Editorial/ Call of the familiar
Bach in time
The Telegraph/ Diary
Footnote/ Promises to sleep over
Letters to the editor

Familiarity breeds comfort. It is the natural instinct of human beings to fall back on well-worn attitudes as a shield against an intrusive and unpleasant reality. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is no exception to this generalization. On the contrary, it is a confirmation of the statement. The CPI(M) grew up on a diet of anti-Americanism. Its staple was a daily dose of conspiracies allegedly hatched by the Central Intelligence Agency. Thus ordinary occurrences took on bizarre dimensions. Such attitudes had a special context. The Cold War had a strange propensity of producing ogres on both sides of the ideological divide. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War took away that context. Elsewhere, among communists, the attendant attitudes have also disappeared. But within the CPI(M), such attitudes die hard. They have come to the fore as soon as the party finds itself challenged. The rise in the popularity of Ms Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, and the reverses that the CPI(M) has suffered in the municipal polls have understandably left the CPI(M) more than a little nervous about the outcome of the assembly elections slated for next year. The CPI(M) leaders cannot, for obvious reasons, attribute the decline in the party’s base and influence to their own misrule and abuse of power. They also do not know of any instrument with which to recover the ground that the CPI(M) is swiftly losing. Hence, the revival of hardy perennials: CIA conspiracy, American interference in the state and so on ad nauseam.

This response only highlights the fact that within the CPI(M), the old mindset still maintains its stranglehold. It is the ideological safe haven: when in doubt fall back on anti-Americanism. This refusal to change ideological registers has wider implications. It is now clear that despite the best efforts of Mr Jyoti Basu, the chief minister, and Mr Somnath Chatterjee, no investment is coming towards West Bengal. There are many reasons for this: poor infrastructure, political interference, cadre power and the absence of work ethic are the more common ones. To these have to be added the ideological torpor of the CPI(M). It has refused to slough off its antiquated mindset. It remains trapped within a hidebound world view that is completely unable to accept and therefore change with the prevalent reality. Investors are not fools and they are quick to spot that the red leopard has not changed its spots at all. The spots have been overlaid with a veneer of capital friendliness and the snarl has become a smile to welcome investors and multinationals. But when cornered, the natural and the familiar features become prominent. Capitalists prefer to choose terrain where the welcome is more real than apparent. They have no time for paranoid global conspiracy theories.

Against this stagnation, it had seemed that for a time, one man, Mr Basu, had struggled valiantly. He had convinced his party that to continue with the hostility towards capitalists would spell disaster for West Bengal. Going against his past belief and actions, he had campaigned to turn his party to his views and he had trotted around the globe trying to convince potential investors that their money would be safe and growing in communist-ruled West Bengal. The surprise at this volte face was not matched by real investments. Promises evaporated even before the ink had dried on the memoranda of understanding. It is now clear that Mr Basu’s capital-friendliness was an elaborate mask. He remains an old-fashioned communist, spouting empty and meaningless slogans, in a crisis taking recourse to a rhetoric of Cold War vintage. That vintage is now vinegar, it is not potable and utterly unacceptable in civilized society. This is West Bengal’s tragedy: what had appeared as a genuine move to rescue the moribund economy has turned out to be nothing more than a gesture. That Mr Basu still believes that the United States government and its representatives in West Bengal have nothing better to do than destabilize his government reveals that at heart he is a Cold War warrior. When he wooed capital, he only dissembled. West Bengal can now rest in the peace of the graveyard.    

By a curious coincidence, three great Baroque composers were born in the year 1685: George Frideric Handel in February, Johann Sebastian Bach in March, and Domenico Scarlatti in October. More curiously, two of them—Bach and Handel—were treated by the same eye-doctor and went blind in old age. All three lived exceptionally long despite longevity being in notoriously short supply over their era. Bach was the first to die at 65, after a dotage marked by unceasing creativity. Scarlatti was next to go at 72, leaving behind more than 500 single-movement harpsichord sonatas. Handel lived on till the age of 74 and died only when it had begun to seem he was immortal.

