Thursday, June 23, 2005

Rotund Ming Eunuch In Kerala

From Sepia Mutiny comes the interesting tale of the many voyages of the Ming admiral Zheng He (pronounced JUNG HUH) and his huge fleet of ships. Why I hadn't heard of this impressive man before today, despite knowing of Vasco Da Gama and Marco Polo, is clear evidence of holes in my school history curriculum. Particularly interesting to me is the story of Zheng's visit to India --- specifically the malabar coast. I remember the picturesque "Chinese fishing nets" from my childhood summers in Cochin but never really found out how they got there.

Following up on a recommendation by an SM commenter, I borrowed Louise Levathes' "When China Ruled The Seas" --- a book based, among various other sources, on the official Ming scribe Ma Huan's account, Triumphant Visions of the Ocean's Shores. Jumping ahead to the chapter entitled "Destination:Calicut" we find :

In autumn of 1405, the fleet of 317 brightly painted junks with a total crew of more than 27,000 [!] men was ready to depart from Nanjing....The destination of the treasure ships was Calicut--- the powerful city-state in Kerala on the west coast of India that had a market for spices a rare woods that attracted traders throughtout the Indian Ocean.
The chapter doesn't have a lot about Calicut itself, and mostly describes the journey to Calicut (called "the great Country of the Western Ocean" by the Chinese) via Java, Sumatra and Ceylon. It talks of the Chinese influence on the economies and politics of all the countries they visited --- including their role in the installation and toppling of the rulers of Ceylon and Calicut. An interesting detail described is the Chinese rendering of the story of Moses and Aaron that they heard in Kerala (possibly from some of my ancestors ?):
...the Chinese heard for the first time the curious story of a holy man called Moses and the incident involving Aaron and the golden calf, which they wrongly assumed had taken place in Calicut and was linked to the Hindu veneration of the cow.
Levathes also includes the inscription on the stone tablet that Zheng erected in Calicut "commemorating the warm relationship between the two countries".

Also via SM I found this well-written 2001 article from Time Magazine describing Aparisim Ghosh's search to find Zheng He's legacy in Cochin and Calicut, spurred partly by Ghosh's interest in the chinese fishing nets that he knew from his cochin childhood. He finds a plaque posted by modern-day Cochin municipal office saying that nets were brought to Kerala between 1350 and 1450, and, intriguingly, "Guangzhou-made porcelain tiles" in the floor of the old jewish synagogue of Cochin. In Calicut he finds "Silk Street" --- the Chinese Quarter of 15th century Calicut (?!), but no proof of the chinese presence, not even Zheng He's commemorative plaque. He does find what he thinks might be the way the Chinese and Indian traders did business :

[A] secret ritual, practiced by spice traders for over a millennium: the bargaining of prices. Buyer and seller clasp right hands under a towel or handkerchief and, thus hidden, make offers and counteroffers with a system of finger signals...

...This undoubtedly is how the admiral's minions conducted negotiations while they were here. (Ma Huan's account, Triumphant Visions of the Ocean's Shores, cites deals sealed by the clasping of hands.) The finger-code system was devised to allow traders from all over the world to do business here without having to learn Malayalam, the local language. The towel keeps the deal-making under wraps, a useful precaution in an overcrowded bazaar where the next man might try to undercut you.

Another commenter mentioned the presence of a chinese community in Quilon (Kollam) at that time. Levathes confirms that the Chinese traded with Quilon and Cochin even before Zheng He got there. And some googling lead me to this sentence ( of questionable veracity, if you ask me) trying to link Quilon's chinese past to the present:
Traces of a once prosperous trade with China are still seen in the form of Chinese fishing nets, huge Chinese water pots, blue and white porcelain and sampan-like boats.
I don't know about the blue and white porcelain. Ghosh's account also mentions the water pots (Chinna-Bharani). But sampan-like boats ? Are they saying that vallam-like boats are exclusive to kerala and south-east asia ? Interesting if true.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Prelude on "Malabar"

At the episcopal service I attended this morning, I was surprised to see the word "Malabar" appear in the bulletin. Both as the name of the tune to which we sang a hymn, and in the title of the organ prelude (Prelude on "Malabar" by Leo Sowerby). A little googling lead me to this page which includes this statement :
Words: Syriac Liturgy of Malabar; tr. Charles William Humphreys (1840-1921); alt. Percy Dearmer (1867-1936) Music: Malabar, David McKinley Williams (1887-1978)
So it appears that Charles Humphreys lifted the words of the hymn from the "Syriac Liturgy of Malabar", and David Williams set it to a tune that he called Malabar, and later Leo Sowerby wrote a variation on that tune that he called Prelude on "Malabar". I was hoping for something more intriguing, but I guess it is evidence that the cross-cultural pollination was not just in one direction.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Cornwallis: random facts

Some time ago, I caught a few minutes of a radio show about early U.S. history, and heard them talking about a Cornwallis. The name was, of course, known to me from my ICSE history classes of many years ago. I knew him as a British Governor General of India.

It turns out that he played a significant role in the American Revolutionary War. According to wikipedia he lost an important battle to another famous person :

Between January 2 and January 4, 1777 Cornwallis fought the American Continental Army at Princeton, New Jersey, led by General George Washington. The Americans surprised a detachment of Cornwallis' troops and pressed the attack until encountering the main body of Cornwallis' force. After this first engagement, the American army slipped away in the night before Cornwallis could counter-attack. The Battle of Princeton was seen as an American victory, although it was actually a confused series of skirmishes without a decisive defeat for either force.

In 1780, Cornwallis led British forces in the Carolinas against Nathanael Greene.

After a textbook siege by American and French forces, Cornwallis surrendered to the allied forces, bringing to a close the Battle of Yorktown, on October 19, 1781, and thus ending the war. He was ultimately blamed for losing the war to the colonists.

