Friday, May 22, 2015

Chakra :: Swara Sandhya

A rāga holds a series of notes, guided by the eight parts it falls into over the 24-hour cycle. More than the melody, it's intended to convey the mood of the day, of the seasons, to color, to tint one's mood. During music theory, we also learnt about the underlying scales of a rāga in the form of swaras. Yes, it's as complicated as all scales are on any musical instrument, and it's a brand new set of music theory from the western classical learnt as a kid. My head exploded from counting the beats. Each rāga is a 72-note scale with a different number of notes ascending and descending; up to 12 notes can form the octave of a rāga. I was pleased that the friends invited me to Esplanade's Chakra: Swara Sandhya: Confluence of Sunset Melodies.

We heard a series of rāgas written for dusk. It was a unique pairing of musical instruments- the sitar (Shakir Khan) with the violin (Srividya Sriram), the tabla (Nawaz Mirajkar) with the mridangam (T Ramanan). Together they form a jugalbandi- a performance of Indian classical music in a duet by the various musicians. This concert saw a pairing of the two streams of Indian classical music- Carnatic (south) and Hindustani (north).

Beyond the very basic, I know nothing about the musicians or the musical pieces. Did a lot of frantic reading before and after the concert. The more knowledgeble friends gave me a summary of the pieces as well. Whewwww. All that mattered was, the musicians were very good. Sunset rāgas are meant to evoke feelings of reflection, grace, devotion. They can also be playful, upbeat and pensive at the same time. I'm not proficient at identifying rāgas aurally. Not good at describing because I'm not familiar enough with the beats. Read coherent words and thoughtful observations of the pieces over at notabilia.

It was a close to two-hour concert. Luckily it began at 6pm; we caught most of it. A pity we had to slip out before the end in order to catch some bits of Cheating Sons at the Outdoor Theatre. Wanted to hear the new songs played live from their recently released eponymous album. What a glorious evening of vastly different kinds of music enjoyed with the friends. Loved it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Oakham's 'The Kraken's Ink'

The good folks at Smith Street Taps told us they would be tapping Oakham Ales' seasonal black IPA 'The Kraken's Ink'. Aiiight!!! Hurried down to Chinatown Complex to have dinner, meet this beautiful keg before it's finished, and say hello to Daniel and Meng.

It was a torturously hot humid night; the air was so still that the fans didn't help much. Bit uncomfortable. But we were dressed down and all prepared to sweat it out. We needed a really cold shower after. Phewwww. Don't need fancy venues all the time. It's always about the beer, and the company. Much needed, for me. A time to unwind after long hours at work. During these moods, often, I prefer sitting down with friends over drinks rather than gorging my face with food.

'The Kraken's Ink'. Big hops, lots of roasted nuts and chocolate. YUMMY. Another proper dark ale. I couldn't stop at one. At the risk of filling up the bladder way early, I had three awesome pints. They went down easy. Smith Street Taps pours them good.

We had packs of fried insects brought in by the truckloads, courtesy of my Thai friends. Took out four packs for everyone to nibble on. Certainly not finishing these packs on our own. Forget those pork crackling or chips to complement beer. Like those deep fried Japanese baby squids, insects yo, are the way to go. Environmentally friendly too. Hahahaha.

These packs were fried, dried with a ton of salt and probably MSG. They kinda crumbled like powder in the mouth. Zero nutritional value, but provided loads of laughter and eiooow-ing. No, we couldn't bear to finish all of it. The 'fresh' ones fried along the streets of Bangkok still tasted way better, like...kinda juicier. Hurhurhurhur. However, we draw the line at water bugs and cockroaches. Those really raise goosebumps. I can't bear the thought of chewing them feelers and all. UGH.

