The arrow of the ‘Bani’

The late nineties were a period of intense suffering for me. There was the suffering of the bipolar, which had made me a social outcast, and there was the suffering rather search for myself, via my musical self; which had to appear much later in life, at a philosophical and experiential level. One of the sources of this suffering was an uncertainty about the musical ‘knowledge’ (if I may use this word about it) I had. It felt, and was inadequate, half-baked, shallow, hazy and botched up, to say the least. The need for a guru, to lead me out of this darkness, was acute- rather desperate.

It was not the internet age. One did not know how to find a guru, the world was not so seamlessly connected and neither was one exposed to a lot of musicians in an average Indian, Punjabi household more so.

1998, saw me at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya (GMV) in Delhi- taking the bus, walking the long sunny path, hiding behind the shadows of the UGC building at ITO, taking the footpath from the bus-stop till the school, climbing the stairs to enter the classroom, of hopeful ladies wanting to learn classical music from a reluctant-to-teach guruji (who in fact was more keen to get private students from the public ‘pool’).

Six months in the 7th year (Master’s) class there and I was done with it! The search began all over again- this time it brought me to two teachers together- two men, with different worldviews, but both saying the same thing- they would not charge me for teaching anything, once they were certain I was the right ‘disciple’! Both had different roots and different methods. With one I lasted but a few months, and found him to be one of the most rotten encounters of my life. The other was A guru who molded my mind, and raised my musical consciousness- the first among the wise teachers who would teach me.

Dasgupta-ji was unlike any music teacher one would ever meet. You entered into his small living room, where there was a high diwaan and two chairs on the side, and an adjacent kitchen. My parents had accidentally met him in the house of a common friend, and had offered to drop him home, as they were all coming back in the same direction. Upon discovering that he was a music teacher, they got curious as they had a musically curious and eligible student in the form of their own daughter (me) as a point of reference. On the way back home, the music teacher shared all about his musical pedigree and the parents were sufficiently convinced that this was someone who their daughter should be sent to.

At the same time, the daughter-me, had encountered the other musician- Hari Charan Verma, who was very gifted as an artist, introduced by the tabla- accompanist of the GMV 7th year class. I was taken in by his singing and knew that I had found my guru. It was a tussle for awhile…but I paid heed to my parents in a few months and decided to meet Dasgupta-ji.

The Guru with a Quirk

Imagine meeting a music teacher who has the following conditions-

  1. I will not take any money for teaching you;
  2. You have to learn with me three days a week!
  3. It will be the way I want it- and possibly over two hours at a time!

Perhaps the average music student would be thrilled with such a prospect. So was I! what better than a guru so generous…until one really got down to it.

So the training began- two and a half hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the week. The first half hour was devoted to singing the pancham- by the clock too. Guruji would put his wrist watch on the harmonium in front and we would both get down to singing the ‘Pa’. The next hour hour was devoted to ga-ma-pa-dha; also by the clock. I do not remember what would happen after the first hour…but I do recall that I would be looking forward to the Marie biscuits and tea that aunty would bring forward, somewhere along the course of this. That was the sole bright spot of the whole singing- the Green Label Tea with its light aroma, and always the same taste- which I love till date.

But what a thing. Hours of singing and no musical ragas, no compositions, no fast paced actions, nothing- all at a century old pace, a leisurely dip in one note at a time for a youth (I was 25) who was so restless (thanks to psychotropic drugs), anecdotes from the lives of his gurus- Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan and Ustad Ishtiaq Hussain Khan, comments on the popular musicians of the day- which I hardly bothered about, and musical ideas that his gurus had handed down to him. I would be angry at times at the rebuff- he would stop me from singing so many times, and insist I slow down, I sing more precisely, more accurately. I was 15 years of a trained student, not a novice, and this was nothing but an insult for me. But I kept taking it- because he was never mean about it. He would explain to me, the significance of the ‘shuddh bani’. For the first time I heard it from him and understood the meaning of bani- and then I understood there were other ‘banis’ also going around- Dagar bani, Khandhar bani and one more (whose name I forget).

He would repeatedly tell me, ” Just learn the shuddh bani from me, and then sing whatever you want to sing. Sing classical, bhajan, ghazal or anything- but sing it in shuddh bani. Your voice will never become hoarse- you will sing the same into your old age, you will never go off-key.” Half the time, as i stood on the bus-stop later to take the never-to-appear bus home, I would tell myself I am not going to come back here again. But two days later I would still come back.

My stint with him did not last long- only for about a year or a little over. But it was enough to drop the seed in my head- the seed of the shuddh bani and then began my search, which would take me to many a guru and style, until I would come within and integrate them all.