This story of the migration of a few brits from their american colonies to their south-asian ones, after their defeat in the revolutionary war, was familiar to me from William Dalrymple's White Mughals (a book that I haven't completed despite having borrowed it more than a year ago from my university library). And skimming through it I find the following passage (on p.23):
James Kirkpatrick's counterpart as British Resident in Delhi was the Boston-born Sir David Ochterlony, an old friend of Kirkpatrick's elder brother William....His father was a Highland Scot who had settled in Massachusetts. When the American Revolution broke out, the family fled to Canada, and thence to London where David entered the company's army in 1777. He never returned to the New World, and having made India his home vowed never to leave.

This post was partly inspired by this one.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Julia Sweeney Is A Genius

Julia Sweeney (who you might remember playing androgynous Pat on SNL) has a piece called "God said Huh ?" on last week's episode of This American Life. It's a story about herself and God (or as the TAL blurb says " Julia Sweeney, a Catholic, tells the story of how her faith began to crack after reading a most alarming book ... called the Bible."). She's funny and honest, and I don't disagree with her or have answers to the questions she raises. Maybe when I do I'll update this post.

Here's the real audio stream. Her piece starts at minute 29:00.

It includes her summarization of some not-so-familiar stories from the Bible, including :
"...and this mob forms outside and they yell, 'send out those two angel-like men to us so we can have sex with them'. And Lot yells, 'No', which I think is a basic rule of hospitality --- don't give up your guests to be raped by an angry mob. But then what does he say next ? 'Instead of the men please take my daughters and rape and do what you will with them they're virgins'..."

Don't look at me: it's in the Bible.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Catching up with the digital music revolution

I know revolution is a pretty strong word (and particularly overused on this blog, i might add), but I've tried Yahoo's Launchcast radio for the past couple of months and am very pleased. For $2.50/month (if you pay for 12 months at one time) you get to hear a stream of music, commercial-free, and tuned to your personal taste, skipping past songs you don't like. I've been able to hear music that I was previously very familiar with, much that I was familiar with but hadn't heard in a while, and a lot that I was completely new to me.

Some of the music I've been happy to be reacquainted with : Cake (unique brass-heavy pop), Nick Drake (70s brit-folk, i recommend his "best-of" album Way to Blue), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Asian Dub Foundation (brit-asian answer to RATM), System of a Down (especially their 2002 album Steal This Album whose existence I was previously unaware of) and Bruce Cockburn (canadian folk). I must admit to also having the nostalgia-inducing experience of listening to music from earlier times in my life (the Bangles, Def Leppard, Silverchair).

Among my favourites of the completely new stuff : Eisley (cherubic-sounding radiohead-inspired upbeat pop from Tyler,TX. I like the track "Plenty Of Paper".) , Jeff Buckley's absolutely breathtaking cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (I like his version of Dylan's "I shall be released" also), David Gray (brit-folk), DJ Cheb I Sabbah (algerian berber-jewish DJ with a CD full of indian music --- what the ?), Orchestra Baobab (senegalese band with a cuban sound), Jai Uttal (rock interpretations of bhajans), My Vitriol (brit-sri-lankan guitar rock)...That list could probably be a lot longer but I'll stop.

What I like about the service :
- Access to a large catalog: now I can legally and cheaply listen to music I like without being restricted to my CD collection. Unlike satellite radio you can skip past music you don't like.

- Eclectic mix : Speaking as someone who until recently listened to music on CDs, and for whom changing the music usually meant pressing eject, changing the CD, and then hitting play, I really like being able move from, say, Femi Kuti (nigerian funk/jazz) to Rage Against the Machine to Fairport Convention (brit-folk) to U.Srinivas without raising a finger. Also listening to a particular musician/genre in small doses means that I get bored less easily and appreciate the music more.

-Potentially cheaper and fairer music distribution system : An internet-based distribution system seems like it could save by not involving the manufacture and shipping of those quaint plastic discs. Also by having listeners directly rate the tracks they listen to, the musician knows exactly how popular his music is. Ideally the system should have a low barrier of entry to musicians and let listeners decide exactly what music succeeds or fails: a more perfect marketplace.

-Potential to share music : you can listen to the music that others are listening to by listening to their launch station. While it is not an accurate representation of a person's taste (because of all the new music in the mix), it probably gives a rough idea. When I've got tired of my own station I've listened to the other stations --- both the genre-specific ones or individual member stations. The potential to build communities of listeners with similar tastes seems vast. Let me know if you have a launch station so that I can share in your music.

What I don't like :
- No repeats : While there is a forward skip button there is no backwards skip or repeat button.

- Limited control : If there is a specific track/album that you'd like to hear you can't be sure that you'll hear it. All you can do is go in and give that track/album the highest possible rating so that the probability that it will be played is increased. For example I just found out that Jeff Buckley covers Nusrat (!) on his Live at Sin-é album. So I gave that track the maximum rating and hit skip several times but didn't get to hear it.

-Clunky software : while the stream of the music is usually uninterrupted by buffering delays, the associated browser (that allows you to browse through artists, albums, genres and stations) is slow. It is a beta release so I expect they're working on improving it.

Actually for a few more bucks a month I could upgrade to their "Yahoo Unlimited" music service which would save me from my first two complaints. For the moment I'm going to be happy with getting music that I'm particularly desperate to hear multiple times, from my local public library.

I swear they're not paying me.
UPDATE : A couple of hours after that post went up I got the following email from a co-founder of launch-cast(!). Nice.

Thanks for the kind words about LAUNCHcast on your blog. Let me know if you ever have any more feedback about the service!

Todd Beaupre
Director, Personalization (and LAUNCHcast co-founder)
Yahoo! Music