And of course three lads from IEHAC were there to down pints. Missing one lad and lass. Extra pints were gulped in their stead. After all, Oakham's special release is right up there with the similar names and graphics, and IEHAC's recent release 'The Kraken'. :)

From left: Bruce of Ale N Cider, the good folks at Smith Street Taps- Daniel, Meng,
and 3/5 of IEHAC.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

English National Ballet :: Le Corsaire

Since the friends flew into town for a long weekend, I joined them for English National Ballet's Le Corsaire. Artistic director and lead principal dancer Tamara Rojo led this production to Singapore. Even though we had seen this production on film, we didn't mind seeing it on stage. We like Anna-Marie Holmes' contemporary choreography of Le Corsaire with new orchestral versions of the score. The set design and costumes by Bob Ringwood are amazing. Rich and vibrant colors, gold, chalices, sequins and crystals, all of which we couldn't help being charmed by and they drew the audience into the world of the ballet.

The story unfolded in three acts- of a righteous kidnapping, a mutiny, another kidnapping, double-crossing, a fake wedding and complicated plotting. All one needed to know is- handsome corsair- pirate Conrad braves the seas to save the beautiful slave-girl Medora from the evil clutches of Pasha (an ancient Turkish rank, like a knight of sorts) Seyd. There're the support characters- an ally in harem-girl Gulnare and a mutinous corsair Birbanto who simply refuses to die. It was kinda funny. One wouldn't usually link pirates, fancy costumes and ballet together. What more with fights, murder and a shipwreck. As they jumped, spun and pirouette-d, the dancers looked too clean. :P

Apparently ticket sales were slow. Well, to stage an under-the-radar classical ballet for five performances over four nights and a matinée, that's brave, and kinda overestimating the Singapore audience, and the numbers who would fly in to watch it. (They performed Swan Lake and Coppélia in China.) Anyway. I didn't care who danced Medora or whatever, or how the dancers interpreted each character. That wasn't the point of the evening for me. The characters don't matter because in this ballet, I'm not watching it for the story or the social themes. If I did, I would have been more irritated by how women are depicted in the ballet. I was watching it like how it is- a glitzy slick Hollywood-style production. Yah, the dancing was rather fine, competent and enjoyable.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Singapura Club at Tiong Bahru

The biggest reason why I never bothered about The Singapura Club at Tiong Bahru at the corner Block 57 on Eng Hoon Street was its decor. After the make-over from the old Hainanese curry stall which moved a few streets down, this new bistro looked terribly hipster, which didn't inspire a load of confidence for its food. Its latest Namly outlet has a similar decor too. Brand owner of Chaiholics Jerry Singh is behind these new bistros. Some friends mentioned that the food was surprisingly decent, so I kept that in mind.

On an evening out with the visiting friends exploring Tiong Bahru Estate, we went to The Singapura Club for dinner. We were pleasantly surprised by how good and properly-spicy the food was. No air-conditioning, just fans, and you sit right by the street. Be prepared to sweat it out. I rather enjoyed that. We completely sold by its dum biryani. The menu comprise the usual local bistro mix. What you'll see at most delis and cafes at the country clubs, but probably better. We shared food; portions were generous. They loved the masala chicken liverlamb biryani, and this version of laksa with rich thick gravy. The kitchen didn't dumb down the spices. Although the servers went trigger-happy with lime juice over my sambal belachan. Too sour. Otherwise, everything's really decent. Clearly, the kitchen at the Tiong Bahru outlet could really cook.

What a convenient venue for casual eats. Definitely coming back for the rest of the menu, especially the Indian food. Those were so good. The other friends said they really liked the devil's curry and its mulligatawny soup. The beer menu isn't exciting; some uhhh...German options. I really don't fancy German beers. At least it's got Asahi dry on tap and a Coopers Pale Ale in a bottle. Those did nicely to match the spices.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Of Kathak and the Mughal Empire

Anjali Mitter Duva's 'Faint Promise of Rain' isn't a genre I normally read. Am glad I did. It speaks of the trials and tribulations of a family and their four children, and their eventual paths in life. (Reviews herehere and here.) 

It also talks about kathak. The kathak is my favorite of all eight forms of classical Indian dance. It's absolutely mesmerizing in the way the dance tells a story. I was also curious about how it evolved from being a Hindu devotional temple dance into courtesan art in the Muslim courts of the Mughal Empire. 

Vividly describing the dance, its steps, beats and stories, this book spans seventeen chapters. The author said in an interview, "Coincidentally, the Indian classical music cycle to which kathak is often danced is tintal, or a 16 beat cycle, but everything is always brought back, in the end, to the first beat of the next cycle, i.e. the seventeenth beat. Seventeen beats, seventeen chapters. Thus the end of one cycle is the beginning of another, as it is with many things in life."

