The Economist : Pandit Bhimsen Joshi

Friday, February 11, 2011

MUSIC seemed to require him to use every part of his body. From a slow, mesmerised, almost motionless start his eyes would roll upwards, foreshadowing the ascent of the notes that emerged from his distended, gaping mouth. His hands flailed, as though reaching for some imagined object just out of his grasp. Perhaps Bhimsen Joshi was trying to bring back to earth a soaring note from one of his magnificent taans, the series of rapid melodic passages with which great classical singers in the Hindustani tradition of northern India demonstrate how skilled they are. Few could sing them like he could, his sonorous voice ranging effortlessly over three octaves as he explored the nuances of ragas—Indian music’s tonal settings for improvisation and composition, each associated with a season or a time of day. Yet those who packed concert halls to listen to him sing, as Indians did for over six decades, rarely mentioned his technique. Instead, they would talk about how he had made them feel, on a night long ago at the Dover Lane music conference in Calcutta, or under a tent in the grounds of Modern School on New Delhi’s Barakhamba Road, when he sang a raga of the monsoon—and suddenly the skies were full of thundering black rainclouds, even though it was bone dry and bitterly cold.

It was on nights like these that Indians fell in love with this strange man, whose contortions defied the best efforts of those in charge of microphone placement. For nobody could match the extraordinary ability of Bhimsen—always Bhimsen to his listeners—to capture the essential character of a raga, whether playful or grave, and send audiences out into the night humming, with the music under their skin, almost stunned with the force of something they could not quite comprehend. That was what made generations of homesick Indian students turn to him on freezing winter nights in south London or Cambridge, Massachusetts, when home seemed unbearably far away and the darkness demanded nothing less than the master singing a sombre raga of the late night. But his voice meant a great deal even to those Indians who had little time for classical music. Millions of homes in Maharashtra woke up to him singing the abhangs, or hymns, of the medieval Marathi saint-poets on the early-morning programme on All India Radio’s Bombay station. A much-loved television campaign promoting national unity, which opened with his singing, ensured that even those who grew up with rap rather than ragas knew, and loved, that voice.

His childhood, in the culturally fertile Dharwad region in the state of Bombay in British India, was suffused by music: the devotional songs his mother sang as she went about her chores; the azaan, or calls to prayer, from the nearby mosque. But his love for music crystallised when, at 11, on a scratchy 78rpm record, he heard Abdul Karim Khan, the great master of the Kirana school, which melodiously blended elements of the music of both north and south. That was how he wanted to sing. Spurred by music, then, he ran away from home, travelling ticketless on the trains that snaked across India from the home town of one great master to another, relying on his singing to melt ticket-inspectors’ hearts. Passengers, too, threw him small coins for his songs. By 1936 he had persuaded Sawai Gandharva, a disciple of Abdul Karim Khan, to teach him the intricacies of the Kirana style of singing. In 1941 he gave his first public performance; by 1946 he was famous.

His style picked up influences from all over India. True, he had the Kirana school’s tunefulness. But those intricate taans owed something to the Jaipur school, even to the style of Faiyaz Khan of Agra. For Bhimsen Joshi was really interpreting Hindustani music in his own way. A good singer, he said, was a bit like a thief, incorporating what he liked best about others’ styles into his own. He sang where he could, too, in the early years: bhajans, or devotional songs, for All India Radio’s Lucknow station for 25 rupees a day, and occasional songs for films later. It was hard work. A glass of rich buffalo milk in the morning; then four hours singing a raga in the lowest octave as the first part of up to 20 hours of practice. But milk was not all he drank. People told other kinds of stories about Bhimsen concerts, the ones where he was repeatedly announced but didn’t appear for hours. It was only by the late 1970s that he overcame his problems with liquor.  His drinking, like his love for fast cars, was of a piece with the man: slightly reckless, fully immersed in whatever he was doing. His singing, he said, reflected his personality. He reckoned that everyone’s should. Don’t sing like me, he would urge his students. Sing like yourselves, find your own voice. His favourite composition, in a raga named after a town linked in Hindu mythology to the god Krishna, used words in praise of a 12th-century Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the saviour of the poor. But there was not one sectarian note in Bhimsen Joshi. He loved the syncreticism of Hindustani music, with its mixture of Hindu and Muslim influences. Music had no religion or caste, he often said. The religion of music was music.

Reference :

Beautiful, beautiful Shabad of The Tenth Master.

