Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Bonfire of Devotions – plugging into a Cosmic Concert on a weekday morning

A once sleepy hamlet revisited

Long, long before “Whitefield” became a bad word in the lexicon of ITES professionals wanting a piece of the real estate pie in the sky, this once sleepy hamlet on the outskirts of Bangalore was already a seasonal, red letter destination for a small, itinerant community.

For more than three decades members of this unique community have congregated here at irregular intervals – usually at least once every year – their migratory pattern decided by the presence of the unique object of their devotion.

They come from every corner of this nation and every continent on Earth. They represent every profession, every demographic and every segment of humanity. They all come here, unbidden, on their own and unite into one big mass of unquestioning belief. Some stay for days, weeks. Some come for a morning. But they are all united by a common, invisible, cosmic thread that only they seem to sense.

One Thursday last week I dragged myself out of bed at 5 in the morning and took a “call taxi” to this hallowed turf to see for myself how this tribe was faring.

It was a pleasant morning. Construction was apace for an “over-bridge” to replace the decades old “railway crossing”. A constant stream of cars, autos and buses ebbed and flowed on either side of the tracks, disgorging a stunning variety of people. Children, geriatrics, housewives, teens, self conscious damsels, poor, rich, in-between, healthy, weak, ailing, a fair sprinkling of Caucasians - they all hurried to join two gender specific queues by the side of the narrow road, along an imposing, kilometer long compound wall. There was very little chatter. A collective aura of shared purpose and subsumed individuality seemed to emanate from the congregation.

There was a small police presence but it was redundant. The crowd was too pre-occupied and too well behaved to pose a law and order problem.

As I joined the queue I saw small signboards directing everyone to deposit their mobile phones and handbags etc., at designated counters. At the mobile phone counter I was given a token in lieu of my phone.

The “volunteers”

As my queue entered the gates, an animated group of men dressed in white shirts and trousers thoroughly frisked everyone. Everything except wallets and keys was politely confiscated and thrown pell-mell into cardboard cartons.

There was a sizeable army of these white clad individuals about. Most of them wore blue, patterned, boy-scout style scarves around their necks. Average age: 55 or 60. They were everywhere, watching over the crowd. These were the “volunteers”, members of the “service brigade”. There were dozens of them and they were the only aberration in an otherwise other-worldly morning.

A few meters from the entrance there was a huge covered hall bigger than a football field. It was divided into two roughly equal parts and the crowd filed into the near half in two ever disciplined, gender specific streams. There was another round of metal detector walk through and frisking before entering the hall.

Once inside, the crowd sat down cross-legged on the cemented floor in long, disciplined rows. There was still very little chatter. The atmosphere was charged with expectation.

The whole scene, I thought, was what it might be like before a mega prison concert.

And the “volunteers” played the role of jailors to perfection. Some of them were downright ridiculous in the manner that they directed the crowd while others bordered on the perverse. I saw one of the “volunteers” station himself at a spot and point at his feet directing some people who had just entered the hall to come and start a fresh line. The moment the first person sat down at the spot, the “volunteer” moved a couple of feet to his right and again pointed to his feet. The man who had sat down at the originally indicated spot uncomplainingly got up and again sat down at the new location, followed by the dozen or so people who had half formed a new line behind him. The “volunteers” indulged in several such antics throughout the couple of hours we were there.

The crowd however was impervious to the constant jabbering of the “volunteers”. They fretted a bit but were strangely self absorbed, like patients in a doctor’s waiting room.

The “lottery”, the rest of the wait and the concert

By 8 AM the ante-hall had filled up nicely. There must have been more than 3000 people, all sitting cross-legged in nice straight lines on the cement floor. One of the volunteers walked down the front of the rows and asked the first person in each row to pick a numbered coupon from a bag or box or something. This was the “lottery”. The different lines would be let into the still empty front half of the hall in the order of the numbers chosen. There must surely be some method and reason to this but it beats me.

Anyway, my line finally got its turn to get up and troop into the front hall where we all again sat down on the floor. The crowd was a whisper more restless than before with a heightened sense of expectation. My legs were beginning to ache from sitting cross-legged and I desperately wanted to stand up and stretch. But I felt sheepish when I saw all the others around me bearing their discomfort with equanimity. I squirmed and wriggled a bit but otherwise held my peace.

