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.