Sunday, May 24, 2020

Lockdown 1.0

As most of India grappled with and navigated the first ever nationwide 21-day lockdown to battle Corona / Covid-19, some inspired souls sought to engage the minds of uneasy citizens, redirecting their thoughts and efforts to nobler causes. Some organized themselves as a taskforce to help citizens in need, especially seniors and stranded daily-wage labourers. Some others came together (virtually) to learn a new language or a new skill, as 21 days is ideal for forming a new habit. Others tried to move their offline sessions to an online and asynchronous format.

Within each group, there were several ebbs and flows of technologies, platforms and formats, each trend lasting only until the next disrupting piece of real/fake news/propaganda or dissenting voice was heard. To retain a semblance of their life BC (Before Corona), people willingly experimented and reorganized their lives, incorporating technology into all aspects of their social, academic and professional lives. Through this turmoil, WhatsApp continued to rule the roost as the platform that connected people, sent them away to other platforms for different things but they came back and stayed actively engaged within their mother group on WhatsApp.

One group of inspired souls I had the pleasure of connecting with were Bindu and Naresh, entirely by chance. A forward on a family WhatsApp group sent me off to another WhatsApp group where a bunch of socially conscious people conducted periodic sessions to sensitize the generally unaware public to the needs of deaf and visually impaired individuals. Ironically, these were eye-opening for many, including yours truly.

Amidst the expected chaos of a generic WhatsApp group, a post about recording NCERT textbooks for visually impaired students caught my eye. I signed up instantly. That I could help someone build their career just by using my voice to record a few pages, from the comfort of my home, at a time of my choosing, using things I already had, made for a strong argument for it. What a capital idea! Why wasn't it done before? I admired the people who were making this happen now.

For 1.5 weeks, I communicated with a couple of volunteers entirely on WhatsApp. They sent me a few pages as a PDF, I recorded and sent back my recorded file and waited for their feedback or the next assignment. Rinse and repeat, daily.

I thought recording would be easy, but discovered a few unexpected hurdles. The birds around my house, unable to contain their surprise and excitement at having the streets entirely to themselves, called out loudly all day long. Were these birds here earlier? Did they call out just as loudly? How noisy is the sound of a regular scooter passing by my house! I gained a new-found appreciation for the sensitivity of my phone's mic. Since there were fewer sources of noise at night, I was forced to record by night only.

As I listened to my recording, my own voice seemed strange and unfamiliar. How loud are the sounds produced by the ceiling fan and my mindless fidgeting! Also, why am I breathing so heavily? I recorded again. This time breath control was foremost on my mind, also ensured the fan was off and consciously didn't fidget. Better! Still, the constant distant hum of the UPS and the chatter of insects that came alive at night were unavoidable. Can this noise be removed, post recording? I discovered there were free Android apps that did a fantastic job. Noise Remover instantly became my new favorite app. Audacity seemed daunting with it innumerable features, though surprisingly it's free too. 

Found it hard to digest that for 3+ years @ Spotify, all day long I obsessed over recommending audio files to users, never giving a thought to how they were produced. And now, months after leaving Spotify, I was tripping on the smallest of things while learning how to record and create reasonably decent audio files from home. While my family and friends complained about staying put in one place all day, the unanticipated sudden restriction on their freedom, the lack of this and that, plotted ways to get around the lockdown rules, turned into neighbourhood vigilantes who monitored the movements of everyone on their street and adopted an extreme position of either blaming Modi incessantly or following his requests to the word, all I could think about were ways to improve the quality of my recordings. I listened to several podcasts making mental notes of things the hosts and guests did well, analyzing what differentiated the good from the mediocre. Was glad I was too preoccupied to partake of the mindless negativity flooding social media, newspapers and TV channels.

The NCERT textbooks recording project soon came to a successful end. Undoubtedly, there were many equally enthusiastic volunteers recording independently.  I was impressed with the speed of completion. What I thought would take months, was done in weeks. This spoke volumes about the dedication of the volunteers. I became eager to engage more with such determined folks. 

Next came a post requesting volunteers to help coordinate new projects. Lockdown 1.0 was ending in a few days, all of India expected an extension and awaited the official announcement by Modi. In this backdrop, I certainly had the time and energy to dedicate more of my efforts towards helping these visually impaired students. I had heard Bindu speak just once about her NGO and the motivation for doing this now over a conference call. It was a bit uncharacteristic of me to place so much trust in folks I had never seen, even in pictures. And now I was committing to doing more than send my own recordings. The NCERT recording experience had given me the confidence about the competence of the folks leading these efforts. They seemed to be solving a genuine problem, harnessing the sudden upsurge of volunteers thanks to the lockdown. I signed up as a coordinator, not knowing what would be recorded next.