Suddenly, a brief split-moment of silence descended on the congregation and the next instant a clear, beautiful, lilting female voice from somewhere in the front row filled the hall with a devotional song – a bhajan. When the first pristine line had been sung, the entire gathering repeated it in one harmonious voice. All my impatience and fretting disappeared. The music filled me from all sides like a cocoon, a womb.

And then He appeared from behind a curtained doorway on the distant stage – a frail figure in a bright orange dress, with his trademark halo of hair, sitting in a wheelchair pushed by two young men. They carefully maneuvered the wheelchair to the center of the stage and sat down on either side at the feet of Satya Sai Baba.

Everybody was craning to get a clear view of the distant figure. Every single person in that hall was totally focused on this, the object of their absolute devotion. They were in rapture.

The music continued with increased fervor and passion - thousands of voices singing as one. I could hear and feel the collective force of a myriad passions meshing and melding and fusing together before being consummated in the infinite grace emanating from that frail presence on the distant stage.

This cosmic concert went on for a good 45 minutes. Song after song washed over me and I did not take my eyes off the stage. “Swamy” sat listening and gazing over the crowd, occasionally moving his hands in time with the music. He once bent to say something to one of the men seated at his feet.

After what seemed to me a moment, an eternity, at an unseen cue, the concert ended and they wheeled him away.

As disciplined as ever, the crowd dispersed but there was a slight bottleneck at the exits. The volunteers weren’t around to regulate the reverse flow. Even if they had been around, I would have forgiven them their trespasses that morning.

That morning, I felt as if I had touched a small fragment of Infinity.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sip Sam Seh

This is an ancient Korean song about the spiritual, physical, metaphysical and combative aspects of martial arts training.

Never neglect any of the Sip Sam Seh,
The source of the will is in the waist,
Pay attention to the slightest change from full to empty,
Let energy flow through the whole body continuously,
Stillness embodies motion, motion stillness,
Seek stillness in motion,
Surprising things will happen when you meet your opponent,
Give awareness and purpose to every movement,
When done correctly all will appear effortless,
At all times pay attention to the waist,
Relaxed clear awareness of abdomen, the energy can be activated,
When the base of the spine is erect, energy rises to the top of the head,
The body should be flexible,
Hold the head as if suspended from a string,
Keep alert and seek the meaning and purpose of your art,
Bent and stretched, open and closed,
Let nature take its course,
Beginners are guided by oral teaching,
Gradually one applies himself more and more,
Skill will take care of itself,
What is the main principle of the martial arts?
The mind is the primary actor and the body the secondary one,
What is the purpose and philosophy behind the martial arts?
Rejuvenation and prolonging of life beyond the normal span,
So an eternal spring,
Every word of this song has enormous value and importance,
Failing to follow this song attentively, you will sigh away your time.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A “Tang Soo Do” Bandicoot - Me!

Hey! I’m back! Lots of interesting things happening and there are several pieces that I’m working on, but I didn’t want to post stuff just for the sake of posting… so.

This morning though, I had a compelling reason to sit down and write…

Today is a particularly happy day for me. Today is the day I received my Orange Belt (the first level) in Tang Soo Do.

I have been learning this martial art for almost a year now, but with some breaks in between. Why and how I came to do this, you’ll read a little later on.

I do not know what images a “martial arts class” evokes in you. Perhaps a scene out of “Enter The Dragon”, with lots of h.a.r.d. types endlessly repeating punches and kicks, extreme macho types breaking piles of burning bricks with their bare hands, and alpha males sparring with precise, lethal moves and blows?

Enter the Dragon

Well, the classes I attend are very different. My instructor is a soft spoken lady who needs glasses to read. Make no mistake, though… she can break boards, burning bricks and bones with the best of them - she is a second degree black belt. She is just likely to do the destruction more gracefully.

Her daughter is 10 years old and the only reason she hasn't received her black belt as yet is that she needs to be at least 12 to officially get one. She’s been waiting 2 years already!

Classes last about 90 minutes and are held thrice a week in a spotless, well ventilated hall awash with natural light. When you look out of the big windows you see quite a bit of greenery around.

