welcome!

Welcome to reenainindia! I kept this blog during the 2011-2012 academic year, when I was on a Fulbright grant in India, studying Hindustani classical music. (I am a western-trained composer — for more information about my current work, you can visit my website, and for more specifics about my work with Hindustani classical music, click here.)

There are almost a hundred entries in this blog on all sorts of topics, from music to travel to memorable encounters. While you’re welcome to read through all the posts, I’ve compiled some of my favorite posts from the year in the paragraphs below, so you can navigate to whatever interests you.

The post Two Rings is perhaps the most important post in the blog — it is essentially my ‘story’. It traces some of the important moments that compelled me to be a musician, and  that eventually led me to India to study Hindustani music.

If you are interested, there is also an interview I did (with Libby van Cleve, from the Oral History of American Music at Yale) a few weeks before I received the Fulbright grant. In it, I talk about my music, as well as a variety of other things from my childhood love of Barbra Streisand to the Hindi a cappella group I used to run at Yale.

I had a variety of incredible musical experiences in India. One of my favorite musical moments of the year, described in Universal Language, is an exchange I had with a tabla player, where music was literally the only language in which we could communicate. The post Spring describes how different cultures associate very different sounds with the same emotions or phenomena — in this case, the season of spring. The post Reverse Reduction discusses how western classical music is perceived (and perhaps pigeonholed) in India, as we sometimes do with Indian music in the west. But on the other hand, I had the unlikely experience of being part of a wonderful production of Mozart opera scenes in Delhi (Mozart in India), which was sung, played and conducted entirely by western-trained Indian musicians. Studying Hindustani music also led me to a reevaluation of the meaning of perfection, and in the post Studies in Perfection, I break down what the idea of perfection means in western music versus in Hindustani music, and how conception of perfection has evolved.

I spent the year taking in massive amounts of new information every day, both musical and otherwise, and I think the post Chants Sans Paroles (Songs Without Words) best describes what it felt like to develop an intuitive understanding of things that were simply impossible to describe in words.

In addition to going to many music festivals and performances, and performing myself, I was also invited to do many public speaking engagements. Talking about Music describes some of my experiences (and terrors) speaking to audiences of hundreds of people throughout India. One of the most amazing moments of the year was speaking at the INK Conference (in association with TED) in Jaipur, which is described in The Power of the Journey: INK 2011.

Though I was based in Delhi, I travelled all over India, visiting cities and states including Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jammu-Tawi, Chennai, Goa, Kerala, Kanyakumari, Assam, Sikkim, Darjeeling and Pune. The post Kanyakumari is about my trip to the bottom tip of India, one of my favorite places I visited. Travelling in India was sometimes a little more… well.. adventurous than I expected: Getting to Jodhpur and Getting to Goa describe two of my wildest travel experiences.

I met two amazing kids during my travels that I profiled in my blog. One was a 12-year-old boy named Irfan, from a tiny dwelling on a hill in Jodhpur’s Old City, who had learned phrases from five different languages from tourists passing through, and invited me for chai with his family. I also met a young girl named Roshna in a tiny village in the mountains of Sikkim. She was the runner up for Sikkim Idol (yes, based on American Idol), and she is an incredible young talent.

My favorite travel post is all pictures: my friend Crystal’s birthday was in March, and since I was traveling all month, I took pictures with letters that spelled out “Happy Birthday Crystal” wherever I went that month as a birthday present for her. The pictures were taken in cities throughout India (my favorite one was the “y” of “happy” – with a smirking pink goat in Assam who had gotten caught in some Holi crossfire!)

Even day-to-day life in Delhi had its hilarious moments. Interactions with our maid, Anita, provided many laughs in moments of misunderstanding: (Apne Peir, Raisin-Fest, Lost in Translation and American Fashion). I also found that the dupatta, a shawl Indian women use to cover their heads, had a variety of other amusing uses (The Versatile Dupatta).

Trying to celebrate American holidays in India (described in the post Customs) led to some interesting hybrids of Indian and American culture, including coconut jack-o-lanterns, christmas stockings made from Indian brocades (and a tailor who refused to believe that people put socks on their walls), and a very different take on the concept of thanksgiving turkey. On the other hand, I learned to cook many Indian dishes from our maid (Cooking with Anita), which, in addition to being able to make a pretty mean aloo parantha, gave me a view into her life, and consequently, into a part of India that I never would have otherwise known.

Of course, I had many reflective moments over the course of the year, and I would be remiss not to list a few posts that talk about some of these deeply personal revelations. In Reena in India, I realize how even the way my own name is perceived in India completely changes my perception of myself. In Malhaar, I describe a moment standing on my balcony in the downpour of a monsoon singing Raag Malhaar, and starting to feel not like an American who has come on a trip, but like an Indian in India. In Exploring Old Delhi, I begin to see things through my grandparents’ eyes, and finally understand how hard it must have been for them to move to America. In Airport Musings, I start to grapple with the deep chasm that seems to exist between what I value about India versus America, and how, if ever, I can begin to form a life that includes all the things I love. And Return expresses the impending return to America, and how deeply connected I grew to India over those few months.

