Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Baithaks in Hong Kong: An interview with Poorna Mysoor

My friend Poorna Mysoor, née Gopalaswamy, has been living in Hong Kong for around ten years now. I’ve known Poorna since my law school (NLSIU, Bangalore) days where, in addition to being academically gifted and a good mooter, Poorna had the reputation of being a nightingale. Recently I caught up with Poorna and found that her passion for singing and Indian classical music has not suffered on account of living in Hong Kong or being a legal eagle. On the contrary, Poorna has managed to set up a 'Baithak' of Indian musicians and singers based in Hong Kong! At my request, Poorna agreed to tell Winnowed’s readers how she came to set up a 'Baithak' in Hong Kong.

Winnowed: Poorna, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on Winnowed.

Poorna: On the contrary, let me thank you for asking me to do this interview. I'm flattered and honoured to appear in your blog.

Winnowed: Tell me, since when have you been interested in music?

Poorna: My relationship with music is like that of a loved one in the family. It has always been there from the time I can remember. I can't really remember how old I was when I started my Hindustani classical vocal music lessons with my grandfather, Pt. D. S. Garud. Roughly I might have been 6 or 7 years old. As I used to spend a lot of after school hours at my grandparents place, I had the company of music even if I didn't have company of other kids of my age. My grandfather was quite a disciplinarian. I was made to sing with every student that came in from afternoon till evening. This gave a sound foundation upon which to build the higher learning later on in my life.

Winnowed: Did you ever consider taking up music as a full-time profession?

Poorna: Oh yes, I did! Music came to have such an impact on me that age 15 I was ready to take it up as my profession. But my grandfather discouraged me from this path. He was of this view that in this day and age, if art is made to bear the burden of earning a livelihood, its integrity might not survive. The best way he said was for art to be for its own sake. So he encouraged me to do something else for a livelihood and take music as a serious hobby.

Winnowed: So you took up law?

Poorna: Yes, I took up law, which was again an equally strong passion that I had. Once I qualified and entered the big bad world of practicing law, I realised that the pursuit of a serious hobby was not always easy. My profession started making an increasingly bigger demand on my time. A balance between my profession and music was eluding me.

Winnowed: What made you move to Hong Kong?

Poorna: Love! (Laughs). I met Anup, my husband, in London and we got married a year later. He got an opportunity to work in Hong Kong. We had no idea of the world to the east of India. The sense of adventure got the better of us and we moved here in 2002.

Winnowed: Did you work as a lawyer in Hong Kong?

Poorna: Yes, for almost 9 years in intellectual property law. I was with Baker & McKenzie when I realized that practice of intellectual property is not really half as challenging as research can be. So I made a career move to take up full time research. Currently, I’m a PhD student at Hong Kong University.

Winnowed: And how did this idea to have a Baithak come about?

Poorna: I got many opportunities to sing, including in the Hong Kong based Indian choir, Tharangini. But there was no platform dedicated to showcasing solo performances of Indian classical music, light or semi classical music. I knew that we had to create one. I always felt that there might be classically trained artistes in Hong Kong like me who might be looking for a platform to present their music. But I just had not met them yet. I needed the critical mass, as presenting my own music in my own platform all by myself would have been self-aggrandisement of the worst order (laughs).

Last year during Ganesh Chaturthi, I was invited by the Maharashtra Mandal in Hong Kong to perform. At the rehearsals I met just the people I was looking for - other classically trained like minded performers, who pursued Indian classical music as a serious hobby. They showed tremendous enthusiasm to get together to perform. As you might know, the core of Hindustani classical music is improvisation. We get an opportunity to personalise our renditions very early on. The more we practice the more we get ideas to improvise. The more we practice with others, the more we can exchange these ideas. And the more we perform to an audience, the more inspired our performance would be.

What I wanted for ourselves was an informal stage, a stage where the performer is in conversation with the audience at the eye level, and not in hierarchy of a stage and an audience. Apart from quenching our own thirst for performing, we also wanted to share our knowledge of music with our audience in a way they can appreciate. That gave birth to 'Baithak', a group of amateur performers of Indian classical, semi-classical and folk music in conversation with the audience.

Winnowed: That’s amazing! How often do you folks get together for a Baithak?

Poorna: We have so far had four performances, each based on a different theme. With the fourth Baithak a month ago, we completed one year of launching this platform of Baithak.

Our first performance was on 15 October 2011 at our apartment in Hong Kong. Being in the vicinity of Dasera festivities, my suggestion was to present semi-classical renditions in praise of 'Shakti', the feminine divine power. We were also testing waters with the audience by choosing semi-classical, because we knew that we could not do an hour long pure classical raga rendition in our first Baithak. We had to first get to know our audience. At the same time, we were ourselves skeptical about whether even semi-classical forms such as Bhajans would be of any interest to our audience. But we wouldn't know until we tried...

The First Baithak held on 15 October 2011

Winnowed: What was the response like?

Poorna: Our first Baithak was very well received. The beauty of the programme was that each of the compositions was no more than 6 mins, but based in a classical raga and set to a taala. Apart from giving the gist of the meaning of the lyrics, we gave the audience basics of the raga being presented, the movement of the rhythm and that of the notes with the rhythm. For our audiences it was the first time in Hong Kong that the performers had taken the time to bring them a step closer and deeper into what is being performed. We were really encouraged by the response from our audience.

Winnowed: And the second Baithak?

At my suggestion, we took Holi as a theme for the second one. The idea was to explore all forms of music that depicts the festival of colours. The members of my group very enthusiastically started working on the content. By the end of it, we realised that we had covered Holi from the age old tradition of Dhrupad style (a style of singing in temples centuries old pre-dating the Khyaal style of singing), to Khyaal, thumri and bhajan styles ending with the contemporary depiction of Holi in folk traditions and Hindi films. To add authenticity to the performance, we roped in a Punjabi dhol and a dholki player. Within a span of two hours, we were able to show the audiences the diversity of music relating to Holi. We had built such a climax by the end of it with fast paced rhythms that the audience was on their feet dancing to the rhythms. When the performers enjoy their own music, they inevitably transmit their joy to their audience.

The Second Baithak - With Holi As The Theme

Winnowed: And after that?

Poorna: After the success of Holi Baithak, we felt confident to take a more somber and more deeply classical theme. We were getting to know our audience better now... So, I suggested we do a session on morning ragas, involving Khyaal rendition. This was an exercise in showing our audience what raga system is, how ragas differ depending on different times of the day and how improvisation in Indian classical music unfolds in Khyaal style. Although the turnout was smaller than before, those who were there enjoyed and appreciated our efforts. For many it was quite educational, as the raga system had never been demystified in their mind.

The Third Baithak - Morning Ragas Unfold

Winnowed: After this was your fourth Baithak marking the first anniversary?

