Thursday, April 22, 2010

Guest Post: That Place My Parents Come From

Adhiraj Vable, a University of Michigan student, was one of the "Summer in South Asia" fellows of the Center for South Asian Studies in 2009. An Electrical Engineering major, he implemented a solar array to power a computer lab in a school in a village north of Bangalore. For this project he worked with community members to sustainably ensure that computer access is not limited during school hours due to electricity outages. This served as a pilot project of solar energy viability in rural southern India. I got to know Raj well in the last year and after he returned, we talked about the many aspects of his significant experiences in India. Here is a piece he wrote for this blog.
Growing up in the Upper Peninsula, I always thought of India as “that place my parents come from.” Our family was not very involved in the small Indian community in our area, and I didn’t feel any particular ties to my homeland – it was just that place that we’d go to every other summer. I would never have said I was proud to be an Indian, nor would I have said it embarrassed me; it just was one of many things I didn’t really understand, but didn’t feel any desire to explore.

Throughout my first few years in Ann Arbor, things pretty much stayed the same – I didn’t join any Indian centered student groups, and the Indians I was friends with were friends because of similar interests, not heritages. Again, my un-involvement in the Indian community was nothing fueled by resentment, it just wasn’t something that crossed my mind.

I think the tipping point in my interest in all things Indian came after my sophomore year of college, when I first read "Inward Revolution" by J. Krishnamurti. While both of my parents are spiritual people, our house is not a religious one and beyond a few visits to my friends’ churches, I never really dug into those thoughts. I first started reading Inward Revolution on the way to visit my grandparents’ house in Bangalore, and it was like wildfire in my mind. Everything I read completely gripped me, and I found many thoughts I thought were very personal being resonated in a book written over 50 years ago. Although Krishnamurti doesn’t advocate many things related to India, I very closely associate him with the country, because my grandfather is an avid reader of his works, and he is also Indian. Plus, the first time I read the book was while sitting on the steps of my grandparents’ house, so it was all tied together.

Two years later I began a project in my mother’s ancestral village that has grown into the focus of nearly all my time and effort. The project, Solar Power at Jnana Bodhini School, seeks to use solar power to drive a computer lab in the village’s school. The project was first supported by the Center for South Asian Studies here at UM, and it was through the CSAS that I was introduced to Ms. Sreyashi Dey.

When I went to the village to work on our project, one of the things I was keenly aware of was the spiritual atmosphere I was stepping into. Although I tried not to, I was definitely trying to “find myself” on my trip – in terms of cultural, family, and spirituality. I think that’s a pretty dangerous thing to do – to go looking for those types of connections – because I think genuine experiences are most authentic if they aren’t planned or expected. I knew I didn’t want to search for myself in going to India, and yet, part of me wanted to find that connection – my own inward revolution so I would understand the full depths of the things J. Krishnamurti described.

In my seven weeks there, I was surprised by how little that happened. I didn’t find myself rocked to the core or compelled to live like an ascetic. There was only one time when I was blown away by what I heard, and that was when I asked my grandfather (who meditates for eight hours everyday) about the relationship between science and god or whichever word you use to encapsulate the spiritual world. He said “Science points to god, and where science ends, god begins. But scientists will never find it with their instruments; god is too subtle.”

I chewed on that thought for a number of days following our conversation. And yet, I still didn’t find myself bowled over. I wanted to be, but when I was honest with myself, I wasn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe because I only get one chance at rapid spiritual development, or perhaps because the work we were doing at the school for the project was taking up most of my thoughts. Either way, for how much my grandfather’s sentence made me think, I was surprised at how little I found myself shook up.

However, while I didn’t gain much insight into my own spirituality, I did learn a lot about others’. Life in the village I was staying in was completely grounded in religion – the group of five guys I hung out with were extremely devout and never missed a trip to Temple; school was canceled because of religious functions; my grandmother lectured me on the prestige of our family temple, and the list goes on. The most complicated and pervasive example of religion was the caste system, a social hierarchical system that, as I understand it, says that you are born into a specific role in life. The caste system caused (and continues to cause) a lot of confusion for me, and I wrote about my impressions of it here:

It was very eye-opening to see a few of the results of having a highly religious and spiritual society. There were things I liked, and things I didn’t, but mostly things I didn’t fully understand. However, regardless of my opinion, the fact is that to do work in India is to do work in a religious environment. Developing an appreciation for that fact was important for my work in the village, and it’s interesting to note that developing an understanding of religion was beneficial to my work. It seems to me that everything is connected, and to talk about one aspect of society (i.e. religion) without thinking about the others is to miss the full picture. That’s an idea I’ve been working hard to remember, because it’s easy to slip into focusing on one thing without realizing that it is very influenced by externalities.