A typical class starts with the students - the majority of them ladies - lining up according to seniority and doing a few minutes of “chi” breathing.

At the end of this, the instructor and the students bow to each other and then everyone salutes the school flag by crossing the right hand, palm down, across the left chest. Then we all sit down for several minutes of meditation with our eyes closed.

We come out of meditation, stand up and then the real action starts – we do about 30 to 40 minutes of stretching and other strengthening exercises. At this point the instructor gives us a minute’s break to drink some water and when we come back we learn and practice punches, kicks, blocks, moving drills, sparring routines and combinations of all these for another 30 or 40 minutes.

At the end of this we salute the flag and sit down for another short session of meditation to bring the body rhythm back to “normal”. When we come out of closing meditation we stand up and repeat aloud the 5 codes and 7 tenets of Tang Soo Do:
  • Loyalty to country
  • Obedience to parents
  • Honor friendship
  • No retreat in battle
  • In fighting, choose with sense and honor
  • Integrity
  • Concentration
  • Perseverance
  • Respect & Obedience
  • Self-Control
  • Humility
  • Indomitable Spirit

I really love that part. The words tease and awaken something deep inside me. We all then raise our right hand in a fist, with the our left hand crossed across our stomach, and happily cry “Tang Soo!”and clap like children, for the sheer joy of feeling so alive.

Finally, we walk up to our instructor in a single file, in the order of our seniority, bow, make eye contact, smile, shake her hand, and quietly say “thank you” in Korean before dispersing.

There is soft, pleasant music always playing from a Bose i-pod port but I am seldom consciously aware of it during the 90 minutes of class. There is almost no chatting between students during class. There is an elegant protocol that governs every activity, every move we make while inside the training hall. The instructor is as patient as the hills but she can also be as tough as nails. In any given class, there are usually all levels of students - from rank beginners to fairly senior ones – and everybody gets the attention they require. Some classes are quite relaxed but some are brutal. But they are all invariably fun. Well, that’s the kind of martial arts class I go to.

As in most martial arts, in TSD too there is a system of colored belts to measure the progress of a student. Beginners wear white belts and the first color belt they test for is the Orange Belt. This usually happens after three to six months of training.

The instructor is the only person who decides if a student is ready for a test. It is not a student’s birthright and he or she cannot request, much less demand, to be tested. Tests are held roughly once in three months on a weekend morning. A notice is put up a week earlier with the names of the students appearing for the test and the level they would be testing for. Also, for each level there is a small written assignment to be submitted in advance. The subject for the first level assignment is “Why do I do Tang Soo Do?”

My test was scheduled for early April; I submitted my assignment, paid the test fees and couldn’t wait to get my first colored belt. I started picturing myself proudly wearing my Orange Belt in class.

I would have to tell all my friends about it. Tell my parents, too. Perhaps post a small, smug piece on my blog about it….

And then, a few days before the test day, I injured my foot during training and had to sit the test out. This was the second time I was missing a test. I was disappointed, but well, tough luck! Now I would have to wait for the next test in three months’ time. I resigned myself to more days of not learning any new techniques. It would soon be almost a year since I joined the class.

But this morning, the unexpected happened. I walked into class a few minutes late and vaguely sensed an increased focus on me from the instructor. Her daughter, who never trains with our morning class, was present. As I took my place in class, the instructor specifically asked me how I was feeling. I realized then that it was my test day!

Very occasionally, an unannounced test is held for one or more students who missed the scheduled test for whatever reason. My instructor, in her wisdom, had decided to accord me the privilege of being tested in the course of a regular class!

Tests are very challenging. But if you are expecting it, then it’s more or less OK. On the other hand, when it’s sprung on you on a Friday morning, with your mind already hazily zooming in on potential, delicious weekend excesses…then it’s…tough! On test day, all hell breaks loose.

Also, the poor co-students, especially the new ones who have never tested before, get caught unawares in the storm along with you… a little rain must fall into each life…;-)

And thus, this morning, I walked out after class, exhausted, drained, spent but at the same time energized, excited, ecstatic – the proud owner of a brand new Orange Belt!

I couldn’t stop smiling the whole day long and couldn’t wait to write all this down and share it with you!

Tang Soo!!!!!