Monday, December 31, 2007

Autobiography of An Actor - Sivaji Ganesan

A seven year old boy fascinated by the street play called "Kambalathaar Koothu" which has the story of Kattabomman, ran away from home to join the drama troupe , later immortalised the same character on Drama as well as on Cinema winning awards and accolades for the same "Kattabomman". Here is a story of one of the outstanding actors of Modern India , an actor most of the contemporaries envy and the subsequent actors tried to emulate.

Reading this book, brings back those nostalgic memories of my 5 years of Pondicherry life. Accompanying my ex-boss Sri Aravamudhan to those second show movies of yesteryear actors in the now extinct 'Naveena' and 'Kandan' theatres watching those Black&White movies. Watching those movies were like attending a class. He was so much informed of the stories and other background information of actors, movies, scenes etc. That was my entry into the grand world of Tamil Movies. Reading this was a similar experience. Stories, anecdotes, incidents and history all mixed and told from none other than the thespian of Tamil movies.

From a stricter sense, this is not an auto biography. It is in the form of question and answers. The biographer Sri T S Narayanaswamy asks questions to Sri Sivaji Ganesan and the replies are given. So, technically, it is more of dialogue and he justifies in one of the question as " the best way to clear an issue is through question and answer: thus this book is in such a format". The limitation of this style is that the thought process is not free flowing. It is not what Sri Sivaji Ganesan wants to tell us, it is what Sri TSN wants us to know. The direction and the control here is not with the ACTOR but he merely replies as directed by someone else. Having said that Sri TSN has done a commendable job in terms of covering all aspects of the life of the actor and controls the flow of thought and the chronological details. The acting, political and family aspect of his life was adequately covered in these discussion. Undoubtedly, hard work and research has gone into making this book.

The story starts from his childhood and with clarity sri Sivaji recollects the incidents of his birth, his father's arrest ("this child is born to send his father to jail") and the struggle of his mother to bring up the children. His fascination towards the street plays and the desire to act in plays , which leads to his running away from home at the age of 7 and joining the drama troupe. His rigorous training from the able drama artists and stalwarts in shaping up the actor in him and his gradual progress in the ranks as an established actor.

Here is the story of him adorned with the title of Sivaji in his own words.
"Sivaji Kanda Hindu Rajyam" a play written by Anna , for the Dravida Kazhakams Seventh Conference in 1946, was the reason for the title "Sivaji" ... It was MGR who was originally supposed to play the lead role. MGR refused for some reason and it had fallen on Ganesan to take the lead role. E V Ramaswami Naikar ( thanthai periyar ) who after watching the electrifying performance declared " Today onwards you will be called Sivaji".

Sivaji like all other actors from the Drama / theatre experience are known for their classical style of acting. They are so self confident , their body language the movements of limbs their hand eye coordination are all exact. I consider their style as the classical style of acting and it has the influence of drama all over them. It might not be admired by the current generation ( as over-acting ) , but he definitely opened a path for the later generation to follow. By the way , according to Sivaji this is justified as he puts it " Acting is exaggeration of emotions".

To me ( who is not fromTamilnadu) , Sri Sivaji is known for his amazing screen persona and his ability to be the centre of attraction on any character he portray. How many mythical and historical characters have he brought back to the mind of people. It is the way he mesmerised the audience with those long sentences written by Sri Karunanidhi and made them live evergreen in the mind of people. He claims to have the Guinness world record for the longest sentence spoken in a movie, shot in single shot for approximately 9 minutes.

He has clear understanding about thin line between the character and actor in a performance. This is one topic hugely misunderstood and continue to be debated. He says:
"Actors should not remark that they have morphed to become the characters, which is not correct. Only mis informed people would say so. If he gets emotional, his vision clouds and he wouldn't know where the heroin stands, where the mike is and where the camera placed. The marking of a good actor stands out only when he is able to slip in and out of his character without actually being touched by it. This is why I implore actors not to be emotionally attached to their characters."

When coming to lip-sync I cant see any other actor who comes closure. He is perfect and create an impression with his lip , face and the vocal chord changes that it is performed by him. "Moving one's lips for a song and singing a song are two different things. While I listened ( the song to be shot) , I would enquire about the number of shots that had been allocated to me, rehearse a few times. While shooting, I would absorb the song and hum the tune, this is to get the rhythm of the song and to create an illusion that I was singing. "

What comes out strongly through this conversation is his passion for this medium and his strive to excel in each performance, be it on the stage during a drama or on scene for a movie. His pride and confidence about his stature as the best actor is evident in these words and rightly so. There was not an actor like him and there wont be one.

On the other hand, we also see a not so successful public person. His multiple attempts in the political arena have failed miserably time and again. His closeness to Anna, Kamaraj and other political icons have not won him great strides in the political systems. Of course he blame ( without naming) vested interests working against him continuously. His repeated errors have an answer from him, but are too feeble to be convincing to the reader ( that is me !!).

