Baz Bahadur’s Palace

If Sultan Nasiruddin Shah of Mandu were alive today, he may not have been very pleased with the name by which the palace he built in 914 AH (1508 CE) is known. It is called Baz Bahadur’s palace, after the last sultan of Malwa, who ruled from 1555 till his defeat by the Mughal emperor Akbar seven years later. The central feature of the palace is the cistern you see in use in the featured photo. It was full of rain water when I photographed it in the monsoon many years ago. But in the past water was raised using a water wheel from the nearby Rewa Kund.

According to a story in Romila Thapar’s book called “Indian Tales”, the Rewa Kund (photo above) is linked to the story of Baz Bahadur and Roopmati. In the story, Roopmati refused to go to Mandu with Baz Bahadur until he could bring the river Rewa (another name for the Narmada) up to the citadel, thinking this was impossible. But Baz Bahadur found a spring in the hill from which water flowed down to the Rewa, or so he claimed. Roopmati’s remaining condition was that she would come to the citadel if she could see the Rewa and her lover from her palace. Roopmati’s pavilion, the Rewa Kund, and Baz Bahadur’s palace are within sight of each other.

A formidable set of stairs led to the central courtyard where the boys were swimming in the tank full of rain water. We climbed this, looked at the inscription above the door naming Nasiruddin Shah and the date of construction of the palace. Unfortunately neither of us can read the Persian script, so we have to depend on translations. The courtyard was full of tourists on the day we were here.

The upper terrace was less crowded and we saw a collonnade which had a wonderful view of Roopmati’s pavilion. On the other side of the terrace were rooms where part of the roof had collapsed. The whole citadel is now under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, which has a reputation of keeping structures sound. The terrace is now completely safe. We sat here and contemplated the enigma of Baz Bahadur, whose story we know only through Mughals accounts. Abul Fazal runs down a defeated enemy in Ain-I-Akbari with the words “Baz Bahadur did not concern himself with public affairs. Music and melody were regarded by this scoundrel as a serious business, and he spent upon them all his precious hours. In the arrogance of infatuation he wrought works of inauspiciousness.” If we saw these works, we did not recognize their inauspiciousness.

Elsewhere in the Ain-I-Akbari, Abul Fazal made a list of singers, claiming that “a detailed description of this class of people would be too difficult.” The list starts, as expected, with Mian Tansen of Gwalior, whose like “has not been in India for the last thousand years.” But Baz Bahadur, ruler of Malwa comes in ninth amongst the thirty five names. Abul Fazal contradicts himself by describing him as “ruler of Malwa, a singer without rival.” We found a local singer who demonstrated the acoustics of the palace by standing in a niche in one of the halls around the courtyard. His voice filled up the hall. I did not recognize the song, but the man said that it was composed by Roopmati.

When I try to refresh my memory by looking at the photos I took that day I seem to recall a long and leisurely morning spent walking around the palace. I have photos of arches and rooms, an Indian robin hopping from parapet to terrace, spider lilies in the rain, and of The Family and me in the palace, with Roopmati’s pavilion in the background. The Family was in blue, and I have several photos of her against the dusky pink sandstone of the palace.

For me, the photo that sums up the charm of this later group of buildings in Mandu is the one you see above. The pink stone of the building, the dome over the terrace, and the rain water pooled in the cistern at the center of the courtyard. The full domes of Indo-Afghan architecture, the plaster work and arches, the care with water, are all part of the charm of Mandu.

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Jazz in Berlin

Every night in Berlin one has a wide choice of jazz to listen to. I sifted through what was on offer and decided on a completely German choice. The actress Heide Bartholomaus was collaborating with the well-known Berlin pianist Hannes Zerbe and saxophonist Dirk Engelhardt to read the poetry of Gottfried Benn. Apparently they have been improvising like this for a while.

I was not familiar with the work of Benn, an influential poet before and after the war, whose brief dalliance with Nazism had clouded his life. Zerbe was also a well-known pianist whom I’d not heard before. So The Family and I got our hands stamped for the show. We nursed a couple of drinks through the nearly two hours’ performance. My German is not good enough to keep up with spoken poetry, but the piano and sax were certainly good. I agreed with The Family when she remarked that even without being able to follow the poetry, one had to admire Bartholomaus’ delivery. We walked out into the cold happy with the evening and wishing we had the time to explore Berlin’s jazz scene in more depth.

Still standing in the doorway

Often a writer will be known for years to a small readership before she writes that one novel which makes her known to the rest of the world. While walking uptown in New York, I came across the moral equivalent of such a history, set in brick and mortar. I wasn’t quite thinking of the route when I looked ahead at a crossing and saw before me the southwestern end of Carnegie Hall (see the featured photo). In 1961 Bob Dylan broke out of an already charmed circle of listeners in a concert at this place. It is not everyday that you walk past a place where a Nobel Prize winner was born to the world’s consciousness.