Poorna: Yes, that’s right, and the theme was Sufi music. When I suggested this theme, I knew that we were taking a lot of risk. For one, none of us had really presented Sufi music to an audience. In fact, we did not even have a consensus on what we all believed to be Sufi. We engaged in a healthy debate of our own perspectives. We did our own research and defined our own boundaries. I also spoke to a dear friend who hails from a Sikh family who grew up with Sufi music all around her. We arrived at a consensus that we cannot become Nusrat or Abida for this concert. Although they are doyens of Sufi music, Sufism and Sufi music are so all-embracing that anyone singing with an abandon can make Sufi music their own. The key is to lose oneself in Sufi music. The key is to lose self consciousness, the who, the where and the how of music and just sing for the love of it and for the devotion of it.

It was a fantastic journey for all of us. The solo numbers were carefully chosen to represent some of the most celebrated Sufis such as Khusru, Kabir, Bulle Shah, Nanak and some of the more contemporary Sufi kalam. But the biggest challenge of all was to learn and present qawwali. The group dynamics and synergy are very important in rendering a qawwali. With persistent practice and guidance from one of our team members (Jairam), we gained the confidence we needed in presenting qawwali. Traditionally in qawwali there is a base of repetitive and meditative mode sung by chorus and one or two designated singers improvise on important words in the lyrics. The chorus claps to the rhythm to feel a deeper involvement. In our rendition we decided that we will all sing chorus and we will all take turns in improvising. So, one starts the alaap and before she/he tapers off another singer takes over seamlessly to create diversity and harmony at the same time. This was our way of personalising the qawwali so that our style would not be compared with the "original", if there was one. We sang two traditional qawwalis - Alla hoo and Chaap tilak. Those who know will recognise Alla hoo as a characteristically Nusrath number with all male singers. To make our version of Alla hoo not even remind the audience that it was from Nusrat (and hence be disappointed with our performance) we decided to perform the core of it all by women.

While the solo songs brought out the peace in Sufi music, the qawwalis brought the meditative modes. We paced the evening in such a way that we would start with the peace of the solos and build the evening to a crescendo with our qawwalis. I have to note our experience in singing the qawwali. Part way through singing qawwali some of us felt that we were not performing, but music was just flowing through us effortlessly. Our sense of abandon was so deep that we were transfixed in meditation. Even as I remember those moments now, my eyes well up in tears. We were not ourselves. Such is the power of Sufi music. Needless to say our audience was enthralled by the performance, and some of them moved to tears too...

The Fourth Baithak - Sufi Music For The Soul
Photograph by Prachi Patade©

Winnowed: Tell me, does your audience consist mostly of Indian expats and people of Indian origin?

Poorna: Yes, but we do have an increasing number of non-Indians in the audience. I must mention here that one of our tabaljis is a Frenchman. But I invite non-Indians into the audience based on the theme of the Baithak. For example, the morning raga Baithak would have been too heavy for a completely new audience to Indian classical music. Similarly, Sufi music with so much emphasis on poetry and philosophy might have been lost on some of our non-Indian friends. But this is not to say that the Indian audience is any more educated in Indian classical music. They might have more empathy, but they equally need handholding on our journey. So I have made it a habit now to have a pamphlet that describes the content of the programme from a theoretical, aesthetic, philosophical and literary point of view. It is a daunting task, but something I find deeply educative for me as much as my audience.

Winnowed: When’s your next Baithak going to be? Have you decided on the theme?

We have been having discussions about our next Baithak to be held on 26 Jan 2013. In celebration of Republic Day we plan to feature the diversity of Indian folk music. We already have ideas we would like to explore for our future Baithaks, and have a full year’s worth of content in our head to execute in two hour capsules!

Winnowed: Are you happy with your progress?

Absolutely! It is deeply satisfying that we now have a forum to express ourselves and engage in creative exploration, at the same time filling a lacuna in Hong Kong’s cultural scene. You know you have made a difference when emails of appreciation pour in after each Baithak, many of them painstakingly describing each aspect they liked and making constructive suggestions. Looking back at the way Baithak has grown, I must emphasise that I could not have done this alone. I have the strong support of my vocalists (Shruti Pendharkar, Kaustubh Paranjape, Jairam Parameswaran, Prasad Patil and Krithika Chandrashekar), our tabaljis (Pradeep Lad and Yannick Even), our harmonium player (Sachin Olkar), our dholki and dhol players (Rupesh Patade and Viveik Segal) and our sound engineer (Ambrish Acharya). If not for their contribution in terms of time and effort, creative input and just their zeal to strive for the very best, Baithak would not have been what it is today. Also, my husband Anup Mysoor is a pillar of support for me. We have had all four Baithaks at our flat and for the Sufi Baithak we had over 100 people attending. Once I disappear among the performers to focus on the music, Anup who is left with handling the logistics of ensuring people find a place to sit, a drink to drink and such. He also quietly tolerates all the rehearsals we do on weekends. Without all of this, we would not have been able to take Baithak this far.

Winnowed: And what future plans?

Poorna: We do have very passionate discussions about the future of Baithak. It is quite clear that there is a growing number of people who wants to attend our Baithaks. We have limited space at home. But if we take Baithak out of a home setting into an auditorium then it will not remain Baithak anymore. We will lose the personal touch and informality. The sanitized impersonal environment of an auditorium is just what we have been successful in avoiding all this while. But we cannot deny a greater number of people wanting to learn about Indian music the opportunity based an arbitrary criterion of availability of space. So, we will have to balance these interests somehow. An idea is to premiere our thematic evenings at Baithak and then have a full blown concert at a larger venue. We already have requests for a rerun of our Sufi Baithak. But this will involve more commitment in terms of time and event management, like booking the venue etc. We already invested a great deal of time on the content and rehearsals. Event management is something none of us have much time for. So, we need to see how we will take this forward.

Right now, we are all extremely happy to have found each other and continuing to perform together. And as for myself, after my grandfather’s death last year, I have been learning from my mother Vedavathi Gopalaswamy on Skype. She composes most of the songs I perform for our Baithak. It is a journey so fulfilling that we wouldn't want anything to disturb that....

Winnowed: If someone based in Hong Kong is interested in attending your Baithaks and wants to contact you, what should s/he do?

We have a facebook page, “Baithak Hong Kong”. If you like it, you will get all the updates on our next programmes. As I said, we have limitation of space, and until we have resolved it and throw it open to a larger audience, the invitation to Baithak will unfortunately be limited. But do watch this space, we will find a solution, possibly by the next Baithak.

Friday, 23 November 2012

An Interview With Sanjay Bhadra

Around thirteen years ago, I met Sanjay for the first time when I joined an MNC Bank as an inhouse lawyer. An alumnus of IIM Bangalore, Sanjay was roughly my age and as different from me as chalk from cheese. Whilst I constantly suffered from verbal diarrhea, Sanjay was one of those silent ‘fundu’ chaps who people went to for counsel when they needed serious advice. Recently I found out that Sanjay had co-founded a start-up with a couple of other friends and I persuaded him to tell me a bit about his start-up and himself for Winnowed’s readers.

Winnowed: Sanjay, you’ve recently set up Spanedea. How many of people are involved in this start-up?

Sanjay: There are two of us. My co-founder is Nitin Bansal, my batchmate from IIM Bangalore, veteran of Airtel, Unitech and his prior education start up.

Winnowed: And what exactly does Spanedea offer?

