Category Archives: Stage, music, art, reviews

Stage, music, art, reviews etc.

Royal Russian Ballet — Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in India

Robert Fogel, the Nobel winning economic historian, had once made a remark to a few of his colleagues, which I, an inconsequential graduate student, had overheard. It was not Economics that Fogel had discussed. Instead, he explained why he was disinclined to attend live symphony orchestra. The problem with these, he observed, was that they left no room for encores, however much one might wish to listen to a favourite tune a second time.

Fogel therefore preferred to hear his music on a record player. One could always lift the stylus, he said, and move it back to enjoy repeatedly the parts that had caught one’s fancy. Being music-wise non-professional, he was not entirely correct though in believing that live performances precluded encores. Legend has it that at the première of Beethoven’s 7th symphony in Vienna, the second movement, Allegretto, turned out to be so captivating that it was encored in response to public demand. Such encores, of course, are exceptions that prove the general point that the professor had made. The conductor of a philharmonic orchestra is unlikely to regale the audience by repeating portions of a just concluded performance.

It was pre-internet age when Fogel had expressed himself. With the arrival of Internet, sites such as YouTube have lent additional relevance to his viewpoint. Audio-visual repetition of a performance, part or whole, can occur now in cosy corners of sitting rooms.

One wonders, though, how the likes of Fogel might react if they ended up attending a live performance, but were treated to a recording alone of the musical score, with no sign whatsoever of the performing musicians. Replay of the recording may well not be ruled out under the assumed circumstances, but one does not purchase tickets to be so favoured. A live musical opera with missing artistes is a contradiction in terms and the contradiction turns into a travesty if it is a ballet one is watching that is not only unaccompanied by live orchestra, but is accompanied instead by the blinking lights of monstrous electronic equipment occupying the greater part of a front corner of the auditorium, with electricians in casual working clothes distracting the audience. Add to this large and dirty green trunks stacked on top of one another in the first wing, stage right, and a stage hand in a pair of American rose coloured trousers and a black tee shirt standing in the second in full view of a good part of the audience. Fogel had not been exposed to this horror, but Calcutta was, when the Royal Russian Ballet (RRB), advertising itself as a group devoted “to saving and promoting the best traditions of Russian classical ballet around the world” performed Tchaikovsky’s immortal composition Swan Lake in Nazrul Mancha.

Fortunately however, the classical Russian tradition has been lovingly preserved by YouTube in its archives. Among other wonders, a performance of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1989 can be easily accessed there. As one watches it, one cannot help wondering if RRB would have been allowed to present in London, Moscow or New York, what it did in Calcutta.

In all fairness though, a travelling ballet group finds it super-expensive to have orchestra hands accompany it and that may well be the reason why the live orchestra was missing. However, by Indian standards at least, the tickets were steeply priced too. Not as steep perhaps as the rupee equivalent of the dollar price in New York, but steep they were nonetheless, steep enough to spare the audience the grotesque sight of an Odette (in pristine white) or an Odile (in gorgeous black) flanked by an elegantly clad Siegfried on the left and a man in crumpled red pants and black tees on the right.

Anna Pavlova or Isadora Duncan they were not expected to be. Yet the dancers did not exactly disappoint, but the audience needed to exercise supreme self-control to ignore the technicians, the uncouth boxes, stage hands in red trousers and hairpin adjusting ballerinas in the wings. With stage wings revealing what they were supposed to cautiously conceal, the magic, the supreme illusion of Swan Lake lay shattered.

India in general and Calcutta in particular have their own classical traditions. No Bharatnatyam dancer performs without instrumentalists occupying a part of the stage. Utpal Dutt’s Tiner Talowar, had a Shakespearean stage within the stage with instrumentalists sitting on the main stage to re-enact classical Bengali drama. Calcutta’s proscenium theatre has a long history, that actors like Girish Ghosh, Sisir Bhaduri, Sambhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt, and many others, including a somewhat unappreciated Kamal Majumdar, had enriched. Even beginners here rarely violate the basic rules of stage discipline.

RRB plans to return with other items in its repertoire. Going back to Fogel, watching YouTube instead should be a more rewarding experience.

Enjoy the Bolshoy Ballet’s performance here.



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.


16 Mandeville Gardens — 4 Reviews

Four reviews of the first edition of my Bengali book 16 Mandeville Gardens.  The book itself was first published in December, 2011 and the second revised/enlarged edition was released on Monday, July 2, 2012. It was supposed to have reached the market a month or so ago, but the printer took more time than expected. Kolkata’s gruelling summer could be one reason.