I hope you enjoy perusing this blog! Please feel free to leave comments – I love to hear from my readers!

Best,
Reena

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

thank you.

Today is my last day in India. Tomorrow morning, I will be back in the US.

Of course, I feel a very deep sadness at having to leave India, but what I feel even more than that is a profound sense of gratitude. Since I arrived here in August, not a day has gone by where I haven’t stopped to think about how incredibly grateful I am to be here, doing the things I love and meeting people that have changed the shape of my world. So I wanted to take a moment to thank a few of the countless people that have made this year into the amazing experience it has been.

First and foremost, I want to thank the United States Department of State and Indian Government for creating and administering the Fulbright Program, and for choosing me to be a part of it. This year has been nothing short of life-altering, and I cannot adequately express my gratitude to you for making this experience possible for me.

To the staff at IIE: Cara Doble and others — Thank you for your help in all the initial legwork in getting ready to go to India. You really helped simplify what would have been a daunting process of visas and paperwork.

To the staff at United States India Educational Fund (USIEF): Vinita Tripathi, Neeraj Goswami, Adam Grotsky, Paromita Datta, and many others — Thank you for making my transition to India last August as seamless as possible, and thank you for your continued support throughout the year. You have all been incredibly warm and welcoming, and it has been wonderful to get to know you all during this year. Neeraj, thank you for always being on call and ready to help in any situation – I don’t know what I would have done without you those first weeks in Delhi.

To my Laj roommates, Devin, Brian, Sana, Nick, Jess, David and Eliza: Thank you for being the best roommates I could have ever hoped for. The amount I’ve enjoyed these days in India is in no small part due to each one of you being so absolutely awesome. I can’t express in words how much I have enjoyed sharing this year with you. (I want you to know that I have tried on three separate occasions to think of an appropriate t.w.s.s. joke to write here, and I just can’t think of one. I’m so sorry.)

To all the other Fulbrighters I’ve met here in India — Robin, Aditya, John, Amy, Cat, Victoria, Erica and so many others – Thank you for hosting me when I’ve come to your cities, for bringing good cheer through our apartment in Delhi, and for being awesome travel buddies. I feel so fortunate to have had such a wonderful and varied network of people to connect with as I explored the country. Thank you for all the wonderful conversation, your brilliant insights and perspective, and your general hilariousness and birthday pancakes (Robin).

To my music teacher, Gaurav Mazumar: Thank you for this wonderful and revealing year of training in Hindustani classical music. My understanding and appreciation of this incredible art has grown beyond measure, and just spending this time with the music itself has changed and affected me in ways that I couldn’t have comprehended a year ago. Thank you for your patience with me, and for always finding time for me, even in the busiest parts of your year. Your warmth and generosity has made all the difference. And to Nanditha, Gaurav’s wife: Thank you for being my mom-away-from-home! I can’t thank you enough for all your help and guidance and chai and conversation. It’s been so wonderful to be part of your lives this year, and I will miss all of you so much.

To the Delhi University Faculty of Music and Arts, and Anupam Mahajan, my advisor: Thank you for hosting me, for serving as the advisor for my project, and for offering me institutional support throughout this year in India.

To Lakshmi Pratury and the entire INK Team (Nina, Nikhil, Tariq, Sheena, Nandini and others): I am so honored to have been a 2011 INK Fellow! I was truly inspired by the whole experience of The INK Conference, and by the incredible people I’ve met through INK. Thank you so much for the huge amount of effort you’ve put into making this conference and program possible! And to all my fellow Fellows — it was an honor to get to know you — I am floored by each and every one of you, and your brilliance and passion inspires me beyond measure.

To George Mathew: I don’t even know where to begin thanking you. It’s been an absolute joy to work with you this year. I am so excited by your projects and your vision, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings!

To Sandeep Das and the HUM Ensemble: It has been absolutely amazing working with you! Writing for HUM has been revealing for me in so many ways, and I am really honored to be working with such incredible and versatile musicians.

To all the other wonderful musicians I’ve met this year – thank you for sharing your music with me. There so many of you that it would be impossible to name you all here, but each performance I’ve heard and each musician I’ve met has taught me volumes, and I am so grateful for that.

To Priya, Prateek, Rahela, Tarun, and my other friends and colleagues in Delhi: Thank you for all your help with everything, for introducing me to new and interesting places around Delhi, and for being such awesome people! It has been wonderful to spend time with you here in India, and I can’t wait to come back as soon as I possibly can and see you again!

