FAQs: A career in research

It can be a challenge explaining what it is to be a researcher to one’s family and friends who do not have much background in the same. This blog is a kind of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ (FAQs) on a career in research (more relevant to research in the engineering discipline) that would hopefully be enlightening to both non-researchers and students who may be interested in pursuing a career in research.

1. Does research mean ‘dreaming up new stuff’?


Wish it was! All one has to do would then be to sleep uneasily and dream a lot 😉 Jokes apart, there are research hypotheses to be formulated, then there is the real hard work involved in establishing whether they are true or not and an even harder job writing it all up convincing a bunch of people that your research advances the knowledge in that area.

Depending on whether one is a researcher in the industry or in research institutes/labs or in the university, the final goal of the research may be varied. It could be the development of a new product or improving the efficiency of a current product in the industry. It could be simply developing new theories with hitherto unknown applications or the discovery of a new material (or an algorithm or a new ‘particle’ and so on) in the university. In a research institute setting, it can span the entire range of purely applied to purely theoretical research.

2. Do you really get paid to ‘read’ and ‘think’?! (This was often asked during my stint as a researcher in the industry)

Well, yes. These are some key ‘activities’ that a researcher does.

3. So what exactly does a researcher/scientist do?


Though the goals may vary depending on where one is, at the end of the day, a researcher still has to do research. There is much that is unknown about this physical world – complex connections between human beings and our surroundings, natural phenomena, cutting-edge technology that is constantly changing this world around us. A researcher’s job is, in some sense, to identify, validate and communicate these deeper connections that exist but are hitherto unknown. There is analytical thinking involved, good communication involved, a lot of perseverance and a lot of inspiration too. One can be trained in the first two, and, hopefully, with enough training and a lot of perseverance, some inspiration starts striking too! In more simple terms, let’s say there is a task in a factory that is to be performed, like drilling a hole in a tool. Then the researcher’s job could be to find out what is the size of the hole and the exact geometry of the hole to be drilled that can give the best performance of the tool. Or it could be designing a new drill that can do that drilling much more efficiently.

4. How does one identify if one has a passion for research? 

This is a tricky one. I read an article recently that talks of passion – https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/well/mind/the-right-way-to-follow-your-passion.html
It brings up some very useful pointers, the key one being ‘self-reflecting on your passion rather than looking for validation only from external outcomes, which may be misleading’. In any case, if you want to find out, you have to take the plunge and find out for yourself how it feels. If it doesn’t work out, there are always other opportunities. A research experience, even if it doesn’t lead to a degree, is considered valuable, as it fundamentally changes the way one approaches any problem. Moreover, one can gain research experience as early as during Bachelor study, once one has gained some knowledge in the area of specialisation.

5. Is a PhD for me? Do I need a PhD to pursue a career in research?

PhD is a long-term commitment and if you are sure of pursuing a career in research, it may be better to do a PhD than not. However, after having had a taste of the Nordic culture where titles and degrees are much less important than the skills that a person has, I would say that it is still possible to pursue a career in research without a PhD degree, though one may not have gone through the daunting but highly rewarding task of writing a PhD thesis and learn more ‘on the job’.

6. What are the career options after PhD? How much money can I make?

If you would still like to stick to research after PhD, there are the three typical paths – industry, research labs, academia. Before I go into those, I should also mention that there are some other less conventional choices too – becoming a science writer or a full-time scientific editor, or a policy-maker, or a teacher in a college with little or no research involved.

As far as research jobs are concerned, industry can be a great place to see ‘research in action’ where most of the work one does is actually used by someone else. This is rarely the case in academic research, where most work ends up in research papers that only a handful of people may ever read. Research labs offer a wider range of options in the kind of research one wants to do. However, it is expected that one becomes more independent with more experience as a researcher and is able to get one’s own funding. This becomes extreme in the case of an academic career, where one is virtually left on one’s own. As a postdoctoral researcher (a post-PhD temporary position in academia/research labs, which is my current position), there is still some ‘safety net’ in terms of a professor who would be a supervisor, but one is expected to perform research almost independently and mentor others in the research group (PhD and Master’s students). On becoming a professor (typically starting out as an assistant professor), one is entirely responsible for building one’s own research group, attracting funding from government funding agencies and industries, teaching and being involved in administrative tasks at the university. This also means that one is almost free to choose one’s scope of research.

The money one can make is really variable depending on the field of research, the industries involved and how wide one chooses to expand one’s network and attract funding. Moreover, it requires a lot of patience since it would be several years before one would get a fairly stable job.

7. On mentioning my ambitions of becoming a professor, the oft-asked question is ‘Oh! You want to become a teacher?’

True, teaching is an essential part of being a professor, but it may not even be half of the professor’s job. A professor is most often simultaneously a researcher, a teacher, a project leader, a mentor, an administrator, and there is further scope to be an industry collaborator and an influencer in the scientific community. In that sense, teaching is a relatively small part of the whole bargain and there is certainly no question of two-month-long summer vacations and ‘college timings’ working hours.

