Our Marvellous Imagination Machines: Shubha Tole Pirouettes from Grey Matter to Ghungroos

When we first got in touch with “part neuroscientist, part rhythm-lover” (her words!) Shubha Tole, we thought – having read several articles in which she spoke fondly of the teachers who moulded her life in science – that she could potentially write a wonderful open letter to science teachers in Indian schools. After a few minutes of conversation about how she teaches her son and his friends science by using detective flash cards, we changed our mind.
We could do anything at all.

In half an hour, we had convinced Shubha to abandon her research paper and write a one-act play in which the two characters – Shubha’s Left Brain and Right Brain – engage in a schizophrenic battle, till the fallacy of the dichotomy dawns on them. We were ecstatic, and told her we’d get in touch again by the end of the week.

Less than 24 hours later, we had an email from her – it was the first draft of a reflective piece about her love for rhythms, Kathak and the brain. It mentioned – among other things – ‘teen taal’, Egyptian priorities, staccatos, the “beautiful dance of embryonic DNA”, and the little delights she shared with her father. It was more lovely than a fictitious schizophrenic battle between the two halves of her brain could ever hope to be.

After a few more conversations – in which she expressed to us how completely intertwined the two facets of her being were, and how she couldn’t possibly differentiate one from the other – we were nearly ready. Her friend had once called her an ‘auditory writer’, and we couldn’t agree more. To complement her piece, we discussed attaching a tabla performance video to it. It could be played in the background while one read her reflections. “Something by Zakir Hussain, I think,” she mused, before returning to her abandoned research paper.

In one of our conversations, Shubha nonchalantly said something that stayed in our memory. It encapsulates the very sentiment that we think drives this piece. She said, “I hope you find something you feel this passionate about, something to completely and happily drown yourself into. I found two such things, imagine my luck!”

Presenting the marvellous Shubha Tole, with Zakir Hussain on the tabla!


““You are an auditory writer,” remarked a friend once, reading something I’d written. “When you write, it is all about a fine balance between staccatos and counterpoints,” he said.
What did he read before making such a comment?
A neuroscience article about how genes shape the growth of the brain, right from the embryo itself. Where from the staccatos and what-not? The answer came to my mind easily. They came from my other passion, the classical dance form Kathak.

Truth be told, my love of rhythm probably preceded my love for neuroscience, and continues to inspire it even today. Why should some rhythmic motifs be reassuring, some tantalizing, some breath stopping? Here’s one I composed while writing this: ta-ki-ta-DHA; ta-ka-dhi-ki-ta-tha; ta-ki-ta-dhi-ki-ta-tharikita-THA! If written in taal, this is an 11 beat sequence that would make a tihai if repeated 3 times, and would fit into 2 cycles of teen taal. While walking to work, I often compose interesting sound patterns by counting the beats on my fingers… and once I get to work, I explore the mysteries of the brain that allow us to create and enjoy these patterns in the first place. What a delightful contradiction it conjures up – humans celebrating the timelessness of rhythm in our time-and-schedule bound lives.

The brain.
A mushy blob so uninspiring to ancient Egyptians, they used to allow this “mucous-like substance” to drain out through the nose before mummifying and preserving all the “important” organs! A mushy blob that is capable of flights to the farthermost reaches of the known universe and farther still, its capabilities shaped by an intricate choreography (I revert to dance once more!) of genes and the environment.

Here, genes – the staccatos.
The environment – the counterpoints.
A beautiful dance of embryonic DNA creates the organ responsible for all the art, music, literature, poetry, and science that is the ultimate achievement of humankind. Each “dance” transcends the hardware of nerve cells and nerve wires generating it… and yet, there are few things as mind boggling as this very hardware seen under a microscope! Daily, I have the privilege of thinking about what these images of sinuous nerves in an intricate web that tell us about the organ that holds– no, produces every thought and emotion we treasure.

If anything could be more amazing, it is that each of us did this. We each grew our own imagination-and-creativity machines nestled in our heads, the very machine because of which we perceive the world as we do. This very machine allows me, as I pen these reflections, to wonder – is the world we perceive that which is outside, or that within? When I perform Kathak, is my own internal sense of my movements and rhythm the same as an observer’s perception of them?

Such are the conundrums I think about as I walk back from work, my feet keeping time to a rhythm that I’m counting on my fingers. Teen taal, 4 beats to one section, 4 sections on 4 fingers. My reverie is broken by an elderly woman who knew my family from when I was growing up, who stops me and says, “Your father used to count something on his fingertips while he walked, just like you. Did he teach you?” Taken aback, I am pulled into a spiral of images from my childhood. I recall my father walking back from work, counting on his fingers, and I smile to myself, reassured by the familiarity of that picture. I share a whole bunch of genes with my father that shaped each of our brains… and now, my fingers play out rhythms almost compulsively, in a way I cannot seem to control.

The question that brings me full circle is, did the genes give my father and me the same rhythms? Or did they give us both the pull, the relentless desire to create rhythms, but left each of us to generate our own beats, march to our own drums?”


Conceived and edited with Tanvi Shah.

Join us for Shubha Tole’s Mumbai Local session titled “Making the Blueprint to Build the Brain”  on December 18, 2015 (Friday) at Kitab Khana (Fort) at 5.30 pm. This session, part of Junoon’s Mumbai Local series, is free and open to all.