When I would press him to know which musicians sang the Shuddh bani that he advocated so much, he would only name Mehdi Hassan and possibly Lata Mangeshkar. Among the classical musicians he was not willing to name any! It is not proper to name all the musicians he could find faults with- for this is a public medium and in India we hold musicians so ‘sacred’. But the fact of the matter is that, forget about Raga interpretation, even on the count of ‘swara’ musicians could find faults with one another. I have a lot of memories in my head about the family of Ustad Mushtaq Hussain that guruji shared with me- in particular how Khan sa’ab was so dismissive about most of his family and extended relatives. The only person guruji told me, who had any merit among Khan Sa’ab’s sons after Ustad Ishtiaq Hussain was Ghulam Taqi- but I think he also died early.

There were two people who I went to meet with guruji, on two separate occasions. One was Smt. Sumati Mutatkar- who was then into her eighties and the other was Ghulam Hussain, possibly a son of Khan sa’ab, or his son in law (I forget). The former lived in the Asiad Village and the latter in Zakir Nagar, Okhla. She had retired as the Dean of the Music Faculty, of the Delhi University, while he was a radio artist if I can recall correctly. And later guruji would have told me how Khan saheb had refused to teach either of them! But that is life.

When a tree becomes big, many can see it and reach out to it, to touch it and take cover under its umbrella and claim it to be a relationship, just because they have been close to the tree- regardless of whether the tree acknowledges that or not. In India, the musical learning tradition has no clear-cut pathways and anyone can claim to be anyone’s disciple (the way a certain big musician claims to be the disciple of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, without even meeting him!). Delhi was full of musicians once upon a time who wanted to learn with Ustad Mushtaq Hussain, and Khan sa’ab would shoo everyone away or just while their time away, because he could see an ardent disciple from the ones who just came after his name.

He had after all seen Dasgupta-ji’s passion for a long time and tested him out, before taking me on as a student, but not before he himself had turned 93!

Mummy also stepped in

My mother has a strange relationship with some of my ‘people’- friends, teachers and gurus. With Dasgupta-ji also this happened- may be because mummy and papa had first met him, and not me. But mom got both guruji and his wife, a senior citizen’s pension, because she knew the local counselor of Kalkaji, who gave them the status of senior citizens. Guruji’s wife was very happy as for the first time in her life, she got money in her own name.

I learnt with guruji not more than a year, I think- but he got the pension from the government till the end of his life. I may not have paid him directly, but my mother ensured them some money for the rest of their lives. I feel proud of my mother for this, as also gratitude that she would do such things for people who had little connection with her in a direct way.

Today I remember Guruji, with gratitude that he raised my musical consciousness to that level where I could understand the different aspects of rendition and what makes a music touching as opposed to a musical wrestling, jostling or ‘smartness’. A deeper musician does not need to be smart at all, you just need to be simple and your music will speak to the heart of another directly- you don’t have to worry about impressions at all!

Last week brought a surprise…

A few days ago, a former student of Dasgupta-ji connected with me, thanks to the intricate web of the internet from somewhere in the US, and we got ‘talking’ (on email) about so many things- largely about our guru in common. But the uncanny thing was, that he said that he wanted to make a donation in the memory of our common guru, to Hansadhwani Foundation as a support for the work we are doing.

I am just thinking> money has a strange way of going around and coming around! This universe is so full of mystery, that it baffles me what all can happen. I am touched and humbled at the same time. The mysteries continue to unravel. Is this a blessing from guruji, by any chance? Is this an acknowledgement from the universe that I am on the right path- where without even me asking anyone someone is stepping forward to offer support? Is this a mystery or is it logical?

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Feedback that gladdens your core

Of course every feedback is valuable to an artist, but some is more so. The ‘more So’ happens when it comes from seniors who are significant in their own right. Yesterday, by chance, upon listening to one of my ghazals (while sharing it with another dear friend who is equally fond of my music) I thought of sending a ghazal to a senior musicologist, who I got to know last year in the course of writing my (in progress) book. This senior musicologist is Sh.Deepak Raja, who also writes very insightful books (now four) and blogs.

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Deepak Raja, with his guru, Pt. Arvind Parikh- and the former’s fourth book, whose promotional lecture is on 14th July 2017

Books have strange and mysterious lives- they can grow and wane at a whimsical pace. That music book of mine has taken a backseat for now and in the course of it my contract with the publisher (a very prominent one in India) came to an automatic termination, as my health (spine) would not permit me any time on the computer. Nevertheless I have put in a lot of thought, labour and effort in it to whatever extent I have managed it so far, and for now I have laid it to rest and got busy in setting up the school of music and other related pedagological issues. Naturally enough at this juncture other things have taken precedence- possibly my Phd research most of it (it better), and my musical research not far behind (all in the compositional domain though).  Dogs have also contributed to this shift in some significant manner.