To our maid, Anita: Even though I know she can’t read this, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank her for all she’s done for me this year. She is the primary reason I speak Hindi with any fluency, and she has given me so much insight into a part of India that I never would have been able to experience without her.

And last but definitely not least, thank you to my readers! I’ve never had a blog before, and knowing that you’ve been reading has helped me stay motivated about sharing and writing about my experiences here. I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts! Over the next few months, I will be finishing up some backdated posts that I haven’t had the time to write until now, but this will be the last entry in this blog from India itself. Thank you so much for reading!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

cooking with anita.

I truly cherish the time I spend with our maid, Anita. Our relationship is a unique one – it isn’t characteristically Indian, because my job isn’t to order her around and ‘keep her in line’ the way it might be in an actual Indian household. The westerner in me is more interested in the opportunity to talk to her and gain insight into her world – a sector of Indian life that is otherwise closed to me. But as someone who grew up in an Indian family, much of what she says has inherent meaning for me, and by observing her as a living emulation of this culture, I am often able to piece together parts of my past that have seemed incongruous to me for years.

Every day, for the last three weeks, Anita has been teaching me how to cook. Cooking with Anita is another relationship altogether. Our roles are effectively reversed – she is the master, and I am the student. Every morning, she jars me out of bed with a stream of unapologetic doorbell rings, we make tea, and in her regular spirit of tough love, she teaches me how to make a new dish, apna haath se.

So far, I’ve learned quite a few of the standard dishes: dal, bhindi masala, aloo gobi, baingan bhartha, biriyani, pakora curry; a few breakfast staples: upma, poha (chevra), and of course, my favorite aloo paranthas; snacky things like pakoras with imli chutney and hara chutney, and the characteristic breads: puris and roti.

Measurements, as you can imagine, aren’t in neat sizes like cups or spoons. They are aesa, jaisa, itni, zyada nahi, aap ki swaad. However much you feel like putting in. Whatever tastes good. Not too much. More.

“Now add the masala,” Anita says. How much masala? “To your taste.” Anita, I don’t have taste. Tell me what to do. She looks at me with endeared pity. “Ok, come on. Put a few spoons of dhania… a little more…”

Anita chastizes me in good fun for my clunkiness — a ‘real’ Indian girl simply would have known certain things from childhood. At one point I asked her what a certain spice was, and she said, “Sarsonh”. Having no idea what that was called in english (and therefore, how I would find it in America), I asked her to pour a few seeds into my hand. When she saw me putting them in my mouth, she slapped me on the back and said, “What on earth are you doing?? You can’t just eat sarsonh!” I said, “Well, how am I going to know what it’s called in English if I don’t taste it?” She was perplexed as to how that would help… but it was definitely mustard flavored.

It goes both ways, though. Our roommate’s family had sent us Easter candy from America, including some Peeps. She wanted Anita to try the Peeps, thinking that, given the sometimes sickening sweetness of Indian sweets, she would take to them easily. Anita couldn’t take more than a bite. She asked me what they were for. I explained that we celebrated a holiday called Easter, and that these were traditional easter candies. Like barfi (a rich, dense, milk-based Indian sweet), but for Easter.

Ah, she understood. This was American barfi! Suddenly she was very interested. “I have to take some for my niece and nephew! I have to show them what American barfi looks like!” I felt kind of like a parent who tells their child about Santa Claus for the first time, not knowing whether they are instilling in the child a sense of magic and imagination, or simply lying through their teeth. I don’t think Peeps have ever been referred to as American Barfi.

The thing that I find the most difficult is the basic act of making roti (flat, round bread). With most dishes, it’s just a matter of cutting things and putting them in the right order in the kadai to cook. But there are so many pitfalls in making roti: depending on how much water you add to the flour, and how quickly and often you add it as you knead, the dough could be too soft and sticky or too hard and, as she says, “strict”. There is a specific technique to making the balls of dough before rolling that allows the roti to be perfectly circular. And then even in rolling, it’s possible to mess up in so many ways – the dough sometimes sticks to the surface, often a single wrong roll can make the whole thing into square or triangle or part of the dough doubles over on itself. And then there’s the rhythm of rolling out a roti in the same time it takes to cook the previous one. If you dally or get distracted by rolling, the roti burns. The ultimate test: after the roti is cooked, you remove the tawa (the flat pan on which the roti is cooked), and put the roti on the open flame to char – does it puff up from the inside? I have yet to achieve the perfect puff.

Needless to say, Anita’s roti are perfect every time. She confessed to me that when she was younger she had a penchant for making roti – when her mother would try to send her to sewing school, she would go over to a friends house whose parents were older and whose mother could use the help with cooking – she struck a deal with them so that they would tell her mother she was in school, and instead she got to make roti all day. She said this with a mischievous excitement. Making roti was always her favorite thing, and she was a pro by the time she was five years old.

