Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti and Krish Ashok discuss different Indian cuisines, oral versus written tradition, the fusion of different musical styles, the challenges of working remotely and much more. Ashok is the global head of digital workplace practice at Tata Consultancy Services in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. He is also a classical violinist, guitarist and cellist, and he has written a book, Masala Lab, on the science of Indian cooking.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Krish Ashok, who is a food writer, musician, humorist and an engineer working on workplace technology. He is the author of the book Masala Lab and has just released a music album called Ek Gaon Mein. We chatted about the oral tradition in India, what makes Indian food Indian, the art versus craft of cooking, Carnatic classical music and Illayaraja, democratizing art through technology, mangoes and much more.
I strongly urge listeners to listen to this episode at normal speed instead of relying on the transcript because Ashok demonstrates the difference between T. N. Krishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman, and the similarity between Massive Attack and Tyagaraja, on his violin about halfway into the conversation [around 53:00].
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Hi, Ashok, welcome to the show.
KRISH ASHOK: Hi.
SHRUTI: I’m really excited about this conversation because I followed you for years, first as a humorist, then as a musician, then the occasional technology talks, and now as a food science writer. One characteristic I have observed is that you tend to break down an entire culture into a process, almost like an algorithmic process. You figure out what is essential and what is superfluous.
It seems like you know which parts have to be strictly adhered to, and which parts can be experimented with. You strictly adhere to the rules of chemistry, for instance, but you’re willing to experiment with taste combinations. You strictly adhere to, say, ragam, or tempo—tempo you never mess with as far as I’ve observed—and then the literary part of it you are a lot more comfortable experimenting with. Is this a good way of thinking about the Krish Ashok intellectual process when it comes to culture and fusion and experimentation?
ASHOK: Actually, that’s the first time somebody has managed to analyze it. I don’t think I’ve personally analyzed it that way. If I had to think about it, it probably goes back to the fact that I’ve never been good at memorizing stuff to crack exams and so on.
The method that I had to evolve, for me, is some kind of a first-principles way of understanding everything that I do, which is why, sometimes, some of the NCERT textbooks used to frustrate me because they never really got down to first principles at all. Sometimes the teachers weren’t great either.
I almost always had to rely on other library books. Obviously, my junior schooling happened in the pre-internet era. There wasn’t any Google or Khan Academy for me to understand the basic principles. I think it’s this habit of, essentially, first trying to understand everything from first principles and then build on that, I guess, is probably what gives me this process of approaching everything that I do.
SHRUTI: Do you have rules in your head that you absolutely would not mess with? Or is everything up for grabs?
ASHOK: Let’s put it this way. I like to think of my experiments with anything—be it cooking, be it music or anything—as a continuous learning process, meaning that the more I learn, the more I experiment. The more I learn, the less I consider some of the foundational rules to be sacred.
I think going by the book is often a good way to learn initially, in that it provides you some structure. It provides you some sort of anchor. Actually, if anything, it provides you a better feedback mechanism for whether you’re actually getting some of the more mechanical aspects of music or cooking.
If you experiment from day one, then I think you don’t get a sense of what is good or bad in a deep sense. That’s how I see it. I don’t think any rules are sacrosanct. Often the choices I make tend to be stylistic in the sense that I like to, for instance . . .
In fact, I’ve always disliked the word fusion because I think, in the context of music, it’s almost always been more of a juxtaposition rather than actual fusion. It’s just that “Oh, there’s somebody playing the tabla, but there’s somebody playing the guitar.” But apart from that, there’s actually not much fusion going on.
Fusion means that you each have to understand exactly where the other person is coming from and then be able to take their world and superimpose it on your own. For example, while I would choose to make a heavy metal version of, say, a classic rock song with Carnatic overtones, I would still stick to the chord structure of the original song because it’s just my way of saying, “Well, this anchors you to that, and now I will improvise on the rāga only on top of this.”
That way, I’m actually respecting the other art form in that pure sense. A lot of fusion is just really, “I’ll play my thing, you play your thing, and let the listener—let the fusion happen in their head. I’m not making any effort.” That’s essentially the approach I tend to take.
Oral Tradition in India
SHRUTI: In the beginning of your book, Masala Lab, you talk about how we have this oral tradition in India. At least the sort of families that you and I grew up in, the word they would use is kai manam, right?
SHRUTI: How do I translate kai manam? It’s like “it’s all in the hand,” right?
SHRUTI: The person who’s cooking is bringing some magic, that extra-special X-factor, which is what makes the cooking so great, and that’s why your grandmother is such a fantastic cook. She’s a fantastic cook because her grandmother was a fantastic cook. It’s like the caste system. The kai manam is also passed down genetically almost, right?
ASHOK: Yes, very much. Yes.
SHRUTI: So we have this problem with manuals. We don’t have manuals for anything. You talk about this in the context of food. I have experienced this in the context of music when I learned Carnatic music. I was recently talking to Virginia Postrel on the podcast. She’s talked about this in the context of textile and knitting and weaving patterns. In everything, we follow this oral tradition.
The Europeans at some point, maybe 300, 400 years ago, depending on where you are, switched to manualizing things, whether it is weaving patterns, whether it is chemistry, whether it is food and recipes, music, Western notation.
What is going on with India that we are so against manuals? Is it because there was a very small class which was literate—the Brahmins and mostly upper caste? Is it because it actually helps with the persistence of the caste system? It creates barriers to entry, so the oral tradition can make sure people can’t get in easily? What explains this obsession that we have as Indians?
ASHOK: This has always fascinated me forever. The Indus Valley seemed to have written down lots of things, in that they seemed to have had a script. We still haven’t deciphered it, but there’s clearly lots of writing. It clearly seems to have been a significantly more sophisticated urban civilization.
Then what came for almost 1,500 years after that, which is more nomadic, who we now know as the Aryans, pastoralists, and so on. I think Roberto Calasso is that Italian Indologist who basically says that these Aryans, these pastoralists built palaces—not out of stone and marble; they built palaces out of a language that they called Sanskrit.
In that sense, this culture, this oral tradition seems to have come from that. Eventually, I guess, the entrenchment of the caste system to the point around 2,000 years ago when people stopped marrying between castes—the genetic evidence seems to say that.
One interesting thing is that across the world, oral traditions are often a way to, one, add a certain level of mysticism to whatever knowledge you’re imparting because the moment you write things down, it switches to another kind of knowledge. It’s interpretative, and people can interpret it any which way. But oral tradition that you can only learn from one teacher in one given place, et cetera, adds to that mysticism. That’s clearly one.
Over time, as you rightly said, it helps establish your caste system in a way that certain kinds of knowledge can only be transmitted in certain families, for certain professions, for certain areas. It’s funny how Sanskrit wasn’t written down in the Brahmi or the Devanagari script till much later. The Vedas were transmitted purely orally. We have no idea what was lost.
The second element here with regard to cooking is, obviously, the fact that cooking at home was largely done by women—and still continues to be done by women—who did not have access to education till a couple of generations ago, for the most part. That also means that it is innately a very orally transmitted kind of tacit knowledge.
The other problem is the fact that we tend to glamorize this entire thing as an art when, in my opinion, it really isn’t. Glamorizing it as an art is simply to cover up the fact that it’s a painful daily chore that men will not help in. It’s fascinating how my grand-uncles would resist the use of any kind of modern implements like a mixie or a blender or a grinder.
“Oh, somehow the flavor comes from the hand.” Like they’ve ever stepped foot in the kitchen. They have no clue, but they still want the fruits of the manual labor, if you will. Yes, there’s a certain glamorization of that manual effort and the fact that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and so on.
SHRUTI: When I got married, one of the presents I got was Meenakshi Ammal’s Samaithu Paar. What I found really interesting in that is that it’s a book written by a woman for other women. It literally starts with “How do you shop and stock your pantry?” For a family of X number of people, you know how much dal you need and how much rice you need, and she goes on from there.
Even in that, as you point out, she’s manualized it. I’m able to use it to a very large extent, but what she doesn’t do, which is a very typically Indian thing, is it’s not in metric or any sensible measurement which are standardized weights and measures. It is imli or tamarind the size of a lemon, which if you live in the United States, you know what the size of a lemon is.
ASHOK: Yes, exactly right. Yes.
SHRUTI: The first time I made rasam using Samaithu Paar, I actually put in that much tamarind, and you can imagine the results of that. I started standardizing it my way. I started writing things down and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but even that seems to be missing.
Now we have a fairly high degree of literacy among women, but culturally, we don’t write things down. We don’t trust standard weights and measures. There’s something funky going on, and it’s not just Indians. It’s the entire subcontinent. Whether it is how we think about tea and tea tasting—it permeates everything in our culture. [laughs]
ASHOK: Yes. It’s interesting you mention that. For starters, I think Samaithu Paar is actually quite a groundbreaking work—
SHRUTI: It is.
ASHOK: —in the sense that it is pretty much one of the only works of cooking manual that actually takes a craft-based approach as opposed to an art-based approach. It’s really, really intensely practical.
I don’t want to blame Meenakshi Ammal because of the generation that she wrote it in. The reason I wrote Masala Lab is because when I read even Samaithu Paar, what it doesn’t tell you beyond just the weights of the measures—which, again, sometimes don’t translate well internationally—is the fact that the whys are often not explained. I’m not blaming her for that. Oftentimes, what happens is that the whys are important for you to be able to release yourself from the shackles of recipes. If you know the why, then you can apply it elsewhere. Otherwise, you’re just simply shackled to recipes.