Page 1 of Review published by Arombho


Page 2 of Review published by Arombho


Review published by Aajkaal


Review published by Ekdin

Review published by Shaptahik Bartoman

Sri Sambhu Mitra — Review of a Stage Production

Review of a Bengali play Sri Sambhu Mitra
Produced by Natyta Ranga
Play by Surajit Bandyopadhyay
Title Role played by Surajit Bandyopadhyay
Directed by Swapan Sengupta
Writing a review for the play Sri Sambhu Mitra is a daunting task, not merely because of the man the play is named after. The latter counted amongst the greatest of stage actors Bengal had produced, known not only for the originality of style he introduced Bengali stage to, but also for the supreme skill he imparted to the art of acting. Anyone who undertakes the task of representing Sri Mitra on stage, as was the case for the playwright as well as the principal actor in the play under review, is probably inviting upon himself a task no meaner than the one Atlas was burdened with in Greek mythology.

One cannot quite ignore the Greeks when discussing Sambhu Mitra and that not merely on account of his immortal production of Oedipus Rex (Raja Oyedipaus). Every now and then the Greek notion of Fate keeps rearing up its head in the play Sri Sambhu Mitra as well. The play is all about an uncompromising pursuit of purity and perfection sitting in a world where vulgarity rules the roost. Ultimately, it is Fate that decides how much one must succumb to pressures that lead a person astray.

One way to appreciate this fact is to quote from a handout prepared for the play. On its very first page one comes across a line – “from life towards a search of Shivai”. After watching the play and ruminating over its structure, one cannot help concluding that this quote from Sambhu Mitra’s own play Chand Baniker Pala (Merchant Chand’s Drama) probably constitutes the central pillar for the play. Sambhu Mitra never staged the play, but he read it out to audiences on more than one occasion. Mitra informs the audience in the last of the recordings that although he never took the play as far as the proscenium, he was ending up with the fond hope that if someone in the future finds it to his liking, the reading could possibly help him actually stage the play.

Chand Banik is a well-known character from Bengali folklore (Manasa Mangal). It is the story of a disciple of Shiva, who refuses steadfastly to visit the alter of Manasa. The latter punishes Chand mercilessly and finally destroys his youngest son Lakhinder. Lakhinder’s wife Behula refuses to accept widowhood, following her dead husband’s corpse all the way to Yama’s abode to seek justice. Manasa agrees to restore undo all her mischiefs on condition that Chand consent to worship her. Chand gives in. Manasa releases Chand from her curses and the story ends happily.

Sri Mitra’s version of the story is significantly different. Chand, as in the original story, remains unmoved in his devotion to Shiva even though Shiva does not come to his rescue during any of the tragedies that visit him. At the very end, when Behula returns with Lakhinder with the message that Chand accede to worshipping Manasa, he is a frail, old and broken man. He agrees, except for the defiance he shows by the use of his left hand to perform the rituals.

In the meantime, Behula informs the audience that she had to sacrifice all her womanly virtures to extract the promise from Manasa to resurrect her dead husband. She had no innocence left in her and Lakhinder too discovered the truth. They decide to commit suicide together unable to bear their humiliation. When Chand returns after appeasing Manasa, he discovers that he had compromised in vain. All his life, he remained a faithful devotee of Shiva, who merely tested the strength of his purpose. At the end of his life, when unable to reach his goal he finally climbed down to the mortal world of compromises, he found out that it was emptiness alone that awaited him there as well.

Ultimately therefore, Sambhu Mitra’s own version of the Chand story is a reflection on the absurdity of human existence. Alternatively, it could be a loaded message that one’s faith does not command a material reward. Faith itself is its own reward, however painful the surroundings may be for the faithful. It is exactly here that one detects an aura of the Greek notion of Fate in Chand Baniker Pala.

There can be little doubt that Chand Baniker Pala does act as a solid pillar on which the Natyranga play rests. This is clear enough as soon as the curtain rises following a short, pleasing overture (the score for which is written by Swatilekha Sengupta). The semi-dark stage reveals a simple but elegant set designed by Koushik Sen. There is a sailing boat in the background, a circular ring sticking to the wings on the front stage right and three objects on the front stage left. An angular structure leaning on the wings, a letter box on a stand and a round but twisted clock reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s much acclaimed painting The Persistence of Memory.
The last of these is significant, since it promises to invoke memories, memories that stand deformed probably, misunderstood perhaps, yet malleable and possibly susceptible to re-interpretation. The triangle (or the sharp angle) and the circle facing each other appear to symbolize a self-contradiction, between total surrender and dogmatic defiance. The letter box is probably not a part of the symbolic message as should be clear from observations that will follow. However, the large boat in the background draws most of our attention and has a Greek Prologue like appearance, even if silent, to prepare the audience mentally for the subject matter of the play. One must assume of course that the audience is familiar with the play Chand Baniker Pala.

