Spring bursts in like a popped balloon.
Crocus, snowdrop, daffodil,
straining upwards through muddy earth.
Monthly Archives: February 2009
Spring bursts in like a popped balloon.
I’ve been building up to last weekend’s performances for a long time so it’s a bit of a release now that they’re over. Saturday was a violin concert and Sunday a dance performance as part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the ISTD South Asian Dance Faculty. The dance show was particularly exciting, as it was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a prestigious venue on the South Bank. Both were celebrations of the successful continuation of ancient art forms.
As we waited to do another run through before the show on Sunday, I spoke to my singing teacher about the lesser popularity of Carnatic music, compared to North Indian Hindustani music. When most people think of Indian music, they think of sitars, or Ravi Shankar, or the santoor – almost inevitably something North Indian. South Indian music is very different and also has a markedly lower level of publicity and practice outside the South Indian diaspora. My teacher said he thought it was because people find it harder to understand – it is more of a strictly defined form with much greater rhythmic complexity also, and often takes a little bit of persverance to appreciate. He also added that unlike the small charismatic few who have spread the popularity of Hindustani music, Carnatic music has never really had any stand out ‘stars’ who are both musically outstanding, as well as skilled communicators. Both must be there for real success.
Backstage some of the dancers in our company had other opinions. ‘It’s too loud’, they said. ‘Everyone plays at once – all the instruments together – it’s too much.’ In some ways I know what they mean. Whereas I can appreciate the enjoyable challenge of something being musically complex, I think that it’s really important to distinguish it from being aurally cluttered.
Perhaps one of the problems is over reliance on amplification. Take an instrument like the veena. It is one of the oldest known intruments still being played. It is also quite quiet when played with no microphone. Whereas once it might’ve been played in a temple amidst a small crowd, accompanied by a single percussionist, now modern technology allows it to be played as part of an orchestra. The same goes for other instruments like the bamboo flute. In the concert on Saturday all were played together for the finale – something that couldn’t have been possible without amplification. I think it’s fine, as long as the sound is balanced, but sometimes I think something is really lost with the adding of too many elements. There’s a real value and beauty in simplicity that is overlooked sometimes in the quest for greater and greater musical effect.
In light of my current project on kirtan, I think it’s really relevant. I find the increasing trend is to amplify everything, whether it needs it or not. A small kirtan of eight people now necessitates the singer and harmonium being miked – sometimes even the mrdanga too. Of course when the instruments are miked, the voice has to be turned up louder to be heard. Then because the voice can be turned up, more drums can be added. Then the voice and instruments are turned up more to be heard above the drums. Soon it all gets a bit ridiculous – people start thinking they can’t even have a kirtan without a microphone and the kirtans just become noisy – both literally as well as aesthetically.
Perhaps there something to be said for the enduring quality of things that are essentially simple. Relying on technology too heavily always becomes risky eventually. Anyway, for now I’m grateful to be taking part in the practice of these spiritual art forms – mikes and all.
Unceasing calling upon the name of God cures one not only of passions, but also of actions; and as a medicine affects a sick man without his comprehension, similarly the invocation of the name of God destroys passions in a manner beyond our comprehension.
I came across this beautiful quote in my research for my kirtan project. I am always so heartened to read teachings and prayers from other faiths that harmonise with my own. People who sincerely seek self-realisation through these core practices of living simply and reciting God’s names, seem to come to similar conclusions, even if there are differences in practice. I hope I’m always open to learning from a variety of sources. I just pray to be as discerning as I am open.
I had a really nice morning of chanting today. I’ve been struggling lately, but today I woke up accidentally earlier than usual, and chanted with more sincerity than I have for the past few months (not a great claim, but it’s a start.) I pray to unceasingly take advantage of this precious medicine.
I’m in the process of creating a radio programme about kirtan at the moment, for a final year university project. It’s aimed at people who know little, or nothing about kirtan, and will include interviews with a wide range of people whose lives are affected by it. Yesterday I went for a tutorial with my project supervisor who picked my latest draft to pieces, exclaiming at the cliches and unnecessary sentimentality. It was liberating! It’s so wonderful to be edited by an unbiased ear. She advised me to be very aware of the fact that I’m a ‘believer’ and not to fall into the trap of telling the audience that they should be inspired, rather than simply showing them, and allowing them to decide. Another valuable point was that when writing about inspiring, transforming experiences, it’s easy to fall into the ‘Chicken Soup trap’. The Chicken Soup for the Soul books are a hugely successful American series of heart warming true stories and poetry that almost drip off the page with syrupy sentiment. Needless to say, that’s not the route I want to go down.
‘You’re not American, you’re English!’ she exclaimed. ‘You don’t need to write like this. If you put this kind of cliched writing on British radio, your audience will just laugh.’
So, it’s a work in progress. I’m just beginning to learn how to do the actual sound editing – another totally new venture. If all goes to plan, I’ll be able to broadcast it here once I’ve finished.
