ONE day I sat reflecting on the idea of the approaching new millennium... I thought of the different ideas I had heard of. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama always emphasizes the well being of all. Although his responsibility for his people, as a Buddhist leader, does play a role, he has strong concern for, and commitment towards, creating an atmosphere of well being, in all its aspects... physically, environmentally and spiritually. Therefore, it was thought that music is the best vehicle to carry his message of peace, harmony and understanding. Later on, when I got the first opportunity to talk to His Holiness, I mentioned this idea to him and without hesitation, he told me to go ahead. As we met more and more people and told them of the idea, we got overwhelming response... everywhere, everytime, everybody was enthusiastic and encouraging.
In order to give shape to our idea we thought of five major festivals, one in each continent. But after some time, as word went around, it became clear that the idea had developed a momentum of its own and was invoking an enthusiastic response from many places. It was felt that what was needed was to organise many festivals at local and regional levels. And so, that is what we did. So far five festivals have taken place and many more are likely to follow the Bangalore event.
As with any major project, this project too called for a lot of effort. It has been easy and difficult and I am indeed happy that it is happening. The festival at Bangalore is a global event. An event where many countries and their music come together. Bangalore, the garden city, has a history of cultural tolerance and a good composition of people from different parts of the country.
I also thought about what would happen after the festival was over. People would have been exposed just briefly to this rich feast of sacred music that arises from very deep rooted and ancient traditions. It was with a view to giving access to different aspects of these traditions that the idea of a Commemorative Volume was conceived of.
When the idea of the Commemorative Volume came into being, the first question was, “Who will be the editor?” I could not think of anybody else but Sudhamahi Regunathan and over the very first phone call, she agreed. Among the various aspects of work involved in organizing a festival of such scale, the publication has been the smoothest.
The physical festival leaves an imprint in the mind of the people and gives a message which cannot be conveyed through words and letters. When all is over, this Commemorative Volume will keep the message alive. It will also help in transmitting the message to those who have not been physically present at these festivals. I hope this will not be like many other occasions which will be forgotten. I hope instead, that it will contribute in making human society more harmonious.
I grew up with a story: yak or the Goddess of speech emerged from Brahma’s forehead as Athena did from Zeus. Brahma was charmed by his own creation. “Lust for your own creation,” his sons jeered at him. So Brahma sprouted heads on all four sides, and even one looking above. He then saw Vak or Saraswati, the Goddess of learning, wherever he looked.
Now, wherever I look, whatever I see, I seem to hear ‘The trembling notes ascend the sky. And heavenly joys inspire’! When the cuckoo calls early in the morning, marking the beginning of Delhi’s hot summer. Or when the train hoots (we live near a railway station), I feel the engine is testing the tone.., a concert is getting ready to begin. When the kettle gurgles with the morning cup of tea, I say as Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan (Journey to Ixtlan) says that it is just reaffirming the music in the air. When the dry autumn leaves rustle under my feet, I know they are playing with me. And when my friend walks in, I hear the rhythm in her stilettos.
In the haiku of Basho, I hear it all over again:
What is your
your unsung song?
There is a Yogic exercise practiced by the jams wherein you have to meditate and autosuggest to visualize yourself as becoming larger and yet larger to span the entire universe. The whole universe is now within you, the preceptor tells you... all the world’s energy is within you... somehow, I feel, this is what volume is trying to do.
Rising with Pythagoras to hear the ‘Music of the Spheres’ and more ambitiously trying to snatch harmonious tunes and melodies from the milky way in Plato’s memory, a spider in the shape of the resonant Aum sits at the centre, trying to gather the entire universe in its vibration. The vibrations are sustained and the chants choose different wavelengths. Many voices, different tunes, different wavelengths, different rhythms. No one is trying to be in tune with another and... yet above them all rises a sense of harmony... sacred music? What is sacred? The hallowed precincts of a place of worship? The undying faith of the flowers that bloom every morning? The cascading depths of the Grand Canyon? The energy giving sun? The awe in wonder? The stillness in awe?