As one’s eyes get adjusted to the semi-darkness, one detects several people sitting on the stage in different postures. There are three slightly elevated platforms, one in the front centre and the other two in the two front ends of the stage. The central platform, partly surrounded by the characters, conjures up a séance like atmosphere, the platform itself resembling a pyre on which a service for the departed had possibly been performed on an earlier date. A dear one is no more and the family appears to be mourning.

Once the characters begin to speak, however, a new dimension is added to the scenario. They are all picked out of plays Sambhu Mitra had produced and each one, including Ballavacharya and Beninandan (from the Chand play), seems to be in a state of dilemma. They have questions for their Director. Some of these questions relate to their own relevance today, but some relate to the Director’s personal life and beliefs too. At this point, one cannot help travelling several years back (and Dali could be relevant here too) to the days when Nandikar produced Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Like Pirandello’s play, the characters seek the Director to complete their tales.

There is a difference this time of course. The Director himself is no more. One needs to communicate with his spirit. The characters have begun to entertain doubts about the Director’s own credibility and hence the meaning he infused into their lives in the plays. As in a séance once again, they call out to him to reappear from the Kingdom of Pluto as it were and resolve their confusions. There is one more reason why Pirandello’s relevance for the present play cannot be ignored altogether, given that Sri Rudraprasad Sengupta, who was one of the chief architects of the Nandikar production, is involved with the present play as well.

Sri Sengupta’s participation is important in yet another way. It was he who was instrumental in bringing together several theatre groups and assemble them around Sambhu Mitra while he was still alive and produce two plays Mudrarakshas and Galileo. These unforgettable productions have still not faded from public memory and, now that Sambhu Mitra is no more, incidents concerning the earlier plays are related by Sri Sengupta’s voice. Besides, as was true for the Sengupta’s previous effort, the new play too has received the blessings of a number of active drama groups in the city.

Sri Sambhu Mitra responds to the calls and appears aboard the ship in the background. Symbolically, this raises him to the status of his own Chand Banik, the rebel whom Fate had forced to surrender. Repeatedly through the play, Chand Banik keeps cropping up in reply to the multifarious questions raised by the characters and the final conclusion that the resurrected Mitra comes to is that, like Chand, he knew his purpose, but not the way that led to its achievement. The purpose, needless to say, lay in artistic excellence, but the real world demanded compromises with coarse reality.

His compromises, as far as one could make out from the play, did not leave a mark on his art. But it did affect him as a man of the world. Given this approach, Natya Ranga needs to be commended for not trying to raise Mitra to the status of a Prometheus. He was a great artist, but when compelled by Fate, was as commonplace as any man on the street.

One wondered of course if the deep philosophical issues that Chand faced needed to be mixed up with Mitra’s personal matters bordering on pettiness. To the public at large, Mitra was certainly answerable for the art he practised, but was he expected to answer questions relating to his personal life? The fact that Mitra did not sign on an appeal to release Utpal Dutt from police custody comes up in this connection. His characters raise this question. More questions come up, some relating to his closeness to the Congress government of the time. And even his personal life with Smt Tripti Mitra is brought up. She is praised for bearing the financial burden of propping up Sambhu Mitra’s unflinching rejection of the commercial stage. However, the reason forwarded for his separation from her sounds almost hollow, though this is presented with true theatrical finesse. It is here that the letter box mentioned earlier plays a part.

Towards the end of Putul Khela (A Doll’s House by Ibsen), where Tripti Mitra comes up with her immortal recitation of Tagore’s ami poraner sheathe khelibo ajike, apparently Sambhu Mitra began to twirl a key ring on his right index finger during a rehearsal. It is exactly at this point of time that the postman delivers the dreaded Putul Khela letter and the letter box lights up in unison. The letter box is used as a fascinating tour de force helping the shift from the abstract to the concrete. Tripti Mitra objects to the twirling of the key, since this was not the way Sambhu Mitra played his role in the past. Sri Mitra reacts however by telling her that the essence of the situation lay in the key itself and it was he who was the Director of the play! Upon this, Tripti Mitra leaves the rehearsal in a huff!

After all the talk about Oedipus’ relentless search for truth, of the role of Fate (comparable to Greek tragedy once again) in Chand’s story, this utterly childish interaction between the real life husband wife pair being brought up in the play comes as a disappointment, especially since this incident is linked up with their eventual separation. What is worse is that the actress (probably Anindita Bandyopadhyay) who recites the Tagore poem during the enactment of the scene is either too young to have heard Tripti Mitra’s rendition, or, if she is aware of that goose flesh inducing recitation, then she failed in her job. This part stands out poorly in contrast with the rest of the play.