The other problem with Indian food writing is that a lot of the initial food writing—with the exception of things that were written originally in a language like Tamil or Hindi—is the fact that a lot of the original writing was actually by Anglo-Indians who were the first to write cookbooks. It ended up being exoticized and orientalized from the very beginning—exotic spices and all the rest of that stuff. Nobody really focused on the why. Nobody focused on how the flavors actually get into the oil.
The fact is that all our grandmothers and professional chefs in India always knew. They know this intuitively, but they don’t quite know the science or the chemistry. Even today, a lot of cookbooks written by Indians tend to still use that same orientalist trope of “It’s just beautiful.” It’s got spices. It’s got these shots of these village kitchens, and so on. It’s very, very cliched in that sense, but it doesn’t really get into the why.
The last 10 years in the West has been the rise of food science and Harold McGee and Kenji Alt. It’s really questioning why what you do, and sometimes, some of this traditional wisdom—for example, do you have to boil the pasta water till you add, or you could just boil the pasta and the water? Turns out you can. Makes no difference.
It took, actually, a bunch of science experiments to figure out that it actually makes no difference, but the Italians will just throw a fit if you do it that way. Sometimes what is just blind tradition versus what is actually backed by science is the sort of thing that I think we need to do for Indian cooking.
SHRUTI: Something that most Indian women do every day, which is kneading dough to make rotis—the tradition is, you need to knead it for 10 or 15 minutes, and unless you have put in just the raw muscle to make the dough a particular way, it’s not going to be tasty. It’s not going to be the soft, chewy roti. After reading your book, I was like, “Oh, that’s not true.” There’s absolutely no need to do this, and you could get great results outside of it.
Patriarchy and Bad Kitchen Gadgets
SHRUTI: There’s a certain element of mysticism, exoticism that gets taken away when you put these things down in a manual, but there is also something that is added. At least this has been my experience, reading your book and just cooking without an army of professionals to help me, the way one has in many Indian kitchens. If you get to know the science of things, then you can start using other gadgets because everything is done by hand in Indian cooking.
You don’t know what is substitutable. Are you genuinely taking the easy way out, as many of your great-uncles would have complained—that it’s only good when it is hand ground and things like that? Or can you substitute this with one form of muscle energy for another form of electric energy, and you’re good to go? On those sorts of things, this is almost a feminist movement, what you’re trying to do.
ASHOK: Absolutely. Leave that aside, I’ll give you a very simple example. On the one hand, the use of kitchen appliances—blenders, pressure cookers, every one of these things that these patriarchal men will absolutely resist. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Great Indian Kitchen. He will not eat rice unless it’s cooked on firewood. The lady has to spoil her lungs while at it, and it has to be cooked slowly over an hour and so on.
If you look at the rise of gadgets, it coincides with more and more women getting educated and going to work. Therefore, nuclear families—they have to go to work. They need to spend less time in the kitchen, so obviously, I think these became huge, and yet, if you notice something, many of these appliances are also very poorly designed.
SHRUTI: They’re designed by men who don’t cook.
ASHOK: For example, they’re not designed to be cleaned easily. In some cases, they design certain things that require significantly more muscle strength to open, and so on. I don’t think they even have testers who are women in some of these product organizations, at least these traditional manufacturing-type companies. That’s another thing—there’s another opportunity to really fix a lot of these appliances.
SHRUTI: I was talking with Alice Evans, who does a lot of comparative work on women in different countries and their outcomes. One of the things that came up was how even the agency within the household on how the household budget is spent has such a big impact.
Yes, women are doing the cooking, but even with literacy and maybe a job, if they don’t have control over how finances are spent—that’s the difference between a good Brillo pad and some horrible thing that they’re using to scrub the utensils. In a lot of families, you have domestic help, which means even women have outsourced the cleaning to another woman who is in an even less fortunate position in the hierarchy of social status.
The lack of innovation in pressure cookers over 50 years—it’s just startling in India. I still have to jig it with a screwdriver or something my grandmother taught me to do.
ASHOK: The pressure cooker is a classic example. Indians have been using the pressure cooker for ages for a very simple reason: that it actually saves on cooking fuel. It cooks faster because it’s cooking at a higher temperature. Whereas the West has historically not used the pressure cooker that regularly, and the moment it suddenly starts becoming popular in the West, you get something as fantastic as the instant pot, which just takes the headache off pressure cooking. There’s no risk. There’s a temperature sensor.
Incidentally, the actual engineering, the technology required in an instant pot is just so simple that some Indian company could have just done that 30 years ago, and yet, we just persist with that manual pressure cooker. It’s quite remarkable.
A famous story, a very similar story is actually this. I don’t know if you know this company called Microplane. They make these fantastic high-end graters, especially lime zesters, cheese graters and so on. There was this Canadian guy who was running a woodworking company that made machine tools for woodworking.
His wife one day decided that the cheese grater she had was terrible, that it didn’t do the job. The lime zester didn’t do the job, et cetera. She had this idea she would use a wood rasping tool to just grate lime, and she said, “This works.” She told her husband, “Just stop your stupid woodworking company and start this company that makes this lime zester and grater. You’ll make money.”
And that’s how Microplane, as a company, was even born. If you just let women design some of these things, we’d get so much better stuff in the kitchen.
SHRUTI: I think this is also why diversity matters, diversity in thought and experience in the context which people bring to this.
What Is Indian About Indian Food?
SHRUTI: Now, coming to Indian food specifically, if someone put a gun to your head—because it’s not the sort of question you’d like to answer—what is quintessentially Indian?
For instance, you find a lot of coriander, seeds especially—not just fresh. That’s something you find pan-India and not so much in other cuisines. For sweets, it might be something like cardamom. You just find it, pan-India, not so much outside Indian food in desserts. What are some things like that, that make Indian cooking so recognizable as Indian because everyone knows it when they see it?
ASHOK: I’ve been thinking about it since I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about dish algorithms as opposed to dish recipes. I’ve bene constantly thinking about, how do I distill this essence? I used to get annoyed when people asked me what is Indian cooking because my instant thing would be, “Would you say European cooking? Or would you say French and Italian and Spanish?” They’re all so different.
Likewise, Tamil, Maharashtrian, Punjabi and Kashmiri are all different. I would say that, but at the same time, if I had to step back and think about what really unifies a lot of this is that you have to think in comparison to, say, something like a Japanese cuisine.
I would say Japanese cuisine, for example, is umami-centric cuisine, meaning that the centerpiece of the typical main course dish—not starters and all that—the main-course gravy dish, which is the central piece of any cuisine dish, is a very umami-heavy broth. Umami-heavy broth comes from very glutamate-rich ingredients, such as seaweed, such as miso paste and mushrooms and, obviously, the meat that goes into that, and so on—bone stock and bone broth, and so on. What that allows Japanese cuisine to do is to be very minimalist with anything else because the umami actually amps up all of the flavors, so it leaves a lingering taste.
In that sense, one thing that ties Indian cuisine together—it’s basically a fat-centric cuisine. The reason I say it is that the flavor profile of any Indian dish, anywhere in India, is fundamentally defined by your choice of fat, and the choice of spices whose flavor molecules dissolve in that fat. And this is very unique to Indian cuisine, by the way. That’s not true in the West. It’s not true anywhere else.
SHRUTI: Yes. Hence, the tadka.
ASHOK: Yes, at the start or at the end, that’s the basic flavor profile. You have coconut oil, and you use curry leaves and garlic and chilies—it will taste Malayali. You use the sesame oil and use fennel and green chilies and curry leaves—it will taste Chettinad. Mustard oil and panch phoron will taste Bengali. Mustard oil and fennel and the use of dry ginger will taste Kashmiri. This is really the fundamental thing that distinguishes cooking in this part of the world.
SHRUTI: It’s not so much which ingredient. It is what chemistry, is what you’re telling me.
SHRUTI: It’s the process.
ASHOK: It is essentially the fact that you can take any ingredient—it doesn’t matter. It’s not the flavor of the ingredient that matters as much as your spice flavor profile because, per dish, we use more spices than most other cuisines. The use of heat is a lot more to the South than it is in the North.
For example, both the East and West do use significantly more sugar as a way of amplifying flavor. Gujarati is obviously an extreme end, but Bengalis use a fair amount. All recipes, the general rule is, if you use one teaspoon of salt, it’s one teaspoon of sugar, the equal amount. And actually, you won’t really taste the sugar as much, but it really just amplifies flavors.
SHRUTI: If we took a very quintessentially non-Indian ingredient, something like, say, oregano, something we associate with Italian cooking—if I put that in a tadka, would any random person who tasted it think this is Indian? Or would they think this is Italian? If I give them first, would it be the chemistry or the flavor?
ASHOK: India actually has a tremendous regional variation in the use of spices. One sad tragedy of urbanization and all of that is that we’ve now started using a smaller number of those spices because they’re produced in large quantities, commercially, and not some of the rarer things that used to be used more locally. For example, the Portuguese introduced chilies as a heat agent, and it obviously replaced the use of black pepper in the South because pepper was expensive.
By the way, North Indians weren’t even using black pepper because they’re far away from Kerala where it grows. They were using long pepper—it’s called pippali—that actually is pretty sharply hot and has an interesting taste. It is like an Ayurvedic ingredient now. You’d be hard pressed to find it outside of these Ayurvedic shops. It actually has a lovely taste.
SHRUTI: Actually, you taste it in Srardham [ritualistic offerings for the departed] food, right? The food, which is so old, which is pre-Portuguese, and it was a particular profile because—
ASHOK: Pre-Columbian exchange.
SHRUTI: Exactly. It’s only ingredients that are available year long. They’re not seasonal ingredients, and they are not spices which rely on trade. They’re all locally grown. Is that a fair way of thinking about it?
ASHOK: More simplistically, the way I think about it is that, see, the idea of the meal that you make for your ancestors amongst all these traditions is to make something that they enjoyed. That was essentially how it started out.