The ensuing experience completely blew me away!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Bengaluru's oldest inscription stone

Went looking for namma Bengaluru's oldest inscription stone from 890 CE at the Pancha Linga Nageshwara Temple in Begur on the city outskirts, thanks to an article I recently read. This is the earliest documented evidence mentioning the existence of Bengaluru as early as the 9th century. Was great to see, touch and feel these herostones and feel connected to my city that has a timeline longer than 1100 years!

The temple is being renovated and one can see newly constructed gopuras and fresh carvings on new stone panels. However, many ancient stone panels with beautiful carvings are pathetically hidden at the back of the temple, away from most eyes.

These historic inscription stones are hidden behind some rusted junk and a garbage patch. Many devotees who come to pray at the temple are unaware of their existence. There are large boards mentioning the names of the new donors sponsoring the renovation, but none about the historical significance of this temple. So it's easy to miss the inscription stones. Feel sorry to see something so ancient lying in a state of neglect.

Interesting to how the same place can make you feel proud and disappointed at the same time!

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Swalpa adjust maadkoLi

In 2019 all the talk is about Digital India and the ongoing onslaught of the fourth industrial revolution a.k.a Industry 4.0. What is that, you ask?
It's about having systems talking to each other
 through wireless connectivity, 
  in the land of cheap smart phones,
   where data is the cheapest in the world,
    accessible to all and sundry, 
     where decision making is automated,
      based on input from sensors, 
       leading to smart cities and smart operations 
        with increased efficiency and
         jobs are Bangalored to bots this time! 
          Let your imagination run wild and 
           add your own happy (and sad) thoughts here...
Newspapers are already killing it with articles about how this will lead to massive unemployment in the near future.

Ground reality however is grounded knee-deep, unable to take off on such wild imaginative excursions. Feel free to blame the BBMP for potholes in network connectivity as well, in the midst of a bustling neighborhood in South Bangalore. Realized this when I visited ICICI Bank along with my mother. We came with a simple request - please remove my deceased father's name from a joint account where my mother was the primary account holder.

The Govt. of India claimed 80% of Indian citizens had bank accounts in Mar 2017, with 157.1 crore accounts in different banks. That year, the death rate was 0.73%. Let's assume each deceased person held an account. Then 1,15,00,000 (i.e. 1.15 crore) bank accounts needed to be updated. One moment... let's digest that number. Given this large number it's but natural if you assume this is a common for banks, with standardized procedures for handling such cases in 2019.

Ummmm ... no! Apparently, a deceased account holder isn't something this branch is used to dealing with. None less than an assistant bank manager was worthy of the task! That's even more surprising since the branch is located in Jayanagar, Bengaluru, of late a pensioner's paradise, home of many rich (maybe?) and retired (definitely!) seniors and super-seniors.

Turns out even if you have a sole or survivor type of joint account, ICICI wants you to close the joint account held with the deceased person and open a new account for yourself. Sure, en tondre illa! Just didn't think it'd take 1.5 hours and involve filling out lengthy forms, signing 15 autographs and waiting eagerly & endlessly for the staff to process it, amidst their loud, desperate cries for help to assistants who scrambled around the bank pointlessly, disappeared indefinitely, reappearing surreptiously by the time their name was called out a sixth time. The icing on the cake ... the bank asked for a cheque from another bank for KYC (Know Your Customer), after my mother had maintained a twenty year long relationship with them.

In the age of self-driving cars, when ISRO is simultaneously reconciling with Chandrayaan-2's just-miss of an autonomous soft moon-landing while planning to send humans on a Gaganyaan, ICICI is struggling to transform its staff's 90's era paper-pushing style of working since it's unable to keep it's intranet alive and accessible. Someone, somewhere must have been meditating in a Himalayan cave all this while!

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Insights from a Podcast Convention

September 30th is International Podcast Day.  @hubhopperofficial organized a podcast convention in Koramangala, Bengaluru in honor of this.

Interacted with some Bangalore based podcasters and listened to several panel discussions.

Topics touched upon included
  • podcasting is a nascent industry in India today
  • radio stations repackage their shows as podcasts to increase the shelf life of their content
  • lack of effective monetization models
  • tools commonly used by creators
  • new capabilities introduced in new tools
  • creators' aspirations, influences and issues
  • engaging with audiences using other online formats
  • driving offline conversations via meetups‌ and interactive listening sessions
  • difficulty of reaching audience, since they are spread across too many platforms
  • audiences dominantly from urban areas
  • difficulty of engaging folks in T2 cities
  • podcasts in regional languages are a miniscule minority
  • back catalog contributes up to 40% of consumption share vs new episodes
  • fake streams and downloads from bots
  • differences in approaches of content creators in different mediums like blogs, podcasts, radio, videos, Twitter, Instagram/Snapchat and other social media.