(click for larger image)

The March Of Rama

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The central theme of the Ramayana is the exploration of the psyche within, the existential choices one makes as seeker — some of which are of a heroic nature and some of which have tragic dimensions.  The cardinal theme of the ‘ayana’ or march of Rama, the Ramayana, is focused on challenges arising out of the high and exacting ideals of its characters, providing the material for a tale of duty and dignity, faith and friendship, love and longing; all held together by the quest for dharma or righteousness.  Vedanta internalises the epic as a metaphor that is free of categorisations of good and evil.  All characters represent various dimensions of our psyche; some dimensions presented as being useful and therefore to be nurtured in the seeker and others as hindrances or unnecessary and therefore to be rejected or moderated.

Sita personifies the inner struggle of the jivatma, the individual soul, which has got distanced from the Self.  Even as she gets caught in a web of misfortune and tribulation to extricate herself from which she requires great resoluteness and strength of character, Sita’s story exemplifies the trials of the innocent jivatma, struggling to understand the power-desire matrix of the outside world — but which she must try to understand from a mature perspective to see the world as witness the way Rama does as he lives through his trials.

Rama personifies the more mature and evolved mind that willingly sacrifices personal desires to uphold truth at any cost, remaining balanced and optimistic in the face of severe challenges.  Rama finds his own solutions to the daunting ethical dilemmas he faces, knowing that he will be judged severely for the choices he makes. His mature approach is ultimately put to the test as he faces public scorn and censure.  Torn between his love and regard for Sita and the public call for her abandonment, Rama is faced with complexities that a seeker faces in the material world, with its pulls and pushes.  The trial-by-fire that Sita is subject to is a trial of both Sita and Rama who both personify the seeking of one on the path that is free of dualities.  One is an innocent mind which matures through gaining awareness of the manipulative egos of others; the other is a mature mind that makes a choice in a traumatic and tricky situation.

Ravana‘s is the competitive mind, confined by its desires.  His ego mind seeks to control and possess everything around him for ego-gratification. He exemplifies the non-discriminating seeker, who, though scholarly and knowledgeable, does not ground that knowledge in a compassionate, universal vision.  Blinded by arrogance, Ravana is unable to fulfill his dharma.  His is also the spontaneous mind held captive by desire.  Ravana personifies a mind that is a storehouse of desire rather than a tool of understanding.  An egocentric mind is a threat to other minds and is capable of self-delusion, too.  What is required is to unlearn and then relearn to cultivate a non-dualistic perspective.

Hanuman‘s is the alert and agile mind that understands the need to adapt and adjust creatively to difficult situations with the will power of a karma yogi.  Devoid of ego, he is able to surrender completely to Divine Will, despite obstacles, with strength and confidence.  He is in turn preceptor to Sita and Rama, who turn to him for a different perspective.

The Ramayana is the common man’s Upanishad.  It explores the mind in all its dimensions, holding up a mirror to our internal turmoil and evolution.

Reference :

Garba – The Dance Of The Earth Womb

Friday, October 15, 2010

B R I L L I A N T interpretation of the dance of Garba and the festival of Navratri

The pot is a great invention.  Without the pot, we would still be going to water bodies like rivers and ponds to hydrate ourselves as and when we feel thirsty.  Thanks to the pot, we can get the water into our homes and store it for future use no crocodiles lurking beneath the water, no fear of a wild animal getting provoked into attack.  The pot is a symbol of human civilisation.  Ancient Indians revered the pot.  It was the symbol of the womb, the garbha, for it sustained human life.  The pot was equated with the mother; it was a symbol of divinity. A pot or kalash filled with water and sprouts and crowned with green leaves and fruits became the symbol of abundance and good fortune.  It was worshipped over 3,000 years ago.  It is still being worshipped today.

The gods, the ancients believed, had a pot that overflowed with grain and gold.  It was called the akshaya patra.  They also had a pot brimming with amrit, the nectar of immortality.  Humans had neither.  But humans included women who created and nurtured life, ensuring the continuation of the species.  Women were therefore a combination of akshya patra and amrit, holding in their bodies the promise of abundance and immortality for the family.  Without a woman, a family perished.  The family tree withered.  In ancient times women were clearly regarded as being more valuable than men.  The survival of a tribe depended not on the number of men it had but on the strength of its women.  So in the early days, women were given the choice to choose husbands.  The foremost form of wedding was considered to be one where the father gave his daughter to another family.  It was a gift of akshaya patra and amrit.

While the forest was equated with the wild goddess, the field was equated with the domesticated goddess.  Forest was woman, field was wife. Forest was water in the pond, field was water in a pot.  Field was the womb that sustained a village.  It was worshipped as humanity’s akshaya patra and amrit, bringing forth prosperity year after year. The domestication of the earth, the transformation of the woman into homemaker, the moulding of clay into a pot, is the result of human intervention, an imposition on nature’s freedom, a sacrifice to ensure the birth of civilisation, to ensure perpetuation and survival.

