Sunday, May 29, 2011

India: new life for old-school folk music

Technology meets tradition in a new record label that's trying to popularize folk music in today's India.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - May 29, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — As a young girl, Shefali Bhushan studied Hindustani classical music. But in 2000, when the 39-year-old, New Delhi-based music promoter started her first record label, Beat of India — more or less by accident — it was India's haunting, vibrant folk music that captivated her.

"I had been trying to do some music-related programs for television," Bhushan said. "But they didn't want to commission anything. A friend of mine who's also involved with Beat of India, NK Sharma, suggested we do something like this because it hasn't really been done in our country in any organized way."

"Something like this" meant a six-year-long talent search in India's small towns and villages, making field recordings in huts and fields, schools and community centers, with what might have been the last generation of genuine folk performers.

"That was the most difficult part, and continues to be, because it's very difficult to find the authentic, better artists of any practicing genre," Bhushan said.

"We found in our experience that the All India Radio stations in the local areas and some of the more knowledgeable program executives were the best sources of information, because over the years they have dealt with a lot of the artists."

Many of these musicians had never earned a living from singing and playing, and their remote houses weren't always easy to find, Bhushan recalls.

On one field trip, the team went to several villages with the same name asking for a washer man, or dhobi, called Babu Nandan Dhobi who'd they heard was a human lexicon of washer folk songs. When they finally found the 70-something-year-old musician, he was fast asleep in the tiny hut on his farm plot.

"We had to shake him awake almost, and he was completely shocked," Bhushan said. "He didn't know who we were or why we were there — three or four people from a city standing on top of him at his cot."

But soon after, when the musician had sent a boy to buy sweets for his guests and learned why they'd come, he began to explain how the rhythm of wet clothes striking against the river rocks makes the natural beat of the washerfolk's songs.

"He just started demonstrating for us with an imaginary cloth," Bhushan said. "And he continued to sing many, many songs for us."

Bhushan's unwitting tribute to John Lomax didn't go unrewarded — and neither have the musicians.

After a short stint giving away music downloads for free and hoping for charitable donations, Bhushan, Sharma and another partner, Prabhat Agarwal, started the Beat of India record label to print CDs and, subsequently, sell music downloads. Individual tracks — now archived by region, style, genre and other categories — sell for just $0.69.

All the artists receive an upfront payment that's significant relative to their income, and Beat of India pays a royalty fee of 10 percent from the sales of individual tracks and custom CDs. Moreover, the publicity has helped a number of the artists get gigs playing at large venues in urban India and even abroad, and several have been asked to record songs for films.

More recently, the musicology company has licensed 10 compilation albums to a local music distribution firm, Frankfinn, with better reach in physical stores. And Beat of India has also licensed a number of songs to an international aggregator that sells content onward to heavyweights like iTunes.

Sales are modest so far, but that was never the goal.

"Our focus was to try to popularize the folk music of India," Bhushan said. "You can't find the original sound, and there are a lot of people who are interested. We know from our own experience that it's really phenomenal, dynamic music. So [giving it a larger profile] has been the objective from the beginning."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

India education: Dalit student suicide

Caste-discrimination is undermining India's efforts to uplift the oppressed through quotas in higher education.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - May 24, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — Jaspreet Singh, a young student from a caste once considered "untouchable" by other Hindus, was in his last year of medical school when his life began to fall apart.

A talented student, and his family's brightest hope for clawing their way into the middle class, he was stunned to find that he had failed community medicine, one of his easiest subjects. But he was even more devastated by the alleged reason: His professor was determined to flunk him because of his caste.

Like most students from the Dalit castes, Singh had suffered the sly digs and subtle slights of his classmates in silence for years at the Goverment Medical College (Chandigarh). His professor's alleged claim that he would never allow Singh to get there was the last straw.

Singh hung himself from the ceiling fan in the bathroom in the college library, writing in his suicide note that he could no longer bear the insults and discrimination he'd endured from two fellow students and his community medicine professor, Dr. N.K. Goel. (All three have been charged with abetting Singh's suicide, which is a crime under the Indian penal code, but no ruling has been issued and the accused maintain that they are innocent).

"The college says he couldn't cope with the coursework, but he did fine in all his other subjects," said Jaspreet's sister, Balwinder Kaur. "In surgery he got 80 percent marks."

Sadly, cases like Jaspreet's are all too common, according to the Insight Foundation, a group of young Dalits who are working to eliminate discrimination in India's higher education system.

No official effort has been made to determine how many of the more than 16,000 school and college students who have killed themselves over the past four years hail from India's historically oppressed castes, and only one study, covering only the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, has investigated discrimination on campus.

But the Insight Foundation believes that a disproportionate number of the students committing suicides are Dalits, and its members allege that caste discrimination, a dirty secret, is ubiquitous at India's top universities — even as the government works to expand access to higher education with quotas, or reservations, for historically oppressed groups.

"The problem which we face in elite institutions is much worse," said Anoop Kumar, the Insight Foundation's national coordinator, and a Dalit himself. "These elite institutions are considered to be very prestigious, and the Dalit students who enter there are thought to be intruding into that space through reservations — they don't deserve to be there, this is such a competitive place, this is such a meritorious place, and these guys have come through quota. So the hatred and hostility is much more."