In awe there is reverence. In reverence there is gratitude. The Sanskrit word for gratitude is krtagya, that is, ‘the one who knows of the services done’. It is derived from the root kruta. Kruta also means to create, to do. The very act of creation, Kriya (similar to crear, the Latin root for ‘to create’) is thus located within gratitude. So it is that prayers are born. Greater powers are thanked and revered. Gratitude itself shares its root with the word grace which in Latin is gratus. Where there is grace, will there not be Grace?
In India, we often and easily use the word sacred in association with music. In fact even love songs, sometimes very explicit ones are completely infused with spiritual meaning and symbolism, so much so that they find themselves classified as prime examples of sacred music. The mind cannot but hark back to Plato’s words of caution. The songs to Venus are ‘lascivious songs and songs with voluptuous softness’; having both a heavenly and earthly manifestation of passion. The earthly manifestation, can be harmful, he says. All Bhakti poets reiterate their love for the Ultimate, the Brahman, not to be confused with lust. Jayadeva, a 12th century Sanskrit poet wrote:
Friend! Make Krishna, the benevolent destroyer of Kasi (demon) sport with me.
Who am tormented with imagining the fulfillment of Love!
At the first encounter I am shy and he coaxes and flatters me I speak ...a soft sweet smile and he removes my silken robes...
His poetry is celebrated throughout the country and has inspired other forms of art, (also in piety) like painting and even dance. In the temples of Orissa, his songs resonate in the sanctum sanctorum. Jayadeva is an example. Most poets of the Bhakti movement (which swept the Indian sub-continent between the 800 to 1600 century A.D.), were his precursors. In close association with it was the Sufi movement. There were many who trod the path of Rumi in India.
Plato describes this process as one of ‘waking up’ which can be triggered by an experience such as falling in love, where one truly catches glimpses of the divine.
Like the lover, the artist in his creative ‘madness’ can glimpse higher worlds, but he has the power to communicate something of this to others. Artistic reflection in the sense can be the catalyst which, reflecting the beauty of heaven can spark off ‘divine discontentment’ of the soul and cause its wings to grow.
The journey towards identifying sacred music then lies not in intellectual reasoning but in aural appreciation. In the words of Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine philosopher (1433-1499):
But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performance of the inspired Madman.
These are not excerpts from the Museum of Ideas. In India, in the Rann of Kutch, there is a tiny hamlet called Vrajvani. Here in the dry vast desert land, that which catches your eye is the Drummer’s Hillock or Dholithar no Dhoro. A hundred and twenty stones piled one on top of another stand as a memorial, braving the ravages of weather and the amnesia of history for they still resound with sounds and images of a celestial drummer.
Many years ago, the story goes, on the third day in the month of Baisakhi5, a young and handsome drummer stood in the centre of the village and began playing his mesmerising drum. The day’s chores being over, the Ahir women of the area, were just about to savour the sunset when the rhythm of the drums caught their imagination and within minutes they were all there, one hundred and twenty of them dancing to the beat of the drum. They danced and danced.., and they did dance all night. They knew not fatigue, they in fact knew not anything but the rhythm of the drum and the drummer too was totally engrossed in the play of his fingers across the stretched leather of his drum.
The local priest felt a little challenged. Could he be Krishna Himself who had come to charm all these women? Or was he an impostor? The latter seemed more likely to the human mind defined to easily succumb to deception. And the priest instigated one of the men of the village who had watched helplessly as their women gyrated all night, to kill the drummer. The naive man did.
The women could not bear this injustice. All of them gave up their lives at that spot where the hillock stands today. Even today, this story is told and the hillock treated with reverence. The whole area resounds with the divine drummer’s rhythm.
That which comes from beyond the world of logic and method; that which needs them not for transmission:
One day he, Fakhr-al-Din Razi of Heart, d. 600/1203, famous Ash’arite and theologian, went to a Sufi master and expressed interest in following the Tariqat. The master agreed to initiate him on the condition that he would grant his unquestioning obedience as a disciple. Razi agreed.