New York City: Carnegie Hall and tower

I came back to look at it again. When the million dollar hall was inaugurated in 1890 it was considered to be almost in the suburbs. When Tchaikovsky conducted his own composition on the opening night, structural steel had not yet been invented. The building was made of brick. It looks heavy and squat in spite of the Renaissance design of the facade. I wanted to take a photo of the stylish and simple foyer which was part of the overall design by Willian Tuthill, but the doors seemed to be locked. I don’t mind having to go back there. The next time I’ll make sure to select an interesting concert to go for.

Noon Beneath the Underdog

I had too little time in New York to listen to new music. I passed by the New York Public Library, but it may require prior arrangement to look at the papers of Charles Mingus which it holds. I did not think of this until I passed the stone lions guarding, among other things, the life’s work of a musical genius (photo below). I do not really think of Mingus and his music in terms of geography, but if I had to, I would associate 42nd street with it. Sure enough, I met up with Charles and Sue Mingus outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminus (featured photo).

New York City: public library

The low curved roof at this junction of passageways is held up by four pillars, some of which you can see here. They form a whispering gallery. I found travellers pausing to try this out: one of a couple would stand at one of the pillars, and the other would go to another and whisper something. It works, because they would then go off laughing together.

It is said that Charles Mingus proposed to Sue through this elaborate long-distance method. I haven’t found this story in Beneath the Underdog his rambling book which we have to count as his autobiography. Perhaps it is there in Sue Mingus’ memoirs, Tonight at Noon. I should read it.

Just for that I walked up to 10th Avenue on 42nd Street. Another block north, and I could have gone to stand at the address where Charles Mingus last lived. I did not have the heart to do that.

Handmade guitars

One night, while walking in the little lanes behind the Opera I came across the workshop which you can see above. It is exactly the kind of shop that you might want to find near an opera. The next morning I walked into the shop, and into a world I did not know of.

Mariano Conde and his son run this workshop. I learnt about the subtle difference between a classical and a flamenco guitar. The flamenco guitar is louder, so it has a thin top, usually made of spruce. This is lightly attached to a hardwood back and sides, often cypress. The classical guitar, on the other hand, often has rosewood on the back and sides. The workshop specializes in using different kinds to wood to modify the sound of a particular instrument. For the uninitiated, like me, it sounded like the makers of magic wands, Olivanders, from Harry Potter.

More resemblances arose. The father-and-son also make something called a poem guitar (guitarras del poema). This is a guitar with a poem written into the inside, a collector’s item. I might have heard of a guitar with a dragon’s heart string next. I looked at the prices, heroically suppressed a shudder and walked out again.

A brush with Flamenco

My first exposure to the most famous dance form of Spain must have been through Carlos Saura’s film trilogy on Flamenco. Of the three, I may have seen Carmen first, because I spent a while immersed in Paco de Lucia’s music, and he acted in the movie. Soon after that I encountered the dance in a live street performance in Tokyo around the "Eiffel Tower". It took me a lifetime to get to the world’s capital of the dance and music known as Flamenco.

Flamenco shows advertised in the city hall of Seville

Before starting our trip I asked The Family about the three must-dos of Spain: Flamenco, bullfights and soccer. She agreed to Flamenco. Then there was the difficult choice of whether to watch a performance in Madrid or Andalucia. We decided that the birthplace of Flamenco should be good enough for us, so Seville was what we settled on. It is clear that Seville takes its Flamenco seriously. The city hall was plastered with posters of performances and competitions. We had come to the right place.

Between performances at Tablao Los Gallos in Seville

Flamenco developed as a popular entertainment about a century ago in music bars called cafes cantantes. It has become very professional now, and shows are held today in tablaos. The Spanish word means stage, but it seems to imply something like the gharana of Indian music, with each tablao playing a larger role as a training ground and keeper of a style. The Tablao Los Gallos was highly recommended, and we found tickets for a show which lasted a little longer than an hour. The music which accompanies the dance is clearly descended from the middle eastern tradition, with large borrowings from other sources. Apart from the dance, there were interludes of flamenco guitar. The guitar tradition is about sixty years old, and, taken out of the context of the dance, sounds quite different.

Later I encountered Flamenco again in Granada. In southern Spain, this music and dance is never too far away.

Song and Dance in Myanmar

The elaborate costumes of a kinnara and kinnari in a dance performance I saw in Myanmar was stunning. The butterfly wings were attached to the arms and back of the dancers, so that they could be opened and closed. The music was a simple percussion instrument. This part of the dance was introduced with a simpler dance where two women seem to be plucking flowers. When they leave, the kinnara and kinnari arrive in the same implied setting: perhaps a forest glade with flowers. The whirling movements are accompanied by opening and closing of the wings, and end in brief poses, for example the one in the featured photo.

Kinnara and kinnari in an embrace in a Burmese dance

The pair dance together across the stage. The male character wears a mask, the female is made up, but without a mask. I wondered whether this is a left over of a time when only women danced. The male falls to the ground: asleep? The female keeps dancing. Eventually the male rises, and the performance ends with them coming together to embrace (photo above).

