievably distant from their own lives and time.”

And although purists (and perhaps rightly so) may complain that much gets lost in translation, there are new dimensions to a literary work that open up new vistas and challenge you in unforeseen ways. What would Shakespeare himself have made of Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Hamlet, ‘Haidar’? I’m inclined to think that he’d have been favourably impressed.

John Kani, who played the first Black Othello in South Africa in 1997, is equally passionate about human rights, and served time in jail for resisting apartheid. He was attracted to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, but translated into his own Xhosa language. “To me, Shakespeare is like an African storyteller…His words paint pictures in glorious colour in my language. They were written by a man whose use of words fit exactly into Xhosa.”

In this 125th anniversary of our own Konkani tiatr, it is worthwhile remembering that some of the earliest tiatr plays were also adaptations of Shakespeare plays (The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet). If only one could find the scripts to those early tiatrs! This would be the perfect occasion to re-stage them.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Story-telling across Generations: O João Grande e o João Pequeno

My paternal grandmother Maria Martha Apresentação Lobo e Dias (called Mãe by my brother Victor and me even though she was our grandmother), was around for just about four years of my existence from the age of three to six. But I remember her so well.

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She had a sad life; she was widowed very young, aged just 41, when her husband Dr. Vítor Manuel Dias was in the prime of his life, and had to shoulder the burden of educating six young children, and had to suffer the pain of losing three of them in her own lifetime.

Just a few years after her husband’s death from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1949, she herself was paralysed by a series of strokes. When our family returned from Germany in 1970, she was wheelchair-bound, and needed help for basic bodily functions. But she still possessed the faculty of speech (which tragically yet another stroke took away about a year before her death in 1973), and was as doting a grandmother as her circumstances would allow her. I remember the Christmas bonbons that had to be elegantly wrapped just so, under her watchful eye, and they are still part of magical Christmas memories of my childhood.

Mãe taught my brother Victor and me our prayers, and Bible stories, and she would tell us bedtime stories as well. I was introduced to Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and so many others by her. We would listen, wide-eyed, as the stories unfolded and good ultimately triumphed over evil.

But I never ever learnt the ending of one story she told us, because we would nod off like clockwork after a few sentences: it was the story of Tall John and Short John. All I remembered through the sleepy haze was the eponymous characters, and something to do with a horse, but that was it.

I somehow assumed the story must be part of the standard fairytale repertoire, and through my later years I scoured through the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault but I had no luck. I tried speaking to a few old-timers, but that didn’t lead anywhere either. I tried a Google search for ‘Tall John and Short John’: nil results. So I guess I sort of called off the search and let the matter rest.

In 1996, I visited Lisbon for the first time, and met my first cousin Vítor’s daughter Marta, named after Mãe, all of four years old. Her own favourite story was Capuchinho Vermelho (Red Riding Hood), and she even had a smart red cape to match. I remember reading that same story to her from her storybook in my halting Portuguese, with her perched on my lap.

I didn’t meet Marta junior again until just a few days ago; she was in turn visiting Goa for the visit time. The toddler was now a grown young woman. We exchanged family stories and memories while poring over old family photo albums, and we spoke about bedtime stories. She remembered Capuchinho Vermelho, and I asked her about Tall and Short John, on the off-chance that the story might have survived through her own grandmother Lena (Mãe’s daughter). But she didn’t know of it.

Then, in a flash of inspiration, I decided to change the Google search to Portuguese. I typed ‘João Grande e João Pequeno’. And lo, the seventh hit among 1,34,00,000 results gave me the much-sought answer.

It is a blog post on a Portuguese sapo.pt blogging site, and I am still no wiser about the provenance of the story. But it seems to me that Mãe must have also known this story in the Portuguese, and translated it into English for the benefit of my brother and me. Having recently arrived from Germany, we were having a tough enough time with English and Konkani, so perhaps Portuguese would have seemed like language overload. But I can’t help wishing that we had been introduced much earlier to more languages. The early years are the best for this.

So: should I tell you the story of ‘O João Grande e o João Pequeno’ or might it have a soporific effect upon you as well?

It’s certainly a longwinded story, with many twists and turns. Basically, there were two Johns (or Joãos) in a certain parish, so they were distinguished and nicknamed by their vital stats: the tall and thin one was called ‘Grande’, and the short and stocky one ‘Pequeno’. Both lived alone (sozinho) with their respective grandmother. But JG was rich, and owned much land and horses (I knew there were horses in the story!) while JP was poor, with just a little land and a single horse.