The recent interest in Bach in the Western media has, however, less to do with the oddities of the year 1685 than with the year of Bach’s death in 1750, 250 years ago. Round-figure centenaries seem to enthuse an uncommon interest in cultural deities. The last time Bach was in the news was 15 years ago, when he turned 300. Christopher Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner’s movement to recreate Baroque music using period instruments was then in full swing. In 1991 there was a flood of Mozartiana because Wolfgang Amadeus had been bundled insolvent into a common-man’s grave 200 years earlier. In 1970 the Indian government issued a postage stamp commemorating Beethoven’s birth 200 years before, and in 1977 Max Müller Bhavan wheeled German pianists into India because Beethoven had been dead precisely 150 years. Perhaps all this is better than the Indian government’s hypothetical response to the centenaries of, say, Tansen and Tyagaraja — either ignore them as insignificant or, if the centenary figure seems sufficiently round (500 years, 1000 years), declare it a public holiday. There must be a bureau with babus somewhere, tracking centenaries.

To the extent that histories of classical music really get going only when they get to the first major composer in their field, it can be said that Western classical music begins with Bach. Harold Schönberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers begins with Bach; so does the Milton Cross Encyclopedia of the Great Composers. The Italians dispute this Germanic prejudice in favour of Bach because, technically, some of the “major” Italians preceded Bach. Alessandro Scarlatti (Domenico’s father) lived a generation earlier. So did Corelli (1653-1713). Truest of all, Vivaldi (of the Four Seasons) was Bach’s senior by seven years and died nine years before him. Nor is there any doubt that Bach was influenced by both Corelli and Vivaldi, specially the latter, to the extent that he rearranged six of the twelve violin concertos that comprise Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico.

Indeed Bach’s most exquisite works for the violin—namely his two Solo Violin Concertos, the Double Violin Concerto, the third and fourth Brandenburg Concertos and the six incomparably intense Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin —would not have taken the shape they did without Bach’s knowledge of the Italians.

Perhaps the reason for starting with Bach all the same hinges on the distinction between “major” and “great”. Of the Baroque composers, Bach and Handel alone are currently considered “great”, while Bach’s intellection and mastery of fugal polyphony have made him seem the greater. Beethoven, however, revered Bach and Handel equally, while today Handel’s rather stronger interest in the single-line melody has made his Largo, Messiah and Water Music more popular even than Leopold Stokowski’s rendering of Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and Air on a G String.

To people for whom music matters in more ordinary ways, now seems only as good as any other time to, as it were, look “Bach” reflectively at this extraordinary composer. Bach’s last tenure was as organist and music-teacher in Leipzig. He lived there for 27 years, composing prolifically and reproducing with equal vigour. By the time he died he had more than a thousand compositions and 20 children by two wives to his credit. Among his contemporaries only Telemann surpassed him—and only in his output as a composer. (Telemann was probably the most prolific composer in history, his compositions numbering nearly 3000). Many of Bach’s children died in infancy, nine survived him, and three of the survivors, including C.P.E. Bach, carried on the family tradition of becoming musically renowned.

It is pretty much obligatory to divide composers’ careers into three periods and designate them Early, Middle and Late. This is not easily done with Schubert, who had only two real periods, nor with Wagner, who had an infinity of them. But in Bach’s case the three divisions are easily made in relation to the venues where he wrote his music — Weimar, Cothen and Leipzig. His professional career began at the age of 22 at Weimar. Beethoven’s career began at exactly the same age 85 years later, when he finally moved from Bonn to Vienna, but Bach was less unfettered as a freelancer than Beethoven. As the duke’s court musician and church organist he had only the status of an exalted servant. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a pre-eminent piece in the Bach repertoire to this day, was written in Weimar, as were his early cantatas. These he wrote at the rate of one every week for several years—much as Khushwant Singh writes columns.

Being as lusty in his professional quarrelling as in domestic love-making— not to mention in the organ loft (he was chided, in 1706, for “making music with a strange maiden upon the organ”), after nine years Bach fell out with his duke. The duke locked him in jail for a month, then discharged him from service. Bach wanted to leave in any case, having found employment at Cothen, another little dukedom run by the Weimar duke’s brother-in-law.

At Cothen Bach switched to secular music for violin and keyboard. His most frequently performed work, the Brandenburg Concertos (so called because they are dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg) and the cello sonatas, date to this period. His famous “instruction manual” composed at this time was The Well-Tempered Clavier. Beethoven learnt his trade with this score, as did many keyboard composers after Bach. To the general listener this work is analogous to Chopin’s Études insofar as it manages to combine technical range with pleasurable music, though Chopin’s interest in melody makes Bach’s studies seem too cerebral by comparison.