Sanjay: Spanedea is an online marketplace for live and interactive teaching. On Spanedea, students and teachers meet in a virtual class, which is typically held in a 1-to-1 or very small class format. The virtual classroom is equipped with audio visual tools designed for a teaching environment. If you can teach something, anything, and want to offer your services to students, then all you need to do is register yourself on Spanedea and put up your profile along with details of the course you propose to offer. Students who wish to learn from you can contact you and take lessons from you. If you are a student and want to learn something, say you want to learn programming or a foreign language like Russian or French, serious formal lessons rather than ‘tourist learning’ mind you, or you want to prepare for the GRE or GMAT, you can locate an appropriate teacher on Spanedea and take lessons from that teacher. Teachers fix their own rates and students can optimize learning as per their own needs and resource constraints. Feedback from students is automatically reflected on the teacher’s profile page and will be visible to prospective students. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Winnowed: That sounds fantastic! How is payment made by the students? Is it made directly to the teacher or does it pass through you?

Sanjay: The students pay us, and we keep it safe until the classes are delivered by the teachers. A small revenue share is deducted from the payment finally made to the teachers.

Winnowed: Can someone in say, faraway Guwahati take French lessons from a teacher based in Pondicherry?

Sanjay: Of course. That’s the idea. Or for that matter prep for GMAT Verbal from a teacher in LA!

Winnowed: Talking of ideas, when did you get this idea?

Sanjay: Well Nitin and I have both been immersed in thoughts about how education can be changed improved or by the Internet. We have observed lots of content based ventures make attempts to serve this market - by content I mean video or interactive tests, games etc. Our plan is simple; connect people - teachers and learners, and support them with infrastructure and tools.

Winnowed: Does Spanedea have a core philosophy, an ideology, I mean, something like an USP, you know what I mean.

Sanjay: (laughs) yes we do. Is there any business which doesn’t have one these days? We believe that ‘People Teach People Best’. We don’t think a student can learn from a stale video recorded lecture which will not allow any interaction with the teacher. At Spanedea, our teachers diagnose the student’s exact learning needs and provide precision teaching. Every student has different needs and access to good quality teachers and personalized education helps the smart students to advance faster and the 'challenged' students to get the handholding they require.

Sanjay Bhadra at his Spanedea office

Winnowed: Who are your main competitors?

Sanjay: There is nobody quite like us (Sanjay laughs). From a perspective of mindshare there are a number of players operating in the same space. There are video sites such as KhanAcademy, Udemy, Coursera etc. Then you have technology education companies such as NIIT and Aptech. Finally there are a number of online classes providing exam support in subject such as GMAT, GRE, SAT etc. Names like Manhattan, Princeton Review, Kaplan etc. come to mind. We compete with all of these. Still we believe we are different, unique even. We want to be the answer, whenever the question is ‘where do I find a teacher’? Some of the these sites that provide ‘content’ could actually be used by our teachers like ‘textbooks’

Winnowed: What are your long term plans?

Sanjay: We have already launched Spanedea, and have students who have made paid enrolments into courses; right now GRE prep seems to be hot. Importantly we continue to search and evaluate passionate and high quality teachers. Application development is continual and we are still recruiting for development, UX and marketing. Spanedea has over 80 campus interns across India; they are presently studying in different colleges and our Facebook community has crossed 20,000 fans. As a long term goal, we aim to be the teaching destination of choice for the very best independent teachers and the online learning service of choice for discerning students who have a lot at stake.

Winnowed: Has Spanedea been affected by the current economic climate? Do you expect the Indian’s economy to look up anytime soon?

Sanjay: Honestly, we are too small to be affected by the economic climate. From a trend perspective, and to throw in a cliche here, in a fast changing world, learning cannot stop. You are never done learning, never safe from having to re-skill yourself. I think independent teachers or niche institutes will play a very important part in keeping all of us productive.

Winnowed: Would you say that your previous jobs and work experience have helped you in this enterprise or do you regret not having started this venture even earlier in your life?

Sanjay: Obviously experience helps. Experience is not an automatic knowledge dispenser though, one must constantly grind out learning from it! In general, whenever the idea (and the plan to realize it) occurs - I would say just do it!

Winnowed: Tell me a bit about yourself – what do you do when you are not working?

Sanjay: These days, I don’t have much free time. When I am not working. When not working, I am still thinking about working. I follow sports though scores on the Net, and late night replays on TV!

Winnowed: Now that you are your own boss, have your working hours reduced?

Sanjay: Now I serve customers, so I have many bosses. Working hours are probably up; but honestly no complaints!

Winnowed: Do you have any advice for an individual who is currently in a secure employment and is making plans to start something on his own?

Sanjay: Ask yourself if you really are secure and what security means to you – that’s all. Talk to people who have taken the plunge and are three or four steps down the road. Give yourself adequate time to get it right - expect a marathon!

Winnowed: Is there anything the government could do to help entrepreneurs like you?

Sanjay: In general, I suppose rules and regulations could be simplified. Not sure if expecting the government to help is a good idea!

Winnowed: Will you be looking for venture capital funding anytime soon?

Sanjay: Yes we are looking for capital, but we are looking at the colour of money also! Experience in building a consumer business, thought leadership in education, experience in and of the US markets - we have a wish list in evaluating the potential source of funds!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Book Review: India’s China War by Neville Maxwell

Heavy reading: I bought this book over a year ago, read the first three chapters and put the rest on hold. Around 20 October 2012, as the 50th anniversary of the India-China War was commemorated, a flurry of articles in various newspapers and magazines, including an interview of Neville Maxwell, re-kindled my interest and made me finish off the last two chapters. The fourth chapter, a detailed and precise description of the actual war, especially makes for grim reading, if you’re on India’s side, that is. Mind you, this book was first published by Jaico in 1970, eight years after the 1962 war between India and China. The current edition has been brought out by Natraj Publishers and I should add that the quality of printing leaves a lot to be desired.

Neville Maxwell: Neville Maxwell was The Times’ South Asia correspondent for eight years from 1959 and during his tenure in New Delhi, had the opportunity to see the India-China border dispute from the Indian side. Maxwell’s account admittedly suffers from a lack of access to Chinese sources, comparable to the sort of access Maxwell had to India’s dirty linen. Nevertheless, Maxwell’s India’s China War is considered to be one of the most authoritative books on this topic, especially because Maxwell is supposed to have somehow accessed the yet to be declassified Henderson Brooks report.

Entirely India’s fault: Maxwell’s thesis is very simple. India inherited its borders from the British, who by virtue of being the paramount power in the region, arbitrarily drew boundaries as it suited them. After the British left, India clung to those boundaries, though China, which had taken over Tibet by then, disputed them. Maxwell says that after India’s independence, ‘the boundaries of India ceased to be the pawns of the British in their Great Games with imperial rivals, and became cell walls of a national identity. No longer could boundaries be conceived or shifted by men whose concern was no longer territory, but strategic advantage; henceforth they enclosed the sacred soil of the motherland, and politicians could tamper with them only at their peril.