The number of female content creators on stage and seated in the audience caught my attention. If today's crowd is truly representative of the podcast space, then India is ahead of the US in terms of representation of multiple voices and diversity in podcasts.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

An Indonesian Angklung in a Carnatic classical performance

Had the good fortune of meeting Dr Anasuya Kulkarni, a doyenne of world music.

Having lived in multiple countries‌ in the South East and Africa, Dr Kulkarni has not only mastered the local instruments of those countries, but also adapted them for use in classical Carnatic concerts. She graciously organized and performed an impromptu private concert for me in her beautiful home in J.P. Nagar, Bengaluru. M'am, I'm so honoured to have met you today and will treasure this angklung performance you and your students treated me to.

Here are some video clips of tonight's impromptu angklung concert. The first is a Carnatic tillana. The second is a popular Indonesian song Halo-Halo Bandung.

The angklungs in these videos are unlike those traditionally used in Indonesia. Traditional Indonesian angklung performances feature multiple musicians and is led by a conductor, since each artist plays 1-2 notes only.

Dr Kulkarni is the first to adapt and introduce the anghlung to the Carnatic music scene. Hear her explain it in herself Kannada. Her idea was to make the instrument playable by just one person and make it easy for that artist to handle their instrument. Through her innovation, she set angklungs of different notes in a wooden frame, making it convenient for a single artist to perform a full piece using all the notes. Dr Anasuya's first public performance with the angklung was at the Durlabha Vadya Vinod International Music Festival in 1982.

In 2008, Limca Book of Records awarded Dr Anasuya for introducing the angklung to Carnatic music

The frame can hold 8 angklungs at most. For a raga that uses different notes, the artist picks the angklungs with those notes and changes the array on the wooden frame. But what if you need a note in a higher octave? Since each angklung produces notes in 2 octaves, the same anklung is used for both the ordinary and the higher note.

An angklung - produces the same note in 2 octaves
Enjoy these clips from her recent concert with a full Carnatic ensemble, supported by Vidwan Yashaswi on violin, Vidwan B.N. Ramesh on mridangam and A.V. Kashinath on kanjira, accompanied by her students Tapasya Singh (left) & Jahnavi Singh (right) : Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje and Thyagaraja's Pancharatna Kriti Endaro Mahanubhavulu

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Tree Plantation Drive using Miyawaki method

Participated in a tree planting drive recently.

We planted a lot of saplings densely in a small area. This is the Miyawaki method where a variety of native species are grown in close proximity to one another. The plants promote the growth of one another, as a result the forest grows faster. More on the method here.

We were a team of close to 200 volunteers, who had heard about this project from various groups and NGOs. Everyone came together at the Indian Railway Institute of Disaster Management to lend a hand and work towards a better climate and a greener city.

The organizers had scientifically selected the saplings and placed them out on the plots at the exact location where they had to be planted. The volunteers worked the soil and transplanted each sapling at the marked locations. Next, the plots were watered and mulched with hay for the ground to retain the moisture.

It was a beautiful day and people showed up in large numbers. Was great to see the energy of all volunteers - young, old and everyone in between, families, students, working professionals and retirees alike.

Have seen lots of videos and pictures of people talking about the Miyawaki forests. Out here I got to see first hand one that had been planted in December. Gazing at those mini forests gave us ample motivation as we planted more samplings beside them.

Hope to visit again in a few months and see the results of our combined efforts.

ರಾಜ ಭವನಕ್ಕೆ ಸುಸ್ವಾಗತ / Welcome to Raj Bhavan

My cousin and I accepted the Governor's invite for an open house and toured the Karnataka Raj Bhavan in Bengaluru today.

As we enjoyed the band playing at the glass house, we were treated to some good tea and sweetu-khara (biscuits). We walked through the garden, marvelling at bonsai trees, enjoying the light spray from fountains, appreciating the manicured lawns, the sculptures of mythical beings watching over them and the variety of flowers and plants grown in the form of different animals. The whole place was lit up with multi coloured lights that enhanced the beauty of the gardens in the evening light.

As we approached the mansion, we watched the tricolor lowered ceremonially, while all the guards stood still firmly in attention.

Inside the colonial-style building, we entered the formal dining hall where its taxidermy animal heads stared down at us from their high perches on the wall, the many British era paintings below them tried to soften the ambience, the crystalware in the solid wooden cabinets reminded you of the real purpose of the room, while the ancient sculptures transported you to a different era altogether.

