Monthly Archives: January 2013

Tagore, Savithri Krishnan and Carnatic Music

Photo source

Savithri Krishnan

Savithri Krishnan

Savithri Krishnan (nee Govinda) was a fourteen year old girl who lived and went to school at Adyar when she was introduced to Rabindranath Tagore. She was a student of the Fourth Form and had no idea at all who this man was, when her drawing teacher came to fetch her to be presented before the poet. She was playing outside her home with her friends in the gruelling heat of June.

She was quite annoyed by this demand. She refused straightaway. Then this drawing teacher went into her house and caught hold of her mother in the kitchen and requested her to prevail upon the daughter. After much coaxing and cajoling, the little girl finally agreed to accompany the teacher.

Tagore was sitting surrounded by some of the top intellectuals from the South (as well as Bengal, including Professor P.C. Mahalanobis, the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute) when the girl arrived along with her two sisters. He was busy writing something and for a while didn’t pay any attention to the girls. Savithri’s temper rose further. Quite apart from the fact that it was a boring business, her game had been interrupted. But, as custom demanded, the poor thing waited till Tagore was finished with whatever he was writing.

He looked at the sisters and requested them to sing for him. They sat on the floor and sang a few Meera Bhajans. After a while, Tagore looked at Savithri and said, “Why don’t you sing alone? Sing a pure South Indian song for me.” She tried as best as she could. The song she sang begins with “Meenakshi …”. You can hear it in the audio attachment below.

Tagore stayed over for a few days and he told her to come to him daily and sing for him. She did this, willingly or unwillingly, I can’t say. And then Tagore came out with a preposterous idea. “Savithri, come with me to Santiniketan for your studies!” She said, “How can I? I don’t have the finance and I need my guardian’s permission. The guardian was an uncle, who had recently met with an accident. Tagore said, “I think your guardian will not object – I have a premonition.”  (“divyadrishTi” was the expression Savithri Devi used to describe Tagore’s statement.)

divyadrishTi” it was indeed and Savitri went over to Santiniketan. She knew no Bengali at the time. She felt lonely and missed her family in the beginning. But gradually she got used to the place and gathered enough courage one day to come up to Tagore with an exercise book (costing her 4 annas) and ask for his autograph. Tagore wrote for her a couplet. Here is a (terrible) translation:

If my song can ever find a shelter in your voice,
It could be my gift, or to me a gift of your choice.

The Calcutta Doordarshan interviewed Ms. Savithri Krishnan many years later. She was seventy years at the time. I collected the information above from this interview. Straight from the horse’s mouth.

Unfortunately, she spoke almost entirely in Bengali. But there were little bits of English too that she used as she recalled her first meeting with Tagore. A large part of the interview deals with the Carnatic tunes Tagore picked up from Savithri Devi to compose some of his most well-known songs. Even at the age of seventy, I think she did a great job in rendering the Tamizh and the Bengali versions.

There were two songs that she sang and I have included them in the audio clip. The Bengali counterparts are “basanti hey bhuvanomohini” and “bedona ki bhashaey re“. I have cropped out the Bengali conversation from the interview and retained only the English words she used and the songs she sang (both in Tamizh and Bengali).

I have also added another famous Tagore song “baaje karuno shurey“. This was sung by Smt. Kanika Bandyopadhyay during Tagore’s Birth Centenary Celebrations in 1961. She is no more. The original Tamizh version “needu charanamule” in the recording below was sung by Swagatalakshmi Dasagupta (1999). According to the Sangeeta Sudha, the song was composed by Thyagaraja. Its tune is set to Raga Simhendra Madhyam.

This post would be incomplete if I didn’t add my latest translation of the song “baaje karuno shurey“. But first, so as to help you follow the song in Bengali, I am writing down the Bengali words.

“baaje koruno shurey (haay doore)
tabo charantala-chumbito ponthobina.
mamo paanthochito choncholo
jaani na ki uddeshe.

junthigondho oshanto shomire
dhaay utola uchhashey,
temoni chitto udashi rey
nidaruno bichchhedero nisithe.”

And here is the translation, or at least the first draft.