In 1723 Bach moved to Leipzig. Here he wrote the St Matthew’s Passion— a work that Schumann and Mendelssohn did much to popularize during the first centenary of Bach’s death in 1850 — as well as the popular Italian Concerto (a Baroque concerto, this is close to what we understand as a single-instrument sonata). The Goldberg Variations, which the Canadian Glenn Gould has rendered incomparably on the piano, is of this period too.

Karajan had an interesting comment on Bach: “Just as it is important to find the right pulse for a piece of music, so you must find the right rhythm by which to live your life. I remember once, I was rehearsing a piece of Bach — I forget which piece it was — and I suddenly felt in a state of absolute harmony. So much so that I stopped the rehearsal at that point.” Karajan’s experience highlights the key dimensions that most listeners of Bach’s music have responded to: harmony and rhythm. Melody of the Mozart and Rossini variety is far from Bach’s world.

There is little Bach music that can be whistled. Counterpoint and polyphony dominate, sometimes in a manner so complex and intellectual that the listening experience seems architectural rather than musical. But, for a combination of majesty and intensity, Bach is surpassed only by Beethoven. And not even Beethoven’s chamber music contains anything to equal Bach’s D Minor Partita which concludes in that ultimate piece for the solo violin, the “Chaconne”. If Bach had composed nothing else, he would still have required veneration today.    


Bitter revenge

Old memories die hard. Bitter memories even harder. For the 11 month old BJP government, their collective strength is proving quite a strain. Bitter members within the party are doing a faster job of chipping away its confidence than the enemy from across the borders, or its rivals closer home. Shortly after the Amarnath killings, the Congress, as is its wont, stalled Lok Sabha proceedings demanding a judicial probe. But stoking the fire were three BJP MPs — Madan Lal Khurana, Vijay Goel and Sahib Singh Verma. The stokers reportedly supplied “inside information” to the Congress, rubbing in how unhappy the sangh was with the handling of Kashmir by the AB Vajpayee-LK Advani duo. There was no hedging. Senior Congress leaders in fact were pointedly asked, “Aapka laksh kya hai” (What is your target)? If the Congresswallahs are undecided about their target, the BJP MPs aren’t. To many, like Verma, this is target practice to make the party aware of bigger fireworks to come if it didn’t keep its promises. For Verma himself this was sweet revenge for being denied the assured cabinet berth by none other than Vajpayee himself. When Verma went letter in hand to remind the PM of his words, AB replied tersely that the offer was “time barred”. If the BJP keeps to this habit, rest assured, it won’t have the chance even to make an appeal.

Service and volley

An appeal was turned down. And if you were to let veteran journalist and now Rajya Sabha member, Kuldip Nayar, have his say, he will blame it on the inadequacy of the prime minister. A leading light of what is derisively called the Lahore club in the capital, Nayar mourned before the house that the impasse in the Kashmir talks would not have come about had he been taken heed of. He had apparently offered his services to Vajpayee as potential intermediary between New Delhi and Islamabad. For public awareness Nayar added that on his recent visit to Islamabad, none other than General Pervez Musharraf had personally asked him to persuade “Vajpayee to resume the Indo-Pak dialogue”. But as luck would have it or wouldn’t, Vajpayee didn’t give two hoots for Nayar’s offer. What was more enraging was Vajpayee’s tongue in cheek answer even in a moment of crisis. “We are grateful to Nayar for offering his services...he is already overburdened with too many responsibilities...we do not want to saddle him with more chores than he can possible handle.” Was he confusing himself with Nayar?

Laughter the best medicine

Creatures of a failed state, Bengalis sometimes have to depend entirely on their sense of humour to keep them going. At least that is how Congress chief whip in West Bengal, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, faced this adversity. Das Munshi has tried hard to dislodge rival ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury from West Bengal’s tepid seat. If things didn’t work out the way he expected it was because of the madam’s cold feet about axing “loyal Barkatda”. Besides, the taste of Fazli mangoes was still fresh in her mouth. So Ghani was allowed to stay. A dejected Das Munshi, with nothing much to do, much less go against 10 Janpath’s infinite wisdom, came up with this oneliner, “Vajpayeeji had ceasefire with the Hizbul Mujahedin and Soniaji has ceasefire with Barkat Mujahedin”. He was referring to Barkatda’s loyalists, Sultan Ahmad and Abdul Mannan, who had threatened to leave the party if their chief was unceremoniously sacked. One hopes this ceasefire will not cease as unceremoniously as that in the cooler climes.

