I’m getting ready to go up to Hudson to paint a mural at Sadhana Yoga. I’ve only done a few murals so I’m a little nervous, but excited too. Any large canvas is a freeing experience to create on, and walls are as good as any. Body parts even better!
The theme of the mural is the sacred grafitti found in the holy town of Vrindavan. The divine names of Radha and Krishna are painted there on almost every wall, tree trunk, lamp post and rickshaw hood. For many renunciates that spend their days there, the main service that they perform is to paint and repaint these names with coarse brushes and a small steel tiffin of paint. Sometimes they are painted in English, more often in Sanskrit.
In Hudson, I’ve been asked to paint them in Sanskrit, even though most people that see it won’t be able to read it. Sanskrit is written in a script called Devanagari, said to originate in the heavens. For this reason, the lines themselves are considered to be purifying to look at, even if they are nothing but pretty curves to the beholder. A sacred word, like ‘om’ is considered to be the same in quality, whether written, heard, spoken or just seen.
Aside from divine names, I’m also planning to incorporate another touch of Vrindavan – green parrots! These beautiful birds used to be present everywhere there – screeching and twittering on every branch and phone line. I remember a book I used to read as a little girl – ‘But Where Is Green Parrot?’ These days they hide in real life too, but you can still see the telltale flashes of of electric lime in the trees in the less inhabited areas of Vrindavan. In the stories of Radha and Krishna, they often act as messengers, carrying secrets between friends and lovers or acting as confidantes.
Parrots have the wonderful ability to remember language and repeat it, something that is both celebrated and looked down upon in bhakti yoga teachings. Sukadeva (literally, best of the parrots), the reciter of one of the most important bhakti texts, the Srimad Bhagavatam, is praised for his feat of speaking the text for seven days and nights continuously, imparting the wisdom just as he received it from his teachers. But the same teachings also warn us not to become parrot-like and repeat things that we hear without deeply understanding and internalising them.
My friend Jennifer Mazzucco just sent me this beautiful video about Tashi Mannox, an English calligraphy artist. I loved hearing his eloquent thoughts on creating devotional art that doesn’t preach, but just tries to communicate philosophy and ideas that will uplift people. Tashi said that he feels the responsibility of an artist or musician is to uplift everyone they come in contact with.
Jennifer and I are creating a devotional art workshop together that we’ll be presenting for the first time at the Kripalu centre this winter. Our aim is to explore the process of creating devotional art – how getting creative opens us up to a deeper sense of connection with the soul and the Divine, and how this act of creation can teach us so much about the joy of focus and detachment.
In other news, I’m in DC right now spending time in the recording studio with Gaura Vani. We’re working on new music that encompasses both kirtan and Sanskrit mantras, as well as original English lyrics. It’s a fun process, but very new to me also. Music can be so spontaneous and free flowing, and this suits the organic, immediate nature of prayer so well. In crafting something and attempting to capture it, it can be hard to retain the original feeling. Throughout, we must constantly remember that imperfection is inevitable – the creative spark that flares into a small, bright flame is only a tiny speck of divine beauty, and we are fortunate if we can hold it for even a moment.
I am writing without really knowing why. Sometimes writing is motivated by a new understanding, a ‘realisation’. But what realisation do I have? You can realise something, as in understand it, but surely to truly realise something means to ‘bring it into reality’, to live it. So to truly have a realisation means to understand something and then apply it every day.
So what have I realised lately? In small ways, like gathering scraps and snippets and threads, I have begun to understand that the things I thought were important – security, companionship, money – are not as important as they seem. Sometimes it seems like we are all living a great misunderstanding. We need so little, and the smallest things are the greatest treasures. To sing, to love, to dance. To smile as we fall asleep and as we wake. We can choose to do these things, or choose not to.
I have begun to glimpse that life is like a symphony of beauty and pain in equal measures. The music plays on, and each of us must decide how to play. We can choose to play with grace and humility. We can choose to play in such a way as to always push ourselves beyond our perceived limits. We can choose that if we trip up on a few notes, we smile and play on, no problem. We can choose to look up from the safety of our sheet music at the conductor, and feel safety and guidance in the movement of his hands. We can choose to play alone, and sometimes that is how the music is supposed to go. But at other times we are surrounded by a full orchestra, and we can feel the joy of harmony, the thrill of delicious syncopation.