What a day. I’m so used to waking up in the countryside -well, pretty much the country. Surrounded by fields, my town is just far enough outside of London to be peaceful in the morning. Today I woke up in Southall, West London – otherwise known as Punjabi central. I wrote about it in another post a while ago, when I got lost whilst driving. This time I was there on purpose, attending the pre-wedding mehndi night of a friend. Tulasi and I had prepared a dance to perform and also sang a traditional Punjabi song with the bride-to-be’s sister. It was lots of fun and of course, as usual, people were pleasantly surprised to see how much we are comfortable with Indian culture, especially the older generation. Perhaps, as immigrants to a country that viewed them with reserved disdain, two white girls dancing and singing in their mother tongue was something they thought they’d never see. Sometimes I feel silly at the way it attracts attention, but in another way, I like the unexpected enthusiasm it sometimes brings out in people to go and see what those ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishnas’ are all about (even though Bollywood dancing is not it). One lady came up to us and after praising our performance, emphatically said she would see us at the temple on Sunday. Another, the hired ‘party auntie’ whose job it is to know all of the traditional songs and customs, enthusiastically told us she could get us more bookings at all the events she attends. ‘You’d be more popular than me! Just do your special dance!’ she exclaimed, waving her hands with a flourish, her hair sprayed bouffant wobbling under her sparkly veil. We politely declined.
So, back to today. I thought it would be sensible to stay in Southall for the night, as my work placement the next day was very close by. I left the house as the sun rose over the terraced roofs, tightly packed into the narrow one way streets. Despite the sunshine the air was freezing. We are still in the grip of our bizarre winterlude. Along the main high street, countless men loitered, wearing work boots and staring into the distance, or huddled in small packs with friends. My friend told me they are all immigrants, usually living in extremely austere conditions. Every morning they wake up and go to one of the nearby gurdwaras, which serve free food to anyone who comes to their door, then wait on the street to be picked up for a day of labour on a building site. Work may come or not, but they wait in the cold regardless.
Surviving in the city seems an austerity, no matter what you’re trying to do. My entire day was spent travelling from one place to another – bus, train, car and walking. The actual work I was doing only accounted for about 10% of my day. The rest was spent in transit, squeezing into carriages, running to catch buses, waiting on cold platforms as the delay announcements marked the passing minutes. I felt like I was trying to run through a pool of congealed porridge. Everything took so long, so much effort for such a futile purpose. I remain baffled as to how people can commute long distances daily in this way. After a day spent in London, I always feel like running for the hills.
After finally getting back to Southall to pick up my car at the end of the day, I was almost at breaking point. I still had a two hour drive home through the rush hour traffic. An hour later, as night fell with the snow, someone beeped at me. I burst into tears. I don’t think I’ll ever be a city girl.
Today is the appearance day of Narottama das Thakur. Last year at this time I was lucky enough to be in Vrindavan, and go for my second visit to the Radha Vrajmohan temple, where his deities are still being worshipped. It is a beautiful place, set deep within a series of turning alleys. The chaotic buzz of the bazaars fades into the distance, and the air is peaceful. The first time I went, we set off confidently from the other side of Vrindavan, only to find ourselves going round and round in circles, getting more and more frustrated with our rickshaw wallah, who had insisted (of course) that he knew where to go. This time we still got a little lost, but the alleys and brightly painted doors were more familiar, and eventually, we pulled up in front of the small entrance to the temple.
Inside, the pujari was cleaning the altar, but stopped when he saw us come in. ‘Ah!’, he said. ‘You came here before! Some time ago, yes?’ I was surprised at his memory, but nodded, assuming he said the same to any guest who looked vaguely familiar. He paused, looking thoughtful. ‘It was, during Kartik – on the disappearance day of Narottam Das Thakur, no?’ I was amazed that he remembered. Then again, I suppose redheads aren’t so numerous in rural Uttar Pradesh.
He ushered us up to the altar to see the deities. They are beautiful in a very simple way – not finely carved or expertly decorated, but they exude a sweetness and love that is often rare to come across.
Part of their beauty comes from knowing that they were worshipped with incomparable care by Narottama Das Thakur, who inspires me so much. He was the epitome of a pure devotee of Krishna, using his ability to glorify him through words and music in a way that has benefited all who encounter his poetry and songs. He played six instruments, and developed rigorous classical methods of playing them, as a way of ornamenting the chanting of the Lord’s names. I find his writings an endless source of inspiration, but don’t read them nearly often enough. This morning, my Dad and I took a few minutes out of the day to sing ‘Sri Krsna Caitanya Prabhu’ together. It’s one of my favourites, and it was wonderful to read the translation after singing it, as it is a truly heartfelt and exemplary prayer. As Srila Prabhupada is often quoted saying: ‘The prayers of Narottama dasa Thakura – this sound is above the material platform. It is directly from the spiritual platform. And there is no need of understanding the language. It is just like a thunderburst. Everyone can hear the sound of thunder-there is no misunderstanding. Similarly, these songs are above the material platform, and they crack like thunder within your heart.’
We’ve had an unprecedented amount of winter weather in the past few days. It’s almost as if all those empty weather warnings of the past decade have finally been fulfilled – all at once. This morning it was still snowing but as the day went on, the air warmed a little and it began to rain. Now the streets are overflowing with soupy, icy slush – the melted remains of the treacherous black ice that coats the pavements. Walking back and forth to the train station and on japa walks, I’ve been perfecting my cautionary waddle, with some attempt to do it with grace! Now I know why penguins move the way they do – it reduces the risk of slipping a great deal.
You can see my snow pictures on flickr by clicking here. Here’s some of the best ones.