One day JP borrows some of JG’s horses to plough his field, but when urging them on at the plough, calls them his own horses, which enrages JG. When repeated warnings are unheeded, JG kills JP’s lone horse. And so begins a cascade of tit-for-tat exchanges (involving further killing of horses, grandmothers and eventually JG himself), with JP being the more cunning, and therefore the victor. Considering that grandmothers don’t come off too well in the story, Mãe may have skipped that part of the story. Or perhaps there are several versions of the story. If anyone can shed further light on this story and its provenance, I’d be grateful to hear from you.

I remember the shock I got when, having come home from school, I was told that Mãe had passed away. Although she had been ailing for some time, bed-ridden and deprived of speech, it still was a big jolt, and the first time I had dealt with death up so close. Rest in peace, Mãe! Thanks for all the stories, the memories and the love.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Turning the Other Cheek

What a circus! If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be comic.

We’ve had an endless barrage of television interviews by fawning presenters with turncoat politicians who frantically try to convince themselves as much as the viewer that their treachery to their own party and of the electorate in their constituencies was in fact a noble act and justified under the circumstances.

“Hanv Gandhi dista tuka?” asks Vijai Sardessai rhetorically in more than one interview. “I’m not Gandhi, to keep turning the other cheek.” He says this in the context of what he perceives as his own betrayal by the Congress, years ago. He wants us to believe that he hadn’t pondered all this prior to the election result, when he asks us also to believe that he had to make a ‘sudden’ decision to back the BJP only after the results were declared.

Watch the video at 6:50.

I’m no Congress fan, and they should realise that if they got as many seats and votes as they did, it was more an expression of disgust with the incumbent government than an endorsement of support for them.

But isn’t it amusing how politicians love to use quotations and idioms, as a sort of smokescreen to hide behind?

Batman-Slaps-Robin

Let’s examine ‘turning the other cheek’ and Mahatma Gandhi a little more closely. Vijai probably is influenced by Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic biographical film ‘Gandhi’. In one scene in Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, he stands up to a gang of white roadside urchins menacingly blocking his path. Gandhi remarks to his companion, Presbyterian missionary Rev. Charles Freer Andrews, “Doesn’t the New Testament say “If your enemy strikes you on your right cheek, offer him the left?”” Andrews nervously interjects that perhaps it was meant metaphorically. Gandhi, unruffled, reveals his interpretation: that one should show courage, “be willing to take a blow, several blows, you will not strike back nor be turned aside. And when you do that, it calls on something in human nature, that makes his [the oppressor’s] hatred for you decrease and his respect increases.”

Philip Yancey makes reference to this same scene in the film in his book “The Jesus I never knew”. Gandhi may not have used those exact words, of course. But we know he was deeply influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, which contains some of the central tenets of Christianity, including the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. In the gospel of Matthew 5:38 -41, Jesus tells his disciples: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him two.”

Vijai seems to have missed the message as well as the messenger in his own interpretation of “turn the other cheek.” One can overlook the fact that he wrongly attributes it to Gandhi; one can’t expect him to have his nose buried in the New Testament to know Jesus first said it. But he seems to think that “turning the other cheek” is tantamount to being a doormat, a sucker for punishment. Gandhi rightly views it as a noble expression of courage in the face of violence, something not easy to do.

I grew up hearing about “turning the other cheek”, in the gospel at Mass and in catechism class. I remember being troubled by it, and having this put to the test in a playground fight. If someone struck me, what would I do? Would I offer the other cheek? Would it matter? Would my opponent really respect me more for it? Or was that not the point at all, but the principle behind it that really mattered?

So what are we to make of Jesus’ advice to “turn the other cheek”? Do we read acquiescence from it, with a fond hope that your oppressor will eventually respect you for it? Or could it be a powerful political tool for resistance, as Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. after him believed?

I found New Testament scholar Walter Wink’s views on the subject (in his books “Engaging the Powers” and “The Powers that Be”) quite enlightening. He believes the Jesus was advocating a “Third Way” of responding to injustice (in contrast to the other two ways of either violent resistance or passive acceptance).

He examines the mechanics of being literally struck on the right cheek; this can be achieved only by an overhand blow with the left hand, or a backhand slap by the right. Wink argues that the left hand was commonly not used; so a backhand slap with the right was how a superior (perhaps a landlord) struck an inferior (a peasant). One struck an equal with a fist.

If the inferior, having been struck once on the right cheek, turned the other cheek, the superior would be compelled to deliver an overhand blow with the right fist, therefore unwittingly having to treat the peasant as his equal in society.

As for “going the extra mile” and “sharing your cloak as well”: Roman law compelled civilians to carry the baggage of soldiers for a mile if asked, but not further, for fear of abuse of the law. By going beyond this, the civilian would put the soldier in an embarrassing situation of having to get his gear back, in case he was found out and got into trouble.

