Book review: Absolutely on Music by Murakami & Ozawa

Published on 7 January on

A series of conversations with a renowned conductor reveals a new facet of Murakami’s writing technique.


Publishers will publish, bookshops will stockpile, and fans will comply. This is perhaps just one of the pluses of being Haruki Murakami. An idea is all he needs, and in no time there’s a brand new book ready to fly off the shelves.

So, when Murakami decided to record and transcribe his conversations on and about music – a total of six interviews during 2010 and 2011 – with acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa into a book, the success of the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Absolutely on Music is a gorgeous volume, detailing a significant facet of what inspires and rules Murakami’s very being – his relationship with music.

Like Murakami in global literature, Ozawa is renowned in the world of classical music. He served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 long years, and was music director for the symphony orchestras of Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago.

After decades of practising music, a sudden and unfortunate episode of esophageal cancer, followed by major surgery, compelled Ozawa to take a rehabilitation break. This is when Murakami caught his attention. Until then, the writer was just an “anonymous fan” whom Ozawa had heard of from his daughter. And it was only after they spent an afternoon listening to recordings by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida that Ozawa realised that Murakami “doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

Not an amateur

That Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club named Peter Cat in Tokyo before he became a phenomenon in the literary world is well-known. But despite being an avid listener and collector of records, and someone who frequents classical concerts and operas, why he almost always identifies himself as a “musical layman” is unexplained. He says he took decades to understand the nuances of the compositions, and still insists that his “technical knowledge of music is limited.”

The truth is that Murakami’s affair with music has been dedicated and disciplined, definitive glimpses of which can be seen in almost all his works. For instance, not only is one of his earlier novels named for The Beatles song Norwegian Wood, Leoš Janáček’s composition Sinfonietta plays a critical role in the epic 1Q84. As Scott Meslow writes, reading Murakami is often like negotiating a playlist.

But Absolutely on Music isn’t just about music – it’s also about comparisons between different recordings and performances from two different perspectives, the expert’s and the outsider’s. Obviously, a firm grasp on the subject is imperative to appreciate the depths of the music being discussed in the book.

Fan moment

In Absolutely on Music, Murakami confesses to being self-conscious in the company of Ozawa. He recalls his visits to Ozawa’s concerts, where he shared a moment or two with the maestro he hugely admired. He avoided talking about musical, because he knew that “Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather.” This formality gradually faded when Ozawa had time to spare during his rehabilitation, the period when he and Murakami became friends.

As in his fictions, Murakami doesn’t impose his love or understanding of music on the reader – and certainly not on Ozawa – through this book. But it’s certainly interesting to observe how he interprets a certain composition. While Ozawa reminiscences about his early career and narrates anecdotes from his days in 1960s New York, Murakami prompts and prods like a practised interviewer. In fact, his interpretation of Ozawa’s musical lifespan is fascinating to the subject too. At one point Ozawa exclaims, “I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because your perspective is so different from mine. It’s that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.”

Rhyme and reason

Like all musical compositions, Absolutely on Music too pauses for an interlude after every conversation. These are brief, self-aware breaks, interjected deliberately to maintain a rhythm in the narrative.

One such interlude is when Murakami deliberates on the effect of music on the craft of writing. Very lucidly, he explains to Ozawa how rhythm controls the flow of words:

“No one ever taught me to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.”

More than their shared passion for music, Murakami also aspires to draw out similarities between himself and Ozawa. In the Introduction he points out that both he and Ozawa are early risers, who spend those first hours of the day creating art – music and stories respectively. Both are happiest when they’re immersed in their work. And they both share the trait of stubbornness. Murakami’s original motive behind putting this book together is to bring out the ways in which each of them is dedicated to music.

But one can safely say that Murakami’s fans love his trademark eccentric worlds of possibilities rather than certainties, which seem to resemble theirs too. So, it’s hard to imagine Absolutely on Music hitting the same grey zone as his other books, for it digs deep into the technicalities of classical Western music, something that not every reader has their sentiments attached to. Still, because it’s Murakami, there’s still the unexpectedness of magic in this book.

Forget fiction and non-fiction, adults are turning to colouring books

Published on 10 October, 2015 in

The unlikely pursuit of filling intricate drawings with colours has become a publishing opportunity.
Beauty Needs Space CoverThree years ago, when artist and illustrator Indu Harikumar designed a few colouring panels for a non-profit organisation which works with under-trial prisoners at the Byculla jail in Mumbai, she was told that colouring calmed and relaxed the women. These were women incarcerated for petty and serious crimes, and made to share one large dorm in the jail.