Being a professor would be a lot of work. Moreover, being highly competitive, both in the selection process and  in eventually getting a permanent position (which may not even be guaranteed after five years of starting the position in countries like the US), it may not be for everyone. Though many start their PhDs with the ambition of becoming a professor, less than 5% actually manage to do so.

This blog is most relevant to research in the engineering sciences. Pure sciences may require much more creativity and may involve an even more challenging career path.
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Outcast

Show me a person who has a well-paying job, good health, a loving family complete with a loving spouse/parents and siblings/happy children, a house to boot, who is gracious to people, and happy and peaceful because of it all. Isn’t this the society’s and, at times, our own estimation of how one’s life should be? But is there a single person who has this ‘perfect’ life? Is there a single person who is not an ‘outcast’ one way or another? If the quest for this perfect life motivates us to do all our actions, we would never really be fulfilled. There would always be something that is lacking, because the list is not static – it keeps growing with attaining each thing to attaining the next ‘better’ thing.

The struggle is within, not without. And no fulfillment shall ever come from only trying to fill the gaps, trying to acquire that one or more things that one thinks one lacks. The external circumstances have zero correlation with inner peace. The external circumstances just give us something to talk about. And it isn’t really hard to make out each person to be an outcast when we view our and their lives through this ‘list of perfection’. Ah, how much the mind loves to dwell on the list and this concept of outcast.

There is only our own limited mind that stands between us and God, between an unfulfilled life and unconditional inner peace. Through this life, there is only the promise of attaining inner perfection, and realising the eternal Bliss that we already are supposed to be. Nothing else was every promised. And there is no way we are going to attain inner peace chasing only the ‘list’, viewing ourselves and others as outcasts, and depending on external circumstances and other people for our inner peace and happiness.

பிராப்தம் – Destiny

Here’s my attempt at translating the powerful song ‘Praaptham’ from Chekka Chivantha Vaanam:

The raindrops wonder unknowingly,
As they gravitate uncontrollably,
‘Which piece of life shall I touch?’
On a seed falls a drop bringing new life,
On a burnt pyre the other ending another life,
Destiny it is, no control as such!

Here, there, everywhere,
The crimson red liquid flows,
This bloody time waits nowhere,
Drowning every path, delivering blows.

The fiery desires forging life on earth,
Reddening the sky and the shattering earth,
Seeping into the waters on earth,
Only to pour red and again kiss the earth.

Here, there, everywhere,
The crimson red liquid leaves nowhere.

Every victorious glow,
Every fatal blow,
Every bloody ending,
It’s destiny singing.

The earth incessantly going around the sun,
Darkening half the day – it’s no fun,
Giving this blessed life of a curse,
Where every joy of a verse,
Is not really an epiphany,
But simply destiny.

 

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Minor spoilers ahead…

The Prelude

Twenty four hours to go before I would get to see ‘A Mani Ratnam Film’. The latest Mani Ratnam film. The excitement. The anticipation of smiling to myself (it would have been turning and smiling at my sister or father if I was watching the movie with them!) when he does his magic. The curiosity to discover the new element he has tried to incorporate in his latest work. The level of excitement that is proportional to my current distance from Madras, at which every little feeling about home gets magnified. And to me, Madras is synonymous not just with family and friends and school and college, but with Mani Ratnam, A R Rahman, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and so much more. As I begin this next phase of life that brings with it its own challenges and things to look forward to, I feel grateful that I get a chance to see Mani’s magic again, thanks to his continuing passion to create and to the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Europe who help release Tamil movies in this cold cold land far far away from home. The first trailer, the songs and my countless re-watchings of all his old and new interviews have all provided enough buildup. I didn’t even watch the second trailer. I simply can’t wait to watch the film now. It’s going to be a challenging twenty-four hours trying to do stuff other than dreaming of watching the film!

I finally set out to watch the movie alone with the anticipation of smiling to myself. And then I happened to come across a classmate from school whom I had last met 15 years ago. And destiny it was that we had the seats next to each other and his wife proved to be as Mani Ratnam-crazy as me (which is probably the reason that they had also booked tickets as soon as the bookings opened and asked for the best seats in the theatre – the last row middle ones). So I did not smile to myself, but kept smiling at her!

The Film

Gangster movies keep coming out regularly from film industries across the world. There is just so much scope for action, which Mani Ratnam thinks is tailor-made for movies on the big screen. The last gangster movie that I enjoyed watching was Vikram Vedha. We had Mani Ratnam doing Nayagan years ago, but after watching Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, that one now feels more like a movie about a Varadaraja Mudaliar-like character and what that character thinks and why he acts and emotes the way he does rather than a ‘gangster film’. In Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, Mani takes every gangster plot tried and tested and turns it upside down. Just when you think you are getting a hang of the characters or what the film is about, he surprises you. Again and again. The first half was so so gripping that it flew by like a breeze. Or like a bullet. Every character spoke in a way that was not expected. In the initial few scenes, it seemed to have been laid out what the motive of every character was. Yet, the suspense would not die until the very end.