A coat in Roman times was apparently used as a blanket by the poor at night, while the cloak was the inner garment. By surrendering not only the coat but the cloak as well, the debtor would in effect be stripped naked and the nakedness would shame the oppressor. Thus, argues Wink, Jesus was advocating a powerful nonviolent form of resistance.

It calls to mind the women in Manipur resorting to nakedness as a form of protest to shame the Army for its atrocities (rape of Manipuri women) some years ago.

Coming back to Vijai Sardessai, perhaps another reason he associated “turning the other cheek” with Gandhi, is that thanks to demonetisation, Gandhi quite literally has “turned the other cheek” if you compare the old and new bank notes. We see his left cheek in the old, and his right in the new notes. You can check for yourself, unless you’re a better Indian than me, and have gone completely cashless!

(An edited version of this article was published on 9 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Medicine, Ignorance, and Superstition: the real Beauty and the Beast

After some hesitation due to overhyped ‘controversies’ in the recent Walt Disney Pictures release of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ which were dispelled by other parents who gave it a thumbs-up, we took our son to see it a few days ago. And we loved every minute of it. Inevitable comparisons are drawn with the 1991 animated version of the musical romantic fantasy, but this ‘real actors’ version has its own charm, quite apart from the 3-D and other special effects, and the four additional songs.

Inox for some reason sometimes screens English subtitles even for films in English, and I must frankly admit they can be quite a help sometimes in catching all of the dialogue, so I’m not complaining. In fact, that’s how I caught the fact that the Belle’s town was named Villeneuve in this latest version of the story. I vaguely remembered the name Villeneuve being associated with the original story, and decided to look it up when I got home.

Sure enough: Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1685-1755) was the author of the original story of La Belle et la Bête (1740). The story was abridged, rewritten and published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756, without crediting Villeneuve, so Beaumont is often misquoted as the original author. It is my guess that in naming Belle’s town Villeneuve (also a clever pun, as it means ‘new town’ in French), the production team gave a nod to the original author.

Incidentally, Villeneuve drew inspiration from other French authors of fairy tales, notably Charles Perrault (1628-1703), author of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), Cendrillon (Cinderella), Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots), La Belle au bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty), and Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard).

In reading up all this and finding cross-references, I came upon an interesting, if unfortunate, real-life story that was the inspiration for Villeneuve’s fairy tale.

Pedro González (also referred in medical literature and historical records as Petrus Gonsalvus) was born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1537. He would have led an unremarkable existence had he not been born with a rare skin condition called hypertrichosis, characterised by an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body. Its synonym is ‘werewolf syndrome’, and it is thought that the notion of the mythical werewolf (man-wolf, or lycanthrope) itself might have originated from sufferers of this condition.

González is thought to be descended from the indigenous kings of Tenerife before its conquest by Alonso Fernández de Lugo to the Crown of Castile. His skin condition must have been pronounced even in boyhood, and he was taken captive aged just 10 and sold, and perhaps after changing owners several times, was presented as a curiosity in 1547 to the court of Henry II, King of France. His presence probably added to the contemporary treatises on werewolves in France.

Possibly on account of his descent from Tenerife’s indigenous nobility, he was accorded special treatment as a nobleman, and given the title ‘Don’ Pedro González. He was kept in the French court as a sort of sideshow freak, the “wild man” with “hair as soft as sable”, the “werewolf of the Canaries”. He was given fine clothes and tutors from whom he learnt Latin (perhaps accounting for his Latin appellation as well) and two other languages, and other court refinements. Nevertheless, he was nicknamed ‘Barbet’, a kind of shaggy Belgian dog.

Upon the death of Henry II in 1559, his queen Catherine de Medici took it upon herself to find a wife for González. Thus began the search for a ‘beauty’ for the ‘beast’, as many quite seriously regarded González at the time.

Pedro Gonzalez

From the marriage records, we know this real-life ‘beauty’ to be Catherine Raffeliny. According to a Smithsonian channel documentary, the Queen had kept the identity and therefore the appearance of González a secret while seeking an arranged match for him. When Raffeliny first laid eyes on him, she was repulsed. Over time, she grew to love him for himself, and the couple had six children, four daughters and two sons. As congenital hypertrichosis is an X chromosome-linked dominant disorder, the condition was sadly transmitted to their daughters.

The González family became something of a travelling circus, becoming the talking point of Europe, and having paintings commissioned. A painting of Pedro González still hangs in the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, Ambras castle, Austria, which is why hypertrichosis is also called Ambras syndrome.