And again, as with everything in India, the ritual we have started, let’s say about 1,000 years ago or, say, 2,000 years ago—it ended up formalizing whatever it is they ate back then as the only thing you ought to cook. Maybe the right way to interpret it would have been that you make whatever your ancestors enjoyed. My grandfather probably enjoyed chilies and tomatoes and potatoes.
SHRUTI: Mine enjoyed scotch.
ASHOK: Exactly, right? But we still make that very ginger and turmeric and black pepper, yam-heavy, banana-heavy, no potatoes, no tomatoes, none of those things. Only things that were available to his great-great-great-great-grandfather is what we end up making.
SHRUTI: It’s not even pre-Columbian exchange. It is pre-any exchange.
ASHOK: Actually, pre-whenever we decided to write it down is my guess. I would actually guess that if it was only an oral tradition, there was a chance that somebody would interpret it to mean whatever, but the moment you write things down, then it becomes by the book.
Here’s another curious thing. Sometimes oral traditions have a way of actually evolving and dynamically changing and being relevant to the times. But sometimes written tradition—you find that monotheistic religions are a lot more fundamentalist about what was written 2,000 years ago than religions that are purely relying on, say, oral traditions, where there’s more diversity of thought.
Why Do Some Foods Travel Better Than Others?
SHRUTI: Just a moment ago, you were talking about how much diversity there is in food across India, and now we are slowly losing that. One really nice thing about globalization, urbanization is there is some movement of food. I grew up in Delhi, but I’m South Indian. I’m used to eating nice, lovely, fluffy idlis at home. But now, most of my North Indian friends would be able to get a pretty good idli in most Indian cities that they visited. There’ll be some great Udupi joint which will serve excellent idlis. There are some advantages like that.
Now, why do some foods travel better than others? For instance, even abroad, the version of “Indian food” is either Mughlai food or it’s the Udupi dosa joint which is available, and that’s it. You can’t, for instance, get really good sabudana khichdi, even in a place like New York, where you can get virtually anything. You can’t get paruppu usili in San Francisco, though I think there would be a pretty good market for it [laughs] in the Bay Area. Why is that the case?
ASHOK: I think there are multiple dimensions to this. One is that, I think, what Indian dishes are available in the U.S. or U.K. or anywhere else largely tends to be a function of who immigrated there first, and then which community of those immigrants ended up dominating or running most of these restaurants. Clearly, Punjabi is in the context of U.S. and Canada and Sylheti Bangladeshis in the context of U.K. ended up being the precursors of Indian food in a commercial sense. Immigration is clearly one factor.
The second factor is one that I’ve seen apply even within the boundaries of the country itself. When I grew up in Delhi—I grew up in Delhi as well—you couldn’t get great idli except in one or two places in Delhi, but now you can. It’s all over the place, and you get really good idli as well. It’s not just Delhi. I went to Udaipur before the pandemic. Udaipur was filled with more—I kid you not—idli and dosa joints than bhelpuri and panipuri joints, and this is fascinating.
I actually asked the guy. The guys running those stalls are not South Indians. They’re from UP and Bihar, as they tend to be everywhere in India.
Here’s interesting. What he actually says is, “Sir, we actually thought we would do an aloo paratha stall.” He basically gave me a lesson in supply chain. He said, “Aloo paratha actually takes four, five people. If I get a crowd in the morning, and it is linear, I can’t parallel process it. I have to make it one by one. Then somebody has to boil the aloo. Then somebody has to knead the dough. I can’t knead the dough yesterday because it gets dry. I don’t have refrigeration.”
And he says that idli is very simple. “I ferment it, and it’s ready. I can make 100 idlis in one shot. I can make it all day. Not only that, I can also, by the way—in case my fermentation failed, there are enough industrial suppliers of perfectly fermented dough now that’s really cheap.” By the way, very few people in Chennai even make their own idli dough now. You just go buy the idli batter, which is fantastic.
SHRUTI: I am so jealous about that. [laughs]
ASHOK: Exactly, you can get idli batter anywhere now. They use industrial centrifuges and temperature to make sure that the fermentation is perfect. It’s not inconsistent. You don’t have to rely on all these magic tricks that sometimes our grandmothers used. You use fenugreek as a backup in case there’s not enough bacteria in the urad dal—all those kinds of things. These guys, obviously, at a food-science industrial level—they figured it out.
The other thing is the ease of making. It actually raises a very interesting point that a lot of South Indian cooking actually tends to be very low on kitchen time. The amount of time that you need to spend in the kitchen to make a South Indian meal—and this is relatively common across even the diversity of the South Indian states—is much less.
Again, I suspect it is also a function of the fact that more women were studying and working in South India than anywhere else. I would suspect that with literacy and more women working in North India, this whole idea of aloo parathas in the morning—it will disappear unless there’s a machine that actually makes it.
SHRUTI: On this, it goes back farther than women getting educated and joining the labor force. It actually goes back to whether you are rice-growing or wheat-growing.
SHRUTI: This is something I have learned from Alice Evans, and I linked to that conversation. This goes back to female labor-force participation depending on what kind of farming was in a particular region or area and whether it required the participation of female labor or whether it could be done by tools that required muscle.
Areas that are tea-growing—very labor-intensive. Rice picking, tea picking—these are areas where women actually had to participate and go to the field. Even today, those regions have higher female labor-force participation. My sense is that’s why South Indian cooking is faster—because they had to go to the field.
ASHOK: Yes. Plus, rice naturally also lends itself to that.
ASHOK: You can cook a giant amount of rice. You can make a giant amount of biryani, and you’re done. You can feed an entire family, an entire town.
The other fascinating thing that I heard from another historian is the fact—you mentioned about labor-force participation, so I used to frame this as the South is rice-growing. Therefore, rice-growing cultures tend to be more women-friendly, and that was the correlation that I made.
The historian said, “Not that easy.” A lot of the labor of actually growing the rice is done by the women. It’s just that they don’t have as much time to spend in the kitchen because they have to be out there in the fields. Even now the tradition is that it’s the woman who sows that, the first thing, and transplants. They’ve obviously turned it into a tradition. “Oh, it’s a woman fertility ritual of some kind.” But the reality is just underpaid labor.
The Great Indian Food Tour
SHRUTI: In terms of how one approaches food, let’s say someone comes from the outside and has some basic familiarity with Indian food and does a food tour of India. Just to impose some constraints on you, let’s say that this food tour is going to last one week. What would that profile look like? What are the things that someone absolutely must try in India in terms of regional cuisine or even specific dishes if they visited?
ASHOK: Obviously, it’s going to have my personal bias based on my preferences. I’m also going to assume that the person has no dietary restrictions of any kind. My preference would always be to experience as much diversity in flavor profiles as possible.
I would actually pick the Malabar seafood—Malabar or Mangalore—that coast. I would definitely pick Hyderabad for its unique blending of the Mughlai and the South Indian styles of cooking and how the royal family used to make its food, clearly. I would definitely pick Rajasthan, which I think has a fantastic, very desert-style. Rajasthan was always short on water, so they don’t do as much steaming.
ASHOK: They just use ghee. They just fry everything. Also, not very vegetable heavy because they don’t get vegetables, so they use lots of these lentil-based things, papad ki sabzi and all those kinds of very fascinating . . . I think it’s a unique taste profile.
I would clearly also pick Bengal, which in my opinion, personally, I think is one of the most incredibly diverse flavor profiles. Everything from your no-onion, no-garlic niramish cuisine, which is funny because there are meat dishes without onion and garlic, your fish dishes and all that, right?
SHRUTI: But fish is “jol tori,” no? Fish is the vegetable of the water.
ASHOK: Exactly. Clearly, I would also pick one of the cuisines of the Northeast, typically maybe Nagaland, which tastes nothing like . . . It’s a lot of smoked pork, a lot of fermented. I think it has a lot more in common with Burmese and Southern Chinese cooking styles than the rest of India. I would pick these.
Maybe I would also pick the cuisine of Goa, which I think represents, in some sense, Portuguese Indian. There is Anglo-Indian cuisine in Bengal and Tamil Nadu as well. I would pick the Portuguese Indian cuisine of Goa, which I think is quite rich. Actually, the Portuguese brought chilies, and the first variations of chilies were grown in Goa. I think also some of the finest mangoes come from Goa. Fantastic.
SHRUTI: Don’t start on mangoes. I’m having this trauma from not having access to Indian mangoes second summer in a row. There’s something about mangoes from India, which are just completely different. I am willing to experiment. The Mexican mangoes, the Caribbean mangoes that I get here, they’re just so . . . What is it about Indian mangoes? Have you figured this out? I know you’ve written a column on mangoes in general, but Indian mangoes specifically.
ASHOK: For example, what we often find is that the lack of any kind of industrial, large-scale, technology-laden production of mangoes in India has meant that we still have thousands and thousands of local cultivars that are still growing in orchards that have been grown the same way, so it’s just that they’ve just managed to maintain those things. As long as climate change does not wipe out anything, there’s a huge amount of variety.
The other thing is that, because Indians get such intensely flavorful spice extracts, they also like their fruits to be multi-dimensional, not just one-dimensional sweet or sour. I don’t know if you’ve had the Imam Pasand mango.
SHRUTI: I have.
ASHOK: In addition to the sweetness, which it undoubtedly has, and that custard-like texture, it has notes of vanilla, coconut, lime and turpentine. Also a little bit of lemongrass and Thai curry. It is like nothing else. In fact, even Alphonso has a more one-dimensional flavor profile than this. It’s like, “Oh, wow.” You’re just discovering flavors as you bite into it. It actually, literally grows in only a tiny number of places, in, say, around Salem and then some in Trichy and some in Andhra Pradesh, and so on.