In autumn, as the rains recede and crops are harvested, three things come together on nine nights: the pot, the woman and the field.  In the centre of the field, the pot is placed filled with water and sprouts, and around it women dance in circular formation.  They bend down and clap as they thank the earth and cosmos and energise it with their happiness.  This is garbo, the dance of the earth-womb.  The circular formation of the dance is a reminder of the horizon, the rim of the divine pot, the world we live in.  We live in a cosmic womb, just as deities in temples are enshrined in the garba griha or sanctum sanctorum, a detail endorsed by the metal pots placed on top of the temple dome.  Navaratri or nine auspicious nights is the season to remember and celebrate the female principle in various aspects as goddess as well as the pot, the homemaker and giver of prosperity.

Reference :

Today is Vasant Panchami.

The constant interplay between our inner seeking and the innate state of knowledge within which we are unaware – the dialectic between Becoming and Being which is the cornerstone of the Upanishads – takes on a mystical and devotional hue in tradition in the personification of Goddess Saraswati as the muse of learning and knowledge.  Whether in her riverine form or svarupa as she is exalted in the Rig Veda – nourishing an entire civilisation on her banks – or in her shubhra vasana or in white attire, the feminine form inspiring all creative energies, Saraswati represents the ever-flowing stream of consciousness within.  As Consciousness, Saraswati is a metaphor for the creative faculty, the trigger for all literature, music and dance, aesthetics and philosophy.  She represents the ever-engaged mind, the dhaara pravah or one that makes thoughts flow like a river.  But she also flows towards the Absolute, as the name Saraswati suggests, so she is also a metaphor for the journey one makes from the known, empirical world of duality to the still point beyond thought, taking the individual soul to the other shore, the crossing over, as it were, to a state of contented Being.  Why is Saraswati depicted wearing white?  The colour white is a symbol of the purity of true knowledge which she bestows on the seeker.  Similarly, her association with the swan and the peacock too stress the wisdom aspect.  The swan is said to have the ability to separate milk from water and drink milk only, which is a metaphor of the way a seeker has to continually discriminate between what is real and permanent and what is transient.  The peacock’s vanity at its own beautiful plumage is a reminder of how a true seeker of knowledge has to learn to detach himself from the body by understanding the transitory nature of physical appearance.

(click for full image)

Saraswati is also vak or speech, the essence of sound by which the world of name and form is realised.  Through vak, the seeker is led to a state beyond cognition.  Her four arms, sometimes seen as representing the four Vedas, also represent the four facets of the human cognitive psyche – manas or mind, buddhi or intellect, chitta or consciousness and ahamkara or ego, all of which are interwoven in the fabric of Creation.  She is the Muse of all creative endeavour, and creativity implies seeking, delving deep into the Self.  Saraswati is also sara or essence of the swa, the Self.  It is initiation into learning, the beginning of a long journey into the mind and beyond, which is sought to be started on Vasant Panchami, a day on which Saraswati is specially remembered.  Traditionally, children are initiated into the Akshara Abhyasam ceremony, ritually invoking the goddess at the Saraswati temple at Basar before they begin their formal school education.  The artist and the ascetic both rededicate themselves to the path of self-knowledge, one seeking to arouse his creative potential and the other seeking the bindu which is at the source of Creation.  Vedanta says that the path of knowledge has the power to dispel ignorance of what is permanent and what is passing.  Celebrating Saraswati is in fact a call to the higher mind, the beginning of a deep desire to understand the purpose and meaning of life.

Reference :

The Deep Symbolism Of The Mahabharata

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

B R I L L I A N T !!!

The `Mahabharata’ has a deep underlying symbolism.  Imagine Draupadi as the human body.  The Pandavas, the five senses, are wedded to it.  Their first cousins, a hundred in number, the Kauravas, are present in the form of the tendencies of the mind.  Yudhishthir thinks that he is a good gambler and so would win over the Kauravas.  The senses also think that they can win over the tendencies of the mind.  The Pandavas keep gambling till they lose everything, including themselves and their beloved wife, Draupadi.  Likewise, we lose everything when we gamble with our tendencies, and, like the Pandavas, end up in spiritual exile.  The body is demeaned, like Draupadi was, and only divine intervention can save it.  However, our body does not abandon us, even when we lead it into exile.  However, there are some good tendencies also.  There are many good people in the Kaurava camp.  But, Krishna advises Arjuna to kill all of them, implying that all tendencies, both good and evil should be exterminated.  They are already dead, he says.  You are only an instrument in making this evident.   If a person has to gain enlightenment he must overcome all the tendencies of the mind, good or bad.  These do not have an existence, apart from what we have given them they are already dead.  However, we keep them alive by our own acts, and, by our own acts, we can kill them all. Only then will we be free.  Kurukshetra is the world in which we live this life, witnessing a war between our senses and our mind’s tendencies.  Dhritarashtra symbolises the mind, which gives birth, in a sense, to our tendencies.  He was blind as the mind is to its tendencies.  His wife, Gandhari, was not blind but chose to blindfold herself.  Even when we have a choice to see, we choose not to see.  