“Far away, a plaintive tune
Plays the veena of the path kissed by your feet.
This mind mine feels restlessly wayward
What it seeks I do not know alas.

Pursuing in this untamed breeze
Jasmine flavours lost in turbulence
Likewise the hear’s melancholy
So agonizing on this night of separation.”

Immediately below is the link to the songs, which I hope you will be able to download. (If you cannot but are interested in listening, please send me your email addresses and I shall mail the link to you from my dropbox account.) The first song is Swagatalakshmi’s version of “needu charanamule“. This is followed by Kanika’s unforgettable rendition of the song I translated above. Finally, you can hear Savithri Krishnan,  at the age of seventy, singing the original songs “basanti hey bhuvanomohini” and “bedona ki bhashaey re” were based on as well as their Bengali versions!

Link to the Songs


I need to add a postscript to this composition on account of a comment I received elsewhere. The comment provides more information about Savithri Krishnan.  I am reproducing the comment.


Is it a new piece? I liked it. I once had the privilege of witnessing Savithri Krishnan’s performance at Tagore Research Institute in Calcutta, with which my father was connected. She was then in her seventies, a vibrantpersonality, quite boisterous with something of a tomboy in her. She was recalling her Santiniketan experiences in a mix of English and very idiomatic Bengali. With the latter she was out of touch, as a result of her long sojourn in Canada, but she spoke it eagerly, thoroughly enjoying herself as she did. She was a wonderful raconteur, and broke into songs every now and then. Being an asthamtic, she panted her way through talk and music, loudly spraying inhaler as she went on, and assuring the audience with, “Never mind, I shall sing” (in English). As her voice soared, the effect was overwhelming. Her being asthamtic reminded me of another singer, who was then dead, and the power of the voice strengthened the impression.

I think you should write such pieces on some other maestros of the genre as well, in your excellent English. Not the elite singers of exclusive minorities, but singers who turned Rabindrasangeet into an expression of warm-blooded homo sapiens.


Industrialization in a Land Hungry State – A Lesson from Robert Solow

Originally published in The Telegraph, Calcutta on January 1, 2013 under the title Exploring the Possible


If surviving the test of time is proof of quality, then MIT Nobel Laureate Robert M. Solow’s model of economic growth has surely distinguished itself with flying colours. The work was published as far back in time as 1956 and survives in the academic world till this day, despite the ruthless attack it had to face from Professor Joan Robinson of Cambridge, UK and her associates. Rightly or wrongly, the latter questioned the logical underpinnings of Solow’s work and the debate was intense enough to metamorphose childhood friends into bitter enemies belonging to opposite camps in their adulthood. The controversies ultimately waned out though, possibly on account of a workable alternative model of economic growth that the critics failed to provide.

The Solovian prescription for growth and the plans for West Bengal’s industrialization, one might suspect, are strange bedfellows. However, this, curiously enough, may not be the case. For sustained growth, Solow visualizes all means of production to be growing at the same rate in the long run.  The situation resembles the cloning of production organizations, two of which, identical in all respects, particularly in the use of resources, would produce double the output produced by one, three producing three times and so on. Amongst the resources, population, which acts as a proxy for the labour force, is controlled by demographic rather than economic activities. Thus, all other inputs, most importantly capital, need to adjust and grow at the same rate as labour and this in turn leads output too to grow at the same rate.

Interestingly enough, Solow was not overly worried about the land problem. His cloning exercise involves replication of production organizations that are identical in their use of capital and labour. But common sense suggests that two factories that use identical quantities of capital and labour, can be constructed only on similar plots of land. On the other hand, while both capital and labour can expand endlessly, at least for argument’s sake, the total quantum of land available on the planet  is physically limited. Thus, Solow’s cloning comes up against a major barrier, viz. the scarcity of land, unless of course one imagines production units to grow vertically upwards in search of the moon rather than spread horizontally.