The other fascinating thing is, when I’ve traveled, I’ve found that a lot of the mango cultivation in the Caribbean or in Mexico is very industrial in nature. A lot of the cultivars actually tend to be designed in Florida. Florida is another place where they grow mangoes. There hasn’t been that natural, thousands of years of experimentation and trial and error.
Plus, I need to grow a mango that does not have pests, does not have all of this, so that naturally is going to reduce the flavor. As I write in my book, flavor essentially comes from a plant defending itself against pests. Any plant that’s not being attacked by pests is not going to be very tasty because it’s those defensive chemicals that you perceive as flavor.
SHRUTI: Which is why the organic stuff tastes so much better, and I can’t get a decent green pepper or capsicum in the United States. It’s tasteless. It’s flavorless.
ASHOK: Unless you grow it yourself, and you have a healthy number of insects and other things to attack it and so on.
SHRUTI: As a South Indian, you know this—you get hundreds of varieties of bananas, right? Every size, and it’s similar to the Imam Pasand. You can get a banana which has a ginger tinge, which has a cardamom tinge—Yellaki. It’s really a very rich flavor profile here. These bananas are only good to put in a smoothie and suppress the taste and then just eat for the sake of having a banana.
ASHOK: It’s industrially produced.
SHRUTI: The biodiversity—how can you get it with scale? Is there a good way to think about this? Is it the lab? Is it a greenhouse? Even within organic farming because we do need scale.
ASHOK: See, the challenge is that the biodiversity that comes from natural ecosystems is, by design, not scalable. It is just the way it is. The moment you actually homogenize and produce it in a large farm—you just can’t do a monoculture to really get that flavor, but you have to do a monoculture so that you don’t get one pest or one fungus attack, and you’re all done. These are not things that you can somehow manage.
I don’t know. I think there might be some sort of breakthrough in genetic engineering or CRISPR or something that allows you to somehow do both and have the diversity of flavors while also having pest resistance at some point of time. We’re not there yet. It might take maybe five, ten years.
Actually, to the point about mangoes, I did discover when I was in Brazil a couple of years ago that they actually have pretty good mangoes. But unfortunately, the one variety of mango that gets exported from Brazil to the U.S. is the one variety of mango that even Brazilians hate. It’s called the Haden. It’s red in color. Absolutely flavorless, right. The Brazilians just export it to the U.S. They do not eat it, or they might use it in some sort of making gravies or something like that. They don’t use it as a fruit. But they actually have a spectacular variety of mangoes, and Brazil has a unique advantage. It straddles the equator. They’re the only country in the world where some part of Brazil is fruiting mangoes all through the year. It’s not a summer-only thing because, at any point of time, it’s summer somewhere in Brazil.
SHRUTI: Oh, wow. I’ve got to go to Brazil.
ASHOK: You go to Brazil, you go to the market. There are 20 varieties of mangoes all through the year. They’re just different varieties. It might come from the north. This might come from somewhere in the east and somewhere in the deep south. They have a spectacular variety of mangoes, and I’ve tried two or three of them. Some of them are actually pretty good, not bad at all. A lot of variation and flavor.
SHRUTI: I’m so glad I have this personal mango consulting opportunity with you because this deeply affects my daily life and how I feel about the summer.
Musical Training and Influences
SHRUTI: I want to move on to your music for a bit. You were trained in the Carnatic tradition. You’re T. N. Krishnan’s student. For those who don’t understand this, when we were talking about this tradition of mysticism, and there are some families and some people who are just magical, I think that might actually be true for T. N. Krishnan and some of the others. Can you talk a little bit about that intellectual background and that training
ASHOK: Clearly, I, like most of the young kids in Chennai, was forced into this. Nobody wants to learn Carnatic music by themselves. I learned from T. N. Krishnan when I was already advanced, when I was in Delhi. I started in the Lalgudi School. I was taught by Lalgudi’s sister, Rajalakshmi, and Srimathi, and so on.
SHRUTI: It’s a tough school.
ASHOK: It’s a very tough school. I think I would have preferred military drilling. They were really, really strict. If you didn’t get something right, they just made you play for hours and hours. It wasn’t a very pleasant place in general. I grew up disliking Carnatic music.
At the very first opportunity, when I got reasonably decent, I started playing Ilaiyaraaja songs and things that I could hear and figured out how to play the violin. The school actually threatened to throw me out. They called my mother and said, “He’s sullying the purity, the sanctity of the instrument by playing Ilaiyaraaja songs.”
When I was young, I didn’t quite realize it. You grow older. You study about the history of Tamil Nadu. You study about the history of Carnatic music, and you know that this is a tradition that is at that uncomfortable edge of one caste dominating the proceedings for the last 100 years, taking control essentially. One hundred, fifty years ago, this was something that the Maharajahs would patronize, and every caste—anybody could become a Carnatic. There was a strong Devadasi tradition. Temples were patrons, and so on.
SHRUTI: We just released an episode on this with Keshav Desiraju, talking about all of these things.
ASHOK: Exactly. Then all of a sudden when, for example, Tamil Brahmins started to become the elite because they were working with the British and so on, they needed an elite art form, and they decided to just take this over. They slowly killed the nadaswaram tradition. They killed the Devadasi tradition, and so on. It became a very insular thing.
It’s funny, now I can look back at my teacher telling me, “You spoiled the sanctity of this instrument by playing this Ilaiyaraaja song.” I’m like, “This violin was introduced by the British to Muthuswami Dikshitar’s brother, who was taught by a Western classical musician.”
It’s interesting. You learn an art. You dislike the pedagogical style, but at the same time, you keep getting good at it because of the fact that they are drilling you. The 1,000 hours or whatever, right?
You get there, and essentially, you can go one of two ways. One is to say, “Look, I’m good at it now. I can learn this on my own terms. I can continue to draw a line between what I want to learn from these teachers, versus what I want to interpret and how I want to do this myself,” versus simply just giving it up, which many people do anyway. A very small percentage end up learning. I think it is just that my interest in music stayed—not because I continue to play Carnatic music but because I experimented with other things.
My parents—when I was young, they would take me to small towns in Tamil Nadu where people there do not often listen to Carnatic music. He had these local contacts. He would say, “This is a young 11-year-old kid who’s going to play the Carnatic music for all these people in the village.” By the way, it was quite fascinating—the local guy there would amp me up by taking our tempo around town and play on a loudspeaker Kunnakudi’s music because why?
SHRUTI: I love it.
ASHOK: People recognized Kunnakudi’s music. Pass it off as me playing, and then people would come and see 11-year-old kid play music. The interesting thing is that, to stay true to this thing, half of the concert was pure Carnatic; half of the concert was film songs. I would just simply play things that people—
SHRUTI: Ilaiyaraaja has more penetration in rural Tamil Nadu than anything from any other tradition, right?
ASHOK: Yes, and also, Ilaiyaraaja songs have 100x more sophistication in melody and harmonic structure than most Carnatic songs, so leave aside the feeling of superiority that a lot of these people have. Not only that, I would often play local devotional songs, so if there was a temple in that town, there’d be a song that everyone recognizes about that temple.
That’s how I stayed in touch and yet, at the same time, recognized that the insularity of the establishment is not something that I ever liked. It made my decision where I was then learning from T. N. Krishnan when he told me, “Maybe you should quit your engineering and start following me full time.” That was when it made it easy for me to say, “No, I won’t do that. I would rather just do what I have and do this as a hobby. I don’t want to become a professional Carnatic musician because I’m not into that world at all.”
SHRUTI: There are two aspects to being a professional Carnatic musician. One is the music itself. The second is, you’ve got to buy wholesale into the culture, the attitude, right from the way you dress to how you greet people, to how you treat some people badly, to what you eat and how you sit and what jewelry you wear. There is a format that we have created, and one cannot deviate.
ASHOK: Oh, yes. Absolutely. As a violinist—
SHRUTI: As a violinist, it’s even harder.
ASHOK: Yes. As a violinist, I would often be told that you have to pay attention to what the vocalist is singing and that you can’t be more creative than him.
SHRUTI: Yes. You are the accompanying artist.
ASHOK: You should be sure that you somehow don’t play something that the audience ends up applauding you more for—a lot of that entire mindset of this whole diva as the vocalist, this sort of era. In fact, I grew up, in some sense, detesting vocalists of all kinds because I’ve had to play accompanist to so many of them, even while I was living in the U.S. In fact, I was living in Texas, and they would use me as the local violinist because they didn’t have to fly someone from India. Those guys would have all kinds of attitudes. Yes, airs.
Mixing Musical Styles
SHRUTI: I discovered this cute—I don’t mean to be condescending, but it is cute because you and Anil Srinivasan look so young and adorable in this video. You’re both teenagers, and he’s playing Scarborough Fair which was, of course, made famous by Simon & Garfunkel, but he’s playing his interpretation of it, and you are playing an alapana on the violin alongside.
SHRUTI: Was this the first brush with juxtaposing different styles of music for you?
ASHOK: Yes, it very much was one of the earliest at least. I’d always been attempting to play Ilaiyaraaja songs with the violin. The fun part is that many Ilaiyaraaja interludes between the melodies were actually on violin. Sometimes, there are people who simply listen to Ilaiyaraaja just for the interludes. They just ignore the melody altogether. [laughs]
ASHOK: I would sometimes just play the interludes and discover how much of a genius appreciation for the craft that Ilaiyaraaja had and also this ethereal ability to sometimes bring in a little bit of Bach, and bring in a little bit of Western popular music and jazz, and yet place it in a very Tamil folk song. It’s just fascinating in that sense.