None of the Pandavas were born of their mother’s husband, Pandu.  Their mother, Kunti, had been given a chant, which invoked various gods who fathered the Pandavas.  The Sun was the father of Karna.  Dharma, the god of duty was the father of Yudhishthir and Indra the king of gods was the father of Arjuna.  The god of wind, symbolising strength, was the father of Bhishma and the Ashwini Kumars were the fathers of Nakul and Sahdev.  Our senses are basically part of our divinity, the instruments born to keep us in this form.  The original name of their mother was Pritha, signifying Prithvi, the Earth, and she took the name Kunti when Kuntibhoja adopted her.  So, the Pandavas were born through the conjoining of the Earth and the divine the body and the spirit.  Karna was born of the Sun-god and the Earth mother.  He is a symbol of our ego.  Like him, our ego is also armoured.  Only the guru’s intervention could get the armour removed.  Similarly, the guru helps the seeker in killing his ego.  Krishna’s form, too, is symbolic.  Deep blue is the colour of eternity.  It is the colour of the sky, and of the deep ocean.  Yellow is the colour of the earth.  A deep blue god-image enclosed in yellow clothes symbolises the spirit clothed in the body.  Krishna, then, is a symbol of the body and spirit, a symbol of you and me in our enlightened form.  When we become aware of our true self, we realise that there is no difference between us and Krishna or Vishnu, of whom he is an incarnation, as, indeed are we.

Reference :

The Speaking Tree is a column that appears in the Times Of India and covers topics varied and wide.  Almost all of them are commentaries by contemporary figures on the universal teachings of the great masters and their eternally relevant message to mankind.  I feel lucky to read the column some days as I did today with this one : “THE SPEAKING TREE: Story of Nanak’s Death And Birth of Japji Sahib (the very first words uttered by Guru Nanak after self-realisation)” by Osho.

Nanak sat on the bank of the river in total darkness with his friend and follower, Mardana.  Suddenly, he removed his clothes and walked into the river. Mardana called after him, “Where are you going?  The night is so dark and cold!”  Nanak went further and further, he plunged into the depths of the river.  Mardana waited… but Nanak did not return… Mardana ran back to the village and woke up everyone.  It was midnight, but a crowd collected at the riverside because everyone loved Nanak… They ran back and forth the whole length of the river bank but to no avail.  Three days passed.  By now it was certain that Nanak had drowned.  The people imagined that his body must have been carried away by the swift current and perhaps eaten by wild animals.  The village was in mourning.  On the third night Nanak appeared from the river.  The first words he spoke became the Japji Sahib…..And it is evident that the more profound the subject matter, the greater the need for symbols.  When Nanak disappeared in the river, the story goes that he stood before the gate of God.  He experienced God… God spoke to him, “Now go back and give unto others what I have given unto you”.  The Japji is Nanak’s first offering after his God-experience.  Unless you lose yourself completely, until you die, you cannot hope to meet God.  Your annihilation becomes his being.  As long as you are, he cannot be.  This is the symbolic meaning of drowning in the river.  You too will have to lose yourself; you too will have to drown.  Death is only completed after three days, because the ego does not give up easily.  The three days in Nanak’s story represent the time required for his ego to dissolve completely.  Since the people could only see the ego and not the soul, they thought Nanak was dead. 

The one who is lost invariably returns, but he returns as new.  He who treads the path most certainly returns.  While he was on the path he was thirsty, but when he returns he is a benefactor; he has left a beggar, he returns a king.  Whoever follows the path carries his begging bowl; when he comes back he possesses infinite treasures.  To appear before God, to attain the beloved, are purely symbolic terms and not to be taken literally.  There is no God sitting somewhere on high before whom you appear.  But to speak of it, how else can it be expressed?  When the ego is eradicated, when you disappear, whatever is before your eyes, is God Himself.  God is not a person — God is an energy beyond form.  To stand before this formless energy means to see Him wherever you look, whatever you see.  When the eyes open, everything is He.  Ego is like the mote in your eye; the minute it is removed, God stands revealed before you.  And no sooner does God manifest, than you also become God, because there is nothing besides Him.  Nanak returned, but the Nanak who returned was also God himself.  Then each word uttered became so invaluable as to be beyond price, each word equal to the words of the Vedas.