Every day I knead the dough for roti. As with everything else, there is no safety in numbers or proportions – you just add water to the flour and keep kneading until it becomes a certain consistency – as soft as possible so that it rolls out easily but doesn’t get sticky. A little salt to taste and a spoon of oil to keep the dough soft and moist. Every day for the last three days, something has been off – there isn’t enough water, I’m not kneading it hard enough… but finally yesterday, she felt the dough after I thought it was done and patted me on the arm. Shabash. It was perfect.

I find that I think entirely in Hindi when I cook with her. When I’m describing the recipes later to my roommates in English, I often can’t think of the words for spices and vegetables immediately, or they just seem incongruous when I say them. To me, potatoes are things that you mash with garlic and chives, or bake with rosemary or make into french fries. Aloo is what you put in paranthas. They feel like two different things to me, even though the the vegetable is the same.

The other day, I was trying to ask her if she put coconut in the green chutney that is so common here in India. I kept saying “Coconut, you know? How do you say it in Hindi? The green thing that you get on the street and drink the water from. We use it in our chutney to thicken it up… What’s the name of it?” We went back and forth for a few minutes before she said, “Nariel?” YES. That was it.

Instantly a world opened up and memories that had been latent for years flooded back into my conscious mind. Nariel (nah’-ree-yul) was what we decorated in tin foil and put on trays with sweets, with which we celebrated our lunar birthdays (which I grew up calling my “coconut birthday”) by making prime numbers of clockwise circles around each others heads. Nariel was what my grandmother would grind by hand into chutney after my dad took it out into the garage and cracked it open with a hammer. The word ‘coconut’ feels tropical to me, but nariel is something entirely different. The world was unlocked.

Growing up, I was used to calling foods that we cooked at home by their Gujarati names (most of which are the same or similar in Hindi). While I had very few instances of confusing the two languages, it was always harder with foods, since there were many items for which I never learned the English words. I remember a time when I was in elementary school, shopping at the supermarket with my mother. We passed some okra, so labelled, in the vegetable aisle. I was floored. I didn’t realize that ‘okra’ was an English word. Consequently, the words ‘coriander’ and ‘cardamom’ still seem weird to me – I will always look at those foods and think dhania (or even cothmir – which I only this year realized was the Konkani word for coriander) and ailchi (which is the Gujarati word – in Hindi it’s ilachi).

Even the foods themselves call up long forgotten memories. At one point, Anita was telling me that sometimes she came home late, and didn’t have time to make vegetables, so she would just eat rice and achaar (spicy pickle). While she probably said this to extract some empathy from me, I suddenly remembered how much I enjoyed the rare times my parents went out for dinner and left me alone at home with my grandmother — while my parents would have none of my antics, I was easily able to convince my grandmother into letting me eat rice and carrot pickle (which is still one of my favorite comfort foods) as my dinner.

When Anita chastised me one morning for mindlessly adding water to the aata (dough) until it became too sticky, I recalled an instance when my grandmother had to step out of the kitchen for evening namaaz (prayers that must be done exactly at dusk), and left me alone to prepare the aata for our roti that evening. I couldn’t get the proportions right, and I kept adding more flour, then more water, then more flour until she came back, not half an hour later, horrified to find the huge disaster I had created in a pot on the kitchen floor.

These memories come back to me because suddenly they are in a context that makes sense. I recount them to Anita as we cook, and she gets my meaning immediately. Of course she would understand how crazy it is to have a daughter who refuses to put dal on top of rice – who eats the rice plain and the dal in a bowl with a spoon, as a lentil soup of sorts. Bilkul pagal ho gayi. (She has gone completely mad.)

As the weeks go by, our regular topics of conversation have become well-worn: the standard gossip about when people in the house are coming and going, things the landlord says, her long-standing power struggle with the cook downstairs, and the ongoing saga of her firstborn son’s questionable ways and dealings with ISS-mack (which it took us awhile to realize was her way of saying ‘smack’, which, from what we can tell, is the word for some sort of recreational drug – probably not actual heroin) that forced her to bottom out her savings and commit him to a rehab center against his will a few months ago.

After speaking for the better part of three hours a day, the old topics have been exhausted and give way to new ones — just today, she asked me how earthquakes happen. My mind worked overtime, as I tried to stretch my limited vocabulary to explain various natural disasters – tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes – I described each of these phenomena, and the nature of the damage they left in their wake, in as much detail as I could manage. I wonder what images formed in her mind as I spoke.

One morning, as we paused for chai before rolling out that day’s roti, she recounted her her memories of the day Indira Gandhi was shot, in October 1984. Anita had been at her mother’s home in Gurgaon (a suburb of Delhi). Her first child, Asha, was two months old. As the houses and businesses of their Sikh neighbors were burned down around them in the riots that ensued, she was so scared for her child’s life that she hid her under a stack of bedding. Anita, being a child herself at the time (she was married at 13, and was 14 when Asha was born), didn’t realize until later that in trying to protect her daughter, she could have suffocated the girl by accident.

