Saturday 28 July 2012


“Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth; and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy” - Robert Burton

A melancholy Saturday, grey, wet, cold and miserable. We went out for some shopping and to do some routine chores, but we came back home early as the weather was really foul. We watched a movie after lunch and then a quiet evening in.

Here is Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op. 40 (“From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the Olden Style”), and in particular the fourth movement, “Air”, which is also my favourite. This music was written for the bicentenary Year of Ludvig Holberg’s birth. Ludvig Holberg (1684 -1754) was born in Bergen, and became Professor in Metaphysics, Latin, Literature and History, at the University in Copenhagen. But he is most famous, both today and during Grieg’s time, for writing Comedy, and he is recognized as one of the most important personalities in the Danish-Norwegian joint Literature.

The Holberg Suite was finished in August 1884, and the 7th of December it was performed for the very first time in Bergen. Grieg chose the French baroque dance suite as the music base. But he has put his own personal stamp on the separate movements, so there isn’t the slightest amount of doubt that this is Grieg, in French seventeenth century costume.  The Suite was originally written for the piano, and later arranged by the composer for string orchestra. Enjoy!

Friday 27 July 2012


“Work is the meat of life, pleasure the dessert.” - B. C. Forbes

I enjoy eating Indian dishes, but even more I enjoy eating some Indian sweetmeats and desserts. Barfi or burfi is a type of very popular confectionery from the Indian subcontinent. Plain burfi is made from condensed milk, cooked with sugar until it solidifies. The many varieties of burfi include besan burfi (made with gram flour), kaaju burfi (made with cashews), and pista burfi (made with ground pistachios). The name of this sweetmeat is derived from the Persian word “burf” which means “snow”, since burfi is similar to ice/snow in appearance.

Burfi is often flavoured with fruit or nuts and spices such as cardamom. The pieces are sometimes coated with a thin layer of edible metallic leaf known as vark. The sweets are typically cut into square, diamond, or round shapes. Different types of burfi vary greatly in their colour and texture. Here is the recipe of a typical example of burfi.

Fruit and Nut Burfi
  • 500 g full cream milk powder
  • 180 mL cream
  • 30 mL ghee (clarified butter)
  • A few cardamom pods
  • Grated nutmeg
  • 50 g chopped blanched toasted almonds
  • Red glace cherries
  • 500 mL water
  • 500 mL sugar
Mix the powdered milk, cream and ghee together. Use a mortar and pestle and bash cardamom pods to release seeds. Remove pods and grind the cardamom to a fine powder. Add together with nutmeg and almonds to powdered milk mixture. Set aside.
Bring the water to the boil and add the sugar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 - 20 minutes until thick and syrupy. Add the syrup to the powdered milk mixture and mix well.
Press into a 25cm x 20 cm x 2.5 cm high dish lined with waxed paper. Leave overnight to set. Cut into diamonds and garnish with cherries and almonds.

This post is part of the Food Friday meme,
and also of the Food Trip Friday meme.

Thursday 26 July 2012


“A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated.” - Horace Mann
I visited Macquarie University for work yesterday, and as this was my first time at this University I was pleasantly surprised. Having been to other universities in Sydney it was wonderful at last to visit this large, significant university, which sits on a large, park-like campus in Sydney’s northern suburban area and is very dissimilar to the grand, historic University of Sydney or the very modern and bustling University of Technology Sydney, both in the City. I also found the staff at Macquarie extremely hospitable and approachable, intently interested in what they were at but also displaying a very collegiate attitude and willing to cooperate amongst themselves, and also with external academics.
Macquarie University is an Australian public teaching and research university located in Sydney, with its main campus situated in Macquarie Park. Founded in 1964 by the New South Wales Government, it was the third university to be established in the metropolitan area of Sydney. Macquarie’s 126-hectare (310-acre), park-like campus belies its setting within the high-technology corridor of Sydney’s Northern suburbs.
The university comprises four faculties, enrolling approximately 37,000 students and having 2,468 (full-time equivalent) academic and professional staff, making it the fourth largest University in Sydney. At present, the university offers 87 undergraduate courses and 124 different postgraduate courses to students. The university is governed by a 17-member Council. Macquarie University also has the largest student exchange programme in Australia.
The Academic Ranking of World Universities listed Macquarie as seventh among Australian Universities in its 2009 rankings. The university is also ranked among the national top five recipients of relative research income. Also affiliated with the university are several research centres, schools and institutes including the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australian Proteome Analysis Facility, the Institute of Human Cognition and Brain Science, the Macquarie University Research Park and the Macquarie University Hospital. Macquarie University’s linguistics department developed the Macquarie Dictionary, the copyright on which it still owns.
It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months at Macquarie, given that a new Vice Chancellor has been appointed. Professor S. Bruce Dowton is currently Clinical Professor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and until recently was Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Partners Harvard Medical International. Professor Dowton is also an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales where he was Dean of the School of Medicine between 1998 and 2005. Professor Dowton had been chosen from an exceptionally strong field of applicants from Australia and overseas, after proving himself on the international stage. Professor Dowton will take up his position later this year, becoming only the fifth Vice-Chancellor in Macquarie University’s 48-year history.