I was always exposed to that, but this was the first time when I actually had to be on stage with someone from another tradition. Anil Srinivasan’s trajectory later in life as well—he’s also someone who started in the Western tradition and then started playing with Sikkil Gurucharan and others, and also playing the notes of the rāga on the piano while keeping the chords to that mode.
It’s been a long while, but he said, “I’m going to play Scarborough Fair. By the way, it’s rāga Kharaharapriya. Just play anything in Kharaharapriya.” And that’s about it. He’s actually looking at me and saying, “Stop, your alap was too long.” He gave me the look two or three times. We didn’t practice much.
SHRUTI: This might be hard, but I would be grateful if you can break this down for me, even if you have to do it on the violin. I recently rewatched one of your videos where you combined Tyagaraja’s “Brova Bharama” with Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” These are not two songs that I would place together in my head in any context. I know both really well, so it’s not a lack of familiarity, but I would just not place them in that combination. To my ear, “Teardrop” is not the same ragam as “Brova Bharama.” Maybe you can correct me on this, but it is not Bahudari. It is not even Harikambhoji. Bahudari is the derivative for that.
SHRUTI: What made you think these two fit? I have two specific questions. Did you listen to “Teardrop” and something just clicked in your brain, and it said, “I need to play it with this Tyagaraja’s song”? Or did you have trial and error, and you said, “It would be fun to experiment, trying to juxtapose two things together, and I’m going to throw some spaghetti on the wall and try a few things”? What is the process by which you do this? We link to the video, but I’d also be grateful if you played out for us.
ASHOK: It’s sometimes very hard to describe this kind of process in terms of when you spot these connections, if you will. If you think about “Brova Bharama” and “Teardrop” by Massive Attack, it’s not so much the rāga, but more the cadence and the rhythm.
SHRUTI: The cadence.
ASHOK: That kind of fit first. I think one day, “Teardrop” was playing, and I remember just humming parts of the song to it, and I said, “Oh, okay, it kind of fits.” It’s got enough similarity in rāga to the point where I can make simple enough chords for “Teardrop.” Incidentally, I’m using the same chords that “Teardrop” is actually using, but I’m skipping the notes that wouldn’t fit into the rāga so that it wouldn’t make this sound a little bit odd. That’s often some of those things that I have to do behind the scenes, if you will.
I’ll let you in on a trick. It’s that people attribute a lot of magic to the brains of composers. Half the magic is in the listener’s head. Our ears and our brains are fantastic at finding patterns. We are essentially a pattern-matching mammal. Our entire survival mechanism is finding patterns. There are so many experiments where people see patterns. The Rorschach test—people see patterns. Then if you just juxtapose two random things that often don’t mix, people will find reasons to believe why it fits when it may not, actually.
As long as you get some of these things, you put it on the same page. If you use the same chords, if you use the same tempo, and then you play them alternately one after another, people will just simply supply the rest with their brain, so I think that’s the one trick that music directors use that I suddenly now reveal to everyone.
SHRUTI: No, I think you’re underselling yourself a little bit. I didn’t approach this as a technical thing until I decided to speak with you about it. That’s when I sat down, and I said, “Okay, let me scratch my head. What’s going on with this song?” The first time I heard it, I just enjoyed it, and that is my approach to most music. I lack sophistication of a professional musician, so I think that’s an advantage because, for me, either it sounds good or it doesn’t sound good.
Not everything everyone does sounds good. There are a lot of these juxtapositions I absolutely hate, not because I’m a purist or something. It just doesn’t appeal to me. It doesn’t fit. This somehow just fit, and I’m not even sure if I would feel the same way about all your other tracks that you attempt.
ASHOK: Yes, exactly.
SHRUTI: When do you know this works? Or do you just not know, and you just put it out there? What is the trial-and-error mechanism in your mind?
ASHOK: Over time, it’s probably gotten a little bit better, but in general, with music, you’ve got to try many things. You’ve got to put it out, and then you slowly develop a sense of what your audience seems to want. Part of the usefulness of social media is that, so you get that real-time feedback. You kind of know. For example, I did a Daft Punk Karnaranjani variation of that.
SHRUTI: Yes, I heard that.
ASHOK: It literally took me half an hour. I didn’t think of it at all. As an afterthought, and actually, I didn’t even use my regular violin; it was just laying around there, and I just recorded it. It was a very poor recording. I didn’t even do mixing and masking. I just put it out there. It’s got more plays than anything else that I’ve ever put out.
In that context, it had to do with the fact that one Daft song was currently in the zeitgeist. It was a song that everyone was thinking about. Nobody had quite realized that it could be played at this slow tempo and this very elaborate style. I think that’s one thing. Some pop culture relevance tends to click in that sense.
Sometimes you run into something like “Teardrop,” this Bahudari thing, which honestly, I cannot explain. I have no idea. It’s hard for me to explain. In retrospect, I can analyze and say, you know what, the reality is that for a lot of people who have heard “Teardrop” and have never heard of the Carnatic song, they discovered the Carnatic song via this.
SHRUTI: It still works. Even if you don’t know the Carnatic song, it still works.
Different Violin Traditions: Lalgudi G. Jayaram Versus T. N. Krishnan
ASHOK: It still works because it’s actually a very catchy song. Maybe I’ll play a little bit of why that song is actually catchy. Particularly, it also has to do with the fact that I was trained both at the Lalgudi, as well as the T. N. Krishnan side.
This song was something that T. N. Krishnan taught me. There’s something about his school or his style of teaching and his minimalism with the violin that actually makes it, in some sense, easier to appreciate certain kinds of songs because, actually, he doesn’t embellish them as much as, say, Lalgudi does.
SHRUTI: It also works very well with the framework, the tempo of “Teardrop.”
ASHOK: A cross style.
SHRUTI: You need the minimalism because that song has that minimalism.
ASHOK: Exactly, yes. You don’t want that heavy-duty gamaka and bending and a lot of that. That does not sit well. That’s essentially you trying to show off the fact that you can do this. One thing that T. N. Krishnan truly drilled into us is to say that you’re not the diva. You’re not actually showing off your playing ability. Your job is to make the song as enjoyable and accessible for the audience that you’re playing. Less is more. “Less is more” is not something that you often hear from Carnatic musicians. Every passing year, the alapanas are getting longer.
SHRUTI: And more complex.
ASHOK: I’m sure nobody’s actually playing them live. Everybody’s just memorizing stuff and doing extraordinarily complex stuff. At that point, it actually becomes a demonstration of your virtuosity as opposed to a way of performing music that the audience actually enjoys and identifies with.
In some sense, I find people who have never heard Carnatic music—they find it easier to listen to a T. N. Krishnan and say, “This sounds beautiful. I don’t understand what he’s playing, but this sounds beautiful.” They hear Lalgudi and they’re like, “This sounds complicated.” For a Carnatic person, Lalgudi is a virtuoso. Maybe I’ll perform that sort of distinction.
SHRUTI: That would be great.
ASHOK: We can perform something.
SHRUTI: Actually, if you can perform something, and a very specific request—maybe Bahudari is the correct one. If you can play it the way Lalgudi would play it, T. N. Krishnan would play, Kunnakudi would play it. There are Ilaiyaraaja songs, there are A.R. Rahman songs actually. From Thiruda Thiruda, there’s a lovely song in Bahudari. If you can just, in bits and pieces, give us a sense of how these different styles sound and how it fits in your head.
ASHOK: All right.
[music at 53:00]
ASHOK: If you think about “Brova Bharama.”
ASHOK: This is T. N. Krishnan. It’s really distilled down. He literally only uses five notes. He’s not actually—
ASHOK: He’s not doing any of that. A lot of the traditional Carnatic ones would kind of start with a bend, et cetera, et cetera. In T. N. Krishnan style, the first version of this is just devoid of any embellishment, and it works so beautifully with . . . if you want to add a chord or anything because the last thing somebody wants to hear is . . . The idea of using harmony is the fact that the moment you bend, it breaks the harmony, so you actually don’t want to overbend your notes because then it breaks the harmony, and so on.
ASHOK: One of the things about T. N. Krishnan is that he uses verses that are designed for the violin as opposed to designed for the human voice, and this is a very important thing. For example, let me play something that I learned from the Lalgudi school. This is his “Bharathiyar” song.
ASHOK: This is “Chinnanchiru Kiliye.” If you notice, it sounds like someone singing as opposed to a violin playing it, and with the Lalgudi school, they come from a very, very strong vocal tradition. He may be a violinist, but it is a singing [Gayaki] tradition, so you’re supposed to play in a way, and you’re supposed to capture the breath. In fact, my teacher would tell me that you’re to change the bow at the time typically when the singer is probably taking a breath.
Whereas T. N. Krishnan used to say, “No, your job of when you change—nobody should even know you’re changing the bow because the primary strength of a bowed instrument is the fact that you can make a continuous sound forever and not have any of the limitations of the human voice.” While he was minimalist, he was famously . . . Some of these Sangathis and some of the verses that he would construct would be ones that show off the instrument as opposed to the Gayaki tradition.
Again, it’s natural. He learned from his father who was a violinist, whereas Lalgudi, again, comes from a tradition . . . Apparently, you can trace our lineage back to Tyagaraja himself—very, very strong vocal tradition, in that sense.
For example, in “Brova Bharama”—
ASHOK: Something like that is the sort of thing where it’ll be hard to do on vocals because you’re actually jumping from a very high to a very low and then sliding. That’s the sort of thing that you can do more easily on a violin, and T. N. Krishnan would prefer those kinds of things because he says, “What’s the point in a violin playing exactly what the vocalist says?”
He was notoriously unpopular as an accompanist earlier in his career because Semmangudi and others used to say, “You are trying to show off on your own.” He says, “No, I’m just trying to play something different from what you are.”