Nehru refused to negotiate with the Chinese, though he went out of his way to please them in other respects, such as in admission to UN membership. Later, India instituted a forward policy which involved aggressive border patrolling by the Indian army and the setting up of puny, indefensible pickets very close to the McMahon line. According to Maxwell, one of the pickets, the Dhola Post, on the Thag La Ridge, was actually a few miles north of the McMahon line, in other words, outside Indian territory. This happened because the McMahon line did not pass through the highest point in the Khinzemane sector, but the Indian government thought it ought to. Maxwell says that in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) China was willing to let India occupy territory south of the actual McMahon line and not the McMahon line as arbitrarily redrawn by India. When the PLA aggressively surrounded the Dhola Post, Nehru ordered the Indian army to throw the Chinese out of India’s borders. The Indian army started planning Operation Leghorn, an attack on Chinese pickets surrounding Dhola Post, even though Dhola Post was definitely north of the line drawn by Henry McMahon. Mind you, the order was publicly announced with a lot of fanfare. Talk of overconfidence and the element of surprise!

Faced with the possibility of an attack by India, China launched a pre-emptive strike on 20 October 1962, which coincided with the Cuban missile crisis. The initial Chinese attacks routed the Indian army. After that there was a lull for over 3 weeks. The second phase of attacks from 14 November 1962 onwards, completed the Chinese victory. In the Western sector, China occupied and held Aksai Chin. In NEFA, the Chinese retreated to the McMahon line, after handing back to India a huge quantity of captured stores. Nehru and other Indian leaders had repeated ad nauseum how China would find it difficult to supply its troops on the border. It turned out that China had good supply links through the relatively flat Tibetan plateau, which in winter receives less snowfall than the mountainous NEFA. It was India which struggled to supply its troops and Maxwell claims that many Indian soldiers died of cold and exposure, compounded by inadequate clothing and lack of food, during forced marches.

Empty talk: Maxwell tells us that ‘both sides were sabre rattling, but India’s scabbard was empty.’ India’s army was weak since India had been focussing on growth and development. More importantly, defence minister Krishna Menon liked to cut army chiefs to size. Nehru and Krishna Menon were confident that China would not attack and more importantly, the Chinese army would not resist India’s forward push. Here’s an interesting OutlookIndia article which supports what Maxwell says.

Call for B. M. Kaul: We are told that when Lieutenant General Umrao Singh, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Siliguri-based XXXIII Corps questioned the practicability of Operation Leghorn, putting his objections in writing, Army Chief General Thapar and Lt. Gen L.P. Sen, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Indian Army's Eastern Command, sought his removal from his command of XXXIII Corps. Lt. Gen L.P. Sen suggested that Major General Manekshaw be appointed to replace him. Krishna Menon baulked. Earlier Manekshaw had faced charges of anti-national expressions and disloyalty and had been denied promotion to Lt. General. So, a new corps, the IV Corps, was created and the Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul, the very same man who had filed a complaint against Manekshaw, was tasked with heading it. Kaul had never commanded troops in combat, but no one cared, save for the soldiers. Kaul’s performance was so bad that, at the end of the war, President Radhakrishnan responded to the rumour that Kaul had been captured by the Chinese by saying ‘it is unfortunately not true.

The View From Peking: Though Maxwell doesn’t have access to Chinese sources, he tries to understand the rationale behind China’s actions. China obviously found Indian terms (a total refusal to negotiate) totally unacceptable. There were other reasons which might have persuaded the Chinese leadership to go for the military option. A war could prompt US assistance to India, as it did, and expose to the USSR how close India was to the Americans. Maxwell does not subscribe to the western theory that China wanted to humble India and put a brake on India’s growth and development. Maxwell says that Chinese never considered India to be China’s equal. India had a very good reputation as a peaceful nation while the Chinese communists were considered to be war mongers. The longer the dispute dragged on, the more sympathy India generated. By defeating India decisively and at the same retreating to their original positions in NEFA, China made it clear that it only wanted India to come to the negotiating table and settle its international boundary.

For the official Chinese view on the border war, please watch this YouTube Video which seems to have been posted by the Chinese government or with its approval.

Riveting but sad: Maxwell writes very well. For example, while detailing the launch of the actual assault by the Chinese, he tells us that ‘at 5:00 a.m. on the 20th October 1962, the Chinese fired two Very lights; on the signal, Chinese heavy mortars and artillery, drawn up without cover on the forward slope of the Thag La ridge, opened a heavy barrage on the central Indian positions. .....The weight of the Chinese attack was thrown against the Indian positions in the centre of the river line; the Gorkhas and the Rajputs bore the brunt of the assault. Their positions had been infiltrated. The Indian units fought back fiercely against overwhelming odds, but one after the other, their positions were overrun – the Indians met the final Chinese assaults with the bayonet. By 09:00 the Gorkhas and Rajputs on the river line were finished. The Chinese had by then brought Tsangdhar under attack. By then this vital position was defended only by a weak company of Gorkhas – which had been preparing to march out to Tsangle – and the two paratroop guards. Firing over open sights, these fought on, until the crews were wiped out.

Not Front Page News: Even as late as October 1962, Indian newspapers did not always carry the border dispute on their front pages. The dispute with China competed for attention with a wide variety of news items such as Nehru having been burned in effigy in Nepal, the fall of government in Kerala and Sikh politics in Punjab.

International opinion: The US, UK and other western governments sided with India. The USSR adopted a surprisingly neutral note and seemed to be more in favour of China than India. This was mainly on account of the Cuban missile crisis - the USSR desperately needed Chinese support. Most non-aligned governments stayed non-aligned and India was disappointed. No Arab country expressed sympathy or support for India. Nkrumah of Ghana actually rebuked the UK for sending aid to India, this despite Nehru having visited Ghana very recently. Ethiopia and Cyprus were the only non-aligned countries to support India.

Formosa was willing to side with India in any hostile action towards China, but on the boundary dispute, its position was the same as that of China’s. Maxwell tells us that ‘one of the last acts of the Chinese Nationalists’ Ambassador in New Delhi was to remind the Indian Government that China did not recognise the McMahon line, and held the (1914) Simla Convention invalid.

Abandoning a sensible defence plan: In October 1959, the Eastern command under General Thorat had recommended a triple tiered defence structure in the north-east. The first line of defence would consist of posts close to the McMahon line. These would act as a mere trip wire, expected to fall back in case of a Chinese advance. Secondary strong points would be set up behind the first line to fight a delaying action. The third tier was the actual defence line, where the attacker would be halted. Bomdi La was to be one of the anchors of this defence line, which would be easily supplied from the plains. The attacker would struggle with extended lines, whilst Indian troops would fight close to their supply lines. This was a good plan, but was abandoned since the politicians were unwilling to subscribe to a course of action which would result in losing large areas without a fight.

Thus the Indian army was stretched all across the McMahon line, deployed in small groups at places where the civilian Intelligence Bureau expected the Chinese to infiltrate through.