The family González settled in Italy with a new noble patron, the Duke Renuccio Farnese of Parma. Tragically, despite their trying to live as normal a life as possible, managing an estate in Parma, the affected children were given away by the Duke as curiosities, as gifts to his guests. One can only imagine the psychological trauma to children and parents. There is a painting of one hapless young daughter Antonetta, holding up a letter recounting her story, and the fact that she is now ‘owned’ by a new patron.

Pedro González finds mention for the last time in 1617, at the christening of his grandson. We know he died in 1619 in Capadimonte Italy, after 40 years of married life with Catherine. But it is possible he did not receive a Christian burial, being still not considered fully human.

So not quite the fairy-tale ending in real life, then. Perhaps the story of the Beauty and the Beast can be viewed as a parable about inner beauty, regardless of external appearance.

Those that appear different from the ‘norm’ are still unfortunately regarded as curiosities: remember the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz? Or the achondroplasia and other forms of dwarfism employed as clowns in circuses?

I remember the stir created in medical circles some years ago by a person with hermaphroditism, and the rush to get clinical pictures taken and a case report written and published (“Publish or perish”), mindless of the feelings and trauma to the person at the centre of it all.

I can’t help also thinking of the letter to a section of the Goan press (with a picture helpfully accompanying it) complaining about the ‘menace’ posed by a homeless man living rough on our streets. The caption below the picture of the poor dishevelled long-haired bearded man asked “Is this a man or beast?” That the press saw fit to run it at all was outrageous, and thankfully there were several responses that reflected this outrage. In my opinion, holding up this homeless man to ridicule was the beastliest act of all.

(An edited version of this article was published on 2 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Funny Thing happened on the Way to Democracy

Back in 2012, my wife Chryselle and I almost without our realising it got fairly involved in Fr. Bismarque Dias’s election campaign in the Cumbarjua constituency. I am not even from the constituency, although I have ancestral roots to the area, being a Zuenkar on my father’s side.

But that’s not the reason we volunteered. I’ve written about the reasons his message appealed to me, so I won’t go into that again. But I’d like to focus on the reaction of many people on hearing that he had thrown his hat into the ring. To be sure, Fr. Bismarque had a strong core group in the constituency who believed in him and supported him, but critics and sceptics carped from the sidelines as well.

“Arré, tell him he’s wasting his time.” “He’ll never win.” “He’ll only end up splitting the vote, and we really can’t have that.”

Feelers were sent to his supporters to dissuade him from carrying on his campaign, with the same logic: the incumbent had to be unseated, so why not join forces with the opposition, rather than ‘splitting the vote’?

I had a conversation with quite a few; many of them actually liked Fr. Bismarque and knew of his long track record of activism and honesty and sincerity. “So why won’t you vote for him? Even when you know he’s a good man, a clean man, which is more than can be said for his rivals?”

“Because he’ll lose, and we don’t want to split the vote.” It was enough to make one want to scream: “But he won’t lose if you all vote for him! And then there won’t be a split vote, but a victory for him! Just give him a chance. Do you want to be stuck in this eternal tired ping-pong between the same old options, all of which have let you down in the past?”

I have no idea which way they eventually voted, but their prophecy was a self-fulfilling one, so they probably didn’t give Fr. Bismarque that chance.

Democracy

But this twisted logic seems to play out against every new entrant. By new entrant, I mean a really new fresh face or group of faces, not a bunch of old hands floating a ‘new party’ with a catchy name and slogan, but essentially selling old wine (or should one say pickle?) in new bottles.

My journey to the Aam Aadmi Party took a while. After the brutal murder of Fr. Bismarque, something in me died as well. I missed the hope he radiated, and I felt desolate and bereft of a positive voice to listen to and rally behind.

The insidious rumour mill (“beware of them, they’re like this and they’re like that”, “they’re the B team of (fill in the blank)”, “beware of their Delhi connection”) was a temporary stumbling block in my path to AAP. The instinctive wariness of politicians rose to the surface, like a survival instinct.

But despite this, among all the parties in the fray, AAP seemed the best and most sensible option to me. I have long admired the forthrightness and honesty of Arvind Kejriwal, and his Panjim rally in May 2016 was a major turning point for me.

From then on, I got inexorably drawn into the AAP ambit, although I didn’t do nearly as much as most of the other volunteers. But I could talk about the option that AAP was offering the electorate to those I met in my social circle, and I did.

And again I encountered the same logic: “You guys mean well, but you’re going to split the vote, and we can’t let that happen.”

The logic is so bizarre: One wants to oust known devchar X. But the electorate resorts to voting for known but (supposedly) lesser devchar Y, even though Y has let them down several times before when he was in power, and even when they are given the option of choosing an unknown angel Z. An opportunity for real change is therefore missed, and we have the surreal political situation we are in today.

There is certainly much more to the performance of AAP in this election, but the fear of ‘splitting the vote’ cannot be ignored.

