was the best performance I’ve ever seen. The theatre was a miniature indoor
forum with three levels of seats stacked tight, facing a dusty cedar stage
with three Persian rugs. I lost my seat to a lady with a cane and had to
sit on the floor—it turned out to be the best seat in the house. The lighting
was minimal, two fat fernels above the stage with steel blue gels and some
likkos in the back giving a warm salmon hue. These two colours make magic
with humans and instruments. Salmon lends a soft, liquidity to skin and
wood and the blue brings forth anything metal. A bending sound came from
the shiny sitar strings as the father-son ensemble tuned them. The two
men wore traditional Indian clothes of saffron and turquoise and had a
different demeanour than they’d had earlier that evening when I interviewed
them at a pizza parlour.
I almost didn’t make it to the
interview or the concert. I hadn’t been feeling very well that day, but
I was curious to see if I could make a connection between Kundalini Yoga
and sound. As I sat waiting for them, a stream of images and mispronounced
Sanskrit terms floated through my mind—chakras, nada, bija, shakti, kirtan.
Swami Sivananda wrote that “various musical notes have their own corresponding
nadis in the vital centres within—the Kundalini chakras—and the music vibrates
these nadis, purifies them and awakens the psychic and spiritual power
dormant in them.” I realized that I have very little understanding of Kundalini
or Indian music, so I allowed these thoughts to co-exist in silence.
ver coffee and the roar of passing cars I sat with Deobrat Mishra, twenty-four,
and his father, Pandit Shivnath Mishra. They have performed together since
1992, but Deobrat has been Pandit’s student since birth. “The day I was
born, my father was at a tea shop. He came home to me and sang the scale
in my ear. I’ve heard it every day since. My father is my teacher. His
music is inside me, in my soul.” Deobrat recently won the Jewel of Sound,
the Indian equivalent of a Grammy, for his sitar playing. “It is our duty
to play Indian classical music,” he said. “I also play world music when
I am in Europe, but I keep it separate from our Indian classical music.
Indian classical music is vast; it is like the ocean. When you get inside,
it just gets larger and larger—it never ends.” I wondered aloud if there
is such a thing as secu-lar Indian classical music or if it is meant to
bring about a devotional or meditative mood. Deobrat informed me that the
music is not secular, it is sacred. According to scripture, music has existed
for as long as the universe has existed. Brahma, when uttering the Vedas,
gave one called the Samaveda, the musical veda. It has been combined with
notes and sung by the priests for centuries. “When the priests sing Samaveda,
they are singing it for the gods,” said Deobrat. “When we play in India
we often play in temples and this brings a very spiritual feeling because
we go there to play for God. To connect with God. I look into God’s eyes
and call Him with music. In Indian philosophy, they say that music is the
best way to call the gods and meet the gods. There is no other way. The
instrument sitar comes from Sarasvati, the Goddess of knowledge. She invented
it.” I looked at Pandit. His face wore a slight frown and an ashy indifference
toward me and my questions. Periodically Deobrat would address him in Hindi
and he would respond in Hindi. I asked Deobrat about his father’s life.
Pandit has played sitar since he was three, choosing it instead of cultivating
a singing career, which had been the tradition for six generations of his
family. His style of playing is known as making the sitar “sing.” Searching
for a way to engage Pandit in the discussion, I asked him to speak about
his experience. As he spoke of playing, his face lightened. Deobrat translated
his words. “When he has his sitar in his hand and finds that mood, he forgets
that I’m his son, he forgets his wife and family. He thinks about music
and nothing else. He is a person that always has a sitar in his hand. He
feels so good to be in the music. He said that food is important to live
for everyone. For him, the sitar is important for living. If he doesn’t
practise for one day he feels as if he has done nothing that day. He touches
his instrument every day—it is his first love.” Pandit grew more animated
as he described his early career. He suddenly exclaimed in English: “My
life was much work, much practice, and not much money. I didn’t care! I
just kept playing.” Before I had registered that he was speaking to me
in English, he slipped back into Hindi. Deobrat translated: “He invites
you and other young Western people to come and study sitar. Many people
think that playing Indian music is difficult, but when you practise and
put that music inside, it is not difficult. He can make people feel music.
Teaching is the most important thing for him right now.” I was moved by
Pandit’s sudden change of countenance. Speaking of the sitar stirred a
passion in him that was infectious.
ur conversation floated on the surface of my mind as Deobrat introduced
the concert. The first song that night was “Evening, Happy Raga,” accompanied
by a 16-count on the tabla and the drone of the tanpura. What is it in
a song that gives it the qualities of “happy” and “evening”?