Next we visited the governor's office with its two rows of red cushioned chairs with the governor's blue cushioned chair presiding over them. This hall is dotted with beautiful artifacts from several centuries. The seats in the waiting area have enamel designs on wood and plush cushions covered in bright embroideries. The walls are lined with collections of photographs of all governors of Karnataka, presidents and prime ministers of India. One end offered a delightful view of the garden, while the other end lead to the ceremonial hall where leaders are sworn in.

The ceremonial hall is an awe inspiring place too. It's walls are decorated with glorious Tanjore paintings and enormous tapestries which would look even grander with some restoration. Rows of wooden chairs emblazoned with the national emblem were neatly lined up facing the stage which was now covered by a giant screen. A short video showcasing aerial views of the campus and a quick tour of the interiors and arrangements at the Raj Bhavan was followed by a recorded speech by Governor Vajubhai Vala.

We left the hall and walked past a series of rooms meant for official guests, each named after an Indian river. We exited the mansion, walked through a small portion of the garden, past a rudraksha tree planted by Prime Minister Modi, and found ourselves back at the flower clock by the main gate after 1.25 hours. Since we couldn't click photos during the tour, I satisfied my rebellious itch by sneak-clicking a picture then and there.

Too bad the Governor didn't meet us. Oh well!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Coming home

Coming home is a strange feeling.

What’s home? Is it the home I grew up in and am now back to? Is it the home in Boston I spent over 6 years in, the majority of my past 11 years and my time in the US? Any of the 2 homes in Buffalo when I was a poor student living with roommates? The room in Framingham that I kinda snatched and made my own for the first month after my graduation? The room in Hopkinton I rented for 6 months, while trying to ease into a professional’s life, clearing my educational loan and setting up my future life in Boston? The Milford apartment of 1.5 years which was my first home that was wholly mine and mine alone? The Somerville apartment I shared with a friend for about a year, getting the first taste of city life in the US and Boston? Stockholm where I spent 2 months in 2017 and visited multiple times, so frequently that I started feeling a sense of belonging there too and upended my life in Boston?

I landed in Bangalore early last morning. Just my second day back. There are so many things that are familiar, making me happy that some things haven’t changed. There are things that have changed, causing surprises and sometimes a tinge of sadness. And then there are those things that remind me of similar things in Boston, from the life that I left behind. Haven't I come a full circle? Until now this was the life that I had left behind.

How do I pay the porter - do I have Rupees or Dollars in my wallet? Which is the driving seat and which is the passenger seat in the car? Automatic or manual? Which is the “right” side of the road to drive on - left or right? How do I turn on the light in my room - flip the switch up or down? Can I drink water from the tap or do I need filtered water? Do I add or subtract 1.5 to my current time to calculate the time in Boston? Is it day or night for my friends there? Is it hot or cold there?

And just like that I don’t need to worry about New England’s eccentric weather patterns now.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Shiva slaying Andhaka - carvings at Elephanta Caves

A post shared by Madhavi Nadig (@m_nadig) on

What a difference there is from reading about the caves, the sculptures and the destruction in a high school history text to seeing it with one's own eyes!

The combination of history and mythology is so captivating. Why do the writers of history text books present only uninteresting, dull facts and dates to students?! The beauty of the caves is scarred by sabotaging colonists, still it shines through.

The sculpture reveals the full mythical story of the battle between Shiva and Andhaka. During the battle, each drop of Andhaka's blood that falls to the ground spawns another form of Andhaka. In this depiction Shiva pierces Andhaka's heart with his trident, collecting Andhaka's blood in a bowl while Kali drinks the blood, effectively preventing the emergence of more Andhakas. The asura's fault was that he unknowingly lusted after his own mother, Parvati. After being defeated, Andhaka realizes his mistake and submits to Shiva. Shiva forgives him and makes him the head of his ganas.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Masterclass with Benjamin Zander

Recently watched the delightful Benjamin Zander conduct a masterclass and coach talented teenage musicians at the Boston Public Library.

Benjamin Zander's teaching style was a performance in itself ... explaining to the budding musicians the historical context, motivations and emotions behind the piece ... conducting them repeatedly until he was satisfied, through several seemingly flawless performances ... involving all ages of audiences ... getting the kids to focus on involving audiences instead of their own playing, artistry or poise.

The kids were great at playing their chosen instrument to start with. The coaching transformed their performances, elevating them to a completely new level. Loved every bit of it!

After watching his TED Talk way back in 2013, I immediately picked up his book The Art of Possibility which left me inspired. I don't know much about Western Classical music, but have wanted to see him in action since then.

Was pleased to meet him in person after waiting 5 years. Since the only thing I collect is books autographed by their authors, I happily bought his book and he graciously signed it for me. A new addition to my small but growing collection. Made my day!