Land of course does not concern Slow. But if it did, how should he have proceeded? The answer could probably be found in the special manner in which labour is treated in his work. A worker is both an embodiment of nature endowed muscle power as well as socially available technological skills. The stock of muscle power grows with the population. This is the demography story. Technological skills multiply too over time, but Solow was vague at best as far as the technology tale went. What he was clear about though was that his labour resource was separable into two parts, ability to work and the skill associated with that ability. The cloning in Solow’s model involves replication of capital and the joint person cum skill input. Capital and the joint input, and hence output, grow at the same rate in the long run, but the joint input itself grows at a higher rate than the rate of growth of population in isolation, since its growth rate is the sum of the growth rates of population and technology. Consequently, even as output grows at the same rate as the joint population cum skill input, it grows faster than population. This means that output finally grows faster than population so that per capita output rises in the long run, which is the objective of economic growth and development in most societies.

It is not output alone that rises faster than population. So does capital, since the latter too grows at the same rate as the population cum skill input. Suppose, however, that labour lacked the skill attribute altogether. Then growth in capital at a rate faster than population would have given rise to the same absurdity as factories multiplying over non-augmentable land.

Economics text-books assert that the extra output one can squeeze out of  fixed size inputs diminishes with each extra squeeze with the help of inputs capable of growth. Therefore, in the absence of skill formation, as we are temporarily assuming, if capital were to rise at a higher rate than the growth in population, then the resulting output would be growing at ever slower rates. The only steady growth the system will be able to handle would involve capital, unskilled labour  as well as output growing at the same rate. To the extent then that a rise in output per head of population is a desired goal of development, the Solow model has a pretty dreary prediction to make if skills fail to grow.

Speaking more broadly, skill improvement signifies technical progress and the Solow message is that per capita output growth is not sustainable in the absence of a simultaneous growth in technology. Solow restricted his exercise to capital and labour resources alone. However, there is no reason why we should not interpret his work to include non-augmentable land too. Just as skilled labour qualifies for a larger number of workers than a mere a headcount, so should land services not be judged by the geographical size of land alone. Like labour, effective land size could be larger than its physical size in the presence of land augmenting technical progress.

Given this Solow insight, it is not enough for the authorities in charge of this land scarce state to simply send blank invitations to industrialists to invest in employment generating projects. Instead of adopting a rigid stand on land policy, attracting thereby criticisms from its political opponents and raising doubts in the minds of potential investors, the government might be able to do far better by laying down an acceptable road map for the sort of industries the Bengal economy should be able to cope with. As matters stand now, such industries ought to be equipped with technologies that are simultaneously labour intensive and frugal in the use of land.

A number of service sectors might easily qualify, though it is doubtful that the IT sector belongs to this category. The IT sector is mostly skilled labour intensive and, as elsewhere in the Indian economy, its growth, however phenomenal, holds little promise for unskilled or semi-skilled employment generation in a large scale. Heavy manufacture too cannot qualify as was evident during the 600 acres controversy in Singur’s Nano factory.

It makes little sense therefore to throw open the land markets to all and sundry. Land being scarce, its market price will be prohibitively high for new ventures to be initiated. A far better idea could be to set up an expert group to identify those industries alone that are endowed with technology that is either capable of converting small land holdings into effectively large ones or require small land holdings relative to output. These are the industries that the government should be luring into the state by offering whatever incentives it is in a position to offer.

Despite the clamour raised by the Chambers of Commerce, it is unlikely that large scale industries will fulfill the criterion. Agro-industries backed up by multiple cropping could well be a solution. The hotel industry in remote tourist spots could work as well. Both are semi-skilled labour intensive and hotels can actually expand vertically. The list, even if short, needs to be carefully prepared instead of wearing the mask of an unqualified industry friendly face. Even if a large industry or two were to move into the land hungry state, it cannot open the floodgates for heavy industrialization. Instead of criticizing and lamenting over the impossible therefore, our time will be far better spent in discovering the possible.



Expressing Righteous Indignation — Morons and Mournings

As I write this piece, I can hear the raucous strains of a TV talk show on the same subject that my wife is watching in the bedroom. For the last few days, I too have been exposed to a number of these shows and bothered by a million questions. Much that I dislike writing on the subject though, I simply can’t resist going public anymore over my reactions.

Each one of the guests present for the TV shows that I have watched expressed grief, horror and shame in connection with the Nirbhaya incident. To summarize their opinions, they were all reduced to speechlessness by the heinous crime. Yet, speech was the last thing they seemed to dispense with. They roared and screamed, till the anchor stopped them at regular intervals with the inevitable announcement that the discussion on this deep rooted social evil would resume soon after a commercial break.

