Saturday, June 26, 2004

Journey of Hope - Krishna Narayanan


"My body is my prison, and my senses are the bars that imprison me." It's a telling comment on the nature of autism by 33-year-old Krishna Narayanan. Diagnosed at the age of four, he started conveying his feelings in writing to his mother at the age of 23. Since then, a whole new world of communication has opened up with his family and, through his books, with countless parents of autistic people. Krishna's first book, "Wasted Talent - Musings of an Autistic", gives a poignant insider's perspective on autism. Krishna sets an example of sensitivity, intelligence and, above all, great determination and hope. 

Krishna's family lived in America at the time he was diagnosed. Although the hospital there insisted that he would not be able to respond, his mother refused to give up on the basis of lack of information on the ailment and set about teaching Krishna skills as basic as chewing. As autism renders imitative learning skills void, every action was an uphill task. 

Krishna's mother, Jalaja Narayanan, herself a writer, says: "Teaching an autistic child is like making pathways in the brain. Every task accomplished is like a milestone and one worth exulting about. One of the first milestones was crossed when he was two-and-a-half. After an intense day of teaching him over and over again, he finally took one sip of orange juice instead of his usual milk." Although this seems a simple enough task for most of us, the nature of autism itself is to blame for the challenges. 

Not much is known about what causes autism; if it were known, perhaps more could be done about it. Krishna mentions this in his book, "Autism is a complex disease marked by gripping fear, scorching tension, lack of coordination and little speech. More often than not, it is mistaken as insanity and sometimes even misdiagnosed. The difference between insanity and autism is that insanity means losing one's mind, whereas the autistic is fully aware." An autistic person may be extremely brilliant and possibly a genius in the making, but is unable to communicate due to lack of speech and poor coordination. 

Although Krishna's learning to write was a major step forward, it has been the culmination of painstaking work that started right from childhood. With writing, he was able to tell his parents about what he had experienced but could never convey. They realised, among other things, why he used to shy away from touch, why he was afraid of strangers, why was rigid in his habits, how brushing his teeth or getting a haircut were excruciatingly painful. Even less monumental but nevertheless emotions came to light; the tantrums he made on one particular day, he revealed, were due to the turmoil he felt when he was being read about Sydney Carton's choice of love over life in Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." 

Krishna was developmentally delayed, but he has crossed milestones in flying colours. He has read Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Hugo, and has a passion for mathematics, instilled by his father who first introduced him to algebra, calculus, and non-linear differential equtions. Krishna later moved on to quantum physics and acoustics; in his first book, he even explains a parallel between relativity and autism. 

A second book called "Quest; Search for a Quality Life", that Krishna has authored along with his mother, is being released soon, and he is in the process writing his third book, a novel. As for his future plans, Krishna writes: "So what is my future? I really don't know, but I can dream. The dreams make life worth living though the current reality is stark and dreary. On the other hand, dreams free the mind and let it fly in the wide space of the future." 

Krishna Narayanan’s first book, Wasted Talent - Musings of an Autistic and Jalaja Narayanan’s book, From a Mother’s Heart – A Journal of Survival, Challenge, Hope are available at leading bookstores in the city. The new book, Quest; Search for a Quality Life is expected to be available soon. 

Pic courtesy Third Eye
An edited version of this article was published in Madras Plus on June 26, 2004 .

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Key Notes - An interview with Mira Sundara Rajan

“Western Classical music is perceived as elitist. Once that perception changes, more people will be able to study and appreciate it.” says Mira Sundara Rajan, a pianist of Indian origin and teaches Copyright Law at Queen Mary, University of London. She is in India for legal research in her chosen stream, Cultural Property Rights and Intellectual Property Rights in the Arts area. Although she has visited Chennai before, on this visit she has performed at the Madras Music Association on June 6th and at the British Council Division last evening.