Privacy is not an option in prison and most other activities that inmates are usually made to participate in are in groups that they may or may not prefer. In that sense, colouring was one activity that could perform in solitude.

“I could feel the energy that they were not at peace with each other. The bed was the only space they had and I can imagine why colouring had a positive effect. There is a lot of detail in colouring books for adults and because of that, the mind doesn’t wander and one finds it easier to focus,” says Harikumar.

Colourful beginnings

Harikumar was at an art residency in Vienna in 2014 when the idea of Beauty Needs Space, a colouring book for adults, first came to her. She was out on a date and shied away from eating cake by saying “I feel fat”. That’s when her Viennese date said to her, “But beauty needs space”.

“It wasn’t an idea I could push away because in between work (which is usually drawing) I doodle and I find it very relaxing. During the residency, I used to do this series called Vienna Diary where I would wake up and make a quick drawing and put it out on my Facebook page. I would write on themes that I faced every day – culture, perception, trying out Tinder in Vienna, patriarchy, food and travel etc. The series was hugely popular.

“I thought I was talking to a very Indian audience, but I received email from Scotland, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and, of course, India. The “beauty needs space” comment got me thinking and that’s when I started putting up my drawings for the colouring book just to test the waters. The response was great. So I started drawing the first one – Beauty Needs Space – which appears on the cover. I decided to self-publish because I had buyers writing in saying, ‘I am in whenever you are ready.’ That meant a lot.”

A meditative palette

As a concept, colouring books for adults have been around in the West for a while now. Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford published her Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Bookin 2013; since then, the book has been translated into 14 languages and has sold more than a million copies.

In 2015 she has published two more books – Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book andLost Ocean: An Inky Adventure and Colouring Book. French illustrator and graphic designer Emma Farrarons has been smart enough to pitch her book, The Mindfulness Colouring Book, as an “anti-stress art therapy for busy people”. And UK-based publishing house Michael O’Mara has sold over 300,000 copies of the different colouring books it has published, even claiming that “colouring can lower anxiety, stabilise mood, increase attention span and serve as a sleep aid.”

It’s believed that colouring increases powers of meditation, especially because the panels in these books for adults are far more intricate than those for children. However, Harikumar, being the first Indian to initiate the concept here, isn’t suggesting that her book will do any of that.

“I just hope that people will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed creating it. If you enjoy it, you will find it relaxing. I hope people are able to find a part of themselves somewhere in the drawings,” she says.

Many of the colouring panels in Beauty Needs Space have been drawn with consciously positive messages, which can be found inside the back cover of the book. It has twelve high-quality A4 prints that one can colour and frame, stick on, and add one’s own beauty to it. There are empty spaces for users to fill in their own messages as well.

Says Harikumar: “I started the book as a social media experiment. As I put out each drawing, I heard from people across the world and the stories have been very heart warming. I have sold only through my social media accounts which go by the name of @Induviduality and I am happy to have sold to most continents except South America.”

Her next project for adults? Titled Women on Top, it’s a colouring book based loosely on theKamasutra.

When East meets West

Published on 20 March in Mint

Seventeen artists from six countries are exhibiting street art, paintings, installations and videos at an ongoing art festival

French artist Jonathan Longuet's green graffitiFrench artist Jonathan Longuet came to India for the first time in February last year for his solo show, Jungle Me, at the Niv Art Centre in Neb Sarai, New Delhi. He worked with algae to create green graffiti on canvases and walls. His paintings, like the “living” paint he uses to make them, have been growing slowly.

The success of his living canvases prompted him and Shaji Mathew, director of the Niv Art Centre, to extend their collaboration and launch the East-West Art Festival—an international festival aimed at discovering an alternative view of society through the eyes of next-generation artists. Organized in collaboration with non-profit organization Painting-Bordeaux, with whom Longuet works in France, the festival has 17 artists from six countries (France, Germany, Afghanistan, South Korea, Japan and India) taking part in its first edition, which opened on Thursday.

Longuet, who is also the programme curator, is showcasing his green graffiti at the festival. “Art is no longer stationary. It is interactive and challenging. I developed my own artistic technique to use algae, which is a kind of green moss, as paint. I harvested all the algae I could from Neb Sarai and used it to create green graffiti,” he says.

