So where do you take your sabbatical?

[As usual this is a “story” and not anything real]

I had booked a seat for a concert at the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA). The NCPA in Mumbai is India’s premier cultural institution. Inaugurated in 1969, it was the first multi-venue, multi-genre cultural centre in South Asia. The concert I was to attend was by the legendary music director Zubin Mehta.

Zubin Mehta’s list of awards and honors is extensive and includes the “Nikisch-Ring” bequeathed to him by Karl Böhm.  Even at the age of 80, Zubin Mehta continues to support the discovery and furtherance of musical talents all over the world. He is the co-chairman of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Bombay where more than 200 children are educated in Western Classical Music.

The great Zubin Mehta

I was a bit late for the concert and hence was worried whether I would be let in.

As I pushed the door, the door-keeper stopped me and asked me to show the ticket. With a tiny pencil torch in his hand, the door-keeper noted my row and seat number. While ushering me to my seat, he whispered “Dr Modak, the show has just commenced. If you were a bit more late, then I would not have let you in”

I sat down. And just then the great 80-year-old “Bombay Boy” Zubin Mehta walked on the stage. The two-hour programme was to feature compositions by Dvorak, Beethoven and Ravel.

But I kept wondering how the door-keeper recognized me. And his voice sounded a bit familiar.

After the first break, I thought of having a coffee in the lounge and look for some familiar faces. And there was film and ad personality Gerson Da Cunha, age 87 (who studied in the same school of Zubin), Feroza Chavda, a regular to NCPA and a music lover from Kemps Corner, Shyam Benegal – the famous film director and a 14-year-old Behram Hathi, who is a violin student at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation. Most were engaged in discussions in soft voices about Zubin and the composition he rendered of Dvorak in the first half.

As I was getting back in the auditorium, I saw the door-keeper once again – guiding the people.

I took a good look, and I suddenly realized that the door-keeper was none but my Professor friend. No wonder why the voice sounded familiar.  He looked a bit different as he was dressed in a uniform that had the NCPA emblem.

“What are doing here Professor? And how come you are on this job?” I pulled him on a side.

“Well, I am on a sabbatical Dr Modak. I will be working here as a door-keeper for the next 2 months. I just joined NCPA two weeks ago”. Professor said.

“But Professor, most take sabbaticals at the universities. They teach a bit, do research and publish or write a book. But I never came across anyone opting for position of a doorkeeper during sabbatical.  And I am surprised how your application was approved? And how did the NCPA accept you?” I asked


Sabbatical  (i.e. Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. In recent times, “sabbatical” has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something. In the modern sense, one takes sabbatical typically to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or travelling extensively for research. Some universities and other institutional employers of scientists, physicians, and academics offer the opportunity to qualify for paid sabbatical as an employee benefit, called sabbatical leave.


“Oh, Dr Modak, “standard” sabbaticals do not excite me. How I managed this sabbatical is best known to the directors of IIT and NCPA and let us leave at that. My past 2 weeks of work here have been exciting. I could attend for instance the Artie’s Festival. Started in 2008, it is celebrating its 20th edition. And well, Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic are like a love affair to me”

Professor asked me to stay after the concert as he was busy attending to the door.

When we were driving back, Professor explained his philosophy. “In my sabbatical so far, I learnt that it is not just the main conductor that you should focus– but also look at other key artists who are supporting the overall outcome. Remember the violinist, Pinchas Zukerman who often played with Zubin? I wish I could attend their joint concerts”. Professor said.

” Outcomes of sustainability initiatives are often like a well construed piece of art. Sustainability initiatives recalibrate with our traditions & the culture. They are supported with foundations of science. Since the outcome is often a behavior change – you need to give credit to the entire Team and especially to those who participate” Professor said while dropping me home. I thought he was absolutely right. There was lot to learn in connecting sustainability outcomes with the concerts of Zubin and Yanni and the like. Sustainability should resonate like a concert.

I remembered Mary Simpson, the great Violinist in Yanni’s concerts and especially her enthralling violin piece in “Felitsa” (Don’t miss watching the clip below). Indeed, musicians like Mary and Pinchas are as important as the principal conductors.