The casting was simply perfect and what a set of great performances irrespective of the screen time (which was very well-balanced as was said during the audio launch – one of the very few things anybody involved with the movie was willing to say. The buildup and PR for the film has been simply amazing, building the intrigue to the right level). Though I generally find STR difficult to watch, his dialogue delivery style and mannerisms actually fitted this particular role. Arvind Swami that we are used to in Mani Ratnam films is quite different here. An intense performance from him and Jyothika. Vijay Sethupathi is growing on me. His casual dialogue delivery takes the cake and when he launches on his ‘story’ towards the end, it was reminiscent of Vikram Vedha. It was good to have some fresh faces in the form of Aishwarya (I haven’t watched any of her films) and Dayana. Jyothika does a great job playing the strong yet vulnerable character. Jayasudha is a veteran and that one scene where the bandage on her head is being removed is enough. Prakash Raj is such a convincing actor in any role. One of the few bits of the Mani Ratnam-esque human relationship scenes that we see are between Jayasudha and Prakash Raj after they are back from the hospital. Didn’t know what to expect from Arun Vijay, but he did well in the weakest character of all. Aditi Rao’s ‘fussing around’ when STR is in her house is quite funny and looked very ‘natural’ on Aditi. One character I couldn’t buy into was Siva Ananth playing the uncle role. I simply couldn’t get out of my mind him playing Adi’s brother in OKK and the Telugu officer in Kaatru Veliyidai. The makeup wasn’t convincing enough to fit him in this role maybe.

Mani Ratnam checklist. Classy cinematography (is the climax location really Cudappah? That place was breathtaking, with the ‘semmaN’ enhancing the Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. Couple of brilliant long shots – with mirrors in the beginning and Ethi in search of Varadan in Rasool’s house). Check. Music interweaved into the film. Check. Great performances. Check. Trademark subtle humour. Check.

What I missed and something that is so synonymous with Mani Ratnam’s movies is his handling of human relationships. There’s so much emotional investment that usually happens into his characters that they stay with you long after the film. That opportunity is not there in this film and the stars of this film are really the plot and the action. Just when you start to think that in the second half where it threatens to get slightly emotional, which would have been out of place in this film, there is more action and some more. In this respect, this movie is more like a Thiruda Thiruda, where it’s not so much the human relationships but the plot and the action which are key. After predominantly making relationship films recently, it was a surprise to see Mani making this kind of an action-oriented movie again. And what a pleasant surprise it was.

Mani Ratnam wanted to make Aayitha Ezhuthu without songs but succumbed to having songs when Rahman gave him such outstanding music. This movie is the closest it can get to a Mani Ratnam movie without songs. All songs could be heard only in bits and pieces as background score throughout the movie (with a couple of extra pieces that have not been released). Yet, I didn’t feel the lack of songs and every bit of music enhanced the movie. Who would have thought that Bhoomi Bhoomi would have been first used during that moment in the film before the intermission. Sevanthu Pochu Nenje keeps ringing now in my ears long after the titles finished rolling. It now feels like the theme of the film, along with Bhoomi Bhoomi.

This is an almost-perfect film in this genre where the unpredictable plot twists and misleading hints keep one guessing and a rewatching is required to follow the full sequence after getting to know the ending. Add to it the slick editing that Mani and Sreekar have perfected over the last few films. It was such a tight film. There was almost no extra emotion, extra dialogues, extra music or extra dwelling on anything. There was indeed much violence and, therefore, it’s not a ‘pleasant’ film to watch.

Right now, I am simply in awe of Mani Ratnam creating yet another masterpiece. If his screenwriting and filmmaking abilities can give us this new benchmark for a gangster film, I just wonder what the result would be if he dabbles in other genres as well. Moreover, it looks like this movie may appeal to more people than most of his recent films. That’s a happy feeling and worth celebrating!

World No. 1 Roger Federer: The Inspiring Journey from Wimbledon 2012 to Rotterdam 2018

From being a casual Grand Slam tennis fan with a liking for Roger Federer, I turned into a daily follower of tennis with an inexplicable craze for everything Roger Federer, thanks to the man himself, as he traversed one of the most intriguing and fascinating years of his illustrious career.

I still remember that day – Wimbledon Finals 2012. I was rooting for Roger to win against Andy Murray. After the loss of the first set, the turning point was the set point in the second, when Roger hit a ridiculous drop shot, stealing that set right under Andy’s nose. The rain added to that drama, but that match defined the beginning of my craze for Roger Federer. In the following years, I would see Roger going through ups and many many downs. The back caused problems in 2013. Roger appeared refreshed in 2014 after the racquet change and having Stefan Edberg in his corner. He came tantalisingly close to regaining World No. 1 ranking and winning Grand Slams in 2014 and 2015 with three finals. Novak was there in his way all three times, refusing to lose in Wimbledon 2014 and imposing himself on Roger in 2015. 2016 started off with knee problems and after the loss at Australian Open, Roger wouldn’t be himself. He chose to take that six-month break – in hindsight, one of the best all-time decisions of taking breaks in sports – and came back in 2017 rejuvenated, refreshed and with his game honed with hours and hours of quiet practice. He conquered Nadal in a Grand Slam after a decade and would go on to win three more important matches against him. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and would come back in 2018 as the favourite to win Australian Open and do it in style.

