An article I wrote for Pulse magazine (UK)
It’s 23.30 on Monday 15th September and I have finally arrived in Mumbai, the 24 hour city of dreams. The last time I was here was in December 2002 when I was fortunate to become a disciple of Santoor Maestro, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma. Six years later and my first chance to come back, I have taken five weeks off from being the Performing Arts Manager of a South Asian Arts organisation called Manasamitra, to immerse myself in music and my mission, to come back home a little bit better than when I arrived!
I will be staying with my good friend Sharanya Rajgopal (radio presenter, writer, Carnatic vocalist plus a few more things!), who has arrived to pick me up in the pouring last rains of the monsoon season. It takes us 20 minutes to get out of the small gridlocked car park, packed full of taxis, people and groups of beggars that only ask for foreign currency! Here’s to the beginning of a much anticipated trip…
The next morning I am eager to speak to Guruji, with the hope that we can begin our lessons as soon as possible, but he informs me that he will be away touring till next week! After an hour of pondering with Sharanya the best course of action and a quick call to a friend, I decide that I should go to Kolkata, one of the richest cities for the arts and music in India, I will definitely be able to get some practice done and visit some of the friends that I have there.
Tuesday 16th Sepember, It’s 19.30, I am sitting in a yellow and black Ambassador Taxi (remnants of the Raj); in Kolkata, with Kousic Sen a fantastic Tabla player and disciple of Pt Kumar Bose. I have known Kousicji and family for a few years and am very happy that I will be able to spend time with them. After reaching home, and catching up over good food and Kolkata’s famous ‘mishty’ (sweets) I am shown to the room that I will be staying in which isn’t actually in the same apartment as them, but two floors up and vacant. I am given a key and instructions to use this apartment to practice as much as I can manage, for everything else I just need to go back downstairs. What more could I want!
For the next week I was living a dream. My average total hours of practice were about six hours everyday, which may not seem all that much to a professional musician but from one to two hours everyday (if at all!) at home, it was a vast improvement! Throughout this time, as well as the wonderful food I was also fed stories of performances that Kousicji and Aditiji, his wife, an accomplished Kathak dancer (Jaipur Style) had given, the people and friends that they met along the way and their teachers and family who instilled in them disciple, strength and will to succeeded in this difficult profession. I also visited friends and was able to meet Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty of the Patiala Gharana of vocal music. I have had the privilege of knowing Panditji for a few years as he frequently visits and teaches in the UK, and have stayed in his music school called Shrutinandan here in the city. I met him in his home at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, he said he was surprised when I called to say I was in the city and was happy that I was able to come to India to further my musicianship and gave me his ashirvad (blessings) for a fruitful trip, and just like that my time in Kolkata was over and I was back aboard a plane to Chhatrapati Shivaji airport in Mumbai.
Tuesday 23rd September, the day of my lesson with Guruji, I am sat in his music room which has an air of stillness and peace, the large rugs on the floor have a multitude of cushions on top of them leaning against the walls to my left and right with a large window in front of me framing the fiery red setting sun, everything is just as it was. Guruji has asked me to tune up to the Raga that I am going to perform for him and gives me 20 minutes to tune, I choose Raga Yaman an early evening Raga, it is simple enough to be played by beginners yet has the depth and complexities for even the most accomplished musicians to explore for hours on end. As Guruji re-enters the room and sits directly in front of me, I am making sure that I have my recorder ready to go, he asks if I am in tune and to only play the Alaap Jor Jhalla sections. I lower my head and ask his permission to begin he acknowledges and I strike my first note. I progress through the Raga as I have been taught by my teacher in the UK, Shri Harjinderpal Singh a senior disciple of Guruji, taking care to make the phrases and Rasa (feelings/nectar) of the Raga, my intentions and the tempo as clear as possible. It takes me 15-20 minutes to complete the section; I feel it went well which is quite unusual as people who know me can tell you those words seldom come out of my mouth and to my utter surprise Guruji thought so too! I quickly look down to make sure that it recorded ok but I forgot to press the button! As soon I press it Guruji starts to tell me about the Alaap Jor Jhalla section, he says that this cannot be fully taught, you can be giving the method of progression and the technical skills but the rendering of the complete emotion, which is very important in the Indian classical arts, is in the hands of the musician and to only listen to this section gives a very good indication of the level that they are at hence why that is all he needed to hear from me. The remaining lesson centered around the Alaap as a whole and a detailed explanation of each section. You can listen to an excerpt of this below.
Friday 26th September, Guruji has invited me to a private concert in Navy Nagar, South Mumbai. I am backstage waiting for another of his disciples to come and take me to our seats in the auditorium, I listen to him, telling his Tabla player Ram Kumar Mishra about what he will be playing, this is it, their rehearsal, he tells him the Tala’s (time cycles) that he will be playing and the Raga and that’s it all he needs to know…..I am sat in the audience, listening to Raga Maru Bihag he starts with the Alaap Jor Jhalla, it is unraveled to near perfection, the phrasing is clear, dynamics and laya bring out the mood of this charming and romantic Raga. This feels like a master class, all I was taught is clear as day and reminds me I have a long way to go!