It just might be possible that hostility marks an inflexion point for Indian society not unlike white America's reaction to the desegregation of schools in the 1960s.

To break the stranglehold of caste — which has endured for thousands of years, defeating the efforts of religious reformers, missionaries and civil rights activists — India made the persecution or segregation of the erstwhile untouchables illegal and introduced a quota system that reserved 22.5 percent of university placements and government jobs for the so-called "Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes" in the 1950s.

But in recent years, since the rise of caste-based political parties in the 1990s has begun to ensure those reservations are enforced, and other laboring castes have won their own job and education quotas, the shakeup in the social order has resulted in a backlash from among high caste Indians. At the All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS), for instance, where there are 50 Dalit students, hundreds of doctors staged protests and hunger strikes against the expansion of the quota system to reserve an additional 27 percent of placements for students from the laboring castes known legally as the "other backward classes," or OBCs.

Their argument: reserving half or more of the seats in India's limited universities has made it nearly impossible for high-caste students to win a place, and the quotas are eroding the high standards that have earned the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and AIIMS an international reputation for producing leaders like Indra Nooyi, the chief executive of Pepsi, and Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, among thousands of others.

That was the environment that another Dalit suicide victim, Balmukund Bharti, confronted when he won a place at AIIMS through the quota system in 2006.

Persecution forced Bharti to move out of his dorm room to bunk with other Dalit students. His professors and classmates allegedly marked him out as a "quota student" at every turn. And one of his instructors allegedly told him flat out, "You are not worthy of becoming a doctor," according to his parents, who also say that AIIMS never notified them after their son's first, unsuccessful, suicide attempt. (AIIMS did not respond to an interview request or questions sent by email).

"Suicide is just an indicator of the malaise that is there," said Kumar of the Insight Foundation, which has documented nearly 20 cases of discrimination-related suicides by Dalit students, and posted video testimonies from their parents and relatives on Youtube and various web portals.

Kumar cites the high drop out rate among Dalit students, the dearth of Dalit faculty, and the large number of unfilled quota seats as evidence that the whole education system is shot through with caste-discrimination.

Indeed, while in every other instance institutions and individuals alike cultivate a disingenuous, willful blindness to caste — refusing to compare the performance of low-caste students on anonymous tests to their performance in one-on-one evaluations, for instance — your caste is the very first thing that the university learns about you on the first day of class, Kumar says.

On his own first day at university in Uttar Pradesh, a professor asked each student to stand up and tell everyone his name, his hometown, and his rank on the standardized test that governs college admissions, which meant that he had to announce to the entire assembly that he had gained entry through the quota system, and therefore that he was a Dalit.

The Bahujan Samaj Party's Kumari Mayawati had just become the first Dalit chief minister of the state, and the professor concluded with a message for all the quota students. You had better study hard, he said, because Mayawati won't be marking your exams.

"From the first day, they identify you as a reserved category student, or a quota student, and hence, they believe you are inherently weak," Kumar said. "At the same time, they're telling you that you can't approach them for help."

Many Dalit students excel despite the obstacles, of course. But the obsession with so-called "merit" — as defined by standardized tests that are biased in favor of wealthier students — obscures the fact that most quota students are fighting their way out of small towns. Their parents have no money for expensive prep courses. And despite attending 10 years of school in a regional language, they're expected to make the transition to English without extra help.

"We want to break this myth of merit," Kumar said, referring again to Balmukund Bharti, whose parents are destitute laborers from one of India's poorest regions. "For us, the real merit is that a student from such a backward area and such a backward family, through working hard, made it to AIIMS at all."

Apparently, the university officials who would sympathize with that point of view are few and far between, suggests a health ministry-mandated investigation into discrimination at AIIMS led by Sukhadeo Thorat, a Dalit academic.

The Thorat Commission report found that the institute had not established legally required measures like a grievance cell for discrimination complaints or remedial programs to help low-caste students overcome language problems and other academic difficulties. Noting that half of a students' grade is based on "internal assessment" by instructors, the commission also found that Dalit students said their examiners made sure to inquire about their caste background, then made themselves inaccessible and spent less time with them than with their upper caste classmates.

AIIMS later formed its own committee to investigate the Thorat Commission's findings, and refuted them out of hand, filing suit in the Delhi High Court against the health minister, his secretary and three members of the Thorat committee, demanding around $10,000 in compensation for alleged defamatory remarks.

So it's not surprising that the institution has implemented few, if any, of the Thorat Commission's recommendations, according to a source close to the situation.

But the Insight Foundation is not going to let the issue lie.

Fresh out of meetings with an official from India's Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment — which is tasked with the fight against religion- and caste-based discrimination — Kumar said that the group is pushing the government to act, and plans a nationwide protest next month if it doesn't move swiftly enough.

Time could well be of the essence. When the government compelled GMC (Chandigarh) to get an independent group of professors to recheck the exam that Jaspreet Singh had failed, he passed with flying colors.