Compounding of mistakes: It was not just the political leadership which made so many errors. The military leadership under B.M. Kaul at first failed to provide a realistic picture to the politicians. Rather, they allowed the politicians to live in a fool’s paradise. Later, after the initial shock and retreat, ‘on 23rd October, orders went out from IV Corps to the force at Tawang that they were to withdraw to Bomdi La, some sixty miles back on the road to the plains; that in the calculations of the IV Corps, was the farthest point to the north where the Indians could build up more quickly than the Chinese. All formations concerned were informed that the build-up was to be at Bomdi La.’ However, Brigadier Palit urged that the stand be made at Se La, a high pass only fifteen miles behind Tawang. From Misamari on the plains to Se La was one hundred and forty miles, a round trip of six days for trucks. The politicians liked the idea though; less the terrain yielded to China, less the defeat for India. Therefore Lt. Gen. Sen countermanded the order to pull back to Bomdi La and ordered that Se La be held. ‘The decision was crucial and disastrous.

A birthday gift for Nehru: It was meant to be a birthday gift for Nehru. On 14 November 1962, Indian troops from the 6th Kumaon battalion attacked the Chinese at Walong. They got to within fifty yards from the crest and then stopped, spent. The Chinese not only wiped off the Kumaonis, but also followed up and attacked the main Indian defence positions on the 16th at first light. By 10:00 a.m. a general withdrawal ordered. Kaul and the G.O.C M.S. Pathania left Walong in the last Otter. When Kaul got to Teju, he sent out a frantic signal asking that foreign armed forces be invited to fight China.

Finally on the evening of 17th when Pathania wanted to pull troops from Se La, he could not contact Kaul. Army Chief Thapar and Lt. Gen L.P. Sen were available, but they refused to take a decision though they were Kaul’s superiors and had been involved in making war plans till then. Precious time was lost. In any event, withdrawal was no longer a great idea and the Chinese not only killed off many of the retreating soldiers, even the 48th Brigade at Bomdi La, the only organised Indian formation left in NEFA, was finally destroyed. Maxwell says that ‘the subsequent hour or so in quiet corps headquarters at Tezpur, with the Chief of Army Staff and the G.O.C-in-C Eastern Command refusing to take responsibility for an urgent operational decision, when there was no one else to take it, was the real nadir for the Indian army, not the impending debacle among the steep ridges of NEFA.

The Indian army faced a total rout in NEFA, but not so in the Western sector where Maxwell tells us that General Daulet Singh of the Western Command rapidly built up strength to reinforce the Ladakh front. Also, Western Command, unlike the Eastern Command, showed more concern for the survival of its troops, not ordering isolated units to fight it out in useless sacrificial gestures as was done in NEFA. ‘When there was a tactical reason for ground to be held, the troops did fight it out, to the last round or the last man; but they were not, as so often in the eastern sector, left to hold tactically insignificant and indefensible positions until overrun.’ About 90% of Indian casualties were in NEFA.

Small mercies: According to Maxwell, the Chinese did not attack Chushul or any other position outside their claim areas, though the Chinese had overrun the heights around Rezing La and had started shelling Chushul when the unilateral ceasefire came into effect.

China snatches a PR defeat from the jaws of total victory: After launching its attack on 20 October 19962, China claimed that Indian troops had launched large scale attacks against Chinese posts in Namka Chu in NEFA and Chip Chap and Galwan valleys in Aksai Chin and that Chinese troops had responded in self-defence. This self-obscuration was a mistake. Everyone knew that India did not have the ability to launch such large scale attacks. If China had spoken the truth, that its attack was pre-emptive, that Indian troops were planning an attack in Thag La as part of Operation Leghorn, it may have been believed.

Foreign Aid: Once fighting started, American jet transports were landing in India at the rate of eight flights a day, each carrying about twenty tons of equipment – automatic rifles, heavy mortars and recoiless guns etc. The UK too threw in its support. The French however stayed true to their mercenary colours and wanted payment for any assistance given. Israel too helped, though when India suggested that Israel supply weapons using vessels that did not carry Israeli flags, Ben Gurion is supposed to have said, ‘no flag, no weapons.’ Israel finally sent a shipment of heavy mortars in a ship flying the Israeli flag.

Public reactions in India: India’s political classes and urban masses reacted with fervent patriotism. Several thousand ethnic Chinese were interned in camps in Rajasthan and Maxwell tells us that some of the internees were expelled to China. I don’t know how true the bit about expulsion to China is - I’ve never read that anywhere else.

After China launched its second phase of attacks in the middle of November, there was general panic in India since the press had led the public to believe that the initial drawbacks were the result of Chinese treachery and that Indian troops were poised to reverse their losses. In NEFA, the Indian government expected the Chinese to takeover Tezpur. Nehru made an urgent, open appeal to the United States for assistance with fighters and bombers. Maxwell tells us that Nehru’s request was very specific – for fifteen American airforce squadrons – non-alignment be damned. As the civil administration evacuated Tezpur, the government ordered a scorched earth policy, but luckily, the administration did not have sufficient personnel to blow up everything.

The government put behind bars communists who did not identify with the communist leadership’s support for the government. Nehru took pains to clarify that India was not fighting China and not communism. By mistake, many communists who supported the Soviet Union were also arrested. Rather than admit its mistake and order a large-scale release, the government released the detainees one by one.


Casualty figures released by the Indian defence ministry in 1965 showed that 1,383 Indian soldiers died, 1,696 went missing and 3,968 were taken prisoner. As mentioned above, about 90% of Indian casualties were in NEFA. Maxwell tells us that the Chinese army used three divisions in the NEFA fighting, which gave the Chinese a very narrow numerical superiority in NEFA. However, the Indian forces were so scattered that the Chinese had no difficulty in putting into effect Mao’s teaching: ‘in every battle concentrate an absolutely superior force.

Maxwell doesn’t talk of Chinese casualties, though he says that the Chinese suffered substantial casualties where Indians stood and fought, such as in Thembang on 17th November. Maxwell does say that not one Chinese soldier was taken prisoner. All Indian prisoners were repatriated by the Chinese within 6 months. Wikipedia says that 722 Chinese soldiers died and 1,697 were wounded.

On India’s claim to the disputed areas: The best bit about this 450 odd page tome is that the initial chapters contain a detailed discussion on the disputed territories and each party’s claim to those territories.

Ladakh and Aksai Chin

Ladakh, we are told, was historically a part of Tibet. After the tenth century, it asserted its independence, but has always been within Lhasa’s cultural pull. The famous Dogra chieftain Gulab Singh, who later acquired Kashmir from the British, invaded Ladakh in 1834 and captured it. Later, the Dogras went further, and captured Lhasa itself. The Dogra general (the legendary Zorawar Singh whom Maxwell doesn’t mention by name) made the tactical mistake of wintering in Lhasa and was marooned and killed, along with his forces. The victorious Tibetans followed up on their victory and advanced to Ladakh, but were beaten back by Gulab Singh’s armies. In 1846, the British made Gulab Singh the ruler of Kashmir and at the same time forbade him from adding to his territory without British consent. This was because the British were worried that the Chinese would assume that Gulab Singh had British approval for his adventures and would react against Britain.