As Roger chooses to take a second voluntary break from the clay season, I pause to reflect on the inspiration that he has been through the most challenging times in my life.

1. Never stop believing.

You may lose a match today due to many reasons. You may win a match tomorrow due to many reasons. Instead of reacting to the small successes and failures of each day, never stop believing in yourself. That can go a long way. This belief is what led to his incredible run in 2011-2012, culminating in being crowned the Wimbledon 2012 champion and World No.1 after a (then) long stretch of not winning any Slams. That belief then fuelled the sheer hard work and the grit required to reinvent himself after the back issues of 2013 by switching to a larger racquet and committing to net play like never before.

It is hard not to be disheartened when things don’t go our way, but belief is something that nobody can take away from us despite all external things.

2. Practice is key and there is a purpose to practice.

As Roger has grown older, his practice sessions are supposed to be so much more focussed so that he can bring in the quality that is required rather than putting in a lot of hours on the practice court. Edberg added the element of playing sets during practice instead of only points. There is nothing like practice for honing a skill and muscle memory requires constant practice.

3. Set goals for yourself.

Roger’s career is certainly one of the best in tennis history. Yet, after achieving so much, he still sets goals for himself. Be it getting to top 8 ranking by Wimbledon last year (which he overachieved and attained so much earlier than that), and now the quest to get to 100 titles (and simply winning as many titles as he can) and playing at the professional level as long as possible. Setting goals helps us focus on the actions that would take us to those goals, so practice gets tuned towards those specific goals.

4. Question yourself at the best of times.

Losses are crushing and makes one question what went wrong, but Roger has always questioned himself at the best of times – at his peak even when he won over 90% of the matches that he played. He is constantly on the lookout to improve himself and that shows why and how he has reinvented himself towards these later stages of his career – pretty much unseen in tennis history.

5. Health is more important than anything else.

Roger learnt it the hard way in 2013 when constant back issues thwarted his play. He persisted through it all, combined with an attempt to switch to a larger racquet. When again, in 2016, he had to undergo knee surgery, he finally decided to take a six-month break after some attempts to continue to play after a short rehab. And that paid off and how!

6. Take breaks, often.

Roger takes his vacation seriously. That time off, away from everything, visibly gives him the energy to come back and soak in it all. Even at the peak of his career, when he could have chosen to play so many more tournaments, he chose to take those critical breaks of few weeks between different parts of the tennis calendar. And that pretty much explains his longevity.

7. Celebrate your successes – more importantly, your efforts that went into them.

Roger celebrates his successes and more importantly the efforts that go into those. The definition of success itself varies depending on the stage of his career and what he encounters. At the time when Novak was on his peak, going on his invincible match-winning streak, the win against him at French Open was worth celebrating, even though the Finals was yet to be played.

8. Never forget your roots.

Roger remains a Swiss at heart. One of the most apparent gestures is having a pizza party with the ball kids after the Finals (even if he loses in the Finals) at his home tournament at Basel every year. He was once a ball boy at this same tournament and he never forgets to do his bit whenever he is back there.

9. Choose your goals intelligently depending on the stage of life you are in.

At the peak of his career, getting to No. 1 (and staying at No. 1) was always a big goal. Even as he reached No. 1 a few weeks ago (and he went out and played Rotterdam to reach there), his goals clearly have changed. Titles and playing at tournaments he enjoys playing and has best chances of winning are his current goals and more than all, simply expressing his love for tennis.

10. It’s all about love (for tennis).

At the end of the day, Roger loves tennis too much to easily walk away from the game. It is this love that drives him to work hard, to set high goals for himself, to manage being not just a tennis player, but a family man, ambassador for many brands worldwide and work on his Foundation to give back to underprivileged children in Africa and Switzerland.

11. Make sport a part of your life.

Roger recently talked of how he encourages his children to play tennis/sport – not to push them into becoming professional players but simply to lead a healthy life style, have fun, make friends and experience the feelings of winning and losing and thereby learning how to deal with them.

12. Family first

Roger’s priorities in life are always dictated by the well-being of his family. It is a privilege that he is able to travel on tour with his family. Yet, given the logistics and having to deal with four small children, it requires much more than just a will to be able to do it. Staying with his family and keeping his family together is far more important to him than participating in many tournaments staying away from his family.

13. Fans are people. Support staff are people. Ball kids are people. Journalists are people.

There are countless accounts of Roger staying back for so long after each of his practice sessions and matches to sign autographs and allow fans to take selfies with him. His dad talks of how much time he spends signing cards to be sent to his fans (based on the fan requests sent to him by mail and on his website). The way he seems to ‘care’ for people around him makes him the special person that he is. One of his favourite quotes is ‘It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice’. And he walks that talk.