Muscle and money power worked heavily against Fr. Bismarque’s campaign. Goondas sent by rivals would prevent his supporters from boarding the ferry to campaign on the islands of Divar and Jua. Members of the public would also attest to being offered money bribes in exchange for votes.

Another weird notion is the cynical concept of the ‘wasted’ vote, which affected Fr. Bismarque’s campaign as well. It functions along the lines of: “Yes, you are a good, honest candidate, but… your rivals are just too powerful, so it’d be pointless ‘wasting’ my vote on you. Sorry.”

Sorry indeed. Voting somehow brings out the gambler in many of us, in wanting to vote for a ‘winner’, not a loser; for a ‘sure thing’, not a ‘maybe’. But what happened to voting with a conscience? What happened to voting for someone we really believe in, and giving him/her a chance? Why has voting become such a tactical move, like a chess gambit, rather than putting our vote where our heart is and where our moral compass points? Or where it ought to point?

Democracy works only when all of us treat it with respect. It degenerates into a game of chance and a farce when all of us, whether voters or candidates, throw our scruples to the winds.

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

My Summer of ‘89

I am sure every doctor remembers the cathartic sense of release after having passed the final MBBS exam. Textbooks could be shelved at last, and a whole year of internship stretched ahead of us invitingly. Real life would catch up with us soon enough, but for now the sense of freedom and abandon were exhilarating.

My own internship year of 1989 was sweetened considerably by the arrival of Dr. George Trautwein, violinist and conductor and visiting Fulbright scholar from Wakeforest University, North Carolina USA and his wife Barbara (also a musician, a clarinet player and band instructor in their home town of Winston-Salem). It was as if the stars had conspired to bring them to Goa at exactly the right time in my life.

Trautwein

Ever since the death of my violin teacher Carlos D’Costa at Santa Cecilia Music School in 1983, I had no steady guidance and felt the loss acutely. I would ambush visiting musicians backstage after concerts or in their hotel rooms just to get a few pointers on technique and other matters musical. So the arrival of Trautwein was a veritable godsend.

My internship year fell into a routine, where most evenings after work if not on-call, I’d go over to the Trautweins, for a violin lesson, or just to hang out with them. My friend Winston Collaco from Margao (who would also come up to study with Trautwein) and I were exactly the same ages as the Trautweins’ two sons Paul and Matthew, so they looked upon us as their own ‘children’ here in Goa.

Trautwein taught me so much in terms of violin playing. He encouraged me to climb into the higher reaches of the register, plumb the sonorities of all the strings using higher positions, and to try left-hand pizzicato, whole passages in natural and artificial harmonics, double- and triple-stopping, and schooled me in the different basic bow strokes like détaché, martelé, up- and down-bow staccato, spiccato, sautillé, and so much more.

We worked on such a lot: the Bach solo sonatas and partitas, both the Beethoven Romances for violin and orchestra (he encouraged me to perform the Romance in F which won me an all-Goa prize that year), quite a few Mozart violin sonatas and concertos, and even a few showpieces: I remember in particular the Sarasate Malagueña. And this is just the solo repertoire. I had never learnt so much in such a short time.

But I am grateful for much more than technique and repertoire. Just spending time conversing with the Trautweins opened a window to a whole new wide world of music, in terms of history, performance, standards and so many other aspects of the art and profession.

I dearly cherish the evenings we spent making chamber music, with George taking up viola and Barbara clarinet. On some subconscious level George became the inspiration to take to the viola myself, many years later. I remember playing the Mozart clarinet quintet, and string quartets by Mozart, Haydn, Johann Joachim Quantz and Frank Bridge.

Trautwein’s music lectures at the Kala Academy were far beyond anything we had encountered until then. Despite very basic facilities at the time (cyclostyled hand-outs and a cassette player, with Trautwein using his violin to emphasise a melodic figure or a rhythm), he took us to places we had never been before. His presentation on Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ stays in my memory. No-one had ever explained a piece of music, its background, its structure, its clever use of motifs to represent characters in the narrative, before. It made music come literally alive to me.

He introduced me to the Bombay Chamber Orchestra (BCO), and I played two concerts under his baton there. The reason I am strolling down memory lane after almost thirty years, is that Providence brought two soloists from those concerts into my life again at the beginning of this year, in the span of less than a month. The first concert Trautwein conducted featured Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture, Bruch Violin Concerto (Madeleine Mitchell, soloist) and Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 466 in D minor.

The other concert featured Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso no. 1, two operatic arias (‘Pace mio Dio’ from Verdi’s La forza del Destino; and ‘Un bel di vedremo’ from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly) sung by Bombay-Goan soprano Celia Lobo, and the Bizet l’Arlesiene suite.