Wednesday 25 July 2012


“Only the educated are free.”  Epictetus
I am in Sydney for work visiting a university that I have not been to before. It is always good to visit new places and I like especially seeing the various campuses of universities around the world. There are of course many things in common amongst universities in Australia (and of course similarly when one compares universities in Australia with those around the world), however, each campus has its own character and atmosphere. This says much about the institution, its ethos, its courses and the types of students it attracts.
Increasingly in the last few years, universities in Australia have had to change the manner in which they operate. They have had to become less dependent on government funding (although all of the public universities still receive quite sizeable commonwealth operating grants from the government) and have begun to generate varying amounts of income themselves. Several people object to this saying that it detracts from the core activities of the university that should be to educate, to do research and to act as a forum for all sorts of other academic activities.
While I don’t agree that universities should operate like profit-making “businesses”, I think that tertiary institutions should be accountable, they should generate some of their own funds and they should be excellent in their account-keeping, ensuring that funds (whatever their source) are well spent.
In some countries funding of public universities by governments is minimal and the institutions do function like a business. Private universities of course have no other choice.  This does not imply that they are not academically sound, but often the money-making aspect receives an overwhelmingly disproportionate attention simply because it is the life-blood of the institution. Issues of quality come up immediately, in terms of students being admitted and if the university has solely a “user-pays” policy, it may have to make concessions in terms of dealing with academically weak students, who nevertheless pay their fees. It is a vexed issue, however, there are many successful private universities of high academic standards, which implies that a balance may be possible.
In Australia we have recently had introduced by our Federal Government a national body that regulates higher education and which ensures that quality standards are met. This is the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) whose remit is to be the regulatory and quality agency for higher education. TEQSA’s primary aim is to ensure that students receive a high quality education at any Australian higher education provider. This includes public and private, self-accrediting and non-self accrediting institutions. It uses the same standards to assess all higher education programs offered by all providers and it has the legislative power to audit institutions, being able to bring about all forms of disciplinary action (including deregistration of a higher education provider!).
The activities of TEQSA will hopefully bring about uniformity in terms of standards, achievement of certain non-negotiable quality benchmarks and an assurance of a good university education for all students who are admitted into any Australian higher education institution. I am observing with interest the activities of this regulatory watchdog…

Tuesday 24 July 2012


“Even if a snake is not poisonous, it should pretend to be venomous.” - Chanakya

Naag Panchami, or the Festival of Snakes, is celebrated in India on this day today. Snake worship has ancient roots and is found worldwide in many cultures. It probably owes its origin to humans’ natural fear of these reptiles. Hindu mythology is full of stories and fables about snakes, the most important being the Sheshnaga of Lord Vishnu (it is on this snake that Lord Vishnu reclines while sleeping in the sea).

Naag Panchami is one of the most ancient feasts in India and also finds mention in the Puranas (a class of Sanskrit sacred writings containing Hindu legends and folklore of varying date and origin, the most ancient of which dates from the 4th century AD). This feast day is believed to be one of the most auspicious days of the entire year. According to the Bhavishya Purana, when men bathe snakes with milk, on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Shravan, they ensure freedom from danger for their families.

There are a number of legends associated with Naag Pancahmi. One has it that on this day, while tilling his land, a farmer accidentally killed some young serpents. The mother of these serpents took revenge by biting and killing the farmer and his family, except his one daughter, who happened to be praying to the Nagas (in Indian mythology members of a semidivine race, part human and part cobra in form, associated with water and sometimes with mystical initiation). This act of devotion by the daughter resulted in the resurrection of the farmer and the rest of his family. It is understandable then, that on this day, ploughing a field is forbidden.