But a posthumous medical degree isn't worth much to his devastated family.

"We are still trying to get justice. We are still fighting in court," said Singh's sister. "[Professor] Goel should be dismissed and put behind bars so no other student faces something like this."

Friday, May 20, 2011

How the Delhi Metro tamed India

On Delhi's subway system, which will be larger than London's Underground by 2021, there is no shoving or shouting.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - May 19, 2011

NEW DELHI, India — At the tail end of rush hour on a typical Monday morning, commuters stream out of the Delhi Metro station at Nehru Place, a teeming shopping district.

The station is a gleaming, mirror-finish high-rise, and the commuters in their office garb and ladies in saris stride out of it in brisk, orderly fashion; no shoving, no shouting, and no spitting.

In any other Asian city — Hong Kong, maybe, or Singapore — the rush-hour scene at the Metro would be nothing remarkable. But this is Delhi, where the few things that work the way they're supposed to — the mobile phone networks, pizza delivery and the five star hotels — stand out as exceptions.

And the Metro, a government-run project, has been, since the first line opened for business in 2006 under budget and three years ahead of schedule, something of a miracle. Five years later, with the third phase of a four-stage construction schedule, the system has upheld that high standard — and promises to be bigger than the London Underground when it's finished in 2021.

"When the new stations were built, I just went there to see how they looked," said Sajjad Mohammad, a 26-year-old aspiring screenwriter who uses the Metro to commute to Delhi from the satellite city, Noida, across the Yamuna River. "It's good to see public property that's nicely designed — not like the regular trash that Delhi has."

In a city where nothing is ever finished, and everything is under repair — broken concrete and rebar flung haphazardly on the roadside rather than carted away when a job is "finished" — the Metro is just about the only public facility where the label "world class" reflects reality.

But the achievement is bigger than that. From punctuality to cleanliness to civility to rule enforcement, the government-owned Delhi Metro Rail Corporation is rapidly transforming a city that most foreign visitors, frankly, dismiss as a rude, aggressive basket case.

To be sure, the problem isn't licked yet.

Despite better safety standards than are typical for India's construction industry — a Metro project is one of the few sites where workers wear hard hats — more than 100 people, including 93 workers, have been killed by accidents since the project began in 1998.

At least one study has shown that the Metro's impact on non-riders — especially the very poor — has been negative. Construction has displaced people and the more costly train system has in some places caused the government to reduce the number of buses.

There is still a big gulf between the showpiece stations at upscale destinations like Khan Market — a shopping area popular with the elite — and less glamorous stops in lower middle-class neighborhoods. And regular riders complain about overcrowding during peak hours.

But according to a recent study by the government's own Central Road Research Institute, the Metro has already kept some 160,000 vehicles off the roads, easing congestion and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminated more than 100 fatal road accidents per year.

And while those figures are debatable, the new addition to Delhi's public transport system has undeniably acted as a stimulus for urban renewal and reduced the pressure on residential and commercial hot spots by creating a new logic for real estate development.

Property prices near stations have increased by 22 percent or more, far-flung residential areas have become viable overnight, according to a study by the Gujarat-based Center for Environment Planning and Technology.

"The connectivity is so quick and the trains are so clean and so cool. It’s so easy to commute to the main city of Delhi," said 41-year-old Sanjana, who commutes to her job at an economic think tank from the satellite city of Gurgaon each morning.

"It's changed what it's like to live in Gurgaon. You no longer feel that you're living in a different city," she said.

And even the city's moribund colonial center, Connaught Place, has begun to re-emerge as an entertainment and shopping destination since the Rajiv Chowk — a central interchange point — became the network's busiest station.

That said, the Metro's biggest impact might be cultural.

In almost every other facet of life, India's rapid growth and associated modernization has widened the gap between economic classes. No one who earns more than $200 a month takes the bus, and the focus on infrastructure for the car-driving rich — flyovers and cloverleafs to unsnarl routes between commercial hubs — has exacerbated the rift, forcing the poor to dart across "signal free" thoroughfares between speeding cars.

In contrast, although it's still out of reach for the destitute, the Metro throws people from virtually all walks of life together — a tiny egalitarian island in a city of self-professed VIPs throwing their weight around.

"It’s an absolute mix of people and there is no issue whatsoever," said Sanjana, noting that the Metro has eschewed the Indian Railways' system of first-, second- and third-class compartments.

"Your plumbers and electricians and blue collar workers are taking it, and there’s no hesitation. People will open up their laptops and work and there may be someone from a completely different background sitting next to them."

For the seasoned Delhiwallah, the experience can be almost eerie. At peak rush hour, train compartments are silent, but for the trilling of the occasional mobile phone. The roadways' ubiquitous altercations are almost unknown, and for women passengers, peer pressure successfully curbs the dreaded routine of catcalls, harassment and groping referred to locally as "eve teasing."

"They are used to these open buses where they can spit out the window and push people around and pick fights," said Mohammad.

"But you put them in a modern, air-conditioned environment, and suddenly there's this whole thing about matching up to the environment. If there are two or three people traveling together, they don't even talk. The moment they get out of the station they start to talk again. It's really funny."