“Are you willing to give up your wealth?” asked the Master. Razi, a man of considerable wealth said he was. “Are you willing to give up your fame?” asked the Master. Razi of world fame, said he was.
“Are you willing to give up your knowledge,” asked the Master. “Of course not,” replied Razi quickly. “Then you are unsuitable to become a Sufi,” said the Master.
It was the strains from Orpheus’ lyre, not words that moved rocks and trees. It is the vibration of the sound of chants and mantras that are said to have an effect on the psychic ‘chakras’ of the body in Indian parlance. It is the resonance of the bell that is imitated in the sound of the bija mantra Om or Aum that is the manifestation of the divine. The mantras are part of classical music too, except that their scale contains a maximum of three notes. It is in order to differentiate between mantra and classical music that the rule that a raga must have at least five notes has been ordained. This rule makes it possible for the raga to possess a little more room to exist than the mantra, and make it possible for the raga to travel more widely before it arrives at the same destination as the mantra does. The mantra goes straight to the point, to the spiritual centre of the human being. The raga goes through the mind and the psychic region of the listener and reaches the same place as the mantra, in a longer time. Such associations prompted saint poet Thyagaraja of South India to sing:
O! Mind! Is there a righteous oath superior to music and devotion? Thyagaraja knows what is right and wrong. That the material world is illusory, and also how the six evils like lust, anger, greed, illusion, arrogance and envy should be conquered And that there is no other path superior to music yoked to devotion.
Bija mantras or tantric mantras are the typical ‘fast food’ type of vehicles to the divine, and therefore it is that their pronunciation or the sound they are meant to produce is of utmost importance. According to the followers of Zarathushtra:
The ego, Urwan is supposed to be bound by false attachments, attractive charm, ignorance, illusions and evil influences of sensual cravings. The object of descending into matter is to gain experience and wisdom, acquire perfect peace, compassion and efficacy, so that the soul may ultimately be released from these bonds. Rawan-Bokhtagi, soul’s release is the ultimate aim of life. The lower world is known as the house of illusion (Drujo-Deman); and the heavenly home from whence the soul descended is called the house of celestial music (Garo-Deman). The lost paradise has to be regained.
It is the vibrations of sound that led Pythagoras to uncover the basic music from the monochord, by means of which he fixed the ratios of his perfect musical consonance’s, namely, the octave, the fifth and the fourth intervals. Pythagoras who saw mathematics in the orbits influenced greatly the future. Plato took up where he left off and through music he felt the whole life of a nation could be refined. Here it is interesting to tell the ancient story of the artist Theon. Theon was about to make a public exhibition of a masterpiece of his. His painting showed a young warrior all set attack the enemy who had invaded his country. In order to arouse the feelings of war and its, associated emotions in his audience, Theon requested a trumpeter to take the stage. When the trumpeter blew a war-like melody generally used to stimulate soldiers to attack, his audience were all charged. In a flash he unveiled the painting and you can imagine the applause he got!
May I lead you to the ruins of the temple of Apollo. Lend your ear to the festive assemble reverberating with Apollo’s song along with the Muses and the three Sirens. Pause to hear this excerpt from the Book of Samuel, chapter 16,
and it came to pass when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp and played with his hand: So Saul was refreshed and all was well and the evil spirit departed from him.
Listen to the lyre playing the Orphic melody... To the flute that Lord Krishna played, the melodies of which reached the remotest corner of the world...to the conch blowing into the air... to the bell resonating long after the act... to the drum which vibrates to touch..., to the stone chimes from China that steal the heart...and then read on.
Defying categorization in terms of religions or regions, the articles chose to arrange themselves on the basis of their notes: as the sthayi bhavas and the chitta swaras. Sthayi bhava in Indian Carnatic music denotes the dominant tone, the mood that resounds. The chitta swaras are like little elves and fairies that hover around the main motif, working to enhance it, but never straying out of the boundaries located by the sthayi bhava.