I followed violinist Madeleine Mitchell’s career during my UK years and was pleased to learn that she had risen to Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music London. A Facebook correspondence with her last year got her on a tour of Dubai, India and Sri Lanka, and many of you attended her concert on 17 January 2017 at Menezes Braganza hall with Evelyn Dias as her pianist.

And a chance meeting at a heritage conference around the same time put me in touch with the daughter of Celia Lobo, who I had not met again since her concert in 1989. During those rehearsals, I would commute from Chembur, where Lobo also lived, to the rehearsal venue at the Max Mueller Bhavan at Kala Ghoda, and she very kindly would offer me a lift when we were rehearsing her arias.

Her daughter now filled me in on her mother’s recent recovery from a stroke, and as I happened to be going to Mumbai to NCPA’s staging of Puccini’s La Bohème, I offered to go with her to that concert.

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And so fate reunited me with two soloists from the Trautwein BCO concerts in quick succession, after almost three decades. I continued to play with the BCO whenever my work schedule permitted, until I left for the UK in 1998.

The Trautweins also bestowed on me a huge legacy when the time came for them to leave: he left behind for me two whole suitcases crammed with audiotapes of music by composers I had hitherto never heard before: William Walton, Frank Bridge, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Aram Khachaturian… the list is quite exhaustive. It set the tone for my listening and education about music for years to come.

I was fortunate to be reunited with the Trautweins in London and we brought in the new Millenium at Big Ben as it chimed twelve. Trautwein came to the UK again in 2008, and he drove several hours to meet with me in the US in 2012. All our meetings were marked by visits to museums and art galleries and stimulating conversation. We are still in touch, mostly by email, and despite health crises and scares, the Trautweins continue to enrich my life with their humour and news about their lives in music and the arts in general.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Along came a Spider

I envy this generation of students for having the internet at their fingertips. It would have made our own student years so much easier. It must be so wonderful for students today to find answers in an instant.

In our second MBBS year, after having been cosseted away from the real world of clinical medicine with para-clinical subjects in Bambolim, we were let loose on patients in the wards in Panjim and Ribandar. Armed with Hutchison’s Clinical Methods we began to learn first-hand how to take a clinical history and conduct a thorough examination. We encountered a bewildering array of exotic and (to us at that time) obscure terms and conditions in our study.

The ones I’d like to focus on in this article are: Sydenham’s chorea, choreoathetosis and Saint Vitus dance. The reference to ‘dance’ and ‘Saint Vitus’ intrigued me. And who was Sydenham? Some medical pioneer of sort, perhaps. As Catholics, and having studied in a Catholic school, I knew my fair share of saints, but this was a new one. And what did he have to do with a neurological disorder, I wondered. Curiouser and curiouser.

But medical school doesn’t really reward you for such speculation. As I said before, I had other –ologies to deal with, so etymology took a remote, back seat. I don’t think I ever saw a clinical case of Sydenham’s chorea, so as long as I just memorised it as another cause of involuntary movements, I was fine.

Ironically, around that time, I was being exposed to tarantella music (I had a scratchy recording of Yehudi Menuhin playing Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle; and although I didn’t know it by name, I had watched the wedding guests dance a Tarantella Napolitana in the cult 1972 American mafia film, Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Godfather) but, very much like the Hindi masala films popular at that time where everyone is related but blissfully unaware until the very end, I didn’t realise everything was connected.

The pieces of the puzzle fitted together gradually over time. I learnt that chorea itself is derived from the ancient Greek ‘choreia’ (from which we also get the word choreography) meaning ‘dance’.

Then in my UK years, a TV documentary on the ‘dancing mania’ that swept through Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries caught my attention. It seemed really bizarre; apparently outbreaks of collective dancing, sometimes running into thousands of men, women and children, just dancing nonstop until they collapsed from fatigue. (Today’s flash mobs and full-moon parties would be hard-pressed to match such numbers). I learnt of the notorious ‘dancing plague’ in 1518 in Strasbourg, affecting hundreds of people, many of whom died from the exertion. And in this documentary, Saint Vitus was mentioned, which made me pay closer attention. At last this mystery would be solved.

Vitus was an early Christian martyr saint from Sicily, and regarded as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Roman Catholicism as their intercession was effective against different diseases, a tradition that began in response to the bubonic plague or Black Death (1346-1353) in Europe. Saint Vitus was specifically invoked against epilepsy. His feast day 15 June was observed in Germanic and Latvian cultures by dancing before his statue, which is how his name got lent to neurological disorders involving involuntary, ‘dance-like’ movements.