See: Afghan artist Hanifa Alizada will showcase photographs and videos of her extraordinary journey through Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in Before Our Own Eyes, at the Niv Art Centre from 28 March-12 April. Japanese artist Ema Kawanago and visual artist Koustav Nag from New Delhi will present Mind The Gap at The Japan Foundation from 20 March-4 April. Together, they will explore two different Asian societies through similar mediums of expression—video, photography and installation. On 24 March, Korean artist Narae Jin will invite the audience to reflect on the dramaturgy in society through video projections and a dance performance in Dramascope, to be held at the Korean Cultural Centre. The show will be repeated at the Niv Art Centre on 28 March.

On 28 March, French artists Enora Lalet and Melodie Serena will present the Cooking Faces series, using real food to paint their own faces, at the Niv Art Centre. Joining them will be Bengaluru-based contemporary dancer Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, who will present his latest show, Flesh. Some of the artworks will also be sent to France for a series of exhibitions in Bordeaux, and Alizada’s show will travel to Kabul later this year. Numerous artworks from the exhibitions will also be seen on the streets of the Capital—the huge paper-cutting by French artist Rouge, currently installed at Alliance Française, will adorn one of the buildings in Neb Sarai. And Longuet’s Green Graffiti and street art group Monkey Bird’s anthropomorphic compositions will be put up on walls around Neb Sarai.

The East-West Art Festival is on till 12 April at Alliance Française, Lodi Estate; Japan Foundation, 5-A, Ring Road, Lajpat Nagar- IV; Korean Cultural Centre, 25-A, Ring Road, Lajpat Nagar-IV; and Niv Art Centre, Neb Sarai. For the schedule, visit Eastwestfestival.word . For details, call 9811804811.

Revisiting modern Indian art

Published on 16 October, 2014 in Mint

The 11th edition of Delhi Art Gallery’s signature biannual series brings together 75 of India’s best-known modern artists

Behind the glass door of Delhi Art Gallery in New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village are 75 select artworks spanning a century (or more) of Indian modernism, each claimed by 75 celebrated artists, and each alive with its own story to tell. The 11th edition of the gallery’s biannual series, Manifestations XI, which started on 16 October, brings together selected works of significant modern art spread across six different genres—mythology, landscape, still life, figurative, narrative and abstract art.

Untitled (Ganesha) by M.F. Husain (oil on canvas)Prostitute by Sunil Das is an interpretation of the kohl-eyed women residing in the red-light area of Kolkata, a move away from his characteristic brush and ink drawings of horses and bulls. Oil Extractor by master painter Raja Ravi Varma, one of the first artists to use oil paints and master the art, is the depiction of ghani or the traditional method of extracting oil from seeds. And Untitled (Disappointed) by Jogesh Chander Seal is a realistic style of oil on canvas with the influence of India’s miniaturist tradition.

The highlight of the exhibition is The Ramp (Standing Musui)—one of K.S. Radhakrishnan’s largest sculptures demonstrating a labyrinth of bodies lost in an ecstatic dance. Crafted in bronze, the tall figure represents Musui, one half of sculptor Radhakrishnan’s alter-ego, the other being Maiya.

The exhibition also features works by several members of the Progressive Artists’ Group—M.F. Husain’s humanized illustration of Untitled (Ganesha), where the elephant-headed god sits cross-legged like a child with an upright trunk; S.H. Raza’s Prakriti, a modern rendition of the ancient tantras; and F.N. Souza’s Untitled, one of his many works that indicate his understanding of Christianity and its beliefs. Other noteworthy works include Rabindranath Tagore’s portrait of Head, an example of his unique style; Nandalal Bose’s usage of pen and ink on paper to reveal The Artists’ Studio at the Tagore family home in Jorasanko in Kolkata; and Bikash Bhattacharjee’s A Social Gathering, where he adopts the language of photographic realism.

One of the many interesting inclusions in Manifestations XI is a collection of ink-jet prints of film-maker Satyajit Ray from behind the scenes of his film sets through the lens of Nemai Ghosh. The photographs are evocative of the moments when Ray composed his frames with great care, when he took a break between shots to mull over a scene, when he sat in the rain next to cinematographer Soumendu Roy during the making of Ashani Sanket, and so on.

Manifestations XI is on till 15 November, 10.30am-7pm (Sundays closed), at the Delhi Art Gallery, 11, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi (46005300).