In more ways than one, I have been a spectator to the manner in which this volume has gathered itself. Said Sima Sharma, who has helped me enormously to be a confident and believing spectator, that when things happen in a measure greater than visualized, it means God is walking with you. It was a heartwarming idea. I paused to hear His footsteps... and my gratitude is overpowering.
The excerpt from Hazrat Innayat Khan’s book, The Sufi Message explores the meaning of sound. And the Sufi expression of it. I found the part on the sound Hit as the primal sound, fascinating. Later I was to encounter the same idea in the article on Sama Veda where the idea of ho is mentioned as the fundamental note, which some singers would continuously sing, so as to make the main singers aware of their keynote.
The Bauls are living examples of the ideas of mysticism spanning religious boundaries. Though their words are addressed to the divine, their spirituality lies in everything about them, not the lyrics alone.
One of the most striking things about them is the instrument they strum. Called ektara, it is a one-string tanpura whose sound bowl is made of gourd and is attached to a bamboo stem. It gives a tonic drone and is associated with mendicants seeking alms and carries overtones of sacrifice and helplessness.
There is an ektara in our voices—an ektara which conveys our emotion adding thus a different and significant dimension to the words... Narayana Menon explores the universality of the language of music, and in doing so, brings many cultures together as but strains of the same idea. Who else can one chose but Kabir to elucidate this idea? Kabir wrote in language that some say is not even rich in texture, or poetic technique. Yet his verses are on the lips of everybody, in the North of India.
Music as the path of communication between the divine and the mortal has been most picturesquely described by Pythagoras. Joscelyn Godwin in his article in two parts begins his discussion with the Pythagorean imagery. The Pythagorean theory of the spheres which found great favour in Plato’s idealism claimed that music emanated from a more ideal source than the common-place sounds in nature, probably from the movement of the stars.
At the very dawn of Greek literature we meet with certain inhabitants of this third and highest world who are intimately linked with our subject: the Muses, “whose hearts are set on song, having a soul unknowing sorrow: a little space from the topmost peak of snowy Olympos, where are their bright dancing-places and mansions fair.”
The image of God as a supreme geometer, who created the world and sent it on its way, is introduced in this piece where Jocelyn Godwin also explores the different spaces, ...beyond the realms of the Elements and of the Spheres comes a third realm more spiritual than physical in nature, inhabited by gods or angels in a hierarchy which eventually terminates in the One God over all. This third realm is called ‘Olympus’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Paradise’, ‘The Intelligible World’ etc. Exploring the third realm, Godwin talks about poets like Dryden who were nice to read, but hollow in sense... as he supports his argument, some verses from the well-known poem, from Dryden’s Song for St. Cecila’s day, is also presented.
Actually the mood is now set for a debate on the links between religion and music. There is a definite link, say most, but there is more than a link for music connects not just religion but spirituality which lives sometimes with religion, sometimes, even above it. This article is excerpted from Ashok D. Ranade’s book. In an interview with Bismillah Khan, one of India’s greatest musicians, born a Muslim and attached to the famous shrine of Lord Vishwanath in Benaras, M. Varadarajan finds the answer in simple words. Says Bismillah Khan, who has achieved unrivalled expertise in the playing of the shehnai, that “...it (music) is a total offering in itself, complete submission. It is unquestioning, unqualified surrender to the Sacred, the Infinite.” The Infinite, described by Innayat Khan as the unlimiting sound, the Anahad, is also the beginning, the core, the Brahman and the moment of silence... Gopal Sharman gives a vivid experience of silence while Arle Neskahi relates the stilling moment of his mother’s death and the floods of songs that crowded his mind before and after.
Godwin talks of a realm, a third realm, which Radhika Srinivasan looks at it in terms of sacred space. Sound is visualized in terms of a web, a spider’s web with its resonance spanning the entire world. Even the human body, she discovers is but a map of sound pitches.