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What caused these dancing en masse outbreaks, though? Theories abound, from sorcery and demons to ergot poisoning, a religious cult (revival of ancient Greek and Roman pagan rituals), to a mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria, collective stress-busting and escapism as a means of momentarily forgetting their poverty and troubles.

In Italy, as it was believed to have been caused by the bite of a tarantula spider or scorpion, it was known as tarantism. Other sources state that dancing was thought to be the only antidote to a tarantula bite, the strenuous activity allowing the venom to separate from the blood. And the typical music the victims (‘tarantolati’) would dance to was called the tarantella.

As might be expected, they are energetic dances, in triplet time, usually 6/8 although sometimes even more complex. The dancer and the tambourine or drum player each up the ante trying to outperform the other, until one concedes defeat from exhaustion.

Examples in classical music abound. Wieniawski arguably derived inspiration for his Scherzo-Tarantelle from Chopin’s Tarantelle in A flat Opus 43 for piano, in turn inspired by Rossini’s song ‘La Danza’, also a tarantella.

The last movement of Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony (the “Italian”) is in the form of a tarantella.

Liszt inserts one (“Tarantella, Venezia e Napoli) in his Années de Pélérinage or Years of Pilgrimage (2nd year: Italy).

The finale of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet is a tarantella, a dance of death or a danse macabre, a fitting ending to a death-absorbed work.

(Here is the Kelemen string quartet playing it during their tour of India, which also included Goa).

Tchaikovsky also appropriately uses a tarantella to close his Capriccio Italien, and one of his Pas de Deux in his Nutracker ballet is also a tarantella, complete with jangling tambourines.

The spider itself (wolf spider) got its name tarantula (lycosa tarantula) from the south Italian town on Taranto where it was commonly found. The term got loosely applied to other large ground-dwelling spiders. Despite the hype around them, their bites although venomous are not fatal to humans, and they themselves are prey to larger predators. 12 March is apparently World Spider Day, so a closer look at arachnids might be appropriate.

And I did eventually find out who Sydenham was. British physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) was nicknamed ‘The English Hippocrates’ for having authored ‘Observationes Medicae’ which became a standard medicine textbook for two centuries. He ‘discovered’ the disorder which today bears his name. Also known as rheumatic chorea, it is characterised by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements affecting primarily the face, hands and feet and occurs following childhood infection with Group A beta-haemolytic Streptococcus.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Story of Schumann’s Ghost

Some of you may recall the articles and presentation I prepared in 2010 for the birth bicentenary of German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856).

While researching his life, I stumbled upon a story so bizarre that you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Schumann wrote his only violin concerto (D minor, WoO 23) in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend the young violinist Joseph Joachim.

Joachim never publicly performed this work, and retained the manuscript for the rest of his life. Joachim evidently felt the work was tinged with the mental illness that plagued Schumann in his final years and caused his suicide. In a letter, Joachim, while acknowledging that ‘certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist’, also writes of it possessing ‘a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy.’

Schumann’s widow Clara and close family friend, composer Johannes Brahms obviously concurred, as they collectively excluded the concerto from the Complete Edition of Schumann’s works, consigning it to oblivion. Joachim entrusted the concerto manuscript with the Prussian State Library, Berlin, with the understanding that it neither be played nor published until a century after Schumann’s death i.e. 1956.

This is where it gets even more interesting. In 1933 in London, Joachim’s great niece, the violinist Jelly (pronounced Yéli) d’Aranyi apparently got a ‘message’ from Schumann’s spirit through a Ouija board requesting her to find the manuscript and perform the concerto!

She tracked it down to the library, enraging Schumann’s daughter Eugenie who forbade its performance.

To thicken the plot further, in 1937, American violinist Yehudi Menuhin was sent a copy of the score for his opinion, and he fell in love with it, terming it the “historically missing link” in the violin literature.

He also wanted to premiere the work. But the world copyright was held by Germany, now under Nazi control, and they were interested too. After the ban on all Jewish works as “degenerate”, and therefore the popular Mendelssohn violin concerto out of the repertoire, a replacement for it was urgently sought. Goebbels’ Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda thought the Schumann violin concerto would be the perfect substitute.

Thus began a three-sided race (d’Aranyi, Menuhin, and German violinist Georg Kulenkampff) to premiere the concerto. Kulenkampff gave the premiere in Berlin that same year, followed by Menuhin in the US and d’Aranyi in London.

Here is a recording Kulenkampff playing the concerto in 1937:

and Menuhin:

An interesting video compares the two performances:

Unfortunately I am unable to find a recording of d’Aranyi’s performance of the concerto.

An extraordinary story, which I shed light on in my Schumann presentation in 2010. Jessica Duchen, a versatile London-based author with a musical bias, used it as a springboard for a fast-paced detective thriller titled “Ghost Variations”, released recently.