In the mid 18th century, Britain invited China to participate in the demarcation of the boundary between Tibet and Ladakh, but the Chinese never played ball. When the British unilaterally demarcated the boundary, the terrain between the Pangong Lake and the Karakoram Pass, known as Aksai Chin, was left terra incognito. In 1865, an officer of the Survey of India, W. H. Johnson showed Aksai Chin to be a part of Kashmir, but his claim was treated with scepticism even by other Britons. Support for Johnson’s map came from Maj. Gen. Sir. John Ardagh, Director General of Military Intelligence in British India, whose main interest was to counter any Russian advance in India. In the early 1880s, China started to show interest in its southern frontiers and erected a boundary marker in the Karakoram pass and later dispatched an official, Li Yuan-ping to explore the southern stretches. Later Chinese officials specifically made a claim for Aksai Chin. Maxwell feels that the claim was most probably the result of Russian advice. George Macartney, a British representative in Kashgar commented that ‘probably part of Aksai Chin was in Chinese and part in British territory.

Though a few British officials favoured a forward policy which would make Aksai Chin part of British India, in 1899, Britain proposed the Macartney-McDonald line to China, which gave China almost all of Aksai Chin proper, but left with British India the Lingzi Tang salt plains, the whole of the Changchenmo valley and the Chip Chap River in the north. China did not respond to this proposal.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, Britain insisted that Aksai Chin was a part of Tibet, rather than a part of China since the former position would prevent Russia from encroaching into Aksai Chin. However, after the collapse of (Manchu) Chinese power in the second decade of the 20th century, Viceroy Hardinge recommended that Aksai Chin should be shown as British Indian territory. This recommendation was never acted on. In 1914 when Britain convened the Simla Convention in 1914, with Chinese and Tibetan delegates in attendance, maps presented by Britian showed Aksai Chin to be a part of Tibet. That China pulled out of the 1914 summit where Britain tried to divide Tibet into Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet, on the lines of Mongolia, is a different story all together. In 1940-41, the Government of Sinkiang, under Warlord Sheng Shi-tsai carried out a survey of Aksai Chin with Russian experts. Britain said and did nothing.


The Tawang tract, a wedge of territory to the east of Bhutan, connected Tibet to the Indian plains. Maxwell says that the British never considered Tawang to be anything other than Tibetan till the end of the 19th century. In 1907, the UK and Russia signed an agreement which required both to stay out of Tibet.

After the rise of Manchu China in the 19th century, China was in effective power in Tibet and British officials started to propose a forward policy which did not receive official sanction. Later, Britain held negotiations with Tibetans, without Chinese approval, based on which Henry McMahon, the British foreign Secretary for India, produced a boundary line which showed Tawang to be a part of British India. McMahon’s maps were accepted by the Tibetan plenipotentiary in exchange for British assistance in gaining independence from China. McMahon gave the Tibetans the idea that they could continue to collect taxes in Tawang. The McMahon line was not mentioned to the Chinese during the 1914 Simla convention. In 1929, when an authoritative record of the 1914 convention was published as the Aichison’s Treaties, Tawang was not shown to be a part of British India. The McMahon line remained forgotten till 1935 when a Deputy Secretary in New Delhi, Olaf Caroe, urged a forward policy and publication of the Anglo-Tibetan agreements. In 1937, a new edition of the Aichison’s Treaties was published, as if it was original 1929 edition, showing Tawang to be a part of British India. From 1937, the Survey of India also started using the McMahon line, though New Delhi rejected demands from frontier officials to permanently occupy Tawang.

The Tibetans later took the stand that since the British did not secure any degree of autonomy from China, they would not bound to recognise British claims to Tawang. British officials carried out occasional punitive expeditions to Tawang and in 1944, it was offered that the boundary should run through Se La, south of Tawang monastery. Nothing much came of that proposal, but in 1947 when India got independence, the British had set up Assam Rifles posts in various parts of Tawang and also excluded Tibetan administrators. In October 1947, Tibet formally asked India to return to Tibet a wide swathe of territory from Ladakh to Assam, including Sikkim and the Darjeeling district. India replied that Indo-tibetan relations should continue on the same basis as with the British administration.

Until 1949, the situation in NEFA was as the British had left it. India had an outpost at Walong, but other Indian positions were well back from the McMahon line. Tibetan administration in Tawang was unchallenged. However, from 1951 onwards, India started to occupy Tawang, despite Tibetan protests. Local people were not very happy. Maxwell tells us that ‘a strong Assam Rifles patrol, moving up the Subansiri River in the early 1950s, was warmly welcomed by one of the tribes, feasted and given shelter – and then massacred almost to a man. Seventy three riflemen and civilians died.

Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan

Maxwell also details how India acquired Sikkim and brought Nepal and Bhutan within its sphere of influence and the tussle with China over these territories. Since I’ve already exceeded the acceptable word limit for a book review, I shall desist from delving into those topics. Please do read this extremely interesting book yourself to find out more.

Could India have won the 1962 War?

Let’s for a moment forget who was to blame for the escalation and the war: could India have won the war if it had prepared better? India’s air force played a passive role in the fear that if Chinese targets were bombed, it could lead to a wider conflict. Maxwell does not delve into this issue, though he does point out to a number of strategic mistakes made by India leading one to assume that if such mistakes hadn’t been made, the Indian army would have fared much better, if not actually won the war. Here’s an article which argues that India could have won the border conflict in 1962.


Maxwell has argued that if India were willing to negotiate its boundary with China, it would have avoided the 1962 war. In all probability he is right. China had offered to give up its claim to NEFA in exchange for India relinquishing rights to Aksai Chin. Should India have accepted China’s offer? In my opinion, India ought to have accepted it. I am not sure if this offer is still on the table. If it is, India ought to grab it with both hands.

Fifty years ago, China’s hold on Tibet was tenuous and China could not have held on to the territories in NEFA it had captured in October and November 1962. These days, Tibet is well integrated with China, especially on account of the influx of Han people and the railway connection between Beijing and Lhasa. If there were to be another war between India and China and China were to repeat its 1962 victory, it might not want to unilaterally retreat to the McMahon line.

Amidst so much introspection into India’s mistakes and predictions about China’s future behaviour, it is easy to forget the Tibetans. As mentioned above, the Tibetans accepted the McMahon line in 1914 because they expected to receive British assistance in gaining independence from China. This promise wasn’t kept by British and its territorial heir, India. Why then should the Tibetan’s compromise on territory that has been a part of Tibet for many centuries? As mentioned above, in October 1947, Tibet had demanded from India the return of territories ranging from Ladakh to Assam to Sikkim and Darjeeling!

Let’s imagine a situation 100 years hence were, as a result of internal turmoil within China, Tibet has become a free country. It is quite possible that independent Tibet will demand Tawang and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh from India on the ground that they have been a part of Tibet historically. It is also possible that a demand may be made for Ladakh.

India has conceded that Tibet is a part of China. If one takes that argument to its logical conclusion, then China’s claim to Tawang and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh begins to carry some weight since Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, has historically been a part of Tibet. However, the average Indian Joe has been led to believe that all the territory that falls within the official map of India is sacrosanct. These days, many Indian newspapers have started carrying articles on these topics which show the true picture rather than bleat the official line. Here is an interesting article on Tawang and Tibet carried by the Times of India.