Refusing entry to Sri Dharani Ghosh and Samik Bandyopadhyay to watch Sri Sambhu Mitra’s performances is brought up too. Sri Rudraprasad Sengupta’s voice explains why they could not be allowed to destroy a monumental effort that was on to bring Bengali theatre together. The explanation sounds like post facto rationalization, carrying little conviction, for no such amalgamation actually took place. Besides, the audience is told that Samik Bandyopadhyay had actually not even shown up (so that he could not have been thrown out), leaving unclear the Dharani Ghosh part of the story. Was it necessary though to reveal these tabloid style scandals in the context of a man who was obviously being taken to symbolize Chand Banik or Oedipus? Things are not helped either when Sri Sambhu Mitra declares that he did not own a car! There is a clear lack of balance here, in so far as pettiness mingles with supreme refinement.

On the other hand, and as already pointed out above, these issues could have been deliberately brought in, simply to impress upon the audience that the play was not about elevating a human being, however talented, above humanity.

The quality of acting throughout the play is mediocre at best. This shows up particularly in the poor quality of voice control on the part of almost all the actors. Sri Surajit Bandyopadhyay did impress at times, but only when he was not playing Sambhu Mitra the actor par excellence. There were more than two occasions when he adopted the hoarse artificial voice Mitra employed in Oyedipaus as well as Galileo. Bandyopadhyay’s effort rang a bell, but the words he spoke remained unclear, possibly on account of the use of a hidden microphone. He failed to carry it off. His Christ like postures on the top of the ship were unconvincing too, as was the agitation he tried to communicate in a somewhat spread eagled manner on his arched back across the central platform on front stage. This is not a reflection on his acting skills. It probably means that these actions did not mix too well with the context.

The side characters too did not impress, particularly so when they stood between the spot lights and co-actors casting shadows on faces that were supposed to be lit. This is a minimal lesson that stage actors are supposed to learn, viz. ensuring the lights to fall on their faces when necessary. More importantly, pronunciation of Bengali words using compound letters needs to be improved. It is almost certain that Sri Sambhu Mitra would himself have paid more attention to the matter. There was a set of mime artistes too that failed to leave any impression at all.

As one watched the play, one could not help asking if Mitra, like Wilde, believed that “An artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.Utpal Dutt’s voice and finally the juxtaposition of their portraits on the stage with each one philosophizing about his respective position could probably have been done to contrast their approaches to the theatre. However, the final conclusion that the play reached in this connection was somewhat unclear.

At the abstract level, the play is interesting, but execution wise it leaves a lot to be desired. And this is partly on account of the questionable standard of performance by all actors except the prinicipal character. Partly, the play disappoints also because of the manner in which the divine is coupled with sundry trash , even if this was intentionally brought in. After all, Behula too had to bow down to the level of a common nautanki in the Sambhu Mitra version of the Chand story. Finally, one must give it to the Director that he keeps an element of hope alive in so far as Sri Sambhu Mitra sends off his sailors to start rowing the stalled boat again. Also, the play announces in unequivocal terms that politics and art are strange bedfellows.

With more performances, the quality of the presentation will surely improve. Sambhu Mitra’s spirit laments that while actors such as John Gielgud have been analyzed by art critics, little has been done about Sishir Bhaduri or Manoranjan Bhattacharyya. Stage acting has not grown up as an institution in the country. A few Sambhu Mitras, Utpal Dutts and Ajitesh Bandyopadhyays have definitely cropped up on their own in Bengal, but they have not been able to leave indelible footmarks for future generations to follow. In fact, the amateurish performance of most of the artistes in the play Sri Sambhu Mitra demonstrates this all too clearly.

Lady Justice’s a Pretty Nice Girl

I: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad …” 

Me: You are the world’s greatest plagiarist, do you know that? Why can’t you manufacture words of your own?

I: How can I? I am at a loss for words. I do have thoughts of course, thoughts that perturb me to no end even if they are “airy nothings”. Besides, even if I speak out, who’ll listen? 

Me: Ha, there goes the plagiarist again! For all these years you have been tiring me out with your quotations. I have no choice. I am doomed to hear your ranting for the rest of my life. So, why not lad? Go ahead. Bore me with your wisdom. What makes you so sad today? You had better speak audibly. Even if you don’t, I can’t help hearing you of course. God designed us that way. But if you’re audible, a few others might hear you too. I can at least share my grief with others. 