Puppet show in Myanmar

There was a claim that the movements in the kinnara dance recreate the movements of Burmese puppets. It could be, but to my untrained it seemed like a long shot. The puppets were elaborately dressed, but the stories were simple gags. The puppet in this photo is Zaw Gyi, a magical figure who loves to spend his time alone, but when needed can use his magic to do anything he wishes. Not only is he a powerful figure, the fact that his movements can be very complicated means that the person who manipulates Zaw Gyi is one of the master puppeteers.

Complicated percussion instrument in Myanmar

The puppet show was accompanied by music. The musicians had a separate stage next to the main stage. I walked up there to take a look at the instruments. There were several kinds of percussion instruments and a flute. But the one which looked most elaborate is shown in the photo above. I learnt later that it is called Kyee-naung Waing. Interestingly no stringed instrument was used.

Elephant dance in the streets of Amarapura

A large and diverse country like Myanmar will have many different dance forms of course. The first one that I saw was a dance with two people in an elephant costume, with the music playing out of a boom box. I saw a later version with the two dressed as a takin. The takin dancers were accompanied by a Shan long drum. There was a Pa-O folk dance and a Shan folk dance that I managed to see. They seem to be significantly different from each other. I’m sure that if we had stayed longer we would have come across much more.

Frascati

Before I saw the little town perched on top of a dormant volcano, I always thought that Frascati was only a good wine. Make that a wine region, it is a DOC wine after all. So it is kind of silly not to think of Frascati in terms of a place. The first time I went there, and had dinner in a square overlooking Rome, I thought to myself, "How charming. I must spend some time here." I did, and it was.

Little street in Frascati

The town has long been a refuge for well-heeled Romans looking for a quiet place when Rome becomes too hot. England’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pretender to the throne, is buried in the cathedral here. A lovely and always breezy square, Piazza di Rocca, has a wonderful view of Rome, and is lined with restaurants. It is named after the palace of the bishop, locally called the Rocca. There are lovely villas that you can visit, or you can just walk around the town, eat in its wonderful pizzerias, ristorantes, and sample the local wine. I wandered around the streets and occasionally stopped to admire cars (photo above).

Notte di Musica at Piazza Roma in Frascati

Frascati takes its leisure very seriously. There was a night of music the weekend before midsummer’s night. I’d skipped lunch and wandered out to look for some porchetta and olives late in the afternoon. Amateur groups were already setting up in various squares.Notte di Musica at the Piazzale Olmo, Frascati I found a cart with porchetta and stuffed tomatos, and sat down on a bench to enjoy the sun. The roads are steep, so you get enough exercise to keep the wonderful food from sticking to your ribs.

I met friends in Piazza Roma, where a large band was going through its repertoire of hits from the 70s and 80s. The band was good and loud. I enjoyed the sight of one of the apartment windows opening and a man leaning down to enjoy the music (photo above). As the evening’s light faded, we walked over to the tiny Piazzale Olmo where a little enoteca gives you the fresh white wine it makes, to have with food you bring along. We got some pizzas, and sat down with a couple of litres of wine to enjoy the classic rock being played pretty competently in this square.

Frascati is only half an hour from Rome by train, but its a very relaxed place.

Fado of Coimbra

Before leaving for Portugal I’d read that you can hear Fado on the road. Maybe you have to have some familiarity with the music in order to hear it this way. In Lisbon we sat through an expensive but very enjoyable Fado dinner, and then walked into a couple of Fado performances at bars and restaurants in Alfama and around the Rua da Misericorda. We’d heard of the open air concert in front of Coimbra’s old cathedral in May when the university year ends. We’d missed this. So, as soon as we got connected in Coimbra, I checked out reviews. Fado ao Centro was generally described as touristy but good. We were tourists, so I booked two seats at the regular evening performance.

2016-05-28 19.24.00It definitely was touristy, but in a good sense. A little film before the show started told us about the 19th century origins of Coimbra Fado in the life of students at the university, and a little about the twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar. After this there were songs, usually one vocalist with two guitarists, but some purely instrumental pieces, and a small number of songs with two vocalists. Each song was introduced. We liked the setup, and enjoyed the show. There is an opportunity after the show to have a glass of Port with the performers, talk to them, and buy CDs if you want.

2016-05-28 22.40.06A place which surprised us very pleasantly later the same evening was the cafe Santa Cruz, right next to the Santa Cruz church (photo on top). We walked in for an after-dinner drink, and a portion of the wonderful cake called the cruzeiro. Soon the place started filling up with locals, and soon a Fado concert started. The performance was even more enjoyable for us when we realized that people around us knew the songs. The general feeling of saudade which is supposed to be linked to the songs is what an Indian would think of as the emotional content of Devdas and ghazals. When I said this to The Family she asked me why I was listening to Fado when I don’t listen to Ghazals!

My weak answer to that was that it was because I was a tourist. We did not have time to catch a performance in a highly praised venue called A Capella. Maybe that worked out well, otherwise this argument would have been hard to avoid. There is at least one more bar in Coimbra where there is a Fado performance more or less every night.