Why the piano? “I was always enthralled by the piano. It’s the backbone of the classical tradition. As an instrument, it is structured to provide a very versatile range of sound. That’s why composers use it while working on a piece.” Mira has been studying music for the past 25 years. She has a particular interest in the work of Johannes Brahms and plans to make a recording of all of his solo pieces.

“This has not been attempted before - Brahms is a complex composer in that his solo compositions are usually short and range from vibrant pieces to those that convey unusual emotions. His work is not about playing the notes, it is intellectually very demanding. If audiences appreciated Brahms for the brilliant composer he was, having truly understood his music, there would be more musicians playing his pieces. To give an analogy, Brahms was a true craftsman of music but audiences are yet to understand the art form.” According to Mira, all of music is an attempt to reach a higher state of existence - call it intellectualism or spirituality. “But the music of Brahms can transport even a listener with no background in music to appreciate it for the emotions it conveys. Understanding his music, however, can elevate you to a different plane.”

Which brings us back to Mira’s conviction that the way forward for the Western Classical music industry is in educating the audience. She says, “Did you know that Classical Music constitutes only around 5% of the entire recorded music industry?” She finds that even in performances, musicians play according to popular tastes, either famous composers or oft-heard pieces. “The interest will expand only with educating the audiences. In my concerts, I give a brief background about the piece and the composer hoping that I am leaving the audience with a little more information and interest. This concept doesn’t exist in the western countries as most people are assumed to know about western classical music. However, it’s the people who don’t understand the music that I want to reach out to. They are the people who can move the tradition forward with appreciation.”

Mira is also into writing poetry and started at a very tender age like her illustrious great grand father, Mahakavi Subramania Bharati. “I also write short fiction and when I have some time in the midst of my music and teaching, I will be attempting a novel. And for sure, Brahms will find a way into it!”

Pic courtesy Third Eye
An edited version of this article was published in Madras Plus on June 12, 2004 .

Friday, June 04, 2004

Who reads what? Sanjay Subramanyan

A Chartered Accountant by profession, Sanjay Subramanyan is better known for his on-stage persona. He started out learning to play the violin under the tutelage of Shri V. Lakshminarayana. When the switch to vocal music happened, he learnt initially under Shrimathi Rukmini Rajagopalan and later, under Vidwan Shri Calcutta K.S.Krishnamurti. A renowned and much sought-after vocalist today, he is appreciated for his passionate rendering of many a Krithi and a Raaga.

His passion extends beyond singing, to other areas of Carnatic Music as well. He has organised heritage walks around places of musical interest in Chennai in December. Music-related trivia are at his fingertips and a wealth of information, on a website he has, called

In the midst of a hectic schedule, he does manage to do a fair amount of reading. Sanjay recounted, “Last year, I was reading Tamil fiction. Although I read P.G. Wodehouse every opportunity I get, and I’m up to date on the Harry Potter books, I am currently reading an e-book called Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C.Davis.”

As an avid reader, he regularly looks to download e-books off the Internet. Coming back to the e-book at hand, “I was reading various reviews on a website, and came across one on this book. The review mentioned that it was interestingly written unlike other books of its genre which end up sounding like textbooks. So, I downloaded it and started reading it” says Sanjay.

The book narrates the history and development of America in a witty, coversational style. It dispels some myths while clarifying some facts. Right from Christopher Columbus to Clinton, the Rosenberg spy case to September 11, from gun control to the death penalty, the book relates America's historical, social and political issues. It deals with questions as diverse as “Who really discovered America?”, “Did the Indians really sell Manhattan for $24?” and “Did Pocahontas really save John Smith's life?”

Sanjay added “The format of the book, in a Question and Answer style, makes even the more complex topics in American History, easier to understand. It is a very elaborate subject and has been well written.It truly is a fascinating study of American history and brings to life the events and the people who were responsible for its development.”

Pic courtesy Seven Shots
An edited version of this article was published in Madras Plus in 2004.