He is a nationalist and his love towards the country ( which many times goes beyond the local boundaries of Tamil Nadu) and its leaders are absolutely strong. Apart from the PadmaSri and Padmabhushan awards ( which are no less in terms of value attached) , I'm not sure if we ( the country) have recognised him for his acting. He has not won any national award ( though his movies have won many awards at the national level) and it has to be the Afro-Asian Film Festival to recognise him and award him with the best actor.

The discussions also touches his personal life ( to a much shorter extend) and we see his relationship with his mother, wife, siblings and his children. He is also comes out as a friendly person with his co-stars and his directors ( whom he says respect the most in the sets to one of the question) and shows his admiration to his contemporaries in cine field.

We also see a smart person in here. There are only good things to talk about. Except his political setbacks ( which is dealt in multiple places), he doesn't discuss much of his struggle as an actor ( except when he was introduced to film field during Parashakthi ). May be he was an established actor prior to his joining the films and was always delivered numerous hits to discuss the low phases of his career ( The list of Silver Jubilee and hundred days films are astonishing to note) . Also, this book is noncontroversial. He has not rubbed anyone at the wrong place. Even while discussing his political disasters , he refuses to name people but merely passes them as "vested interest". He also clarifies in the negative about his rumored tiff with the other big actor of his time , MGR. He gives enough and more of evidences to prove that he and MGR enjoyed a very friendly and close relationship.

Smt Sabita Radhakrishna has done the translation from Tamil to English. One could understand the difficulty in translating the colloquial Tamil into English, and it is evident in the early pages. The translation was much better later on as she seems to have moved out of word by word translation. The book also has a huge collection of photographs from his life as well as from the films.

This is an invaluable book. It gives you the fascinating story of cinema in general and Tamil Cinema in particular in the second half of the 20th Century with the inseparable political spectrum( inseparable as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned) though the life and times of a man who lead this from front. Though he is no more ( the book is released on his 75th birthday -post his death), he will remain in memory of millions and millions of film goers, from critics to common man and aspiring young artists continue to practice the lengthy dialogs from his movies to impress the listeners.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Music - Daniel J Levitin

I haven't learnt music. These days I am deeply attracted to Carnatic music and with my limited exposure, I'm amused at my ability to identify a mohanam , a kharaharapriya or a thodi. I have always thought, of how am I able to do this. Unlike people who have learnt music where they can construct - de-construct the lines to swaras and associate the arohana-avarohana pattern to the appropriate ragam, I can not do that. But I can identify most of the ragams, and how is it possible. It is possible only by referring to my earlier listening and successful comparison to a similar krithi / song stored somewhere within me....

Here is a book that can help you to find some answers to these. It had given me direction on some of the stupid ( not really ) doubts I had..

Daniel Levitin, a neuro-scientist, talks about the way our mind understand music and how the brain processes or participate in processing these information. This book is not entirely on music. It is more on the science of music ( neuro science to be precise). Levitin, before becoming a scientist, was a musician, a sound engineer and a record producer.

The book starts with the basic music theory and explanation of the key concepts and words in the music arena. What is Tone, Scale, Rhythm, Timber , pitch , tempo etc. I found this very useful and informative as a layman on timber. I had always wondered on how does different instrument sound differently, even though they play the same NOTEs and have tuned to the same pitch. I knew that it had to be something to do with the harmonics. It is only now that I found a proper answer that satisfies my doubts. According to him, timbre itself has 3 dimension .. the Attack phase ( when the energy is introduced to the instrument - by bowing, plucking or striking) , the steady state and the flux. If the attack phase is editted out of the instrument ( or the music) , most of the instrument sound similar..!! This also explains to me the principle of "Synthesizers", or the artificially ( electronically) produced sound.

The next chapter is on the Rhythm. Again, the key words are tempo , meter , beats and one can draw parallel to our on "thaLa" systems in carnatic music. The corresponding pictures and charts are as complex as some of the charts given in the concert reviews by my friend Ram.

Interesting observation is on the loudness. Loudness is a psychological phenomenon, or loudness doesn't exist in the world, it exists only in the mind. By increasing the volume of your stereo systems, you are increasing the amplitude of vibration of the molecules, which in turn interpreted as loudness by brain. Why do people like loud music , most of the rock shows are played loud to the thrill and excitement of the crowd. Part of the reason, he says, could be that loud music saturates the auditory systems, causing neurons to fire at maximum rate.