Right now, I’m 23 and gearing up for another trip to India this coming August. In preparing for the trip, I find myself asking the same questions as last time. How much will this trip change the way I view the world, myself, and myself in the world? Who will I be going in, and what will I be coming out? And how much will I even be able to gauge any amount of change? I don’t know what I’ll find, and chances are it won’t be what I thought. However, I know that to accomplish our work will require a deeper understanding of both my own beliefs, and of those of the villagers we are working with.

“To be yourself is very difficult, because you think that what you are is ignoble, and that if you could only change what you are into something noble it would be marvelous; but that never happens. Whereas, if you look at what you actually are and understand it, then in that very understanding there is a transformation. So freedom lies, not in trying to become something different, nor in following the authority of tradition, of your parents, of your guru, but in understanding what you are from moment to moment.” – J. Krishnamurti, from the book titled "Think on These Things"
Third grade girls reading at the Jnana Bodhini School. Photo: Raj Vable, 2009

Girls around the solar panel. Photo: Raj Vable, 2009

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Afternoon Delight

On a gorgeous warm and sunny afternoon this week, my car decided to act temperamental and refused to start, leaving me stranded on a busy street in the middle of the University of Michigan central campus. After much unsuccessful cajoling, I was forced to give up and called AAA for help. An hour of waiting, watching life go by around me and a jump start to the battery later, I was able to drive the car to my mechanic who told me that I would have to leave it with him overnight. He called a taxi to take me home.

As I got into the taxi and settled down on the backseat, I noticed that the driver, a caucasian man, had his long hair bunched up on the top of his head, not unlike the many Sikh taxi drivers in Delhi. I have childhood memories of seeing these men with their flowing hair, often relaxing on weekend mornings or afternoons on charpais at their taxi stands by the streets.  My driver also had a beard, although not as luxurious as those one would see in Delhi. Having noted this somewhat interesting coincidence and a rather unusual choice of hairstyle in a white man, I had a passing thought about whether he may be a converted Sikh. But not wanting to ask, I let the thought go.

After a few minutes, my attention was drawn to him again because by now he was playing some music on the taxi's CD player. The music was very soft but I could still hear the continuous drone of a tanpura. Now I was really curious. Deciding that asking him about his music is potentially less offensive than asking him about his religious or cultural beliefs, I asked what he was listening to. He turned up the volume and I realized that it was Hindustani classical vocal music. Before I could register my surprise or say anything, he said that he would take a dollar off my cab fare if I could guess the musician! According to him, this was not an easy challenge because only one of his passengers has ever got it right. It made me wonder if giving quizzes to his passengers is how he entertains himself while driving around town. But still, wanting to be kind he gave me a hint that this was a young age recording of the musician and his current voice isn't like what it was on the recording. As if this was supposed to help me!

But now I was psyched. I felt that my honor was somehow at stake and I just had to get it right. Fortunately the pressure didn't have to last too long because within about 30 seconds I ventured a reasonably confident guess that it was Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. I was relieved to be right, perhaps more importantly because he is a musician whose music I deeply enjoy and respect.

We were both happy at this point and it provided the impetus for further conversation. I learned that my driver is a musician and has studied Indian classical vocal music with a teacher near Ann Arbor.  I also learned that he is a Buddhist (and hence most likely not a Sikh as I had speculated). He practices Vajrayana Buddhism under a (caucasian male) lama in Ann Arbor. He has been studying Tibetan Buddhist scriptures for many years. He told me about a beautiful stupa, right in the middle of Ann Arbor.