14. Give back (to the society, to tennis, to fans, to juniors).

Tennis has given Roger so much in his life and he feels that responsibility to give back in so many ways. Be it the work through his foundation, taking up administrative positions on the tennis tour, or taking the time out to help juniors who start off new on the tennis tour.

15. Be an ambassador for what you stand for.

Roger is a true ambassador of tennis. He believes that he has a role to play in the evolution of tennis. He goes out of his way to promote tennis – playing in many non-competition events, kids’ clinics and defending tennis for what it stands for. He believes that he should leave the sport in a better place than it was when he started out and he took up the responsibility of being the players’ representative for 8 years during the peak of his career. He even endorses the brands he is sponsored by with such passion.

16. Every little detail matters.

Starting from the colour of his outfits to the designs on them, Roger is involved personally. He pays attention to every little detail because he cares and believes that each little thing has an importance of its own. During an interview at this year’s Australian Open, he said that it was an opportunity to tell stories about yourself through the designs that you put on your outfit.

17. Manage your time by focussing on the task at hand.

Roger has this incredible ability to focus on whatever he does at that moment. This automatically improves the quality of time he spends on different tasks – practice, family time, attending social events. He says how when he goes back to his family after a match, he should play with them and spend time with them in the exact same way, irrespective of whether he lost or won a match. This ability to switch off and switch on not only makes him so much more efficient but also helps him enjoy each task fully.

18. Think positively.

Roger is an incredibly positive person. He is able to put things in perspective after every loss. In fact, all I have to do to cheer up after one of his losses is to hear his post-match press conference. The way he rebounds from every loss (he has won the following tournament he participates in after so many of his crushing losses) shows his incredible positive view on his tennis and his life.

19. Have fun.

Though he appears to be this cool and calm person on court, the Roger we see off court is super-fun. The joy inside him is very much visible and he makes sure he has fun – be it on the practice court, in interviews (which he doesn’t consider a terrible obligation, but an opportunity to tell his story), and in all his public appearances. Sample this.

20. Keep reinventing yourself.

Even in his upcoming years, it took a lot of time for Roger to round up his game and attain invincible heights, given the many tricks he had in his bag. Yet, that was not enough. The game kept changing and so did Roger. He could have said enough and walked off the game at any point – the success he had from 2004 to 2008 was unprecedented. Yet, he would not hesitate to change his game, try out different strategies, take the big step of changing his racquet after 11 years of playing with the same one that suited him the best, hire his childhood idol Stefan Edberg to be his ‘inspiring’ super-coach and embrace the net courageously. All these have culminated into the last one and a half years of late-career success, crowning him with the No. 1 ranking and three Grand Slam titles and numerous other titles at places he loves to play in.

The grass season is around the corner. The GOAT must be getting ready to graze in his beloved lawns. I can’t wait to see his magic and artistry once more, as he dances on the green grass, moving his feet light as an elf, waving his racquet like a wand in the hands of a wizard and conceiving strategies that would take the game to the next level and hitting out-of-the world shots that would leave his opponents shaking their heads.

The Ilaiyaraaja Top 20 Project

On Nirmal‘s request as a parallel to The ARR Top 20 Project, I set out to make this very nostalgic playlist. Most of these songs are mixed with the inseparable feeling of me fiddling with the music system in the ‘Orange room’ in our old home about 25 years ago, only to leave my father bewildered every evening at the weird things that the music system would do. I can almost feel the breeze from the balcony, as my sister and I would hear these songs, defining what my first memories of film music would be. Rahman was around the corner and Chinna Chinna Aasai would start reverberating in that room soon enough, but Raja had ruled those days with his unique sounds and unbeatable Carnaticness and sheer melody. I enjoy these songs even more today as I listen to the nuances in the music, enjoying each sangati, and the lyrics. As I type each of the song names, I can see in my mind’s eye their names inked by my father in Tamil on those good old TDK D90 cassettes. I only wish these songs are re-mastered in high quality and released again. Here goes the top 20 in no particular order:

1. Sundari Neeyum – Of all his avatars, I probably like the singer Kamal Hassan the best. A wonderful voice suited for Carnatic and the way he emotes brings alive the song in a beautiful way. Kedaram ragam is lovely by itself. Made lovelier by this song.

2. Manram vandha – If one song could define a movie, it is this one that basically encompasses the main emotions of Mouna Raagam. The proximity yet the unbridgeable distance. Water on lotus. SPB’s impeccable rendition.

3. Thenpaandi cheemayile – Another movie-defining song. The rustic rendition by Ilaiyaraja that echoes the plight of the boy Velunayakan, the classic Kamal rendition at different stages though the movie. Powerful emotions. At the end of the day, it is just a small boy’s angst who saw his father murdered in front of his own eyes.