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The title is fitting not only because of the reference to the spirit of Schumann allegedly communicating with d’Aranyi, but also because the violin concerto shares a theme with a work ‘Geistervariationen’ (Ghost Variations) WoO 24, that Schumann wrote for piano, the melody of which he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers from beyond the grave, but obviously was a theme from his own imagination that he had forgotten he had already used in the concerto. Brahms would later use this same theme in his piano work for four hands, ‘Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann.’ Talk of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Duchen chose a ‘novel’ way of getting her novel published. Unbound (www.unbound.com) is an innovative way of bringing authors and readers together. How does it work? Writers pitch their ideas to Unbound, and if the team like it, they launch it on their website. The project is pitched to potential readers by the writer as well, and if the crowdfunding target is reached, the book gets published. Furthermore, the author receives a 50/50 profit split from each book sale, as opposed to 5-10% of the cover price from conventional mass publishers.

Watch her and other experts shed more light on the concerto’s history:

I am Duchen’s Facebook friend, and when she pitched the idea for her book on her Facebook page, I readily made a small contribution towards her crowdfunding target. Duchen made the target in just 12 days, drawing endorsements from far beyond just her circle of friends and wellwishers. And the reward for my support was that I was among the first to receive a digital (Kindle) version of the published book the day it was released.

The book is a gripping read, and you have to marvel at the detail in the research needed in writing it, and how Duchen manages to get under the skin of the characters in the plot, particularly d’Aranyi. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of music and of good writing. In portraying 1930s Europe in free-fall towards a catastrophic world war, one can’t help see resonances with our own times.

In a recent article ‘Finding the Pearl: Why I wrote Ghost Variations’ for a writing website, Duchen describes her creative journey from the first draft of the novel in 2011 to its completion last year. She draws parallels between the 1929 Great Depression and the financial crash of 2008, and the witch-hunts, fear psychosis and insecurity, and the picking of vulnerable scapegoats upon which to pin the blame, however irrationally.

In her research for the book, Duchen had to scan newspaper archives from the 1930s, and what leapt out at her was the same “press-stirred hysteria” about “floods of refugees (then from Germany) that we are seeing today from Syria and from other conflict zones in the Middle East.

Back then, just as now with Trump and with the rise of the right-wing across the world, Hitler was at first derided as a joke by many who believed that “an unstable deluded fantasist could never take power”.

In her own words: “When I first began Ghost Variations I had no idea it would be as relevant as it has turned out… But perhaps 2016 was its moment after all, because this year brought us our own tipping point. We’re no longer on the cliff edge: we’ve tipped and we’re falling.”

Duchen summarises some lessons she herself learnt while writing Ghost Variations: “If you want to write about the inconvenient truths of today, sometimes it’s better not to hold up a direct mirror. Instead, refract the light you want to shed. Shine it through a prism of a past parallel, or a sci-fi or fantasy world. Good historical fiction doesn’t only concern the past.”

Yet she offers a positive message in conclusion: “I hope it shows there were, and there will be, people who see through lies, moral corruption and mortal danger and stand by higher principles. We’ve come through times of turmoil before; and despite huge, tragic sacrifices and horrors beyond comprehension, still people keep trying to do the right thing. There will be heroes and heroines, there will be life and there will be love. And maybe there is even a chance that in some unsuspected dimension love can last forever. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 5 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Family correspondence — II

Family photos

One thing leads to another. I was searching for something yesterday, and came upon this old family correspondence, and got completely distracted for the rest of the evening.
Scanned as many letters, photos and documents as I could, as they’re all yellowing and crumbling.
A letter from post-war Germany to my grandfather Dr. Victor Manuel Dias. This is just one of a whole sheaf of them. He had been steadily sending food packets to his medical contemporaries, and the letters are full of gratitude for the much-needed assistance.
He also helped Jewish families to flee Germany; one correspondence still exists with Prof. Dr. Nussbaum, who made it to the US.

Family correspondence — I

Letter VMD MFD malaria concerns

Letter from a concerned father (my grandfather Dr. Vitor Manuel Dias) to his eldest son (my father Manuel Francisco Dias) studying in Bombay.

It is not dated, (actually it would have had to be post-1947, because he talks of elections in India), and my dad was probably a boarder at the Jesuit school St. Mary’s. His father is really worried about malaria; malaria was probably high on his mind as at that time Dr. Vitor Dias was steeped in the work of Saneamento da Velha Goa, which was completed in 1948, just a year before he died of a stroke. It was said in the family that the stress of it all probably shortened his life considerably.

The sudden death of Dr. Vitor Dias significantly changed the course of the fortunes of the family.