I got home soon after. I stood at my doorstep - watching him drive away in the yellow cab and simply filled with joy at this unexpected encounter on a beautiful spring afternoon.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sounds of the Subcontinent

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, the airwaves emanating from the basement of the Student Activities Building on the University of Michigan central campus could very well be carrying the strains of afternoon ragas Patdip or Brindabani Sarang, the intricate sounds of a masterful tabla rela, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's qawali, world fusion sounds of Shakti, a catchy Rajasthani folk tune, or the foot-tapping rhythms of Bollywood music. In fact, this does indeed happen every Sunday, from 3-5pm. WCBN-88.3 FM, the University of Michigan's student-run community freeform radio station in Ann Arbor, has broadcast "Sounds of the Subcontinent" (SOS), a special South Asian music program, for the last 16 years.

WCBN started broadcasting in 1972 and by 1974, the community began to get actively involved. But it wasn't till 1994, that Sukumari Polavaram, a graduate student in French, took the initiative to start "Sounds of the Subcontinent," a South Asian specialty music program on WCBN.  Various students have hosted the show over the years but since 1995 Richard Wallace has been involved on a consistent basis. Richard was a graduate student in Urban and Regional Planning when he started his association with this show, and since 2005 he has been the sole host.

The objective of SOS is simply to expose western audiences to the music of South Asia, along with providing some background on the music that is played. The vision has always been a pan-South Asian one, playing non-sectarian music, including music of the diaspora.
Old announcements

Over the years, the music played on this show has included a wide range of eclectic genres such as Hindustani and Carnatic classical raga music, Bollywood, Qawali, fusion, etc., both vocal and non-vocal. The repertoire has included for example, jazz by Alice Coltrane and trance rock by the British Indian group, the Cornershop. On occasion, guest musicians have been invited to the studios for live music and conversation, such as tabla artist Ray Spiegel. Some community members such as my friend Lakshmi Narayanan, have also guest co-hosted the show.
A part of the music collection at WCBN. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

Broadcasting at the moment at a relatively low power of 200 watts, the FCC has approved WCBN for 3,000 watts which would extend the range considerably in the next year or so. However, even within the limited broadcast area within Ann Arbor, SOS receives a fair amount of community involvement and feedback, with listeners calling in with requests. 
Richard Wallace browsing through the vinyl record collection. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

I recently spent a Sunday afternoon at the WCBN studio, chatting with Richard Wallace. Reminiscing about the early days of the show, he had interesting stories about the unique personalities of the hosts and the vision they brought to the show. His own association with SOS has been long, and his passion and commitment to South Asian music is obvious. I asked Richard about how he chooses the music to play on any Sunday afternoon. He told me that he often goes through his own (vast) collection of music, browses through music shops regularly, looks through the music sent to the station by labels such as Peter Gabriel's Real World and other international labels such as the Italian Felmay/Duniya. He also goes through music websites and news sources, or someone may send him an email with an interesting suggestion. When I asked him to generalize about what his audiences like, Richard said, "In general, western audiences seem to prefer Indian/South Asian classical music, whereas South Asian audiences request more of the non-classical genres."

Richard recounted an interesting incident involving the well known T-series label from India. Being a non-commercial radio station, WCBN has the liberty to play music without worrying about licensing fees.  But that did not prevent T-Series to call all the way from India to demand that they be paid licensing fees or WCBN stop playing their music!
Richard hosting the SOS show. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

On special occasions, SOS is planned around specific themes or event. Themed shows have been broadcast for India's 50th anniversary of independence, the passing away of well known musicians or the Cricket World Cup. During my visit to the station, I heard Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha on SOS, to mark the death anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.  
A technicolor Ganesh on a felt cover protecting a record turntable at WCBN! 
Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

WCBN is warm, friendly, quaint and interesting. The people - students, staff and community members - quirky, diverse and fun. The music is an eclectic mixture of any type of music imaginable, from reggae and pop to punk rock and rap, in addition to the specialty shows playing music from around the world. "Sounds of the Subcontinent" is a unique representation of South Asian music in the Ann Arbor area, and I was delightfully surprised to come across Ganesh, the Hindu god of auspicious beginnings and the remover of obstacles, making sure that it continues to be so by protecting the vinyl record turntables and more!

Listen to the "Sounds of the Subcontinent" on 88.3FM every Sunday from 3-5pm.