The other interesting thing—he said that one interesting way is that you’ve got to be able to use the strength of the dramatic pause. I’ll give you an example. Let me see.
ASHOK: He would actually say since that line actually goes Kannathil Muthamittal, he says you’ve got to savor the kiss. You got to wait, you got to pause, you got to go play in the lower, and then you play in the higher octave, and then can go up and really just savor the kiss before you go on to the next line.
The other example is actually from this “Alaipayuthey” song. He would say everyone immediately goes to say— [music] It’s a very basic way of beginning. “Alaipayuthey.” [sings]
When you think about the lyrics, it’s actually, “Well, look at the waves. They’re pouncing.” So he says that the way to make it more dramatic is to say that you start with a small wave and then the wave gets bigger. You would actually often—
The distinction is that the first wave is just going from “alaipayuthey, alaipayuthey.” [sings] You’re literally saying this first was a smaller wave, the other one is actually a larger wave.
Likewise, there is one “kangal sorugi oru vidhamay.” [sings] “Your eyes are twinkling in a different way.” He says you can make it look different.
The first time you say [music].
That’s one way. [music]
You don’t expect that. That really signifies the fact that it’s different.
It would be wrong to say that he wasn’t caring about the Gayaki tradition. What he actually said is use your instrument to the best—its strength—by listening, paying close attention to words. Not necessarily singing like a vocalist. That’s an entirely different thing. I think those are the sorts of things—
SHRUTI: This inflection you pointed out, you see in Bappi Lahiri, you see in Laxmikant-Pyarelal, especially LP because they were violinists.
ASHOK: Absolutely, yes.
SHRUTI: That inflection—the way they make the singer—it’s the reverse, actually. The singers adapt to the inflection that they can originally play on the violin.
ASHOK: Yes. I think classical musicians sometimes just needlessly get worked up about classical music superiority. The reality is that Indian film music, as an overall oeuvre, is exceptional. There is more diversity, more sophistication—as much, if not significantly more, in fact, if you look at the sheer diversity across—
SHRUTI: More influences, frankly.
ASHOK: More influences. More accessible. Actually, the fact that an Ilaiyaraaja could do something like “Ilamai Itho Itho” or whatever it is, and then at the same time come up with something like [music].
That “Sindhu Bhairavi” song [Poo Maalai Vangi Vanthan] and so on. Those songs could have been composed by any great Carnatic composer.
ASHOK: It’s just the fact that he can do that and he can do all those other things is what really sets him apart.
SHRUTI: One thing, while you were playing, that I realized—I think why you are so attracted to both T. N. Krishnan and Ilaiyaraaja—I think it comes from the same place, which is Ilaiyaraaja had to have very simple interludes. I mean, “simple” or minimalist because he’s harmonizing. He’s a very Western orchestration, harmony school of music originally, which means—
ASHOK: Exactly. And a guitarist.
SHRUTI: And a guitarist, which means the interludes necessarily must be minimal because they need to stick with the chord harmonies. Otherwise, it’s going to sound really off. And I have never thought of T. N. Krishnan the same way, but the way you played it, that’s the way it goes.
Whereas, other schools—and in my house, Lalgudi is part of the constellation of gods. He’s much revered. But you can see that tradition—it’s different, not so much better or worse, but because the harmony and the orchestration element is not there.
ASHOK: Yes, if you look at Ilaiyaraaja’s violinist, the lead violinist for most of his . . . V. S. Narasimhan, who is a Western classical violinist but who also plays Carnatic music, and it’s remarkable how similar he sounds to T. N. Krishnan in his style. I don’t think they were related in any sense, but I think it’s the approach. And I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe T. N. Krishnan’s great-great-great-grandfather or someone learned Western classical violin from the European school. Their bowing techniques are very, very Western classical in nature.
Lalgudi school does not care as much about the bowing at all. He says it’s all in the fingering because that’s where the vocalization happens. The bowing is just there to make the sound and that’s really about it. Nobody pays attention.
You can actually watch it in videos that when—in the Lalgudi school—the bow would sometimes be played very below the place where it’s supposed to be played. Sometimes it will go up. You can clearly see that they’re not paying attention to where they’re actually bowing. So sometimes what happens is, in recordings, there are some phrases that will sound very low volume because, actually, it’s playing the bow well below. So they’re not really caring about the acoustic effect of that.
T. N. Krishnan, for almost a year, drilled the students on just playing the bow and saying that I need to get the exact same volume, no matter what the position, so that you don’t actually deviate. You hold your hands loose.
We never really got bow training as much in the Lalgudi school, but the T. N. Krishnan school was all about bowing, and if you look at the Western classical school, they tell you that the fingering is less important. It’s all bowing, aided in complexity by the fact that you have to hold up the violin as well, so without the support—
SHRUTI: Here I want to bring in another violinist we haven’t yet discussed. My absolute favorite, I think, is L. Shankar. Here he seems to be somewhere in the middle of these different approaches, but he also sounds like he literally sprouted out of the soil. I know part of it is the instrument itself. He created a different kind of instrument with a different sound—the double violin and things like that.
Anything he plays is absolutely identifiable from the purest of Carnatic traditions, but it sounds like no one else in the Carnatic tradition. Can you tell me, as a violinist, what’s going on with L. Shankar?
ASHOK: I think L. Shankar, L. Vaidyanathan, L. Subramaniam—all three. I think one, clearly they were all child prodigies. A large part of what they actually do is they demonstrate their virtuosity. Even if you see their fingering, they’re playing in parts of the violin that other musicians would not play.
SHRUTI: Yes. L. Shankar is matching John McLaughlin.
ASHOK: Clearly, I think, one is that they are people who have really maxed out the potential of what the instrument is capable of. In the West, they would’ve been like an Itzhak Perlman or someone if they’d grown up in that tradition. It’s just that.
What is actually, in some sense, fascinating is that Itzhak Perlman is seen as a legend, whereas L. Shankar is just one of many violinists, and if anything, people would say, “No, no, no, he’s not purist enough.” Or the fact that he collaborated with all those Westerners. That’s the nature of the establishment here more than anything else.
But the other thing that they obviously paid attention to is the fact that . . . I’ll say somebody like T. N. Krishnan really perfected the acoustic violin in terms of its sound. He actually plays a very expensive German violin, and he has several of them. The acoustic sound of the violin is what he prefers.
I think what L. Shankar and these guys pioneered is the fact that you can make this an electric instrument, and the moment you make it an electric instrument—for example, right now, I’m playing a Fender electric violin. It’s a traditional violin. You would have heard a little bit of a delay and that reverb, which is actually software effects that I’m applying to the violin while I’m playing.
ASHOK: This is the sort of thing that L. Shankar and these guys really pioneered in the sense that the moment you electrify the violin, the number of tools at your disposal now are insane because the guitar truly came into its own only when it became an electric guitar—not when it just stayed an acoustic guitar—because you can make any sound from the electric guitar.
You could play this to sound like a heavy metal guitar because I just have to load the heavy metal patch, and then I can play a heavy metal version of, say, “Nagumomo” or something like that. You could actually do those kinds of things. You can add lots of reverb, lots of lengthy delays and echoes—the things that you couldn’t do to the acoustic version of the violin.
Now, again, it’s a stylistic choice, and it’s about using it in the right places. Sometimes, using that in a lengthy Ragam Tanam Pallavi might be overkill, but using it in a short fusion piece, or in collaboration with John McLaughlin—it really makes sense.
ASHOK: What I would say is, their virtuosity on the instrument, combined with the fact that they are taking full advantage of what you can do with software and electrification and amplification, is really what sets them apart.
SHRUTI: I’ll put on L. Subramaniam’s version of “Brova Bharama.” I’ve heard him play it live. And that, as you say, is not as minimalist as Krishnan’s version of it, nor is it as consistent as Lalgudi’s version of it. Anything that is played by the Lalgudi school is consistent. They play exactly the same way. It’s almost like they’ve mastered some kind of Western classical notation technique, except they’ve done it with muscle memory, and you get it absolutely consistent every single time.
Technology, YouTube and Democratization of Art
SHRUTI: We spoke previously in terms of manuals and the oral tradition. Now, something magical is happening right now. Carnatic music has not democratized. We still have the same access problem of who are the patrons, who are the players, who gets sent to which school, and of course, it’s completely caste dominated and things like that. But the one thing that has changed is not manuals; it is YouTube.
YouTube seems to have both democratized and decentralized music overall. But my sense is, you’re going to get the maximum mileage from YouTube for a tradition like the Carnatic tradition, which is an oral tradition, so you really need to listen and learn it. It can’t be manualized, but at the same time, people don’t get entry. So now, YouTube is going to change something. Do you see that happening? Or am I being too optimistic?
ASHOK: I would say it’s a little bit of both. There is some optimism, but here’s the thing. If you think about the history of Tamil Nadu itself, or at least Southern India, I think the last 70 or 80 years have also meant that the traditional purist Carnatic way of thinking about it is very closely associated with this one caste, so that naturally, the average person absolutely wants to sing an Ilaiyaraaja song or wants to sing an A. R. Rahman song, but does not want to associate themselves with this tradition because they know it comes from a place of discrimination and all the rest of that history and baggage.
In that sense, yes, there is democratization, and a naturally talented musician can now use YouTube to fine-tune and learn techniques that they would not have otherwise learned, but still learn it not through the purest Carnatic sense, but purely from the mechanical-craft sense of the word.
I can now listen to a Yesudas. I can listen to a Semmangudi or whatever it is, or understand what is it that they did with their voices or whether or not it’s still relevant now. And if it’s interesting, what can I do similar to them in the context of my participation in those equivalents of “American Idol” programs that are the single most popular programs in any language in India?