Protagonist Adhira was born on a rare night of rain in the summer of 1554, in the desert of Rajasthan, and the region's drought ended. Her father was the dance master at the temple to Lord Krishna just outside the citadel of Jaisalmer. He thought she would have a special destiny. In the family of four children, she was only one willing to continue her father's tradition dancing kathak. Her father told her to follow tradition and marry the temple deity and give herself to a wealthy patron.   After a rape by the temple priest, she did not want to stay in the temple or in the city even. By then, the court had stopped giving state pensions to temple staff and employees. Hinduism wasn't a priority in a Muslim court and in war-time. She found a way out of Jaisalmer with the Raja's retinue for his daughter's wedding to the Emperor.

"Of course. Please bear one thing in mind, though, as you dance. Our esteemed guest is of the Muslim faith. Do not offend him with inappropriate depictions of ... well, Muslims don't portray their god." Here the Raja looked pointedly at me, and then, seeing that I understood, past me at Padmini and Bapu. ... 
I pulled an imaginary veil over my face and opened my hands into a lotus flower, and suddenly Bapu wanted to laugh aloud. I was going to depict Radha, Krishna's consort, waiting for her lover. No one need know who the characters were. Radha could be a woman, earthly, of flesh and blood. The Muslim wold never guess the truth. I would perform before him and show him the wonders of Hindu dance and faith without ever seeming to do so. .... 
I stepped into the center of the dance space and bowed, holding my palms together in front of me. Ever so slowly, I brought my hands to my forehead, my mouth, my chest. Mind, breath, heart. I thanked our ancestors for their gift of dance, and in so doing I became Radha, thanking my Lord Krishna for my very existence. Radha, Krishna's favorite among the cowherding maidens. ...

Apparently this is the first set of four books of set against historical background, with kathak as a mention or a focus of as a way of life. The author's next book will take us to the mid-1800s of artistic Lucknow, where Victorian sensibilities of the British Empire deemed kathak immoral. The other two books will take us to Calcutta and Paris. Do women in then embrace traditional norms, submit to expected gender roles or rebel against them? I think this is the same question that faces women today in many countries.

In these times of political change, Adhira was determined to keep her faith and love for Lord Krishna, and carve out her whole destiny, leaving the temple and her home, making a new life in the Emperor Akbar's Muslim court. At the end, we learnt she was still alive in 1611 at the ripe old age of 57, happily married to the apprentice to the finance minister, with a horde of grandchildren in Akbarabad, but with limited motion from a bad fall after hitting her head on the stone floor.

For several months, I recovered under the care of Akbar's own physician. Movement has fully returned to my right side, and I can now walk the gardens with an attendant and correct my daughters when they dance. During those months, a flood of new memories arrived: Ma wishing I would eat the dried apricot she gave me, Mahendra crying behind a temple pillar while I sang, Hari searching the night for me, Bapu willing Manavi-ji to bless me as a devadasi. Lord Krishna took the dance from my body, but he gave me something in return: the story of my family, a story only I can tell.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Prata for Supper

Since I don't have a driving license, I never bother to pick up the man at the airport when he comes in from work trips. That night, my last meeting ended at 10.30pm; I decided to be nice and took the last train (last connecting at Tanah Merah station at 11.10pm) out to Changi Airport to meet his flight. It had been a grueling trip for him. I was way early. The wait was negligible since it was an opportunity to catch up on leisurely reads after all the crazy hours spent on writing and reading not-so-fun work stuff.

The man's flight landed on time. Without checked luggage, he breezed through quickly and we hopped into a cab within 20 minutes of the plane's arrival on the tarmac. Love the efficiency of Changi Airport. It was a loooong 23-hour flight for him. But he was more hungry than exhausted. Since sleep was prioritized over food on the final leg home, supper was required at 3am.