So coming back to the issue of the feedback, I sent a ghazal of mine to Deepak-ji, as I had had a WhatsApp interaction with him earlier in the day, for he invited me to a lecture of his to happen in the near future (14th July 2017) in Delhi. The day seems fine to me, being a Friday and I have no teaching classes that day. He will be talking about his book, Raga-ness of Ragas. I may or may not be able to go, but I think I would seriously give it a try. This was the first time I shared my music with him, despite communicating with him on scores of occasions- on email and phone, never in person as yet.

Earlier this morning, I received this email back from him-

Deepak Raja <deepak.raja@ >
to: Prateeksha Sharma < .com>
date: 25 June 2017 at 09:19
Dear Prateeksha,
You are an excellent singer. I am glad you sent me this link. Not an intrusion at all. I will now also hear other recordings. 
Thank you again. 
Warmest regards. Deepak 
Coming from such a heavy weight, it sure is a great honor, and I feel the need to write a post on my blog for I am so touched by his words.

As also that of my friend, who I just call here Ali- a professor of Linguistics in an American University, and a Pakistani by birth, and a  philosophical, deep and insightful individual . Upon hearing the same ghazal, he said this to me-

Thanks for singing the Urdu Ghazal, the way it should. The accompanist: baja, violen and Tabla jelled with the beautiful rendition filled with powerful musical expressions
The best is that singer kept the swaras and lyrics in a beautiful combination
(I have copied his words from my facebook chat with him)
Every appreciation is valuable, as I said earlier- but some are more so. These are two such.

On living Kabir

the simple pleasures of seeing smoke coming from country kitchens in my neighbourhood, on a rainy afternoon in the village

the simple pleasures of seeing smoke coming from country kitchens in my neighbourhood, on a rainy afternoon in the village

This morning, an unusual one in the sense that I turned the computer on quickly, unlike other days when I focus on bathing and getting the food ready for the dogs, or think of my music on rare occasions, when I turned the computer, I had two emails in it. One from the editor of CJMT and another from someone unknown to me. He says this-

Congratulations Prateeksha for the great artcles which show how intelligent, brave and persevering you are.
May Lord Shiva always bless you and may you always reveal Kabir’s philsophy in your life.
Namaste.
Mahendra
( I have copied the above text exactly without editing to retain its original essence)
I am musing about this and wondering if my life did not really finally turn out like Kabir’s and possibly as a small reflection of that when I created a Kabir blog so many years ago, I did not say anything except that I live Kabir, not just sing him through my throat- which is the meaning of the blog title. This morning I am going over all the recent conversations and how difficult it is for me to even survive and live a single day, what to mention work in research, which additionally necessitates a certain withdrawal from the world, just contradictory to my professional needs of a musician to go and showcase my art or how accomplished I am, if at all. Every day is a struggle for fighting with myself at so many levels and in the end thanks to the fact that there is no facilitation from any quarter, I just remain within the home and with my writing, not even my music, because musical expression needs a certain expansion of spirit not contraction which situations like mine bring. How much can I sing alone?
The word heart-broken is not even what I ought to say about myself, it is just a part of being alive- for the heart is broken in so many shards, that it is unlikely it will ever heal. But that I suppose is the curse that every healer has to carry, till the world around them can recognize that they were there every moment of their lives, only trying to make the world more healed, not themselves! What an irony! And more because the heart has been wounded by so many (or perhaps all at one or another time) that one does not really know whether there is any scope of justice even left. And that is why it should come as no surprise that in the presence of simpler beings like animals, birds and nature in its verdant greenery I rejoice and my soul finds an anchor, or why I moved away from the spiritual coldness of city life to a village..
Notwithstanding the sufferings that come my way, I still do what I do, and one stray appreciation, one kind word makes so much  difference, when I am over with the tears that flow with every act of unkindness, which I cannot respond to at their level naturally.. I think the person who wrote me the above mail, could not see that just like Shiva who lives in world, internally anchored and unmindful, unwavering despite what goes over him, even if they be reptiles that glide over his body- I am already there myself in some way. We are not gods, but mythology is all about symbolism and seeing our behaviour which is archetypal and not personal. Also reminds of how so long back itself I had understood this, and wrote this. The churning of the ocean is all about living a life of stability in the midst of chaos of the world.
Anyhow living Kabir becomes so difficult, which I have more to write about – especially about the fate of my book, which is pending review with the publisher, that I can only for now try to shut out the doubts about me, with words of kindness from a younger researcher, who says
Dear Prateekshaji, I read your paper yesterday. I want to congratulate you on the brilliant, rigorous and well thought out piece. Your meticulous research and hard work is well reflected in it. I am very happy for this achievement of yours. Hope a lot more is coming up soon. Best Wishes, Y.
This is a young person, currently pursuing her doctoral research in a US university, but who had encountered me several years ago, by a chance encounter with my music via a film, that had also included me as one of the musicians who sing Kabir. At that time I did not have such visibility, neither the internet had come into its present dimensions, and I was living a more secluded and invisible life than I do now. She was doing her M.Phil research in some aspects of contemporary singing or engagement with Kabir. As a smaller part of the study, she was also interest in seeing how women musicians interpret Kabir, for which she had extended communications with two women, me among them. We met on multiple occasions in different locations every time- Faridabad, where I then lived, then in Calcutta and finally before she was leaving for further study, in Delhi. I still remember how we talk about the subversive element of Kabir. So now it should be no surprise that I am also a subversive who is trying to challenge the dominant discourse of my times, the manner Kabir did in his- though my context is different for now…but likely I will also jump into the same discourse about securalism in due course, knowing that my challenge is not just to concepts of mental health, knowledge creation and research.
If only she knew how much it matters, at least on some occasions when the world is punishing you from all dimensions for really living Kabir!