Indian leaders and media need to re-educate the Indian public on these issues before India’s leadership is in a position to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Chinese and Tibetans for resolving the border dispute.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Book Review: The Quest of the Sparrows, by Kartik Sharma and Ravi Nirmal Sharma

Son-Father duo, Kartik Sharma and Ravi Nirmal Sharma, have taken inspiration from the carefree life of the sparrow, which doesn’t worry too much and yet leads a happy and carefree life, to write a book which may be classified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘self-help’ or ‘self-awareness’ or a combination of all of these. This book could be called a novel, since it is structured in the form of a story, one that revolves around young Swami Partibhan and is narrated by two of Partibhan’s followers and by Partibhan himself. Partibhan has inherited his guru-hood from his father, Swami Parmanand. Until his father’s death, Partibhan is very far away from the path intended for him. He is hounded by loan sharks who have already chopped off one of his fingers. He is dating a nice girl Shruti, the daughter of a rich industrialist, but doesn’t have the money to marry her. Partibhan is motivated by money more than anything else as he accepts his dying father’s request to take over leadership of his ashram.

Once Partibhan takes over from his father, a man he had despised since childhood for having abandoned him and his mother, he starts his quest for practical spirituality. Leading a bunch of enthusiastic followers, Partibhan goes on a long journey by foot, carrying neither money nor food. In other words, they are sparrows. Among Partibhan’s followers are Nikhil, an NRI from the US who is divorced and has been abandoned by his daughter and his girl-friend, Sanjeev, a detective who’s keeping tabs on Swami Partibhan in the hope of exposing him as a fake, Shruti, Subhir and Vibha and many others. Nikhil and Sanjeev are two of the narrators. On the way, two brothers, Ajoy and Bijoy, join the group. The long journey leads to a number of interesting experiences and lessons for everyone, including the reformation of a dangerous dacoit, the miraculous saving of one bitten by a snake and another afflicted by cancer. Do all of those who followed Swami Partibhan on his quest learn to live a carefree, sparrow-like life? Please read this book to find out.

The analogy of the sparrow reminded me of the biblical verse (Matthew 6:26): ‘Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’ The authors make various references to Jesus and Krishna and other prophets, all of which make this book even more interesting. I will not play spoilsport and say anything more here. Please read this book to find out for yourself.

The Quest of the Sparrows does not merely advocate that human beings stop worrying and lead carefree lives like sparrows. It goes much beyond that. According to the authors, every human being has a divine in him or her. The most useful thing anyone can do is to search and find that inner divine. ‘The one who’s always subconsciously connected to the Divine, the higher self, can actuate all the qualities the Divine grants to human beings.’ Thus we see Nikhil impulsively play the guitar and play it very well, though he has been out of practice for decades. We are told that ‘if you want to play for the Divine, all the skills will return.’ On a serious issue such as whether charity is better than meditation and self-evolution, the authors tell us, through Swami Partibhan, that charity is unsustainable without meditation. All human activities become meaningless and lack divine presence without meditation. ‘Why do poverty, disease, misery and sickness exist? Because the glorious potential and talent within every human being remains untapped. Why is one man better than the other in the material world? Because he is more aware of the world! Why is still another more creative than the rest? Because he is more aware of himself and his strengths! How, then, to achieve higher awareness?’ The answer, according to the authors, lies in meditation since ‘whatever good exists in you is because of a moral system or discipline you developed. Morality comes from spirituality. If you look at any crisis you face, you’ll realise it stems from a breakdown of moral values at some point.

Even though one may not agree with everything the authors say, the questions raised are important and pertinent to modern society and the answers given are at the least, thought provoking. This book is an excellent read not only for those looking for answers to their inner needs but also for those curious about spirituality and self-awareness.

Monday, 5 November 2012

An Interview with John Daniel

I was in my final year at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore when John Daniel started his first year (1997-1998). I remember John to be very polite, but then all freshers were extra polite to the seniors. John’s politeness was however the friendly, confident sort, which made me suspect he was putting me at ease rather than the other way around. I can’t say John and I have been close friends, but we’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve always had extra admiration for people who sing (maybe because I’m tone-deaf) and my regard for John increased when he gave up working in the mainstream sector and switched to teaching music full-time. John is currently recording his debut music album.

Winnowed: When did you start singing?

John: Carols, Sunday-school, house parties where my parents and their friends sang “oldies”, and having two older very musically-inclined brothers exposed me to music from an early age. My brother, Titus, and I would insist that my parents’ friends hear at least 3 of our songs whenever they came to visit. We would then dance for them, but that story is for another time!

I remember singing my own songs as a child whenever I was really sad, mostly whenever my parents fought. Those songs were random words put to random tunes by a six year old child. Some part of that approach to my music hasn’t changed – I find it easier to write my songs when I’m a little down.

What was the first musical instrument that you learned to play?

John: The first musical instrument that I learned to play was the talaam, a percussion instrument, which I picked up while playing bhajans in Sai Baba’s school in Ooty. (While my mother is a radical Christian, my father is an Agnostic Hindu! That kind of explains why I’m a confused atheist.) I then moved on to play the tabla, dholak and harmonium during those bhajan sessions. This was around the 4th grade. Then during my vacation break, my mother bought me a 5 octave keyboard hoping to sway me towards picking up carols and hymns. The diversity of the keyboard in terms of instrument sounds and octave range really broadened my worldview of music!

Winnowed: Did you teach yourself to play the talaam, the tabla, the dholak and the harmonium or did someone else teach you?

John: Students could practice with any instrument they wanted to before those bhajan sessions in the evening and the talaam was the easiest to play because all one had to do essentially was to keep a constant metronome-like beat, although breaks and off-breaks could be done as well. Once I started playing with other student-musicians in the bhajan group I learned how to play the other instruments from them.

Winnowed: No guitars?

John: It was around the 7th grade that my eldest brother, Alan, started teaching me how to play the guitar. He shouted a lot and forced the instrument on me. In retrospect, I suppose I have to thank him for his approach because I was so mad at him that I ignored the painful callouses on my fingers. Three months into my guitar learning, Alan had to go away out of town for a few months. My mother then bought me a simple “how-to” book on learning the guitar and bought me a smaller guitar with a smaller fingerboard, which made it easier for me to fret chords. She would sit down with me after she returned from work and sing songs while teaching me simple strumming patterns. (At this point everyone in my family could play the guitar except my dad!) Her approach was radically different from Alan’s and I began taking each new song as a lesson and its completion as a milestone. By the time Alan returned, I had finished the book on learning the guitar. The result was a comical negative! Alan gave up not just on teaching me how to play but on playing the guitar himself.

Winnowed: Did you ever have music classes?

John: My mother enrolled me in the Calcutta School of Music just after my 10th grade and I was extremely fortunate to have had private one-on-one lessons with the legendary Carlton Kitto. Before meeting Carlton Kitto, I had already played in a few concerts in Shillong, even having had the amazing opportunity of being part of a band that opened for the Autumn Festival in Shillong, the same year where hugely talented musicians like Rudy Wallang had performed. And so I was as cocky as a teenager could be. But that all changed when I met Carlton Kitto. He cut me down to size in the first class and told me that almost everything I knew was rubbish. He started me out with the fundamentals of timing and technique and asked me to forget about speed. This is a lesson that I have never forgotten and it is something I teach all my students.