There is yet another legend related to this festival. Young Lord Krishna was playing with the other cowherds near the river Yamuna, when their ball got entangled in the high branch of a tree. Krishna volunteered to climb the tree and fetch the ball. Below the tree, by the river used to live a terrible snake called Kaliya. When Krishna fell from the tree into the water, the terrible snake came up with anger, but Krishna started jumping on its head. Finally, Kaliya said sorry to Lord Krishna and he forgave the snake and let it go free. Since then, on Nag Panchami day, the victory of Krishna over the Kaliya snake is commemorated.

In India, snakes are so revered that temples have also been erected in their honour. There is a particularly famous temple in Mysore, at a place called Subramania (Sheshnaga). The Naga culture was fairly widespread in India before the Aryan invasion, and continues to be an important segment of worship in certain areas. After the invasion, the Indo-Aryans incorporated the worship of snakes into Hinduism. The thousand-headed Ananta is Vishnu’s couch and also holds up the earth, while snakes play an ornamental role in the iconography of Shiva.

In celebrating of Naag Panchami women fast on this day and they draw images of snakes on the walls of their houses with a mixture of cowdung, milk and black powder. Offerings of milk, ghee, sweets, water and rice are also made at sites of snake holes in the countryside. Devotees consider themselves lucky if snakes drink the offered milk.

The festival is mainly observed in Southern India, Maharashtra and Bengal. In Jodhpur, huge cloth effigies of the serpents are displayed at major fairs. Also in West Bengal and parts of Assam and Orissa, the snake deity worshipped on Naga Panchami is the goddess Manasa. In Kerala, huge crowds throng snake temples on this day to worship stone or metal icons of the cosmic serpent Ananta or Sesha. The Serpent God or Naag Devta is worshipped in many other places in India.

Monday 23 July 2012


“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge - myth is more potent than history - dreams are more powerful than facts - hope always triumphs over experience - laughter is the cure for grief - love is stronger than death” - Robert Fulghum

We watched Christophe Gans’ 2001 movie “Le Pacte des Loups” - Brotherhood of the Wolf  at the weekend. It starred Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci and Émilie Dequenne, with a host of other supporting actors, well-known in French cinema. The scenario was written by Stéphane Cabel and is a curious mixture of grand guignol, martial arts, sword and sorcery, and boys’ own adventure. Although the story is ultimately run-of-the mill and nothing extraordinary, the cinematography is superb, the music wonderful and the acting very good, presenting a very entertaining package for its 142 minute run time. The film combines the perfect mix of action, adventure and excitement for a wintry Saturday afternoon, with a big bowl of popcorn on hand.

In 1765, historical records show that “something” was lurking in the richly forested mountains of central France. This “beast” tore humans and animals apart with terrible ferocity. The case became so notorious that the King of France himself dispatched envoys to find out what was happening and to capture or kill the creature. By the end, the Beast of Gevaudan had killed over 100 people and to this day, nobody is sure what it was: A wolf, a hyena, or other exotic beast, or perhaps foul play? The “beast” is a popular folk myth in France, which nevertheless, seems to be rooted firmly in real events. The movie takes this record of events in the 18th century, and with a generous mixture of the stuff of folk myths compounds them into the plot of this movie.

Taking the legend of the “beast” as its starting point the movie quickly departs from historical fact and begins an action adventure with mildly supernatural overtones. The two heroes are Gregoire de Fronsac (played with aplomb by Samuel le Bihan – and reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo in his 1962 “Cartouche” character) and Mani (played with suitable mystery and restraint by Mark Dacascos), his native American “blood brother”. De Fronsac has been dispatched by the King to find the beast. De Fronsac is a rational “new man” of the world of the Enlightenment confronting the backward, superstitious France of the countryside outside of the capital. Mani, an Iroquois shaman and hunter represents the “noble savage” and brings to the role another type of wisdom but also superb martial arts skills.

Two strong female leads balance the male leads. The elegant and coldly beautiful prostitute, Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), is a dangerous adversary, whose motives are obscure and one doesn’t know whether she will help or hinder the heroes. On the other hand, is the innocent and fragile Madeleine (Emilie Dequenne), younger sister of protective but crippled Jean François. De Fronsac dallies with both women, enjoying the company of the bedchamber with Sylvia, but falling in love with Madeleine.