Majuli’s story comes to life

Published on 12 September, 2014 in Mint

Shilpika Bordoloi presents a ‘physical-theatre’ performance on Assam’s mystical river island

Majuli, the largest river island in the world, nestled in the lap of the mighty Brahmaputra river in Assam, is the cultural centre of Assamese civilization. It is also one of the many rapidly shrinking islands that might cease to exist in the next 15-20 years, owing to constant floods and soil erosion. In times when the existence of Majuli is of great concern, Assam-based dancer and choreographer Shilpika Bordoloi makes an attempt to tell the tales of its people and their myriad social, cultural and spiritual values through a physical-theatre namesake performance, Majuli.

Shilpika BordoloiTrained in classical Manipuri dance, Bharatanatyam and martial arts, Bordoloi’s area of expertise is “physical theatre”, a narrative that weaves together aspects of movement, voice, light, music, costume and set design. Majuli is a representation of the strong resonance of her inner self with the river, which has found parallels and imprints in her other solo works as a movement artiste. One of the core elements of this piece is water and its various manifestations in form and flows, river to wetlands, rains to floods, life-giver to life-taker.

“My association with Majuli goes back to the early days when my father was posted there for work. I spent a lot of time listening to the chants emanating from the Vaishnavite Satras (monasteries), the chirping of migratory avian visitors in the wetlands, and watching the art of making boats for fishing and masks for the annual Raas festival. All of this left a deep impact on me and prodded me to discover more,” says Bordoloi.

Majuli is the first act in the series of her multimedia project called Katha Yatra, for which she has decided to travel down the river and get to the roots of traditions. “It’s fascinating to see people’s unique relationship with the land. Normally humans tend to shift or settle in safer places, but in Majuli they revere the river as their mother. They adapt and adjust; They would never leave for a safer place,” she says.

Through her performance she hopes to highlight the meandering character of the river—often quiet, often raging—and the innumerable stories of people-river interactions.

Retelling the epic stories

Published on August 1, 2014 in Mint 

Witness a retelling of two of the greatest epics of our times, Mahabharata and Ramayana

Love, lust, power, revenge and war—five words enough to sum up two of the greatest and celebrated epics of our times, Mahabharat and Ramayan—come strung together in a theatrical presentation, Revisiting The Epics, in the Capital on Friday.

DSC_0213Directed by Sujata Soni Bali, founder of Miran Productions, the performance is a unique rendition of the two classics, their scenes blended together with a contemporary twist. “I’ve always been inspired by the Mahabharat and the Ramayan. They’re the two most well-known scripts of India and their tales have always fascinated me. The fact that they’re relevant even in modern times is what makes them extraordinary,” she says.

The 1-hour show is an amalgamation of dance, performance and recital. It combines three significant scenes —Sita’s Agnipariksha, Draupadi’s insult in the royal court following the game of dice, and Abhimanyu’s death in Kurukshetra—to capture the essence of mythological lores with thought-provoking twists. The performances are staged by well-known artistes such as Tom Alter, Charu Shankar, Chander Khanna and Bhavini Misra.

Revisiting The Epics is an adaptation from various translations of the original, using two contemporary dances based on the folk forms of chhau and kalaripayattu. It employs ancient scripts but the context, says Bali, is fairly relevant to modern times. However, there is no attempt to build direct linkages though the play does allude to present-day politics and manipulation, morals, dilemmas, and gender issues.

“The idea is to revisit these amazing tales yet again and find new meanings. For instance, Ravana kidnapped Sita and was overcome by her beauty, but he never violated her. We try and bring forth the other, lesser-known side of him being the most learned man in that era who knew scriptures and wrote poems and songs. Few folks know that the game of dice was played not once but twice, and that there was a chance to walk away, to recover what was lost. But human emotions sometimes get the better of us, leading to loss and destruction,” explains Bali.

The script goes a step further and uses the work of Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupt, best known for writing verses in Khari Boli (plain dialect). “We’ve used a small portion of Gupt’s epic poem Jayadrath Vadh, which tells the story of the killing of the Sindhu King Jayadrath by Arjuna and Abhimanyu’s bravery in battle. Veteran actor Chander Khanna will be seen narrating the part of the young 16-year-old Abhimanyu tackling seasoned warriors, fighting the tough and unique chakravyuh formation, and dying a martyr,” says Bali.

Revisiting The Epics was staged on 1 August, 7.30pm, at Epicentre, Apparel House, Gurgaon.