Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tablas and Cockroaches

Wow. Well my time in Kolkata has taken some interesting turns. We leave in a few hours for Darjeeling, a place I am most excited to visit. Towering Himalayan mountainscapes, delicious tea, a 19th century "toy" steam train. Darjeeling has it all! But for now, I'm still in Kolkata. It turns out that Kolkata isn't all that bad. In fact, last night ended up being one of the most fun nights we've had during this entire trip.

It all started with me mentioning to Mimi that I thought it would be fun to check out some live Indian music. Luckily, our hotel provides a free daily newspaper, and Mimi spotted a listing for a musical performance that very evening. The performance was to feature "Maestro Mallar Ghosh," a distinguished virtuoso of the tabla. The tabla is perhaps the quintessential Indian drum. If you heard the tablas, you would recognize their sound instantly, especially the enigmatic sound of the largest tabla, whose deep bass tone drops and rises as the drummer moves his hand around the surface of the drum.

After a bit of asking around as well as some internet research, we finally figured out where the performance was being held. It wasn't too far from the internet cafe, so we went over in the afternoon to see if tickets were still available. Surprisingly, we had trouble finding anyone who spoke English, but we saw the performers loading in their drums, which reminded me of being on tour. Ah, I thought to myself, even Indian tabla virtuosos have a 3:30 load-in time and have to carry their own gear. We concluded that the concert was free, so we went back to the hotel to chill out for a bit.

When we turned up again at six-thirty, the hallway was filled with well dressed middle-aged Indian people. We felt a little out of place, but we're made more welcome when a nice man offered us some complementary tea. After finishing our tea, we took off our shoes and entered the performance room. Suddenly, I was in heaven. Just minutes ago we were trudging through the filthy streets of Kolkata. Now, we were in an air conditioned paradise where shoes were forbidden and everyone sat on the floor on nice, clean carpets. It was a perfect room for a musical performance, and I felt very comfortable and at home.

The performance itself was absolutely amazing. In addition to the lead tabla player, there were also two additional tabla proteges, a woman who read a poem, a woman who sang a beautiful song, an accordian player, and a cymbal/triangle player (sucks for him.) Lastly, there was one more man who didn't seem to have any instrument, but held an uncanny resemblance to Ron Jeremy. This man's purpose remained a mystery until the very last song of the performance, at which point he busted out a very cool looking electric violin and played a truly amazing duet with the main tabla player. Here is a picture. I call it "Indian Ron Jeremy Plays the Electric Violin."

The tablas are an amazing instrument because they offer such a variety of both pitches and timbres for such a tiny drum. In other words, the drummer can alter both the way the drum sounds as well as the pitch of the tone. Additionally, the drummer can utilize all ten of his fingers. This enables the drummer to achieve remarkably fast and intricate rhythms. The songs often started out with a simple beat that I was able to follow, but evolved into rapid, complex pieces whose rhythms I became lost in. As I closed my eyes and absorbed the music, I began thinking about how tabla drumming is in a way similar to technical death metal. Not only do both genres involve supreme musical technicality, but both offer songs that become nearly impossible to follow. It is at these blurred movements of confusion where you can allow yourself to become lost in the overall vibe; a moment where you can pick out little bits and pieces of rhythm and melody, making it all worthwhile.

Once the concert had concluded, we were amazed to find out that the hosts of the performance were offering a free dinner buffet. I tried to make a donation but the man who had earlier offered us some tea politely reclined. The food was in my opinion that best we had eaten so far in Kolkata. The dishes were creamy and sweet, which are the main characteristics of Bengali cuisine. I couldn't believe how wonderful the evening had turned out!

After the performance we went back to our hotel. We have been staying at a bizarre place called Hotel Broadway. The word on the street is that budget accomodations in Kolkata are utterly abysmal, so we opted to stay at a slightly nicer place. Indeed, Hotel Broadway has a few perks such as a free newspaper in the morning, large rooms with high ceilings, and a very attentive staff. Additionally, the hotel has a unique vibe that is reminscent of the 1950s. It's almost as if I'm on the set of a film noir. The attached bar/restaurant only adds to the character. The dim lighting, the ancient whirring ceiling fans and the "down and out" clientele made for an interesting scene. It was almost, but not quite, remniscent of Twin Peaks.

But of course, this is Kolkata, so Hotel Broadway couldn't possibly be all peaches and cream. The downside is that the sheets on the beds are stained, hot water only comes in buckets, and the bathroom is not exactly my favorite place to hang out. I'd much rather do my business at a mall in Hong Kong. From what I understand, even this is a huge step of from some of the more budget hotels, which are notorious for their bed bugs, unsafe locks and disinterested staff.

But last night, my opinion of Hotel Broadway really took a turn southward. While using the bathroom, I spotted a little bug crawling across the bathroom floor. It sort of looked like a baby cockroach, but I couldn't be certain. I decided to play it safe, and I gave it a good whack with a rolled up newspaper. About twenty minutes later, while Mimi and I were brushing our teeth, Mimi let out a righteous scream. It turns out that Mama cockroach had come looking for her lost little boy, and she was none too happy. Mama was, hands down, without a doubt, the biggest fucking cockroach I have ever seen in my life. Just thinking about it makes me shudder with horror. As Mimi repeatedly yelled, "Kill it! Kill it!" I knew what I had to do. My mission was clear. But I also knew I had to build up quite a bit of courage because I knew there was no way this thing would go down on the first whack. It would take repeated blows to take out Mama. Indeed, it took about five or six solid blows to the head before she went down. As I was saying, I am very excited to get of out Kolkata!

At the same time, I'm glad that I came here. Seeing poverty like this first hand is a very sobering experience. It's hard to put it out of your mind when a woman holding an underfed child follows you for a two blocks, grabbing your arm and pleading to you for money. Watching kids literally play with garbage because they don't have any toys is upsetting. At the same time, it's not that everyone here is poor. There is definitely a middle class. But everywhere we went, it seemed that the middle class was stepping over or around destitute people who live on the streets. The amount of people literally sleeping on the middle of a sidewalk really surprised me. Rickshaws are also still fairly common here. Many of the rickshaw drivers don't have shoes. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw an elderly man running barefoot through the street carrying a well-dressed couple on his rickshaw. What century am I in?

I've been giving Kolkata a pretty hard time over these past few entries. Perhaps I've been too harsh. This city definitely has character. I suppose it all just came as a bit of a shock. I knew that Kolkata was poor, but perhaps I was just slightly underprepared.

Before I go, I will leave you with some pictures from our time in Kolkata. I didn't take any pictures of the poverty I witnessed because this felt strange and exploitive to me.

Ancient blue buses with decaying colonial building in the background. Kolkata.

Delicious thali. Kolkata.

Victoria Memorial. Kolkata.

Sweets! Kolkata.

1 comment:

  1. You can start playing Indian instruments in your new band Genghis Naan.