I: You know what? This is not the first time that you’ve advised me this way. But your advice hasn’t taken me too far. The world is so unjust. My life is full of sighs. 

Me: Look man, don’t behave like a mock turtle. Speak boldly about your concerns, just in case someone’s eavesdropping. 

I:  OK, OK. Can’t do me too much harm if I follow your advice one last time. Well, I am sad you see about this mythical character called Lady Justice. She is blindfolded and holds a sword. Can she really deliver justice in this state?

Me: What gibberish! You amaze me … You are a personification of indolence. Don’t you work at all? Anyway, go ahead. 

I: If my question brands me as indolent, then the entire world has been so from time immemorial. It appears that viewing Justice as a blindfolded woman, holding the scales of truth and fairness dates back to ancient Egypt. The Egyptians called her Goddess Ma’at, and later Isis. The word Ma’at expanded to “magistrate” a few thousand years later. 

Me:  Ha! You’ve been googling I can see! You are not that lazy a bum after all.    

I: You are right, but can’t you see how gloomy the scenario is? 

Me:  Gloomy? Why my dear fellow? 

I:  Why not? I am worried if there has ever been any justice in this world at all. The Roman Empire replaced the ancient Egyptian legal system with its own laws, but it stuck to the image of a female god. Named her Justitia and made her hold a sword as well, over and above the scales I mean. She was blindfolded of course. 

Me: Oh really!! Right … but can we carry out what’s threatening to be a somewhat tedious and long discourse over a generously topped pizza? 

I:  Look, try to concentrate please. Pizzas make you gain wait and you carry enough weight as it is. Listen to this instead. Modern courts too use a similar icon, mixing the Roman blindfolded Fortuna (Luck) with the Greek gods Tyche (Fate) and the sword-carrying Nemesis (Vengeance). Always a woman and blindfolded at that. Why should a blindfolded woman be more righteous than a blindfolded man?

Me:  I suppose people believe women are more honest than men, generally speaking you know. They are less likely to remove the blindfold and peep at things when people are not watching. 

I:  If that’s what you think then you have either forgotten or have never heard of Gandhari’s tale in the Mahabharata. Google has a lot to say about the matter. 

Me:  Of course I haven’t forgotten. I know every little detail about her total devotion to her husband. I know very well that she denied herself the use of her eyes simply because her husband was blind. Had it been today, she would definitely have donated one of her eyes to the poor husband. The entire Kurukshetra battle could have been avoided in the process. But the possibility didn’t occur to Vyasdeva. Recall that Valmiki had created a flying chariot long before the invention of airplanes. Imagination-wise, this Vyas guy was a bit of a failure if you ask me.

I:  Now wait a bit, just wait a bit. Gandhari was not all that honest even according to Vyas. Her blindfold was somewhat loose. She could actually see. 

Me: Oh really? How did this piece of intelligence arrive at your door? 

I: It knocked on your door too, only you refused to respond. Google more, that’s my advice to you. Let me remind you first that the Mahabharata does not end with the Kurukshetra battle. A great many events keep on happening even after Duryadhana departs. And there is this extensive section called Stree-Parva, where millions of widows wail as they curse the Pandavas for packing off the Kauravas lock, stock and barrel. Of course, Gandhari did not face widowhood, but she lost each one of her hundred sons. Her pain was infinite, even though she was no doting mother to Duryadhana. Each day of the Kurukshetra battle that the son asked for her blessings, all she had to offer was “yato dharma stato jayah“, or, in other words, “let dharma be the final winner”. In fact, she had never quite believed her first born to be a favourite of Lord Dharma himself. Nevertheless, the loss of all her sons caused her immeasurable pain. Even Yudhishthira, who played an important role in disposing of the sons, was mighty scared to come and ask for her forgiveness. He was aware of course that like many others who lived in that age, she could set divine retribution in motion. Nonetheless, he touched her feet even as he shook in fear that a curse or two were about to descend on him. And as I said, her eye band was not all that tight. It was loose enough to leave a chink near the bottom edge to allow her to peer through. She was definitely able to see a part of the ground she stood upon as clearly as you ogle at your neighbour’s wife. 

Me:  Really? Is this what Google’s preaching?
I: Google’s not preaching. It is quoting eminent authorities on the Mahabharata in support of the claim. Taking advantage of this not so tight blindfold, she managed to aim her gaze on the tips of Yudhishthira’s fingers as they crawled uncertainly towards her feet to grab them in search of forgiveness. She did forgive perhaps, but her anger took a while to subside and her eyes spewed fire in the meantime. Yudhisthira’s fingernails suffered from a direct hit and turned jet black for the rest of his life. He was a mighty King thereafter, but with twisted, ugly claws instead of manicured nails. Women need not be impartial, even if their eyes are tied or appear to be tied. 