Therefore it is that we have concepts of healing through music and the picturization of ragas, as talked of by Innayat Khan. Sound waves travel and effect changes as Abdul Agonga confirms from the experience of the healers of Northern Kenya.
The concord now stretches across seas and oceans, across lands and nations to bring in the ritual chanting from Tibet, a visual representation of the deities associated with music in Buddhism, and then to the land where music and yin are inseparable. Tan Chung gives a straight-from-the-heart account of the idea of sound in China.
While the clanging of cymbals and the sounding of gongs raises the crescendo, M. Varadarajan discusses in detail, the Veda on music, Sama Veda. Can there be a more complete treatise on music he asks as he explains the character as delineated in the text: of each swara, its colour, its sound, its resonance, its use, both in terms of ritual requirements and physical well-being. The complete analysis of the Sama Veda helps to acquire a fresh historical perspective on the evolution of music. This piece also tells the charming story of how Ravana the demon king, won his release from the wrath of Lord Shiva by playing Samagana. So beautifully did he play that the God, who hated his ego and his arrogance, felt all that was secondary to his talent.
One lady, in India, who makes everything else seem inconsequential in the sound of her voice, is M.S. Subbulakshmi. Indira Menon tells her story.
Was this all a dream? Will this dream too die at the opening day? Mark Balfour comes with a promise that it would not. There are those who touch dreamtime anytime... and he brings an account of the Wandjina people of Australia.
Dreams do not die. They live long after, like:
Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in memory— (Shelley)
When Lama Doboom Tulku, Director, Tibet House, gave me this opportunity, I did not know it was one of hearing, not writing. I learnt to hear, to hear and perceive the soundless and the invisible. I remembered a saying of the Jam seer, Acharya Mahapragya:
To imagine that a small seed will grow into a huge Banyan tree is not easy. If this experience had not been proved, we would not have so much faith in the strength that lies within the seed. The sprouting of the seed is eloquent of its magnitude and so there is no scope for doubt.
In this exercise, I found myself meeting with people, all of whom did not need proof of the seed’s ability. They watered it, gave it nutrition and the breath of fresh air, almost as if by design. They had the faith. The readiness with which the contributors, each of them well known in their field, wrote for the volume or gave permission to use their piece, is an experience I cannot describe. Joscelyn Godwin and Dr. Kathleen Raine (editor, Temenos) reacted most spontaneously though I have never met them. Mark Balfour wrote in a very short time and again he is someone I have never met. In my mind the interaction means more than just the fleeting phone conversation that we had. M. Varadarajan, who is extremely busy with his office, spent many a days just for this volume. That Radhika Srinivasan should have sent us this chapter from her book, was nothing else but a divine coincidence. In fact the experience of watching this collection happen could well make for an entirely new book!
A small glossary has been added which is only for the oft used terms in Indian music. Where the text explains the meanings of the words, they have not been included.
As you can see, this collection of articles is but an attempt... it is not comprehensive by any standards... It is like a drone, the sur that keeps a musical performance going. Generally all classical Indian music singing is accompanied by the tone held by the tanpura player. Sruti, they call it. A novice is often employed to strum the tanpura constantly to keep a continuous drone. Its drone has no beginning no end, but a circuitous sur that keeps beckoning the listener within.., within the very idea of music.
But tuning the tanpura, they say is the most difficult of all instruments.., there were many who tuned it for me. It would still not be enough if I said that but for Kiran Ganguly much of this work would have been impossible... Kumud Gaba with her ever ready smile was another support as was Ashok Arora, Tsering Wangyal and Suraj. Even Gun, with his regular supply of hot drinking water brought the beauty of the silent dance of the vapours.
This is a humble effort. I seek your tolerance and pardon for any oversights, any more gross errors. Many strands of music have not been included by name.., but I do feel the underlying sruti or sur holds them all, as a mother would, her toddler.
Language & Literature (443)
Sacred Sites (101)
Tantric Buddhism (87)
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