And then a long series of advertisements would follow, some involving scantily clad, shapely girls singing paeans to something as unrelated as fruit cakes perhaps, some showing a muscular man in his briefs chased into a ladies’ room by young girls competing with one another to cover him up with lipstick marks, or some, the least revolting ones, revealing bald headed moustache wearing men, frying jilebis in outsized cauldrons, but ending up, mysteriously enough, advertising a detergent powder in the end. And so on and so forth. Without exception, and this is the most important point to note, every single advertisement involves people, men as well as women, grinning or giggling with a gay abandon.

The spate of advertisements over, the grim faced social commentators reappear to growl and howl over the state of their speechlessness in response to the barbarism that is tearing apart our very social fabric. The speechless people continue to speechify endlessly, some moving on from one channel to another and then to yet another to spread the news about their loss of speech over powerful audio equipment. And wherever they go, the inevitable commercial breaks keep interrupting their speech-ful speechlessness, entertaining viewers with brightly smiling people displaying their super white teeth brushed by the latest toothpaste revolution.

This is a vicious circle it might seem. To ensure that people, moved to distraction by the horrors of the world, may express righteous indignation by gnashing their teeth, the eyes of the audience call for intermittent massaging so to speak, by half-dressed, teeth flashing nautch girls, chaperoning people to catch the fastest train to El Dorado. But this is not the end of the story. Having participated in these shows on several occasions, I have seen the panelists disappearing outside the studio for a smoke till the advertisement break is over. Since I do not smoke, I have often been a part of programmes in which even the anchor left, leaving me to watch brainless machos riding roaring motorcycles in the inevitable company of the you know whos.

I cannot help asking myself how we should express our revulsion concerning the Nirbhaya event or other events of a similar nature, including ones that discuss the dire poverty in which more than half the country lives. When I am faced with such dilemma, I end up quite inevitably remembering the Father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. What would he have recommended as a form of penance during times such as these? I suspect that he would have advised the people driven to speechlessness and shame to practise reticence. He might have even requested the channels to stop broadcasting inane serial shows at least once a week as a sign of mourning.

Perhaps he would. Yet there is a paradox here. The media cannot run without advertisements. And if it fails to run then thousands of boys and girls would lose employment. In the absence of employment, criminal propensities will almost surely rear their heads with renewed vengeance and that brings us back to square one. And of course, the electronic media needs to be congratulated for its good work, keeping the public informed about the atrocious events plaguing our society. Here then is the rub. The media cannot carry on with its good work unless business houses advertise in its channels. And how can you watch an advertisement unless a pretty girl regales you with moronic grins as you sink in mournful gloom?

In fact, Mr. Gandhi had never recommended an industrial revolution for India. He wished us to turn ourselves into simple village folks, devoted to the spinning wheel or cows to till the land. Large scale industrialization leads to large scale income inequality he believed, quite rightly, as posterity has shown. Such inequality in turn deprives people of basic education, the pillar on which civilization is supposed to rest. But he too had to depend on funding by an industrial leader to build his austerity ashram in Gujarat.

I am not sure where we are headed, but I think I know that civilization hasn’t progressed too far in this country since the day we won our precious independence.

To make this point, let me quote from Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre:

“The warring communities seemed to rival each other in savagery. A British officer of the Punjab Boundary Force discovered four Moslem babies ‘roasted like piglets on spits in a village raided by Sikhs’. Another found a group of Hindu women, their breasts methodically mutilated by Moslem zealots, being headed for slaughter.”

True, the root cause of the ferocity above was the partition. But it is not the cause that concerns me now. What stupefies me is the extent of mindless cruelty humanity is capable of. And cruelty has two faces. The face that we saw in the Delhi bus and the faces that we watch in the hypocrisy ridden advanced technology age, those teeth gnashers in the idiot box.

If we really mean business, it is time to replace the advertisement breaks by breaks for introspection. I think Mr. Gandhi had called upon us to do just this, but his pleading had fallen on deaf ears.