These stories, these personal accounts of India’s major historical events, are so important to me. By the time I knew enough about India to ask my grandparents to tell me those stories, they had both passed away. I will never know what they went through during Partition, how they felt when they had to uproot from Surat and move to Karachi, how they felt about the country and people they left behind. So I cling to these stories that connect me to India through the people who have lived through its major events.

Perhaps someday I will have my own stories to tell, as I continue to be present for some of the events that take place in this country. For now, there is only this one: I moved to Delhi the night before Anna Hazare was scheduled to begin his famed hunger strike. I remember waking up in the Taj Mansigh Hotel on the morning of October 16th, impossibly jetlagged and in disbelief that I was finally in India, and hearing people murmur the news to one another. At that point, I had no context for understanding the issues — all I knew was that an elderly and much revered political figure was threatening to slowly take his own life in the name of removing corruption from the Indian government. Over the next few weeks, people flocked to India Gate in droves, standing for hours in the thick, humid air to support this man who planned to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. Those were my first images of Delhi.

On a recent morning, as Anita and I were drinking chai and eating the poha I had just made, she asked me, “When are you coming back to India?” I don’t know. “But you’ll be back, right?” Probably. Maybe in a year or two. “You’re coming back, though? For sure?” Well… yes. For sure. But I won’t be able to stay in this apartment. The landlord is already showing it to other people. “Ok, so stay with me! Come and stay in my house in Gurgaon.” I don’t know… it’s far away from everything. My work is mostly here, in South Delhi. “It’s ok. I come from Gurgaon every day. It’s cheaper to live there. They don’t rip you off the way they do here.” I don’t know. Maybe… “So, you’ll come back next year. And you’ll stay with me.”  She’s decided it already.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

universal language.

A few months ago, I was sitting with my teacher Gaurav, learning a raag called Basant. The raag was particularly tricky to my western ears and it took awhile for my voice to settle into it without going out of tune. As soon as my aroh/avaroh (upward and downward scale) sounded all right, Gaurav began teaching me a bandish (a short composition that helps epitomize and cement the characteristic phrases of the raag) in a rhythmic cycle called Jhaptal, that, at the time, made equally little sense to my western mind: each cycle was of ten beats, divided 2+3+2+3: Dhi-Na Dhi-Dhi-Na Ti-Na Dhi-Dhi-Na. On top of the scaffolding of this complex rhythm sat the composition, a haunting commentary on the beauty of spring.

I kept falling off the beat. Between the unfamiliar notes, the unfamiliar rhythm, and the lyrics, which were not even in Hindi but in Brajbasha, I struggled to hear where I was in the melody and how to line it up within the cycle. Each time Gaurav dropped out and let me sing alone, I would last maybe only a cycle or two before I missed a beat and then got hopelessly lost.

While I was in the music room with Gaurav, life went about as usual in the rest of the house. At one point, the doorbell rang, and it happened to be a tabla player who was passing by. Gaurav spoke to him only in Bengali, so I wasn’t aware of the purpose of his visit – perhaps he came by to pick something up, maybe he happened to be in the area and stopped in for a cup of tea (which happens regularly here). Other than a few pleasantries of hello and goodbye, we didn’t actually speak to one another at all.

Of course, Gaurav invited him to bring his tablas and join us as we sang. This is something I’ve only encountered since coming to India – even in music, the western sense of privacy (soundproof practice rooms, private teaching studios in conservatory buildings, strictly designated time slots for private lessons with each student) is replaced by the Indian sense of community and family. Sometimes Gaurav’s daughter will stop in and sing with us for awhile, sometimes other students will come in and join the end of my lesson. And sometimes I can even hear Gaurav’s wife, a bharatanatyam (south indian classical) dancer, singing phrases of the raag softly to herself as she works on the computer on one side of the music room.

Needless to say, I was nervous. It was hard enough to sing by myself, let alone to add another person into the mix. We began the bandish, and I followed Gaurav intently, listening more to him than to myself. But we had barely started when he had to take a call. As the music went on, he yelled, “Continue, continue!” over his shoulder and ducked out of the room.

I nearly panicked. I was suddenly alone with a person I didn’t know and couldn’t communicate with, singing a composition from memory in a language that neither of us spoke, in a raag and taal I had never sung or even heard before that day. Moreover, Hindustani music doesn’t really operate on the idea of beginnings, middles and ends – you can keep repeating cycles indefinitely, and I didn’t know how to stop, or if it was even appropriate to do so. I didn’t know what else to do but to keep singing, hoping that if I just focused enough, I would somehow land up in the right place at the right time.