Deobrat had explained to me earlier
that each raga has particular qualities that are appropriate at different
times. “There are over 400 ragas. They are connected to emotions, time
and nature. We have morning ragas, noon ragas, evening ragas and midnight
ragas. We have seasonal ragas. Full moon ragas.” Ragas are hundreds of
years old and are said to invoke the feelings or emotions that are attributed
As I listened to the Mishras play,
I was drawn into a simple tune with an even pulse spinning around itself
somehow. It continued in this fashion for some time until almost imperceptibly
expanding into a variation of sorts. The basic fabric of the song seemed
to be coming apart and slowly weaving into a different pattern. A sweet
hum tickled my ears. I turned to see where the sound came from and realized
it was an overtone from the sitars.
The song unfolded into an improvisation—the
real art of Indian classical music. Each time a raga is played, it is encouraged
to grow into a form for that particular time and place. Because of this,
no raga is ever improvised in the same way. There was a freshness to the
performance that I’ve never experienced before. I felt like a witness to
a world evolving through sound. I wasn’t alone in this— the musicians seemed
as astonished as I was by the form their song was taking. I was certain
that Sarasvati graced us with her presence. I could feel her clarity in
Closing my eyes for a moment,
I imagined the raga as a seed. I wondered what the seed would grow into.
I allowed myself to be taken on a journey into the unknown reaches of the
raga. At one point, I started laughing for no particular reason, suddenly
aware that emotions are indeed vibrations. I felt the vibration of the
emotion “happiness” in my body and mind. An acute smile filled my face.
I was experiencing “Happy, Evening Raga!” Had I entered the raga or had
the raga entered me? It moved me and moved through me at the same time.
With a sharp pop from the tabla we returned to the basic structure of the
raga, the seed. I recognized the simple tune as the one we had started
with, but I had a different perspective on it after viewing its potential.
Ravi Shankar’s book My Music, My Life, he refers to the mind as a “blank
canvas” that can be “coloured or affected by the pleasing and soothing
sound of a raga.” He also explains that in the Indian tradition there are
supposedly “nine sentiments” that preside over any artistic endeavour.
Through the combination of tones, a principal sentiment is invoked by a
raga. And “the more closely the notes of a raga conform to the expression
of one single idea or emotion, the more overwhelming the effect of the
raga” is on the listener.
Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi mystic
and musician, wrote that Siva developed raga to “control” emotion and use
it for the “best purpose.” Emotions and emotional energy are a neutral
force. Swami Sivananda says that music has the power to “elevate the mind
at once from its old ruts and grooves to magnanimous heights of divine
splendour and glory.” I wonder where this power comes from and how it can
slip so subtly into my consciousness. How does it have the ability to stir
consciousness into a particular state of mind like “happy?” Kundalini-Shakti
is potential energy manifesting worlds. The concert felt like a brief introduction
to Her power as sound.
In Indian music, there is an emphasis
on the exchange of vibrations between the players and audience. There are
stories of players entering into a concert and feeling a discord among
the audience and then refusing to play. There has to be a receptacle for
the sound, something that can vibrate with it. This reminds me of the story
of the devotee who asked Shakti to visit her house. When the day came and
Shakti didn’t arrive, the devotee wept and asked why She did not come as
promised. Shakti responded, “I did come, but there was so much clutter
in the yard I couldn’t make it to the door.”
I ask myself if the state of my
mind is ready to host subtle energies and refined sounds. Do I hear the
sound of Shakti when She approaches? Is there room for Her to enter?
Inayat Khan writes, “Hindus based
their music on intuition,” and “the practice of Indian music has been a
culture of stimulating intuition.” Intuition is a feminine force, a force
that eludes language for the most part. I know intuition as a vibration
rather than as a sound. It arrives in my consciousness with a clarity that
hovers over usual thoughts in my mind. The overtones from the sitar remind
me of the approach of intuition—delicate, familiar and surprising.
the Happy Evening raga had finished, the performance continued with a Mountain
Song, a Wedding Song and a Prayer to Radha and Krishna. Pandit and Deobrat
each took a turn at carrying the melody, then passing it off to the other.
The surrender in their playing allowed the music to flow unimpeded through
graceful fingers into the theatre. I sensed a receptivity in the audience
that left me feeling that not a drop of sound was wasted.
As the last song drew to a close,
I remembered the words of Pandit when I asked what the purpose of Indian
music was. He said, “to meditate and have shanti. To connect with God,
have a fresh mind and feel good.” He was right. I felt elated. I was functioning
from another level of mind than I normally inhabited. Everything seemed
a little more alive than usual. As I ran through town to the car, my feet
barely touched the pavement. I couldn’t remember any of the tunes I had
just heard, but I could feel them all vibrating in my body.
E. Truman is a student of yoga with a passion for devotional music and
Kuan Yin. She is the managing editor of ASCENT magazine.
You can reach the Mishras on the web at: www.poopsnrun.de/indexmishra.html
being in the heart, throat and palate and going through the passages of
the head and nose and teeth and coming out from the base of the tongue
and the lips becomes audible Vaikhari—the Kundalini who has invested Herself
with the Varnas and is the Mother of all varieties of Sound.” —Raghava-Bhatta
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