Or if we are feeling insecure, we can watch the hands and faces of our fellow musicians and feel strength in togetherness. We can sing a painful song together. Or we can even fall silent. In times when our voices will not sing and our hands will not play, we can just listen to the music that washes within and without, steady like a timeless tide.
This beautiful lino cut was recently created by one of my old teachers, Nicola Barsaleau, a true inspiration.
I’m flying again tomorrow morning after a month back at home. It’s been a whirlwind of festivities, guests, and all sorts of events. In between everything I managed to sneak in some much needed time for painting. It’s something I always want to do – most of the time I travel with a whole art studio’s worth of materials in my suitcase that do nothing but weight me down. But last week for a sweet four hours I just lost myself in it.
Hanuman's Jungle Song
Singing His Name
Now I’m headed to California for Bhaktifest, a weekend of kirtan in the Joshua Tree desert. If you would like to have a copy of any of these paintings, I got some beautiful cards printed which I’ll have there with me. It was quite exciting to see my artwork being printed for the first time. Check out the company – moo.com, their products are great!
I’ve been playing two ragas in my violin classes lately. Valaji and Garudadhwani. They are both beautiful, distinctive and so nuanced.
I had never heard of Garudadhwani when I started learning the piece composed by my teacher’s guru – Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman. It is a restrictive raga – it has all seven notes on the ascending scale, but only five on the descending. This means that certain patterns are created which make the raga both instantly recognisable, as well as hard to elaborate on for long. It is bright, playful, optimistic and powerful. It also has a fascinating name. I know the meaning of the Sanskrit words ‘Garuda’, the eagle carrier of Lord Vishnu and ‘dhwani’ – ‘sound’, but wasn’t sure what this meant in reference to the raga. I asked my guru why it has this name, and his answer wasn’t abstract at all – ‘It means the sound that the divine eagle, Garuda makes.’ Of course it does!
I love that a raga exists, based on the sound of a divine eagle’s cry. Here’s an example of the raga – what do you hear?
The second, Valaji, is a pentatonic scale – it has five notes on the way up and down. It is languid, confident and I think, bluesy. Aside from anything else, it reminds me so much of the classic blues minor pentatonic scale that my Dad once showed me on my old Casio keyboard. I’d love to hear a Valaji collaboration with a blues clarinet. Here’s an example that goes part of the way. Valaji on electric guitar – they say almost any stringed instrument can be adapted to Carnatic music…
Last night I went to hear Kaviraj Singh play santoor with his brother, Upneet on tabla. It was so wonderful. I’ve never been a big fan of the santoor. Somehow the cross between the plinky-plonky hammered strings and the sometime delicacy of Hindustani music didn’t excite me so much. But this was incredibly beautiful. The faster sections, known as jhalla – sounded like standing under a shower of diamonds – precision cut, refracting light in all directions.
Whenever I attend a concert, I am amazed at how different the experience of listening to music live is to listening to a CD. In my car, I hear the music plain – it may be moving and interesting but there’s a missing layer. In the concert hall, the music rises and shimmers – images and impressions fill the air like mirages. It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to synaesthesia – the condition of the brain that causes colours or other sensations to be triggered by certain sounds. My friend studying bansuri flute in India has synaesthesia, and it’s particularly fascinating for someone studying raga-based music. She can easily identify a raga, as each effortlessly appears as a specific colour in her mind when she hears it. She described how the colour of a word manifests as a mix of the colours of its individual syllables. Usually I keep a book handy to record the images that arise. Last night while Kaviraj played Raag Gorakh Kalyan – a poem appeared.
Dancing grass shudders wildly with every gust;
and starlings swoop across the sky.
Trees laugh, shaking their arms.
A smile spreads across the earth,
all spinning and alive.
Flowers must burst
at the sound of this music.
Spring weaves a lattice –
ribbons of light,
yellow, white and gold,
and a stretch of blue
that never ends.
I just happened upon this great episode of BBC Radio 3’s World Routes, focusing on Carnatic music, and more specifically, the journey of Hari Sivanesan – a young veena player (and also a friend I haven’t seen in a very long time – hi Hari!) who has been awarded a year’s mentorship with the incredible singer, Aruna Sairam. He talks about his musical journey so far, plays recordings from the BBC archives, gives a great introduction to Carnatic music for beginners and plays a beautiful piece live in studio. Stay tuned as the programme will continue to feature him throughout the year. For more information, see the BBC World Routes blog here. Congratulations Hari!