You’ll often find that many of the guys who come there don’t often have formal classical training at all. It’s secondary. They are talented first, and then somebody spotted their talent, and then they tactically taught themselves, either via YouTube or some teacher for a short period of time, to hone that skill. They didn’t come through this entire tradition right from the start. I think in that sense, it’s clearly made a big difference in opening up the pedagogy to basically a wider number of people.
SHRUTI: Now, this also matters for food because most of the times when I want to learn how to make something I’ve never made before, I don’t read the recipe. I read the recipe just to know what ingredients I need, and I just do a quick look at it, but if I really want to learn how to make it, I watch a YouTube video.
One is creating manuals and making it almost algorithmic. It’s like code you’ve got to have—what is the basic framework of this? The second is the oral versus the written tradition—how we think about it as passed on in the family, what is sacrosanct, what is not. Then the third is some kind of experimentation and trial and error.
Now, for all these three things, there’s something about the way YouTube works which makes it so much easier than a recipe book or even the oral tradition because it’s a little bit annoying to keep calling your mom every time. But with YouTube, I can hit pause and go back and play it over and over again. What is this YouTube internet version going to do to the way we cook, the way we listen to music, we play music—all of these traditions?
ASHOK: The first thing is that I rarely search for a written recipe. I almost always jump straight to YouTube because, first and foremost, I get to watch five or six videos of the same dish being made. Before I proceed, I don’t just look at one. I suspect many people do that. They watch multiple videos of the same dish.
One of the things when you watch multiple videos of the same dish being made, you’re innately thinking, “You know what? This step that I read in that book—it doesn’t matter because this person doesn’t seem to be using it.” Or “By the way, this sequence and order that they said you have to put it in this order—that sequence doesn’t matter.” You could make it any which way. “By the way, this ingredient may not matter because this person does not seem to be using that ingredient.”
Naturally, one thing that YouTube has done to cooking—it has opened up people’s minds to the fact that there is no purist way of doing this. I know some people still will say, “I swear by this X person’s recipes.”
But that’s just because we tend to have a naturally purist approach to food, and we can talk about the fact that it actually goes back to how our brains are wired when it comes to how we perceive flavor. It has to do with the fact that how you perceive flavor is the same part of the brain that processes nostalgia; that’s the part that’s perceiving flavor.
Therefore, that naturally makes any past experiences such a limiting factor in your ability to actually experiment, and also, by the way, fantastically helps us sustain the caste system because food and caste are intricately tied to one another. If you grew up eating something, you cannot eat something made by someone else. My mom cannot eat something somewhere where they use garlic, and that automatically just closes her social circle, as simple as that.
The first thing that YouTube does is the fact that you now get to beat some of these holy cows in regard to how you’re supposed to do it, which is the right way to do it. The other thing, obviously, is the fact that there is now a growing phenomenon where nobody has patience for 10-minute videos. You’re literally watching these in time-lapse. You just see the hands.
There is a fascinating bit of factoid about how BuzzFeed does these Tasty . . . They pioneered the whole high-speed, time-lapse kind of videos. Apparently, every time they would use people who had tattoos on their hands, those videos would not do well because it broke the illusion that you were cooking. If you observe those videos, those hands will always be clean, and so that way, they could literally be your hands. That’s the idea.
Therefore, what that also does is that you don’t even have to watch 16 minutes. You can now watch a recipe in less than time than it takes you for you to read it, so you could watch nearly hundreds of videos. Essentially, obviously that is one. That’s clearly democratized. It’s broken the sense of purity and authenticity and so on.
SHRUTI: I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, and I certainly don’t know how to cook it, but I watch all your videos, [laughs] even things where you’re making prawn and stuff, for two reasons. One, I’m very interested in your kitchen and your gadgets. I’m literally stalking your kitchen gadgets at this point. The second is the music.
SHRUTI: But even when you’re cooking something that I’m not that interested in, there is something about the technique of watching someone cook, which is different, which is why we are so in tune with our mother’s cooking. That’s what we can watch as the technique. Technique is very difficult to explain and even manualize.
ASHOK: Correct. I think I’ve watched more YouTube cooking videos than most people on the planet. I’d probably be in the top 1 percentile. Over time, I gradually preferred videos that focused on technique and explained the technique as to why, and if that science made sense to me, those are the people that I would trust. I think some of these time-lapse videos sometimes miss that because you’re seeing it in such a quick time, you actually don’t see.
Part of what my book also says is that certain kinds of the way you write recipes are bad ways of writing recipes. I’ll give you a classic example. “Cook till the raw smell of tamarind goes away” is a terrible instruction. What is the raw smell of tamarind? How do you actually communicate that to a newbie cook?
By the way, what does it mean that the raw smell actually goes away? It doesn’t mean anything in any sense because what you smell in the tamarind, the moment you put it in, you’re not smelling it anyway. It doesn’t smell of raw tamarind the moment you put it in the liquid, so what are you actually talking about?
Therefore, a better way of thinking about it is to cook it till it’s as less sour as you like it. The whole idea is that the more you cook it, the less sour it becomes, and you really want to mute the sourness. That’s essentially what you’re doing. If you think about our grandmothers, they would not say things like, “Cook for 10 minutes.” They’ve never had a sense of time. They always had a visual cue that said, “Cook till this happens,” or “Cook till you smell this,” or “Cook till this becomes this soft.”
Those are the kinds of heuristics that I want to make sure that people understand. That’s also part of the reason my book is basically a combination of heuristics of all kinds. Again, these have been gathered from watching fantastic YouTube cooks who do that as opposed to give the wrong reason and so on.
SHRUTI: There’s something here again. It goes back to writing versus the heuristic. One of the heuristics is, “Put in the mustard seeds just before the oil burns. It should be really hot, but it shouldn’t burn.” Now, how do you know if the oil is burning or not until it has burnt a few times?
ASHOK: Exactly. When I set out to write the book, Penguin told me, “Nobody buys cookbooks anymore, so please don’t write a cookbook because people watch YouTube, so nobody buys cookbooks anymore. That market has actually crashed.” Therefore, I said, “Okay, let’s write something that even someone who does not cook can still enjoy as a popular science book, something that explains high school science, physics and chemistry and thermodynamics in high school language, so it can reside in the science section of the book store.”
Obviously, since the book came out during the pandemic, the point of which shelf it actually resided on . . . Actually, physical bookstores didn’t matter because most of the sales are online anyway. I think that was an important element of this.
The Pandemic and the Future of the Workplace
SHRUTI: I want to switch gears a little bit and come to the pandemic where this is coming to a sharp focus, but even before, and this comes a little bit to your day job. I don’t know exactly what you do in your day job. I have a vague sense of it, but suppose maybe you can tell us that. [laughs]
ASHOK: Yes. I head the digital workplace unit globally for Tata Consultancy Services, one of the largest IT services and consulting companies in the world. We have half a million employees. We basically do IT services, business processes, and so on for the vast majority of the Fortune 1000 companies around the world.
I head a P&L unit that focuses on workplace technologies, specifically the kinds of technologies we are now using, essentially: video collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, productivity tools, PowerPoint, and those kinds of things, and the IT infrastructure required to make productivity and workplace technologies happen. That’s fundamentally what we do at the services level.
But at the high level, it is essentially also about thinking about the future of the workplace, and this is something that I’ve been doing. I have an interesting team that’s at the intersection, so there are people who are behavioral scientists, there are people who are designers, there are people who are anthropologists and there are techies—hardcore infrastructure, guys who can do telephone rewiring. It’s basically a very, very large, interdisciplinary group of people.
SHRUTI: I think of technology as a transaction-cost-reducing device. Normally, to have this conversation, I would have had to buy a very expensive flight ticket, and the three of us—me, Morgan and Dallas—would have had to fly to Chennai, to your studio. Maybe we would have gotten to eat something, so there’s a plus, but it’s a very high-transaction-costs enterprise to have this conversation with you. Now, all that disappears, and the transaction costs are so low, we can do this conversation.
That’s how I think about technology. What does it add, aside from reducing transaction costs? On the other side, what is the tradeoff? What is the takeaway in terms of losing the human “magic”? Because there’s supposed to be some magic when human beings meet in person, which is different than when we meet on Zoom. Can you demystify that for us?
ASHOK: I think the way to answer this—this might be a slightly longer answer because I think it’s good to look at the history of the workplace itself. In some sense, also—and you might be familiar with this—the history of the organization of the corporation, as a large complex entity, and the reason it’s structured in a certain way, with deep levels of specialization across multiple things that an organization has to do, as opposed to a small startup that can just churn out a digital product with, say, 50 people to 10 people.
But if you have to make an industrial centrifuge or a car or, say, the Boeing 787, it requires a phenomenally complex organization with deep levels of specialization that no one single person can be interdisciplinary across too many things and so on. That’s number one.
The second thing, how organizations themselves evolved, is to essentially, first and foremost, separate what is an industrial manufacturing setup and the blue-collar workforce and the necessary administration of that, and what is an increasing knowledge workforce, doing sales and marketing. Eventually, once computing came, that became even bigger because we could do more functions in the corporate office and less in the plant. That is essentially the evolution of what computing did to the entire thing.
When you think about the way the organization was structured, it was structured in a way that the corporate office needed to collaborate very little with the plant at the end of the day because there was the industrial designer who designed something, the sales, the board and everyone approved that design, and then it got transferred to there, and the engineers figured out how to turn the design into this thing. There was a language, the templatized way in which you communicate and lay down that knowledge in a way that there is no ambiguity at all.