4. Panivizhum malarvanam – Simple melody in Chalanattai. The deep tones of a ‘vivadi’ ragam transform into a romantic melody in the expert hands of Ilaiyaraaja. Inspiration enough for Sanjay Subrahmanyan to weave the landing ‘S S S S S S S S’ of Panivizhum malarvanam into his Chalanattai kalpana swarams.

5. Per vechchaalum – A fun song to hear and hilarious to watch. Dappankuthu beats, Malaysia Vasudevan in full flow.

6. Thoongaadha vizhigal – The flow of Amritavarshini. Yesudas’ deep voice. Brilliant picturisation by Mani Ratnam.

7. Idhu oru ponmaalai – Kedaram again. This song serenely flows in constrast to Sundari Neeyum, which lingers on with its mischief in every line. Beautiful lyrics – Vairamuthu’s first song.

8. Ninnukori varnam – Probably the peppiest song in Mohana ragam ever. Interludes with the quirky sounds only add to the charm.

9. Motta maadi – All songs in this movie are amazing, but this is my most favourite. More childhood memories of growing up with these songs. Mani’s magic comes through as well when we see how these songs are conceived completely interweaved with the movie.

10. Raakkamma – The catchy tune of Raakkamma, the ‘sodukkus’ to keep the beat, ‘jaangu jakku’ – all of these blend to take the song to a pinnacle and that’s when ‘Kunittha puruvam’ happens and takes it to an all-new level. And what a way to capture the first He-She meeting.

11. Nee oru Kadhal sangeetham – Beautiful romantic song. There is a great deal of discussion online about which ragam this is in. I am more in favour of ‘Shuddh Saarang’, as given here. Everything about this song (the voices, interludes, the sound of the instruments) is simple and mellifluous.

12. Poomaalai vaangi vandhaan – Yet another example of the genius of Ilaiyaraaja while dealing with classical ragams. There is an inherent depth in Kaanada ragam, and here Ilaiyaraaja wields it to show the desperation of the main character. Kaanada shines through it all.

13. Kanmani anbodu – An interesting song concept. A beautiful melody. The song starts off with just plain words written in a letter and moves into the wondrous La La Land 😉 towards the end.

14. Mari mari ninne – I am sure this must have gotten a lot of backlash from the purist Carnatic community at that point. This original song by Saint Thyagaraja in ragam Kambhoji has been completely reinvented by Ilaiyaraaja in ragam Saramathi and only goes on to show his prowess in Carnatic music. A majestic song.

15. Maalaiyil yaaro – The beautiful Suddha Dhanyasi ragam flows in this song. Beautiful lyrics and the melodious-yet-strong voice of Swarnalatha adds to the beauty of this song.

16. Yelangaathu veesudhe – One of those songs hearing which you wonder whether it is coming from within or without. Like something that has always been a part of you but you never realised it until you heard it out aloud.

17. Endhan nenjil neengadha – Nalinakanti ragam. That suffices.

18. Valaiyosai – Wonderful combination of SPB & Lata Mangeshkar. That Pallavi line beats all tongue twisters. And at what a pace! A whirlwind of a song.

19. Chinnakkannan azhaikkiraan – The legend Balamuralikrishna. Reethigowlai ragam. The joy with which Balamuralikrishna sings is infectious. Though many recent songs in this ragam have appeared in movies, this still remains one of the best.

20. Akashe Jyotsna/Nee paartha paarvaikkoru – Hariharan. Asha Bhonsle. Piano. Magic.

Bonus (Non-film): Pooveru konum – Thiruvasagam – Orchestral music always sounds grand. Here the beauty of Suddha Dhanyasi (in the first half) combines with it to create this masterpiece. Ilaiyaraaja and Bhavatharini have sung this with a lot of bhaavam.

There are many more gems to discover in Raja’s music and hopefully, we will get to hear more from him, but nostalgia of my early childhood shall always be synonymous with his magical music.

antarkatha – inner story through music & art

Charsur recently conducted a 3-day series on the theme ‘antarkatha’, an inner story through music and art. There was a great line-up of artists and, added to it, it was being held at the recently-renovated Rasika Ranjani Sabha, which I was yet to visit. I was pretty curious and attended this event on Days 2 and 3.

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The theme of Day 2 was ‘Muddu Krishna’ (or Bala Krishna) performed by Sriram Parasuram (narration and singing), Nisha Rajagopalan and K Gayatri on vocals, Nishanth Chandran on violin, Poongulam Subramaniam on Mridangam, Srikrishna & Ganesh Rao on harmonium and tabla. The artist illustrating the story was Keshav, whose cartoons appear everyday in The Hindu.