Neither of us are bak chor mee people. Didn't bother with the supposedly famous stall at the basement foodcourt of Terminal 3. Skipped Changi Village and Old Airport Road Food Center. Went to Killiney Road's Nana Teh Tarik instead. The man sorely missed spices in a murtabak. I like its coin prata. Don't ask us for a comparison. We're not so on to hunt down the 'best' prata in town or whatever. (Here, refer to RERG's amazing comparison of 36 prata stalls in town.) We don't care about the 'best'. As long prata is made fresh, we're good. It's always a long wait for coin prata here. It is made only upon ordering, and I suppose at these tiny sizes, it can be a bit annoying to shape. Hurhurhur.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Valentina Lisitsa in Singapore

Not one who is prone to subtle quiet cadences, Ukraine-born Valentina Lisitsa was as fiery on stage as her recent tweets, especially in her defense of Russia's foreign policies and military overtures. (Discussions here, here, here and here.) She last played in Singapore for Piano Festival 2007 with a program entirely of Liszt. Two nights ago at Esplanade Concert Hall, she opted for a long and grueling three-hour solo program. So while I was very distracted by her shiny strappy heels and frilly hem of the skirt, she gave the piano all her attention.

She played Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 or otherwise known as 'The Tempest', Bach-Busoni BWV 1004 Chaconne in D MinorLiszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor and all of Chopin's Études. 24. All. Stifled grins through her Beethoven and Chopin. The speed was astounding and sounded like she was doing scales. :P Like what my piano teacher used to say, "Stop rushing like a bullet train." Then there were three Liszt encores which included Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 and La Campanella. Giggled at the third piece that was Totentanz for solo piano. Dance of the Dead, from Gregorian chant Dies Irae. Very much her. She has probably concluded that Liszt's works are representative of her playing style. It was like, she should have just played Liszt totally tonight too, and not bother with other composers since she wasn't going to play them the way audiences thought she would. It was fine, really. I thought it quite rude that many people were walking out of the already-sparse concert hall even before the encore. It was a rather strange mix of audience. It was odd for the organizers to hold this on the opening night of English National Ballet's 'Le Corsaire' and Singapore Fashion Week. We don't have such a big population/audience threshold to go around all these events.

Valentina Lisitsa is quite the performer lah. Not solemn standoffish, but one who takes the piano out to the streets, on the subway cars and train stations. While she's technically proficient as a professional is, she makes rather unorthodox interpretations — the types of expressions that piano teachers tell you not to do. She's engaging and brings in the crowd to her performances. So I don't know what that says about the audience at this Singapore concert, going by the attendance numbers. She's very much the Youtube star and social media darling who narrows the distance between stereotypes of classical music and the everyman.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bowmore 21 y.o 1988

The Bowmore 21 y.o distilled in 1988 (port cask matured). I love it. We pounced on two bottles when we saw them at Heathrow airport years ago. Then we ordered a carton of these from 2009. Predictably less costly than what I have to pay now no thanks to higher alcohol import taxes.

That night when I grabbed a photo, there were exactly two generous drams left. Saved it for another night. We're all out of this expression now. *very very sadface* Like I said, Bowmore has shifted its naming, bottling and output. Dunno if I like its recent releases. I certainly don't fancy its duty-free White Sands 17 y.o anymore. It tastes vastly differently the previous bottling. Its Mariner 15 y.o isn't exciting too.

Meanwhile, I've hoarded a few other favorite bottles, which apparently, are all out of production now. Win. Why do I always pick the expressions which run out so fast. Oh well, barrels finish and distilleries do halt production after a couple of years. Nothing lasts forever and each batch will differ year on year. I'm sometimes left breathless keeping up as distilleries change ownership and go bigger on marketing and pushing out 'new' products, simply to up the sales numbers. I've been a whisky drinker for almost two decades. Seen and tasted the changes which aren't necessarily for the better. It's nice occasionally to sip a familiar old flavor. For this Bowmore 1988 21y.o, I love the deep smoke, rich hues and almost sweet notes at the end of each dram.

Ah whisky, this May and June, you're a good friend. That's not to say I don't have human friends. Of course I do, and the ones I call friends, are the best. Also, I've always declared that I'm an alcoholic. Well, it's arbitrary. It all depends on the sort of volume and the amount of appropriate libations one deems excessive and thus fall into the category of 'alcoholic'.