Me:  Funny that the cloth that bound her eyes did not catch fire! I know you don’t want me to crack silly jokes. But I can’t help it. The fact that the fire emerging out of Gandhari’s eyes didn’t burn up the cloth reminds me of an observation that Bertrand Russell made in his Unpopular Essays. It was published in 1950. 

I:  Look, I’m not that ignorant. I have heard of Russell. But I admit that I can’t recall reading his essays, popular or unpopular. Anyway, what did he have to say about Gandhari? 

Me:  Not about Gandhari silly, but about someone who’s probably far more mighty. God himself!  He discussed what God was supposed to be able to see and what he wasn’t. It could be related to the subject we are discussing. 

I:  Don’t beat about the bush. Just report on Russell. I am all attention. 

Me:  Let me quote Russell directly for you. “I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious — for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply: ‘Oh, but you forget the good God.’  Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious.”

I:  Curious indeed. Things are getting curious-er and curious-er as Alice of Wonderland fame might have said. 

Me:  Probably. But I am thinking, you know. If Gandhari’s blindfold was a fake, then the ladylike appearance of Justice needs more explaining. Greek mythology too is replete with stories of totally unfair goddesses, starting from Juno herself. Hercules’ heroic deeds were mere by-products of the jealousy aroused in Juno’s heart by her husband’s extramarital affairs.  Perhaps Justice is a hermaphrodite, dressed up as a woman. Not that a hermaphrodite is known to be any more just than an average woman… Hmm!  But weren’t you pontificating about the Romans a little while ago? I thought you said their Goddess was named Justitia. That sounds like justice to me. Before you got me all confused with the Gandhari episode though, you indicated that the Roman Goddess Fortuna too played a role in doling out justice. Why should Fortuna have anything to do with justice?  Any opinion on the matter? 

I:  I’m glad that you brought up Fortuna. She was indeed the Roman goddess of Fortune. It made sense to blindfold her. Luck has been known to be pretty blind, at least erratic. I wonder in fact if the Romans really blindfolded the Goddess Justitia also. Justice has a clear link with Justitia and she shouldn’t be blind, should she? Could the ancient Romans have believed JUSTICE to be BLIND?

Me:  You have a point I can see. But I really don’t know the answer to your question. Never got a chance to exchange notes with Julius Caesar and his relatives. They’d crucify me if I asked such blasphemous questions. 

I:  Once again man, this is not funny. I tend to believe that the Roman Justitia was not blindfolded. It was posterity that replaced her by Fortuna and that’s where the blindfold comes from. But if you think all this is a big joke, then let’s put an end to the conversation immediately. 

Me:  OK, I will try and look as grim as possible. It’s hard, because people at my age tend to act silly. And that includes you, not me alone. Well, let me see if I have anything serious to contribute though. Umm …, yes. I understand that a statue of Lady Justice stands without a blindfold atop the Old Bailey courthouse in London. So you could be right in concluding that the Roman Justitia was not blindfolded after all. But it is also a counter-example for you. It shows that the modern world does not necessarily view justice to be blind.

I:  True? Are you absolutely sure about Old Bailey? Ah, what a relief. There is a glimmer of hope then. 

Me:  Look, I am not entirely sure, but that’s what I read in Wikipedia. You should double check if possible.
I: I went through Wikipedia too. And I saw that quite a few modern court houses depict Lady Justice as a blindfolded person. This is true for many parts of US for example. With the passage of time, humanity seems to have equated objectivity with caprice, Justitia with Fortuna! If that were to be the case, then justice is an instance of simple random sampling. 

Me:  Don’t try to impress me. I distinctly remember this “simple random sampling” thing. Learnt it in college. But I have forgotten what it means. I know what sampling is of course. Sampling good food has been a hobby through my entire life. 

I:  You are incorrigible. Always after food. Simple random sampling is just a terminology employed by statisticians. You and I came across the concept in our statistics course. It is a technical way of describing unprejudiced choice. 

Me:  Unprejudiced choice!! What rubbish! How can choice ever be unprejudiced? I always restrict my choice to non-vegetarian dishes. Let’s order that pizza now and watch a soap opera. You too need a rest.  

I:  Not only is your middle increasing with age, but your mind is shrinking. At least you are becoming somewhat insensitive. Can’t you understand that we are living in a world that has always maintained a warped view of justice? I can’t feel exercised over this concept of blind justice. 