We eventually switched to a model where the product development and the design and the engineering had to happen so rapidly that you needed far more constant back-and-forth, and that’s where computing made a big difference and email made a big difference, to the point where people who are distant could now start to talk to each other. Obviously, the telephone was there and all that, but you still need to do that, right?
I often take the example of email as a fascinating example of essentially a digital technology that is “skeuomorphically” still paying tribute to a 100-year-old way in which we would communicate to the office. You think about it—we still call it “inbox.” The inbox used to be actual physical trays in the office that used to be called In and Out. That’s why it’s called inbox and outbox, and one guy with a small tray would come take these letters from you in your outbox, and go deliver it to whoever it is.
By the way, if it says, “Carbon copy someone else,” then he would carbon copy it to send a copy. That’s why our email clients still say carbon copy, although nobody born in the 1990s onwards would understand what a carbon copy even is. A lot of companies end up having a skeuomorphic bias towards the past, and this is not just in the design of the technologies. It’s in the culture as well.
The culture of collaboration also ends up . . . You’re supposed to say, “Oh, you’re supposed to collaborate across silos,” all these banal terms, but that’s not how you were structured. The corporation was structured so you do not collaborate across silos because it was good that you did not. All of a sudden it is. Culture of collaboration is a hard problem to crack as large organizations are moving into the “digital world” and competing now with startups that don’t have any of these collaboration costs at all.
To your point about transaction costs, what we found out during the pandemic is the fact that, first and foremost, your productivity tools—your laptop, the fact that you can connect to broadband connectivity, 5G or 4G, and all of these things—what they did is that they improved, they reduced the cost of productivity.
For the most part, one, you didn’t need to commute two hours to go to an office. You could just sit at home. One, you could now fit your day in the way you like it, as opposed to sitting nine to six in an office. You can do continuous partial attention at home, switch between work and life and still . . . Work changed from presenteeism to outcomes naturally.
Our research told us that it still increased the cost of coordination and collaboration. The reason for it is that a lot of our workplace culture and decision-making styles are grounded in the physical workplace. We get into meetings face to face, we discuss things, et cetera, and people don’t work the same way when they actually do. All we end up doing is more Zoom meetings, more Teams meetings and decisions being taken much slower.
A lot of communication is sometimes lost. You’re not able to get the body language, and people are innately more risk averse. They’re not quite sure if their boss has actually given them the go-ahead or the empowerment to do this because all they see is a tiny pixelated view, and so on. So yes, the cost of productivity has gone down. Cost of coordination has actually gone up, despite the fact that you have all these technologies, and the reason for that is that your collaboration culture is still stuck in the past.
I often now talk to my customers about something called ritual design in the sense that the physical workplace essentially came with its implicit unwritten set of rituals. There is no company manual that said, “You have to be on time for meetings; you have to share knowledge with others; you have to do this.” All of that is implicit.
When you’re working virtually and remotely, and in hybrid teams, you have to design new rituals. I can tell you what some of those are because we’ve tried some of them for the 500,000 people at TCS, but in some sense, you have to work out what cultural rituals you need to put in place. I’ll give you a simple example: shorter meetings. Default meeting should be half an hour, 15 minutes, not 1 hour.
Two, if you’re doing a status meeting, the real-time data should be visible to everyone ahead of time. The culture of a physical meeting is people present status only in the meeting. They bring printouts or they demonstrate it. Everything happens just before the meeting. Now the culture is, it all has to be real time, visible to everyone. Make a dashboard available to everyone. You actually reduce the number of status meetings you need to have.
The third interesting ritual is, if you’re in meetings with both your direct reports and your direct reports’ direct reports, then that’s a useless meeting, unless it’s a town hall where you’re addressing everyone. It means that you don’t trust your direct reports. They should be the ones having the meetings with their direct reports on transaction stuff. You should not be in those meetings at all.
The problem and the reason people do this is that managers are not able to build trust. If they’re naturally low-trust people, they’re not able to do this kind of management that they’re very good at doing in the physical workplace. They’re not able to do it remotely because they need to know what people are doing. They need that ambient awareness. “What are you doing? Hi, how are you? What’s going on? Have you finished this?”
It’s not the same thing. You can’t ping people every day on Chat and ask them what’s going on, what’s going on. People get uncomfortable with that. The point is that people have to evolve new collaboration rituals to make sure that you’re not skeuomorphically doing something that people used to do in the past in the physical workplace. And that, I think, is the biggest challenge of really thinking about collaboration as a complex problem.
For example, you could use gamification and nudging, et cetera, to get certain kinds of behaviors done in Latin America and in Asia. You can’t do that in Europe. For starters, it violates some GDPR rule, and they’ll say, “No, no, no, you’re not allowed to do this,” et cetera. There are cultural variations of what works. There are variations across age. There are variations across roles.
And a lot of assumptions about, say, blue-collar workforce not being tech savvy is ridiculous. They’ve been underserved with technology, but all of them are on smartphones. It’s that enterprises never bothered to put a lot of their technologies on smartphones for security reasons, but the pandemic forced a lot of that to happen. Now all of a sudden, we are okay with the security concerns. Your frontline workforce needed to be significantly more enabled.
Your older workforce has now been using Facebook for over a decade-plus, so you can give them technology that allows you to capture tacit knowledge from them far more efficiently and use more natural mediums, like don’t make them type out reports. Make them record 30-second videos. They’re far more happy doing that.
It’s just that this is such a fascinating space. The pandemic essentially ended up accelerating all the things that we’ve been telling customers to change, and then the pandemic basically just made a lot of those changes happen overnight.
I think it’d be interesting to see companies now evolve a structure where the ideal companies of the future may not even have only full-time employees, but a spectrum of kinds of employees anywhere. You could have talent borderlessly.
Now you can have teams where somebody is working from Tirunelveli, somebody is working in Manila. They’re all working from home. I can find my best Python developer in any part of the world, not just in Bangalore or Bombay or Chennai, definitely not in the Bay Area where it costs a bomb.
Not only that—diversity—for example, 52% of the 20,000 people we hired this year were women. Remote work also helps with diversity and reduces certain kinds of biases, natural biases that happen in a physical workplace. Trust me, actually, in physical workplaces, a lot of your social and cultural biases and your preference for the same in-group—all of that is a lot more accentuated in a physical workplace. Much, much less accentuated when everyone is just a tiny pixel on the screen.
But at the same time, it is also clearly stressing people. Staring at a screen all the time is not great. Digital wellness, the number of notifications, the number of all the things that you have to deal with, and the fact that creative brainstorming seems to work better in person. That’s something that we’ve discovered.
Even if I were to do a project, there are times in a project where I want people to be co-located as much as possible, but in the short term, I think technology will probably upgrade itself. Rather than a tiny screen, it will probably be a high-quality telepresence screen once 5G gets here, so I can actually see somebody in full, rich HD, which does make a difference. And perhaps at some point of time, it will be a hologram of some kind so it’s actually three-dimensional as well.
Those will tactically improve the experience of virtual work, but it’s my estimate that 20%, 25% of your time is still something that you want to meet people, have coffee with them, water cooler conversations, and all those things.
Examining Traditions for What Is Valuable
SHRUTI: Initially, I thought, “Wow, Ashok does so many different things. He’s writing about food, he’s writing about music, he’s writing about technology, working at TCS.” I’m beginning to understand that you are trying to solve the exact same problem in each of these areas.
SHRUTI: In some sense, you’re trying to break this problem of what is traditional, and what is known and what is always followed, and figuring out what parts of those need to be kept because they’re valuable, and what are up for grabs, and what can be modified so that we are better. Is that a good way of thinking about this?
ASHOK: Essentially. I wonder if there’s a version of the Peter Principle that talks about how I discovered exactly what my skills are across my hobbies, all my hobbies, and my work, and then figured out a way to find a job role that uses exactly those same skills. So I wonder if there’s a principle that is—
SHRUTI: Now it’s called the Ashok Principle. [laughs]
ASHOK: The Ashok Principle, if you will. It also goes back to those cooking videos. There’s a reason I had fun making those videos because then I got to use my musical hobby and to craft songs and pick the right ones—if it’s Punjabi, then a Punjabi song, and so on.
Not only that, if you observe some of those songs—for example, in the rasam recipe, there’s one I’m playing, “Mandram Vandha” by Ilayaraja, and there’s one climax. [sings] There’s a dramatic moment, and that’s when the tadka happens. It’s just doing those kinds of fun things in the context of a cooking video.
The same thing goes with work. Is there anything that I can use in all the skills that I’m building as my hobby, and use that to actually craft a work role that utilizes the same things?
SHRUTI: I’m going to ask you one last question, which is the most important question in my mind about the pandemic. Do you actually binge-watch? And two, if you do, what do you binge-watch?
ASHOK: When I watch, I binge-watch, but I don’t do sequential binge-watching. After one binge-watching, I take a break for about a month or so before I watch something else. I tend to pick and choose what I want to watch. One series a month is what I tend to use. There’s anyway enough video consumption on YouTube and all those other things. I’ve always had a bias for science fiction in general, so we typically watched all of the Star Wars series, Mandalorian, and so on.
I do enjoy Korean dramas now. Specifically, Let’s Eat was something that was introduced to me. Again, it’s about food as well. It is just fantastic. It’s insane. It’s a crime thriller, comedy, dark comedy, and it’s about food. It’s a bizarre combination that only the Koreans can pull off. I enjoyed Let’s Eat, absolutely.
I also enjoyed Family Man. I think it was quite entertaining. Clearly pushes up the quality of Indian TV series. I also like watching some of this European police or Nordic series as well. I also watched The Kingdom. Again, Korean.
SHRUTI: Ashok, thank you so much for doing this. It was a pleasure talking to you.
SHRUTI: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Amartya Lahiri about what ails the Indian economy.