To sum it up, there are 7 major elements into music, which are understood and acted upon by the brain. Pitch, Timber, Key , Harmony , Loudness , rhythm, meter and tempo. The subsequent chapters discussed how does each of these are processed within brain. I don't intend to get into the technical aspect of neurons firing upon listening to the music and which part of brain understand what aspect of music. These are very technical and I haven't studied neuro-science to decipher this fully. However, let me tell you some interesting observation and questions out of these reading..

a) Our brain has powers in processing these information and store them. Brain form predictive opinion about what is expected to come next, and any surprise to this will make us to distinguish the music from others ( and appreciate).. The preconceived idea of what is coming next could be genetics, early listening, similarity with what is already heard ( familiarity , exposure to the style etc). When you go for a rock concert you know what to expect vis a vis a carnatic classical concert. These information are already stored within us and are re-produced at will. Which is why some of the music is ever lasting and one wants to hear them again and again ( they never cease to surprise this part of the brain ?).

b) The concept of pitch , rhythm and scales are alive in every human being. Even if you can't sing with correct pitch and scale you are able to remember the song ( humming to yourself) with absolute clarity on these aspect. Try singing "Happy birthday to you" to inside and see..!!

c) Brain identifies the tonal quality of different instruments and people , if experienced already. Which is why you are able to identify the person on the other side of the phone ( without seeing them), even when he/she is suffering by a bad throat.

d) Brain also stores the associated events in memory along with the music. This is why we can recollect certain events of our life while listening to your favorite music. Same song, repeatedly brings those memories back to you.

e) Though not proven convincingly ( to me at least), there are certain elements of genetics in your music ability. Apart from the ambience , culture and exposure, this is also a reason on why some people are better musically , and other ( like me) are not. Child prodigies are partly natural , hard work notwithstanding..

f) As discussed, different aspect of music triggers different parts of the brain. Unlike the perception, music appeals to both left and right brains similarly. ( I used to joke as other musicians appeal to the right half of the brain and TNS appeals to the left !! ) .

In his chapter "What makes a Musician" he examines how do people become expert musicians ? Musical expertise hasd always been defined as technical achievements - mastery of instruments / vocal. How does this explain the word "talent" ? Is the high levels of musical achievement are based on innate brain structures ( is this talent ?) or are they the result of training and practice ? It is evident that 'talented' person acquire skills faster than a normal person. Different people have different 'talents' or different brain structure. Some people have a biological predisposition towards particular instruments, or towards singing. He says, there may be a cluster of genes that work together to create the component skills that one must have to become a successful musician.

Also, why are some musicians are superior to others when it comes to emotional ( versus technical) dimension of music ? no one knows for sure. So called "bhava" in music being discussed elsewhere is coming to my mind. Stevie Wonder says, he gets himself into the same frame of mind when he wrote the song; he tries to capture the same feeling and sentiment.
Why is that some singing are very likable ? In spite of their technical and other errors, why do people prefer to listen to certain singers ? Why is that whenever, M S Subbalakshmi , KVN , Yesudas ( and many others) have always an attraction ? Notwithstanding their ability and technical knowledge , they also have sweet voice. It is true even on conversation. Some people have voices which are very "phonogenic" ( as Levitin calls it).
Physical gestures: Studies are also shown that non-musician listeners are exquisitely sensitive to the physical gestures of the musicians. By watching musical performance with the sound turned off, and attending to things like the musicians arm, shoulder and torso movements, ordinary listeners can detect a great deal of expressive intent of the musician. See , now you understand the gestures of T M Krishna and Sanjay ( as though they are driving an old Leyland truck through Western Ghats) during their concerts.

The aspect of chunking is also an interesting point. Chunking is the process of tying together units of information into groups and remembering the group instead of the individual pieces. for example STD codes. Musicians also use chunking in several ways ? Does the 'karvais' at the end of the swara singing in carnatic, can be classified under this ?

The book is full of results experiments and the analysis to support the topics discussed. Being brain, we have very little information on how does it behave and all the scientist are able to do is to observe the changes of various parts of brains with the measurements using EEG. This added to the experiments can lead us to a better understanding of the functions of brain musically.

An extremely interesting books for people who wants to know about the aspects of music , both scientific and conceptual. Though this book is more on the scientific in nature, it has written in a manner ( with case studies, anecdotes, history , examples) that even layman can understand.

Few questions remain.. Scientifically, how have we evolved musically ? Leave alone the technical innovations and invention of newer musical instruments, does the human brain understand and appreciate music better over generations ?

This Is Your Brain on Music - The Science of a Human Obsession
Written by Daniel J Levitin
313 Pages
Added on 05-Feb-08
Guru has read the book and have his thoughts here.
Added on 08-Feb 08
BERNARD HOLLAND Writes in NYTimes about the mannerisms of the musicians on stage..
It’s another reason classical music is not reaching more young people: not because of how it sounds, but because of how it looks. Even worse, lugubrious gymnastics like these advertise the feelings of performers, not of Beethoven or Schumann. Music is asked to stand in line and wait its turn.
Read the article here