Me:  I tend to disagree. Haven’t you heard of this TV serial called Blind Justice? It is the story of a detective who was blinded during an encounter. He doesn’t opt for desk work. He continues to run after criminals. 

I:  Come on. Let’s not turn ultra-romantic. Was Dhritarashtra an impartial person? I told you only a little while ago that even Gandhari wasn’t. The fact that you can’t see merely ensures that view-ing doesn’t distort your view-point. That’s not necessarily an advantage. A blind man could be easily run over by a speeding vehicle. I can feel sympathetic towards him, but I don’t wish to go gaga over the power of blindness.  

Me:  OK. Then how about Helen Keller? She was very real. I haven’t heard of her being described as a whimsical person. Quite to the contrary in fact, she was highly rational. 

I:  How many Helen Kellers has the world produced since the beginning of creation? 

Me: Hmm… I guess you have a point for once. 

I: That’s an understatement. I am not just making a point. I am questioning the entire concept of justice, at least as it is practised in human society. If the Roman Goddess Fortuna symbolizes justice, then what is the difference between going to a court and purchasing a lottery ticket? 

Me: How do you mean? You are turning abstruse to say the least. 

I: Not at all idiot, you are simply unwilling to call a spade a spade. If justice is none other than Lady Luck, then very few in this world will ever receive her blessings. Just compare the number of people who purchase lottery tickets with the ones who win prizes. Did you know that 3 million cases were pending in India’s high courts and 26.3 million in the lower courts? Actually, that was two years ago. The situation right now is surely worse. Most people will not live long enough to see justice delivered. Like the lottery ticket purchasers. A great number of them keep purchasing tickets all through life, only a few hit the jack pot. 

Me:  It’s worse friend, it’s worse. I had actually won a lottery once and received expensive lingerie for a prize. 

I: Yes, yes, I remember. And you weren’t even married. 

Me: Indeed. I toyed with the idea of presenting the set to a girl. But I chickened out in the end and sent it back to the women’s organization that had held the lottery. 

I: Ha, ha, ha … And what did they do? 

Me: They sent me a can of dog biscuits with a note that I deserved no more. 

I: Why? Hee, hee, hee …

Me: Well, they argued that a man who lacked the courage to present expensive lingerie to a woman who attracted him was subhuman. 

I: Hee, hee, hee … That’s funny. This was one decision at least which didn’t lack justice.  

Me: OK, I will buy you the nicest lingerie and wait and watch. I will see what you’ll do with it. 

I: How stupid you are really! At my age, I can present it to any girl I choose. She will just love it and reciprocate with a bunch of adult diapers. I will accept it with gratitude. Incidentally, did you know that the Finance Minister has imposed a customs duty on adult diapers this year? Sorry, for this distraction.

Me: Yes, maybe you are right after all. Anyway, my lottery experience has ceased to hurt. Let me tell you something else instead. As a child, I went to a P.C. Sorcar magic show. There was a number called X-Ray Eyes. Sorcar stood blindfolded on the stage reading out whatever people from the audience were writing on a blackboard. It is not impossible to read even if tightly blindfolded. 

I: Oh, come on, it’s an easy enough trick in the age of electronics. His assistant could be standing behind the wings and reading out details to him over a wireless system. He heard clearly through a hidden microphone. Ian Fleming used the idea in one of his James Bond stories.

Me:  I told you I was a child. This was long before the arrival of electronic age. 

I:  Well, in that case he had probably employed the Gandhari trick. By the way, are you suggesting that justice is a form of magic? 

Me:  I am suggesting nothing at all, just recalling events from the past. As a child once again, I was taken to a circus show where a man threw a set of sharp daggers at a girl standing against a wooden board. Not one of them hit the girl. Instead, they drew a neat outline of her attractive figure! That man was blindfolded too. Even if I were to assume that he was using Sorcar’s magic eye trick, I am sure that it needed a lot of practice for him to pierce through the board without hurting the girl. 

I:  Should Lady Justice behave then like the clown you watched in the circus? It seems you want her to throw her sword around without removing her blindfold, don’t you? What a great idea! Who will ensure that she goes through practice sessions? Also, how do you know that your guy never hit the girl? Did you ever get to see her again in your life? Going back to practice though, perhaps that’s what our judges are engaged in now. The judgements will hopefully be delivered once their practice sessions are over and they are ready for the real show. It could take an eternity for them to reach that stage. 

Me: And while we wait in the queue, shall we order the pizza? Justice could be delayed, but Pizza Hut always delivers on time. Don’t you know what Omar Khayyam had to say on the matter? 

