New Years Day marked the halfway point in my grant. I can’t believe this wonderful experience is more than halfway over. If anything, I feel that I only just know enough now to understand how much more I need to know.
I’ve found it difficult to write about Hindustani music because I am acutely aware of how little I know. But this is a journey, and I’m hoping that over the next few months I can at least recount a bit about my experiences delving into this incredible world of Hindustani music.
When I practice singing, it’s usually in late at night. In the mornings there are too many distractions: subziwallahs yelling, our maid Anita knocking unabashedly and yelling through my bedroom door, calls from the US at one of the few short time windows that work for both New York and Delhi, the doorbell constantly ringing for one reason or another, and the general bustle of people starting their day. But at night, aside from the occasional sounds of stray dogs barking or the guard blowing his whistle and beating his stick as he strolls down the street, all is quiet.
In the olden days, you would strum the strings of a tanpura and accompany yourself as you sang. Today we have a small electronic box with a speaker that does the same thing.
It’s funny, the Pavlovian effect the sound of that little box has on me. Sometimes I get home late, I’m tired, and the last thing I can imagine is being able to focus my mind enough to practice. But the minute I press the power switch on that box, and the characteristic, resonant, buzzy drone fills the room, I can’t help but join in.
It’s as if all the music is already in the air, the way all colors are in white light, and I just have to tease out the relevant notes and give them voice.
I start with long sustained notes on Sa and Pa (Do and Sol) in various registers, staring from very low and working my way up, slowly letting other notes fill in as they will. Eventually my voice falls into some of the familiar phrases of a certain raag. Once it has settled in, I work first on the aroh/avaroh (the ascent and descent), listening closely for intonation, but also for nuance and implication, to whatever degree my ear is capable. Then I move into a pre-composed piece I’ve learned from my teacher, and finally to a series of virtuosic fast passages, called taans, connecting them into the beginning of the piece.
Each item flows organically out of the next. I repeat the phrases many times, mostly with my eyes closed, listening to the sound of my voice, first for clarity and correctness, and then for spontaneity and character. The preliminary goal is mastery, which can be somewhat of a rigid task. The next goal is to imbibe the material so completely that it becomes natural and innate. And the final goal is to build flexibility – to be able to play within the raag, to know its character so well that improvisation is not only possible, but inevitable.
The drone is a pillar of support. However complex the structure, however subtle the ornamentation, however dissonant the interval, the drone is always there, both as the cause of tension and as the roadmap to its release.
Even when I’m not singing, though, the drone keeps the music alive and buoyant. It’s like a permanently sustained resonance that draws me in and focuses my practice. It is the perfect canvas on which anything which is drawn will look beautiful. Even when I’m trying to figure out how to do something difficult, when I have to sing the same passage fifty times to get it right, when I have to stop and start over and over again, the sound of the drone somehow keeps the beauty and spirit of the music at the front of my mind.