Winnowed: Did you join a band?

John: A bunch of us kids formed a band in Calcutta. It’s been so long ago that I’ve forgotten our band’s name, I only remember that we used to practice in our drummer, Samraat’s house in Salt Lake. I learned a lot from just being out there on the stage and in the jam room. Our biggest show was headlining the Calcutta Boys’ School fest.

Winnowed: What next?

During my pre-university in Shillong, I started collecting musical instruments by bugging relatives and family friends to buy me equipment. I had a drum set, a keyboard, two electric guitars, two acoustic guitars, a few effect pedals, a bass guitar, a microphone and three guitar amplifiers. My bedroom was a gig room and I loved it! I would invite talented musicians from around Shillong to jam at home and then try and work out what they did after they left. That way I learned to play the drums, bass and keyboard. My mother had also enrolled me for piano classes with Aunty Kungi, a fantastic piano teacher, but I was too impatient for music lessons from the start all over again and so I discontinued those classes. This is something that I regret because she would have taught me how to read staff notation better than I currently do!

Winnowed: What made you take up law?

John: I needed to get out of Shillong. NLS was my escape hatch. I had fallen into a bad rut, getting into street fights and substance abuse. NLS was one of the few ‘professional’ courses that a PU Arts student like me could shoot for. Law never ever really held any interest for me but in my youthful bravado, I decided that I would work really hard and learn to like law and excel in it. Ha.

Winnowed: When you went to NLSIU, did you expect to be able to continue to play music?

John: Just before getting into NLSIU in Bangalore, I sold all my instruments and cut my long hair. I had decided to give it all up for studies. Imagine my surprise when one of the first people I met at NLS was Pranjal Bora, a long haired bass player from Assam!

I soon bought a Serena 22 fret electric guitar with a Zoom 505 multi-effects pedal and a Stranger amp and formed a band with Pranjal and a few other people in college. I was a little frustrated with the fact that while in those jam sessions back in Shillong I was the weakest player, in the band in NLS I had to help the drummer, bassist and vocalist figure their parts out. I was also massively frustrated with academics in law school and applied for a guitar course in GIT, Musician’s Institute, California – one of the best guitar institutes in the world. They sent me the admission forms but my mother refused to consider it because of the exorbitant tuition fees and the fact that I hadn’t yet finished my degree in NLS.

Something snapped in my head and I bunked months of classes and I started smoking a lot, not much of which was tobacco. I got involved with Strawberry Fields – a music festival organised by NLS, and loved interacting with all the bands that came down to play. Towards the end of my prolonged time in NLS, our band (with a different set of much younger band-members) even had a chance to open for Strawberry Fields on Finals Day. Interestingly enough for me, I got to see a different facet of Strawberry Fields when I was made a Judge for the next two editions of the show. I absolutely loved being involved in music in any which way whatsoever.

John @ PlanetM

Winnowed: After NLSIU?

I travelled through France for a month or so immediately after college and was given an acoustic guitar by my friend Alex after I played a few songs during his wedding celebrations in La Rochelle. I carried this guitar to the UK, where I spent time visiting my uncle in Little Hampton and my friend Sameer Singh in Oxford. But most of my time was spent as a self-imposed house guest with my friend Dev Krishan in London. I played that guitar throughout the day and even wrote my first serious singer-songwriter composition – “Ain’t Yellow” – in Dev’s house.

Winnowed: How long were you in Europe altogether?

John: Almost 3 months. I missed my return flight back to India (I overslept on the day of my travel!) and so my stay in London got extended. I was on serious holiday mode.

Winnowed: After returning to India, what did you do?

John: After returning to India, I tried working under a tax lawyer and then in a corporate law firm in Bangalore, but I couldn’t handle the mind numbing boredom.

So I started a Music Rights Management company (called ‘BandTonga’) with a law schoolite friend of mine, Sachin Malhan. The aim was to collect and collate music from all over India and then copyright all this music so that it could be used for advertisements, radio & television airplay, movies & documentaries, and essentially any commercial usage of music. BandTonga was to be a clearing agent of diverse music that could be easily accessed and used without infringement fears by anybody who wanted to use music from India for any commercial purpose. To promote the idea, I met musicians from all over India. Vernacular folk artists of different states, rockers, gospel singers, DJs, the works! Unfortunately, Sachin and I could not work things out on certain issues and the company never really took off.

Winnowed: Were you upset?

Yes, it broke me.

Winnowed: What then?

To get away from it all, I began working with “Giorgios”, a hospitality sector training institute that my cousin and father were starting up in Bangalore.

I trained corporate employees and college graduates for almost 3 years. I realized that I liked teaching but that I still liked music more than anything.

When my son was born at the end of 2008, I was just too tired shuttling between diaper duty at night and office during the day. I quit Giorgios to stay at home and help my wife look after my son as we didn’t have a nanny.

In early 2009, a friend in Delhi invited me to join her event management company. I was excited about this as their company focussed on music events in a big way. I was to set up their Bangalore office. Somehow this didn’t work out either!

That was it for me. I decided that I didn’t need a backdoor entry into a full-time role in music.

John @ Freedom Jam

Winnowed: Wow! What did you do then?

I decided to start teaching guitar at home. To motivate me, my wife bought me an expensive Yamaha guitar!

I posted information about my classes on the Internet and started with 8 students. 3 and ½ years later, I have about 450 registered weekend students and I teach music during weekdays at corporates and in an international school.

You said you are working on your debut album?

John: Yes, I am currently in the middle of recording my debut album. Most of the songs in the album were written by me, but there are some really nice songs that were co-written by a friend of mine, Paul Lyngdoh.

Winnowed: You’re still based in Bangalore. Did you ever consider going to any other city?

John: I grew up in Bangalore in the 80’s and hated leaving Bangalore to study in Ooty and then Shillong. When I had a chance to come back to Bangalore in ’97 to attend law school I never felt like leaving again. I absolutely love this city!

Winnowed: What’s your motto in life?

John: I don’t really have a motto, but I’ve learned that Life has a funny way of working things out. Although, that being said, sometimes getting closer to where you want to be isn’t half as interesting as getting lost trying to find that place!

Winnowed: John, could you please play a song/ a couple of songs for Winnowed’s readers?

John: Here’s a link to ‘Rooftop Living’. This song is centred around the NLS boys’ hostel rooftop, where fellow tokers climbed up to go even higher. Rooftop Living is dedicated to all those people in college who walked up those stairs, but it especially goes out to the memory of Jai, Medhi and Alyosha.

Here’s a link to ‘Special Leave Petition’. I co-wrote this song with Paul Lyngdoh. This song was written as a result of my frustration with the legal system after my mother’s legal troubles began. Coincidentally, at the same time there was a contest being held by Rainmaker wherein they wanted any lawyer-musician in India to write a song with the words “Special Leave Petition” in the song. I leapt a Shaolin leap at the chance to take part in a contest and vent my angst at the same time and an Olympic leap when my entry was adjudged the best for original music from India!