The programme started with Sriram Parasuram singing mArgazhi thingaL. Keshav, on his corner of the stage, started sketching something out with pencil. There appeared to be the form of Krishna, a couple of cows and a small girl. Though the concept of the programme was supposed to be bringing out the leelas of little Krishna through music and art, the music part turned out to be mostly like any other concert, with the addition of Sriram saying a few words about each composition. One interesting fact that he pointed out was that many songs, though they start out singing about ‘bAla’ Krishna, spell out the stories from the later parts of his life as well (example: bAlagOpAlA in Bhairavi by Dikshitar). Another new thing I learnt was that the rAgam hindOLam means ‘to swing freely together’ (with Krishna 🙂 ). Sriram said that it is as if the rAgam is made for Krishna and inspired by Krishna. Sriram, Nisha and Gayatri (excellent rendition of Bhairavi alapana and bAlagOpAlA) took turns in singing compositions (full list below) while Keshav’s canvas started to bring out in vivid strokes, Krishna’s graceful form, his beloved cows, a little girl (Radha?), Yashoda and a little Krishna running towards Yashoda. With the pastel shades of black and orange, the brilliant-and-beautiful form of Krishna took a life of its own while we heard songs singing his glory. A very interesting experiment on the whole when the audience got to enjoy not only the sounds and words, but also got a visual experience. We do get to experience the musicians’ creativity in concerts through kalapanaswaras, alapana, etc., but when an artist wields his drawing instruments, we are left to wonder how the final form was conceived in the artist’s mind starting with a completely blank canvas, how his hands execute the ideas from his brain and if and how he reacts to the music and words that were flowing from the other side of the stage. I did not stay till the end of this programme but the concept impressed me enough to come back the next day.

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Image courtesy: https://twitter.com/keshav61/status/923744035826630656 (you can find more beautiful sketches of Krishna by Keshav on his Twitter)

1. mArgazhi thingaL – nAttai – ANdAL – Sriram
2. bAla sarasa muraLi – kIravANi – UtthukkAdu venkatasubbaiyar – outline – Nisha
3. srI vENugOpAlA – kurinji – dIkshitar – Gayatri
4. sAmaja vara gamanA – hindOLam (meaning: to swing freely together) – tyAgarAja – AlApana, swarams – Sriram
5. srI rAjagOpAla bAla – sAvEri – dIkshitar – AlApana, neraval – Nisha, Gayatri
6. jamunA kinArE mOrA gAon – misra kalyAN – ? – Sriram
7. bAlagOpAlA – bhairavi – dIkshitar – AlApana, swarams – Gayatri, Nisha
8. kAkkai chiraginilE – brindAvana sArangA – bhArati – outline – Nisha
9. tAyE yasOdA – tOdi – UtthukkAdu venkatasubbaiyar – Sriram

Day 3

Day 3’s programme was called ‘Story in concert’. The description given in the pamphlet that was distributed the previous day did not quite give away what it was about. While introducing the artists, Charubala of Charsur said that it was Jayanthi Kumaresh’s idea to do a ‘story in concert’. From that idea sprang a full 3-day festival, which Charsur chose to call the ‘antarkatha – inner story through music and art’. Jayanthi’s idea was to present a story in a concert through different media – song, percussion, words (story), painting. Jayanthi Kumaresh played the Veena (rather her Veena enacted the part of the Veena 😉 ), Vidhya Anand transported us to Ambi’s world through her story ‘The Mystery of the Missing Veena’, K U Jayachandra Rao played the Mridangam, Pramath Kiran played the tabla and morsing, and Neernalli Ganapathy from Hubli brought to life with his lightning-fast strokes each episode of ‘The Mystery of the Missing Veena’. The programme invoked hearing drama on radio, reading a comic book, listening to a concert, listening to fusion music and simply listening to a grandmother’s tale all rolled into one. Perfectly conceptualised and perfectly executed. Vidhya Anand narrated the story in colloquial Tamil, interspersed with some English, just as we speak, starting with ‘Once upon a time… ‘.

There lived a little boy called Ambi with his parents, periamma and periappa. He was fond of his Lalitha periamma, who pampered him and was more of his friend except for that magical time after lighting the lamp in the evening, when she took out her Veena for her daily sadhaka, which left Ambi in so much awe and wonder that he would only peep from behind a door or a window to see his periamma practising with that aura. We could imagine Jayanthi Kumaresh transforming into Lalitha and her Veena played the Sankarabharanam varnam, while we saw within the span of that five minutes the back view of little Ambi standing hesitantly in a room, looking out from the window at the form of his periamma playing the lilting swarams of Sankarabharanam on her Veena. Neernalli Ganapathy was a magician. With a thread(?) and some paint, he could create a marvel in a span of minutes, bringing to life the little details of our little Ambi’s world, perfectly in sync with the duration of the song.

As Ambi grew more and more in love with the music and the Veena, he boldly asked his periamma one day to teach him the Veena. His periamma agreed to teach on two conditions: 1. he would practise for two hours every morning before school and 2. practise for two hours every evening after coming back from school. Ambi, after much thought, agreed to it, pushing away thoughts of his play time that he would have to give up in order to do this. And so began Ambi’s journey with the Veena. A song in Malahari was one of his first lessons. Jayanthi’s Veena now transformed to Ambi’s Veena playing the song and we saw the next canvas creating the scene of Ambi and Lalitha seated with their respective veenas, playing Malahari. Yet again, the painting was complete just as the last strains of Malahari flowed from the Veena.