Timelessness of daily living

I just sat for a few minutes of meditation awhile back. Within a few minutes the rain came pouring down, and with my closed eyes I experienced it. And I did. I suddenly felt that in that brief torrent, I heard the ocean, then the river, and then the rapids of the river, also the waterfall.  how timeless it all felt suddenly- as though I was someone always meditating and listening to the crashing waves close by. My mind went into a strange twilight zone and a sudden timelessness, I was no longer there where I was ONLY- I was also somewhere else! I was a hermit with a flowing beard (which I identify as my higher self), I was a soldier facing the river trying to cross it on horseback- where the river flowed, I have no idea. I was not a body after all, just a mind, just a consciousness watching the play of the mind.

I opened my eyes and realized that only a few minutes had passed actually- but somewhere my taut nerves had relaxed and I felt connected to that deep cosmic timeless zone that I had experienced long back, in moments of ecstasy that had put me in rapture, for I could not contain the joy of finding such a fount of silence, within me and also see its connection with the cosmic, or the continuum of the two.

I do not know what the cosmic is by the bye. It is certainly not something that any religion can explain, neither I want the explanation another mind can offer. Either one would experience it or one would aspire for it, s/he who knows of its appeal or presence. Nothing for the sense to perceive or engage with- it is in the domain of consciousness. Oh yes, many can alter their consciousness and see its play…but it is a great trick and not easy to negotiate.

But I must say that in that momentary experience I felt recharged in a matter of moments. Even in the past this had transformed my music, making it more serene, placid and non worldly, for it did not really bother itself with rewards and visibility that we as artists yearn and aspire for, by way of recognition and concerts. May be I too aspired for the same, or still do, but this connection to the internal river of timelessness simply does not make me ambitious in the least. I just create my art and then leave it. Of course I am deeply hurt that I do not get invited to perform or showcase the art the way I ought to. But instead of pushing my art and work forward if I engage my mind in research all the while, who will take me for the artist that I am.

So that brings me to the question- what is timeless within the arts? What makes for great art? One person can be a great artist, and not really an artist known to the public and one can be shallow yet have a fan following in millions. The mind gives its own answers sometimes.

I thought to just hear the sound of this rain- it is a timeless sound, and it comes from all sides- rivers, water falls, oceans and even big lakes. the greatness of art does not lie in the moment but in time- for that is where it belongs. At present there may not even be people around who can judge the true merit of an artist, his/her mind, craft or anything, or the artist may be in a situation where the art itself does not get out, and get its due.  Thinking about Van Gogh and Mozart remind me only of lives of people suffering immensely and living lives of social misfits and possibly ignominy. And what about the ones who were considered great in their times? How many of them stood the test of time?

In the march of history lies the destiny of great art- they were creating art for the sheer love of that expression and as a communication of their soul’s angst, not to pander to the lowest common tastes of the masses. Automatically someday the art got noticed, but the artist was gone. The soul got attention, while the body had already perished. So many even lived in great poverty. When I think of Kabir, what he said six centuries ago seems to hold water even today- is that not great poetry, which when I sing in my 21st century voice, also seems to communicate my present reality or the reality of the times we live in.

The timelessness of our art lies on the same timelessness of life, if we can join the two dots together – for that is where we will see all great art lying also, even if we remain invisible or unseen as artists. We can take heart that we are doing good work, with recognizing the universal in the personal, living our daily affairs yet also living in history…we are nothing and yet history lives through us, time moves through us.

This photo here was taken by me in Bhaktapur in Nepal…it is a village square which is full of old style temples of the Hindus and Buddhists. There is a certain uncanny feeling one gets while in this place- you suddenly are surrounded by such old forms and structures, that you think that you are living in the pages of a History book or a plot of a movie. It is almost eerie. But there is a certain timelessness there. in choosing this picture to go with this post, I just wanted to focus on that- timeless art.Image