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.

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Beautiful, beautiful Shabad of The Tenth Master.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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