Mary Simpson – with her charming smile

The legendary Pinchas Zukerman

The next day when we met at our usual coffee shop, Professor told me that many years ago he did a sabbatical as a Liftman at the Navsari building in Fort, Mumbai.

Located at DN Road, Fort, in Mumbai, the Navsari Building was bought over from the Tata’s in 1928 by the Kotak family of industrialists. The Navsari Building houses one of the oldest lifts in the city today. This wood paneled elevator is operated manually using a crankshaft. The building is one of the few in the city where its heritage is preserved. Professor spoke to the Kotak family and picked up a sabbatical for 2 months. The old liftman was given a paid holiday after he gave a week’s training to the Professor on how to operate the lift and stop precisely on each floor without any “hiccups”.

Navsari Building

Professor told me that those two months were memorable as he “met” with great personalities ranging from Banking to Bollywood. There wasn’t much opportunity for conversations but a lot for observing people – especially how they behaved in the lift.  He could also see a change on the face and behavior of people before getting inside the lift and while getting out. This change used to make him think about the people they must have met and the outcomes/decisions of the meetings.

The elevator in Navsari Building

Some of the celebrities who used the lift included Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar and Bal Thackeray who used to go at the fourth floor for appointments with Banaji Eye – an eye specialist. And of course, there were people from the ICICI Bank working on the second floor who were rather formal and had grim faces. Many people, especially children,  used to come to just to see and experience the lift. Professor used to take the children in the afternoons to the fourth floor and back and the building management was quite OK with this gesture.

Professor explained that this sabbatical taught him patience and a philosophy that what goes up, eventually comes down, but to rise again. “One can get excitement even in the so called routine nature of the job – but if you know how to” Professor said while extinguishing his cigar. I thought the Professor was right once again.

“Well what is after the NCPA sabbatical?” I asked.

Sometime in May 2017, I plan to work with Shuaib at the Air Cool saloon. Professor said. Shuaib will train me in the first 2 weeks on some of the basics.

This nearly 60-year-old hair saloon has now reopened on the Vir Nariman Road in Mumbai, a short 5-minute walk from its former location and retains the classic vibe of the original salon. The imposing metal barber chairs are still there (re-upholstered in red) and so are all the old staff, wearing white short sleeve shirts with “Air Cool” embroidered on the hems. There is a wall of old barber tools, too — scissors, razors and shaving brushes hung up in glass frames. Apparently, many celebrities including ministers have been customers of Air Cool for years.

The Air Cool Saloon

“So, what’s your take there Professor?” I asked

“Well Dr Modak, when you are doing hair or trimming a beard or doing a neat shave, you can converse with your customer. It’s a rather intimate situation where what you say or advice gets heard. You can give your views on what the PM Modi should do or why Hrutik Roshan should not continue his fight with Kangana or why the stampede happened on the Elphinstone bridge.  And your customer responds – sometimes patiently and sometimes in an animated manner – depending on the service you render”

“Knowing you Professor I am sure you will converse with your customer on sustainability” When I said this, Professor laughed.

Few months later, in June 2017 and on the World Environment Day, I saw news on the TV channels that Environment Minister of Maharashtra has come up with a State Level Sustainability Action Plan – integrating with Climate Change. I was simply impressed with such a pleasant accident.

But when I saw Minister’s interview taken by Mirror Now, I realized that he looked a bit different. It seemed that he had just taken a good haircut.

I suspect he did his haircut at the Air Cool Saloon while my Professor friend was on sabbatical!


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This “story” has been constructed with some text and images based on articles from

Hindustan Times
http://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai/from-zubin-mehta-with-a-timeless-signature-in-mumbai/story-yJPsdt2Iy1ww2kMpY4QsHJ.html

Architectural Digest India
https://www.architecturaldigest.in/content/a-walk-through-heritage-mumbai-this-navroze/

GQ India
https://www.gqindia.com/content/mumbais-air-cool-still-old-school-gq-india/#old-school-remains-on-trend-at-the-air-cool-salon-at-churchgate

 

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