I:  Omar Khayyam? He had a view on justice did he? 

Me:  No, no, not on justice, but on wasting time idling over problems that will remain unsolved forever. 

I:  Well, what did he say?
Me:  Some for the Glories of This World; and some
        Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
       Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
       Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum!

Full of wisdom, don’t you agree? So let me call up Pizza Hut … OK, done. And as we wait for the delivery boy, let me reveal to you a lesson I learnt through experience. Neither justice nor luck has really evaded you and me. Consider yourself fortunate that we can order a pizza anytime we wish to, when millions of children in Africa and India are dying of hunger. I do not know about dinosaurs, but ever since mankind began to evolve, justice has been reserved for the privileged few. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel was probably not far from the truth when he represented God’s son himself as a blind beggar!

I:  Is that what he did? How so? Why can’t I remember? Wasn’t I there to watch the film?

Me:  Yes you were, but you fell asleep. Buñuel was invited to Spain in 1960 to make a film and he produced Viridiana. The movie has a scene that imitates Da Vinci’s Last Supper, with a blind beggar occupying what presumably should have been Christ’s own seat. A film clip leading to the scene is available on the net. Search it out if you are interested. The authorities in Franco’s Spain banned the film as soon as they saw it. God though didn’t prevent it from being smuggled out of the country. 

I:  You mean God is not unjust then, is he?

Me:  I don’t know about justice, but it looks as though he is pretty powerless. He cannot prevent parodies about him from winning prizes in the world he created himself. Buñuel won the Palme D’Or for the film at the Cannes International Film Festival. Simultaneously of course, the Vatican’s official newspaper published an article describing Viridiana as an insult not only to the Catholic Church, but to all Christianity. I have no idea where justice lies, at the Film Festival or at the Vatican’s office.

I:  Well I guess the Hindu gods at least have never been denied vision. They are safe. They can see, even if they are powerless to prevent mischief.

Me:  Oh no dear, not at all. Go and visit the Tirupati shrine. The idol of Lord Shri Venkateshwara stands blindfolded. And I wish I knew why this is the case. Even the Americans found out about it. Or else should they have come up with a personalized postage stamp depicting him?
I:  Will a stamp anointed by a blindfolded God know where the letter needs to be delivered? Anyway, let me leave that problem alone. But did you notice that one pan of the scale the lady holds is heavier than the other?

Me: Indeed it is … now that you point it out. Wonder what that signifies?

I: I know what. It says that the arguments of expensive lawyers carry a lot of weight. Ha, ha, ha …

Me: You are the one who’s being frivolous now. Listen, it probably means that criminals are more susceptible to gravitational pull than honest people. The latter reside higher up in the atmosphere, closer to God.

I: Nothing of the sort. You are naive. It just shows that, being blindfolded, Lady Justice cannot differentiate between small weight differences. She would know only if the weight differential were significant. And while we are at it, let’s not overlook the possibility that the scale itself could either have been tampered with or imperfectly manufactured.

Me: You are far too cynical. Perhaps you are right though. But let us not blame it on Lady Justice alone. It’s mankind itself that needs to be questioned.

I: Yes, I agree. Lady Justice is no more than a symbol of universal INJUSTICE. Q.E.D. Nonetheless, we’ve been blaming women alone. Even Shakespeare was guilty of this fault.

Me: Ah! The plagiarist is back I see. Go ahead, let’s hear Shakespeare’s opinion concerning Lady Justice.

I: Not Lady Justice, I was thinking of ladies in general. He’d said: Frailty, thy name is woman!

Me: Oh no! Not again. You are about to start yet another circle. I am tired and more hungry than tired. Fortunately I am neither blind nor blindfolded and our window reveals that the pizza chap has arrived. A pizza in hand is worth more than several ladies or non-ladies in the bush. I will answer the door right away.

I: Please do so. In the meantime, let me treat you to a song, now that I don’t feel sad anymore. 

Me: OK, but make this short and once you are done singing, I command you not to open your mouth except for eating.

I:   Lady Justice’s “a pretty nice girl,
     But she doesn’t have a lot to say”
     Lady Justice’s “a pretty nice girl
     But she changes from day to day
     I want to tell her that I love her a lot
     But I gotta get a bellyful of wine”
     Lady Justice’s “a pretty nice girl
     Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh yeah
     Someday I’m going to make her mine.”

Me: Ha! I wish you could sing as well as the Beatles. But you are a plagiarist, you can never match the original. And now, here’s the pizza. Not one more sound I warn you! Write it all up if you wish to, but few will read, rest assured. People have better things to occupy themselves with than reading your endless nonsense.