After a few minutes of intense concentration, I finally looked over at the tabla player, and locked eyes with him. I think he sensed my panic, and was probably perplexed at my lack of communication – Indian musical communication is much more than a sniff on the upbeat – it is a constant visual dialog between players (the fact that there is no music to look at almost mandates it). I slowly loosened my concentration on the beat, which up until that point, I had been keeping rigidly with my right hand on my knee, and started to watch him play, listening to how my melody fit into the resultant bols (strokes), and let my body find its own way to sway in response to the unfamiliar rhythm.

Slowly, I began to pick out the difference in the sounds of the bols, and then began to place where I was in the taal (rhythmic cycle). He gestured dynamically as he played, and I began to realize what beats he was showing me: Here is the Khali, the middle of your phrase. Now I am coming to the Sam – I’m almost there… Here it is! As a conductor guides their orchestra effortlessly, inevitably into the perfect placement of their phrases, the tabla player guided me smoothly through the phrases of the bandish. I could barely believe what was happening: I was sliding into the Sam right on time every time!

I loosened up considerably after that, and I even started to venture out on a limb at times, trying out different ornamentation on long notes, sometimes taking an extended breath and still catching the next beat by changing the rhythm of the last few notes. There were definitely points where I took unsalvageable risks and fell flat on my face, but each time, the tabla player would catch my Sam (the first beat of the rhythmic cycle), and we would proceed. It was absolutely exhilarating.

In India, a conversation about music is hardly ever complete without someone pulling out that old adage: music is the universal language.

And I have to admit, a part of me cringes every time I hear it. In my time as a musician, I have been to so many concerts where, even though I have two degrees in music, I still can’t understand what I am hearing. I have spent hours reading and rereading dense music theoretical texts that it took me multiple readings (sometimes over many years) to finally have the context to understand. It’s taken me years of laborious practice to be able to hear a wide variety of music and notate it precisely on the page – a skill that is valued highly in the west. So you can understand why I politely avert my eyes every time that cliche rolls off someone’s tongue — to me, music has never been the universal language.

But months after this experience, I can still remember that feeling of complete connection and understanding through sound and gesture. I can’t think of another time in my life when music was literally the only way I could communicate with another person. And I could never have imagined that, in such a situation, the connection could be as tangible and resonant as it was.

Slowly but surely, India is drawing out the romantic in me. I’m finally starting to understand the power that music can have when it exists in its own space, as a vehicle of communication of itself. My western sensibility still struggles with the cliche of that specific phrase, but when I take away the words and just the essence of the concept remains, I can’t help but feel that… maybe there is truth to it after all.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

return.

I can’t believe it’s April already. I just sent in my request for a return ticket, and I will be back in the US on May 15th. Six weeks from today. I am sitting here, kind of dumbfounded, looking at this itinerary. I don’t even have mixed feelings: I just really, really don’t want to leave.

Even before I came to India in August, I knew that I would have a much harder time leaving here than I would leaving America. There is something about India that has always felt natural to me, even though I’ve spent so little time here until now. I can’t even describe the deep contentment I feel walking down a crowded street where everyone has some variation of my features and color, where I’m not ‘the Indian one’, where I blend seamlessly into the relative homogeneity that surrounds me. I feel a sense of belonging that reaches much further back than the short months I have spent here, and that alters my perception of myself on the most fundamental level. I feel more beautiful in India.

The longer I spend here, the more I find a different side of my personality, an ‘Indian Reena’ emerging. The Indian Reena is more fiery, more dramatic and colorful, and depending on the situation, even a little more forward and confrontational. But she can also be more reverent, more elegant, less goofy and awkward. I can feel the difference in my mouth, too, when I speak Hindi – my syllables form a little closer to the front of my mouth, my voice is a little more nasal and higher pitched. My head moves more and my face makes different expressions.

Every interaction I’ve had here, large or small, has contributed slowly to developing these traits in me. Each exchange is marked by the other person’s expectation that I will respond in a way that an Indian woman of my age and perceived status would respond – not only in what I say, but in my manner and gesture. People look at me, expecting that I will innately understand — Hai, na? — and as the months go by, increasingly, I do. Haan, haan. Bilkul.

I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Since I first came to India, I have been painfully aware of my lack of “indianness”, whatever that meant. That I couldn’t pick up on those cues when they were given, or respond in the way that the situation demanded. That I didn’t exhibit those subtleties that I admire so much in other Indian women. Even in America, I felt like a foreigner around other Indians. But I get it now. To a greater extent than before, I am starting to understand how to be.