In defence of backroom boys

Unceremonious goings-on in the official set up in New Delhi. The failure of the Kashmir talks has initiated another round of passing the buck. The intelligence bureau blames RAW for its inadequate spadework. RAW, on its part, places the blame on highly placed civilians who conducted the backdoor diplomacy with the tacit support of senior officials in the PMO. Pass on, Sam.

Blame it on the tongue

Lok Sabha deliberations on Kashmir and the Hizbul Mujahedin-Centre talks were a strain on many public figures. TDP’s Yarren Naidu talked on the issue with reference to the “Mizbul”. BJP’s Tapan Sikdar went a step further and called it “Bulbul”. Little wonder the talks failed.    

More promises from the BJP. This one is for the party spokesman, M Venkiah Naidu. He is visibly upset over Bangaru Laxman taking the cake — the presidentship of the party, to be more precise. Soon after his name was rejected for the post, a sullen Naidu apparently went up to LK Advani to tell him that he had made up his mind to resign from the party posts he held. His logic was, if he wasn’t considered capable of becoming the party president, how could he be found capable of holding the other positions in the party? Naidu, incidentally, is also a member of the money management group of the saffron party. Following this outburst, Vajpayee came out with the statement that Naidu was opting out of the race for the party president. But not before he had soothed ruffled feathers. He reportedly spoke to Naidu personally and assured him that whenever there was a cabinet expansion in the near future, Naidu would be given a berth for his selfless service. A repeat performance of something Vajpayee has done so many times. Naidu probably should have a heart to heart talk with our Sahib Singh Verma.    


Beating up is fun

Sir — It is now sadly accepted that journalists are at high risk in places like Srinagar. But it seems they also run the risk of violence within a state secretariat when they try to respond to an official’s invitation to cover a particular meeting (“Writers’ staff rough up scribes”, Aug 11). The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has really taken to the culture of violence. Perhaps the feats of its cadre in Nanoor inspired the deskbound babus to go en masse for the nearest unsuspecting target. Slapping and dragging about a woman journalist — picked up from the police in Senari? — was part of the game. If this is what the CPI(M)-controlled state coordination committee teaches its members, perhaps the party in its wisdom will also hear its own death knell in the state?
Yours faithfully,
Bipasha Mukherjee, Calcutta

Lord of the forest

Sir — It is difficult to say who ought to be more happy — the family of the Kannada film star, Raj Kumar, following the government’s decision to accept “all 10 demands” of the sandalwood smuggler, Veerappan, and agreeing to negotiate with him, or the inept governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for their role in his expected release (“States meet Veerappan demands”, Aug 7).

It has been seen time and again in our country that the government always caves in under the demands of rowdies and criminals. The release of passengers from the hijacked Indian Airlines plane last year following demands from Masood Azhar has not yet been erased from public memory. It is not difficult to surmise that such incidents of abduction will continue to take place. And that both the Karnataka and the Tamil Nadu governments will be pressurized in future, since Veerappan’s blackmailing seems to have worked. Why are the chief ministers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, S.M. Krishna and M. Karunanidhi, making a demigod out of a smuggler and a killer?

What next? Veerappan hoisting the national flag on Independence Day?

Yours faithfully,
Sankar Lal Singh, Calcutta

Sir — The inability of the police to nab Veerappan shows two things: that the brigand is extraordinarily brilliant, that the police are nincompoops. It is amazing how Veerapan continues to be ever elusive, while keeping track of forest officials, the police and all his targets. The authorities unabashedly claim that they have no inkling as to Veerappan’s hideout, though he operates without any known support of foreign terrorist groups.

The money spent by the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in their so-called bids to track him down may have by now run into millions of rupees. But what came of it? If Veerappan is ever caught, he should be able to provide interesting insights into facts that might turn out to be home truths for Indian politics. Is that why the states are evading his arrest?

Yours faithfully,
E.M. Adithyan, Edapal

Sir — Ethnic and communal violence suits Indians fine (“Bangalore bursts in ethnic fury”, Aug 1). Else why should there be any violence in Bangalore resulting from the abduction of a film star by a notorious criminal? Reports that Veerappan was protesting against the ill-treatment of Tamils by Kannada authorities led to ethnic violence. Can anyone deny that there is no unity among the different communities in India? Whenever there is a crisis, invocation of a “foreign hand” has always saved Indian politicians. What is the lame excuse going to be this time around?

Yours faithfully,
Ann Mathew, Calcutta

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