The “beast” is shown sparingly, but its use is very effective and the design of the animal is wonderful. The CGI sequences together with the action will keep adventure/horror film fans quite happy. However, the film is quite beautiful cinematically with luscious, slow scenes that pick out atmospheric landscapes, character-developing conversations and interactions, that are mixed judiciously with brilliant camera work for the action scenes. A wonderful dissolve from a shot of a woman’s bare breasts to a snow-covered hilly landscape is quite clever! The interior scenes have a luxurious feel and the delightful detail of a period piece, with magnificent costumes and props looking very authentic. Candlelight and firelight are used to good effect, filling the screen with warm oranges and flesh tones (there is a lot of flesh shown ;-).  The exterior shots balance the interiors with rich dark blues, greens and misty watercolours that suit the chilly tale to a tee.

This film is not your “typical” European subtitled “art movie” (there is a rash of quotations marks in today’s post!). However, it is enjoyable entertainment and arty in terms of film-making. Superb cinematography, wonderful acting, great music, a good balance between action sequences and reflective character-building sequences and even hints at a sub-text where rationalism is played against superstition and monarchy is contrasted with the burgeoning republicanism of 18th century France. Overall, a highly engaging and entertaining movie.

Sunday 22 July 2012


“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” - Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France. His father, Auguste, was a banker, and his mother, Celestine, an American from New Orleans. Their family were members of the middle class with nobler pretensions (as is seen with the adopted affected spelling of their surname). Known to have influenced such great artists as Picasso and Matisse, Edgar Degas was an artist known as the “painter of the ballet”. However, he had an active mind and keen curiosity, working to perfect his skills in photography, lithography, oil paintings, pastels, etching and later in his life, sculpture. Degas’ numerous artistic innovations set the standards for the Impressionists. He was especially intrigued by Parisian life, and his depiction of women in the entertainment world are particularly notable.
Born in Paris, young Edgar was brought up in an upper, middle-class family who sent him to some of the best schools. Although his mother passed away when he was only thirteen years old, Degas dedicated his attention to his studies, books, and art. Only in 1855 did he begin attending the Ècole des Beaux-Arts where he mastered the drawing that would influence so positively his later creations. Degas soon left his formal studies and set out for Italy, where he lived in Naples and Rome supported financially by his father. He became very interested in medieval, Christian, and Renaissance art. He spent hours each day drawing, sketching, admiring art works, and learning about composition, light, colour and technique directly from the works of the great masters.
After spending three-years in Italy, Degas was ready to return to Paris where he would attempt to make a living from his art. Instead, he became a member of the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War. After two years, he decided to travel to the United States to visit his family who had ties in New Orleans, in the cotton growing business. During this time, he became attracted to painting horses, racetracks and cafés. He was at this stage becoming quite famous in art circles for his previous work and was actually commissioned for a few pieces that brought him enough money to live comfortably.
When Degas returned to Paris, he found that he was tired of displaying his work in the traditional Salon and became associated with the impressionists. However, his paintings reveal an almost innate urge not to conform completely to all the fashions and trends of the day. Degas still worked on portraits and produced some of the best works in Paris. His later works are composed of carefully planned snapshots of Parisian life in all of its breadth and depth. His paintings of “Absinthe” and “Dancers Practicing at the Bar” are typical of his mature style and enjoy wide appeal. He often worked in pastel, his favourite medium, producing series of women, bathers, ballerinas, and horse races. From 1880 he modeled wax figures, which were cast in bronze after his death. He was the first of the Impressionists to achieve recognition. He died on September 27, 1917 in Paris.
The painting above, “Dress Rehearsal” of 1878-9 is an oil on canvas 52.5 × 71 cm exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It is a characteristic piece of this artist’s ballet works with wonderful composition, delightful colour and light, and a great sense of place. The viewer is immersed in the scene, right there on stage with the ballerinas and the choreographers, feeling very much part of the ambience of the theatre, almost hearing the strains of music and the counting of the beat. There is an intense clarity in the colour and despite being painted in oils, the powdery feel of pure pastel tones is evident. A painting such as this with its underlying masterly drawing, great composition and delightful colour and light shows Degas’ immense talent and great workmanship.