Even with material things, it’s interesting that I’ve quickly adapted to need and want the things that are available to me here. When I used to stroll through our local market last summer, I was amazed that shops could stay open that sold only goods that seemed to have very little use: incense, strings of mouth fresheners, gullies full of garish gold costume jewelry… But these days my shopping list is different – I find myself walking through the market looking actively for some of those exact things — being concerned with whether the fruit stands are still selling bunches of rasbharris, making sure I have the perfect gold sandals to go with my saris, meaning to buy a few kurtis from the guy in the alleyway between the purse store and the vegetable market, spending the better part of a week fixated on eating the perfect bhel puri, joking with the omelet guy on the corner while he makes me a masala omelet. It had never even occurred to me to actively desire these things in the states – now I am having a hard time imagining life without them.

When I graduated from Yale last year, I felt a true sense of satisfaction – that I had come there for a reason, I had worked hard, and I had accomplished what I set out to accomplish. Of course it was impossible to take advantage of every opportunity, but I felt that I had done a reasonably good job of taking out of the experience what I had wanted. (And funnily enough, I’m returning to Yale for two more years, so there are still plenty of chances to enjoy what I missed the first time!)

A year in India, though, is a whole other matter. It’s like the difference between knowing ten pieces in the western classical music canon, and knowing 100. Ten gives you a vague sense of understanding of the general differences between that music and music from other genres, but once you know 100 pieces, you begin to see layers and levels within the form itself, and worlds begin to open up that beckon further exploration. Ten is comfortable. One hundred is not.

It’s the latter circumstance with my time in India: I just know enough to be aware of how much more there is to know and experience in this country, and each thing I have experienced has made me aware of other worlds that I have yet to explore.

I still haven’t been to the folk music archives in Gurgaon or spent any extended time at the Sangeet Natak Academy Library (both have some of the best Indian musical resources available). I haven’t yet gotten a pair of shoes made by the cobbler in Nizamuddin West market, or been to hear the sufi singing on Thursday evenings at the mosque there. I didn’t have the chance to study yoga in Rishikesh, or go the the music season in Chennai, or the Saptak Festival in Ahmedabad or the Jaipur Literary Festival. I haven’t been to Calcutta or Bombay (this trip) or Hampi or Ladakh. I haven’t had enough time to hang out more than once or twice with some of the wonderful people I’ve met here. I still don’t know how to make aloo paranthas, and even my regular paranthas look more like a flattened version of a David Smith sculpture than anything that can be comfortably consumed.

But there’s one thing that scares me more than anything else about leaving India: that the person I am here will not be able to exist in America – that I will lose this part of myself when I leave. Five years ago, my grandmother died, and I lost not only one of the closest people to me, but the culture and the language that I shared with only her. For some time after she died, I would try to speak Gujarati to myself in the mirror at night, trying to keep the language on my tongue, but I have slowly lost even that with the passing of years.

Being in India, the secret world I shared with her, a world of sewing carefully selected sequins and beads onto wildly colored ribbons for dupattas, of singing ads for Pari: Basmati Rice along with the TV between weekend Hindi serials, of stealing unfried samosas off the tray to eat before a party – all these little occurrences that made up the little enclave of India nestled in our house in Los Angeles – have exploded into a whole world that surrounds me and draws out a certain version of me that feels full and natural and complete. I know how hard it was to lose that once, and now that the contrast is so much more pronounced, I am even more terrified to lose it again.

It was probably, in part, that subconsciously perceived lack that beckoned me here in the first place. And it may be this feeling of complete fulfillment and wholeness that will keep me coming back again and again. I hope so.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

happy birthday crystal!

One of my dearest friends in the world, Crystal Rivette, celebrated an important birthday this March! Though I was sad that I was too far away to celebrate with her in person, I decided it would be fun to celebrate her birthday throughout India, during my travels this month:

In Alleppey, Kerala, riding through the backwaters on a houseboat

At Cafe Jew Town in Cochin (Kerala), the home of the surprisingly best chocolate truffle I have ever consumed.

A wild one-horned rhino at Kazi Ranga National Park (in Assam) hangs out in the grass.

Bhaduri the baby elephant is unimpressed by my lack of bananas. (at Kazi Ranga National Park)

I didn't get to celebrate Holi in India this year, but this awesome pink goat certainly celebrated enough for both of us!

at the Happy Valley Tea Estate in Darjeeling - surrounded by amazing Darjeeling Tea plants!

On the border of Sikkim and West Bengal. The gazebo was so beautiful, and the bridge behind it, connecting the two states, was the scariest one I've crossed in India yet. There were actually holes in it!

drinking a cup of 'Super Fine Tippy Golden Flower Orange Pekoe One', which is the name of the best quality first-flush Darjeeling tea. You only have to brew it for five seconds!

Buddhist prayer wheels at the Tibetan Refugee Center in Darjeeling (which America actually funded in the 1940s)

Hanging out of the train at Trivandrum Station in southern India (I tried to get a picture of me holding the sign while the train was moving, but you can imagine how hard that was...)