Lalitha’s Veena was not just any other Veena. It was a 150-year-old Veena handed down over generations and Lalitha took great care of it. When she became very old, she gave it to Ambi so that he could continue playing on that. Ambi, by now, had become a true vidwan. He would not perform in public, but whenever he played the Veena, one sensed the magic of the world that he was creating through his Veena. He had learnt to play rare ragams like kAntAmaNi – a melakartha ragam that sounded like a beautiful amalgamation of kalyANi and sucharitrA. Jayanti outdid herself playing this beautiful ragam. Neernalli Ganapathy painted a picture that invoked nature, sculpture and art through Ambi’s Veena.

In the meantime, Lalitha had passed away. Ambi was working as a Data scientist and got an opportunity to move to Mumbai from his beloved Madras. He couldn’t stand parting from his Veena and decided to take it with him. He arranged for a separate cargo to take it to his new Mumbai house. And so Ambi began his new life in Mumbai waiting eagerly for his Veena at 3106, 10th Main, Shanti Vihar. The rest of his luggage arrived within a couple of days but his Veena seemed to be missing without a trace. The courier company had no answer and could only keep assuring him that they were ‘trying to locate it’. Ambi was anxious, and dreaded what would have happened to his precious Veena. His heart was playing its agitated tani avartanam – Jayachandra Rao and Pramath played a very different kind of tani avartanam that would have fitted perfectly as a background music to any movie scene showing the emotions of an Ambi-like character. Meanwhile, the artist was drawing what looked like a modern guy with torn jeans, t-shirt, earrings on one ear, playing the Veena in an awkward position sitting cross-legged in an angle with a thought-bubble that showed a guitar inside it. The audience was left wondering who this person was. There seemed to have been a bit of a confusion since Neernalli Ganapathy did not know Tamil, so he wasn’t sure of the exact scene being narrated, but this also added an element of mystery to the audience.

We would discover who that young man was after that sprightly tani avartanam. John, residing at 3106, 10th Main, Shanti Vilas, received a big box one day. He was a confused electric guitarist playing in a jazz band and simply assumed that someone had sent that box as a gift. On opening the same, he found this ‘strange’ instrument, the name of which he had no clue. After googling about Indian instruments, he found out that it was the Saraswati Veena. Something drew him to the instrument, so he started trying to play it. Not in the Carnatic style, but in his chaste electric guitar style. And, once again, Jayanti’s Veena acquired its new character of an electric guitarist’s Veena. Jayanti played some completely non-Carnatic jazzy music which sounded absolutely delightful, while Neernalli Ganapathy recreated the torn-jeans-earring-adorned John once again playing the Veena, while Ambi was terribly worried about his Veena, since it was over a month since he moved to Mumbai.

Finally, Ambi received a call from the courier company informing him that the Veena had been delivered to 3106, 10th Main, Shanti Vilas instead of Shanti Vihar and they could return it to him in a couple of days. Ambi couldn’t wait that long. He immediately noted the address and drove down to the current residence of his cherished 150-year old Veena. And there he was greeted by John and his amazing music studio. He was glad that his Veena had somehow found its way to a musician’s house. John was way too curious and had gotten very attached to the Veena with his recent experiments that he wouldn’t let Ambi simply pick up the Veena and leave. He asked Ambi to tell him more about this instrument. Jayanti (as Ambi) spoke eloquently about the history of the Veena – an ancient instrument with an important place in Indian culture with all gods and goddesses playing this instrument, its form as a reincarnation of the human body itself, the positive vibrations that are generated (destroying any negative vibrations that may be present) when one plays the Veena and the peace that it brings to the listeners, the incredible amount of multitasking that a person playing the Veena has to do in terms of keeping the beat with one hand, remembering the notes and playing them with the other hand and keeping the spine straight – a great exercise for children that could help them improve their learning capabilities and concentration. The Veena has not changed form for a long time now. If one has a Veena at home, it does bring positive vibrations, but it should be regularly played and one should never keep a broken Veena at home.

After hearing this, John really wanted to hear Ambi play the Veena the way it is supposed to be played. And Ambi launched into a Ragam Tanam Pallavi in Kharaharapriya that totally blew John away. It was as if Saraswati herself was playing the instrument. By the time the Tanam was done, Neernalli Ganapathy had already created a masterpiece of Saraswati standing in a graceful reclining pose, playing the Veena. John and the audience were really left with no words.

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Thus, Ambi was reunited with his missing Veena. In a few days, his doorbell rang and he was pleasantly surprised to see John with a new Veena in his hand. John wanted to learn the Veena from Ambi. And so continues the story of music – passing from one generation to another, taking in its stride countless musicians, artists, storytellers, and the millions of hearts of enamoured and overwhelmed and blessed rasikas. As Madhyamavati poured out from the Veena before the curtains would close, I felt the bliss of having experienced a unique programme by outstanding artists (kudos also to Vidhya Anand for a truly engaging storytelling with ‘natural’ dialogues and expressions), that gratified all the senses, and I revelled in the magic of art.