The time between my lessons were spent soaking up the culture of the city (as well as practicing!). I went to see three fantastic concerts of Sabir Khan (son of Ust Sultan Khan), Rashid Khan and Yogesh Samsi and Rahul Sharma sat in the first few rows in the time span of one week, this would never be possible for me to do this in the UK, it would be too expensive!
I was also invited to be interviewed and perform on Radio Mirchi (Mumbai). The show was called Mumbai Misel with R.J. (Radio jockey) Sharanya. It was a little embarrassing because I had to speak Hindi! Which I’m usually ok about but I was a little nervous and my Hindi suffered as a result!
As well as my 25th birthday, I celebrated the season of Navratri and Dussera, Mumbai style! Throughout this time every large outdoor space is converted into a dance area with live musicians or a good sound system and DJ. Old and young dressed simply in Kurta tops and jeans, Saris or all out Gujrati glamour and danced till midnight. The story of Diwali or the Ram Leela could also be watched in open air plays amongst hundreds of people under the moonlit sky in every part of town including the burning of Ravan on the day of Dussera. Everywhere, the city was alive and together in the spirit of celebration, living in the UK I have never seen or been involved in anything this scale and can only imagine what it will be like at Diwali but unfortunately I will be in Leeds by then.
Friday 10th October, Today is my last lesson with Guruji, he will be away touring starting tomorrow and will get back one day after I have left. I am taught two compositions in Raga Jog, a late evening Raga. He teaches just like he plays, calm and measured, he sings the compositions and explains the interaction of the Tala (beat) within them, when I don’t understand he is ever ready to repeat what has been given. He introduces me to some improvisational ideas in the time cycles of seven (Roopak) and sixteen (Teental). I have been told to sit with Harjinderpalji when I get back as much as I can to solidify these ideas and to practice everything that has been given to me. Before I leave, Guruji says he happy with the progress that I have made but I have along way to go and gives me his ashirvad to carry on the path that I am on, I touch his feet (this is done as a sign of respect for your Guru or an elder figure) and thank him for giving me his time and generosity and promise to practice harder.
Within the nine days I had left in India I decided that I should have a ‘holiday’ and met my brother and friend in Goa, they had been traveling throughout India for three weeks and were going to be there for two days. There was a beach, the sea and sun.
For the last five days I took my Santoor and went to Varanasi or Banares, a city that I had wanted to go to since I arrived in India. I stayed with friends, and their family, who are grandsons of the great Pt Sharda Sahai of the Banares Gharana (Tabla) Their family, is made up of Tabla players, Kathak dancers and Sarangi players. The afternoon I arrived, my friends had told their family far too much about me and wanted to hear me play! I was persuaded to perform that night in a little baithak setting (informal gathering) for the family. There were 15-20 people in a small room sat all around me. I was more nervous playing for them than I was playing for Guruji!! Thankfully they saw my potential!
Throughout the days I was there, music was always being played, one night they had a complete Kathak rehearsal with five dancers, and live musicians on the ground floor of the house! These music and dance sessions that were routine to a family who have been doing this for generations was an incredible experience for someone who had come from a working background I felt inspired and privileged just watching them!
My friends, Dheeraj and Sumeet, also took me around Varanasi, to the many Mandirs, the Ganga, to the place where it is said that Buddha gave his first sermon after finding enlightenment and to Kabir Chaura. They also took me on a sight seeing tour through the famous gali’s (snickets/small alleyways) to the houses of great musicians and dancers that included Pt Sharda Sahai, the late Pt Kishan Maharaj and Smt. Sitara Devi. I was overwhelmed with the cultural and spiritual vibe of the city and felt happy that through circumstance it was the last place that I would visit on my trip.
A day before I was due to leave it we celebrated Dheeraj’s birthday with the whole family participating, there was an all day Puja which involved sixty Pandit’s and a small party in the evening, it was a lovely way to end my time here with them.
The next day was a very sad day because not only was it my last day in Varanasi but also in India, I was catching my flight back to the UK that night. I wished I could stay here longer, I didn’t want to comeback to reality, I had tasted a life that I had only heard stories but all good things must come to an end.
Sat in Mumbai airport I thought about the how much I had done in an amazing five weeks, the people I had met, the places I went, the musicians I played with, the friends that I made and the time I had spent with my Guruji and music in general, I thought back to my mission to be a little be better than when I arrived. I think I achieved it, but I will confirm that when I play for Harjinderpalji when I get home!
This article was first published in 2009, in Pulse Magazine (UK), issue 105.