Jal Mahal, a palace in the middle of a lake. It's my favorite place in Jaipur, and one of my favorite places in the world.

at Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India. The point is to the right, and the statue of the famous poet Thiruvalluvar that distinguishes Kanyakumari is on the left. The wind was so intense I had to hold my kurti between my legs!

on the train from Guwahati (Assam) to New Jaipalguri (West Bengal). I made a new friend, clearly.

in a cycle rickshaw in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi. A fabulous way to travel!

an Asiatic Black Bear at the Darjeeling Zoo! There was only a small moat separating people from the bear... he probably could have just jumped over and ripped my face off if it wanted to. He seemed in good spirits, though.

traditional Buddhist prayer flags in Pelling, West Sikkim. They were all over the city, and were beautiful as they waved in the wind.

at a factory where traditional Jaipur blue pottery has been hand crafted for four generations. If it wasn't breakable, I would have stuffed my suitcase with it!

an awesome herd of buffalo out for a stroll in Jaipur, by the Amber Fort.

the omelet guy on our street - his omelets are delicious! (and his tablecloth may be a bollywood poster...!)

at the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing in Jaipur - I block printed this letter, too! Behind me is Amber Fort, one of the most famous and beautiful forts in Rajasthan, and perhaps in India.

the fruit-wallah on our corner in Lajpat Nagar (the vegetable-wallahs were offended I didn't take a picture with them: "what? our vegetables don't look good to you??")

A big thanks to Brian, Devin, Aditya, Robin and Sana for taking these pictures of me and being part of the fun!

Happy Birthday Crystal! Hope you have an absolutely magical year!

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

roshna.

One of the things I’ve been enjoying so much about my time in India is having the opportunity to meet and work with such a large variety of incredible musicians. Many of my meetings have been the result of careful planning and coordination, but some of my most exciting meetings have happened purely by chance.

Perhaps one of my happiest chance meetings was with Roshna Sawaden. Roshna is the youngest musician I’ve gotten to know so far – she is thirteen years old, and lives in Darap, a small town outside of Pelling in West Sikkim, a north-eastern state that borders Nepal, in the Himalayas. A slight girl with Dorothy-style french-braided hair, she is shy and quiet until she steps onto the stage.

The director of the cottages where we stayed in Sikkim invited Roshna and a few other girls from the town to sing and dance for us one evening. Of course, all the girls were so sweet, watching each other self-consciously as they danced, trying not to stick out or mess up. But Roshna was a clear standout – she was at once gracious and confident – her dancing grooved, her singing voice was warm and mellifluous, and the energy and charisma she brought to her performances were infectious. She immediately stood out to me as a profound talent, someone who had developed an individual style and means of expression at an age where most young performers are simply trying to figure out the basic mechanics of their medium.

I met with Roshna and her family the next day, before she headed off to school with her brother. Though she spoke mostly Nepali and was very shy (most likely because we didn’t share fluency in the same language), she could still understand my awkward Hindi, and we managed to communicate with each other.

She told me that she has been singing and dancing for eight years, and that she is self-taught. There is no vocal or dance teacher in Darap (the town has a population of about 600 people) — she learns song and dance numbers from Nepali films by herself and with her friends. In what is a happy coincidence, her father, Santosh Sawaden runs a small media lab in town called Tashbir Digital Studio, where he does everything from lamination to making short films. He has made a number of videos (a few of which I’m posting below) that feature her.

I asked Roshna what her aspirations were, and she said that she wanted to continue singing and dancing, and perhaps one day be in films herself. While I’m sure this is the dream of many thirteen year old girls in India, Roshna has already made substantial progress towards her goal. She was the runner-up on the last season of Sikkim Idol (based on the American Idol model), and she is a local celebrity in her town and the surrounding ones. On our way from Sikkim to Darjeeling, even our driver’s eyes lit up when I mentioned her name. “Oh, Roshna — of course! Everyone knows Roshna. She is really something.”

As her father was showing me videos he had cut of her from the last few years, I asked him what his hopes were for her. He voiced his full support for Roshna and her dreams – acting, dancing, singing – whatever she wanted to do, he would be behind her. Her whole family is warm and loving, and it seems that she’s well supported in her development as a young performer.

I wished that I had been in town for longer (I met with her just a few hours before we left Sikkim), and gotten a chance to know her better, and perhaps even spent some time singing and dancing with her. Her unbridled energy on the stage inspired me, and I have no doubt that, as her name suggests, Roshna is on her way to a very bright future.

I was hoping to be able to show you a video of only Roshna singing, but her father didn’t have anything that wasn’t already highly produced. Though the aesthetic of these videos might be a little overwhelming to the western sensibility (they are much more suited to the Indian one), I wanted to at least give you an idea of her ability.

This is the latest video her father cut – there is very little video of her, but her singing is present throughout, and when she comes on screen, she has a wonderful presence:

This is an older video of Roshna – though it doesn’t quite capture her essence and energy, you can see more of her (and the beautiful area around her home):

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments