Seen Through the Eyes of a Classical Musician
Perfection is like a horizon, the closer you go towards it, the further it moves away. Then why do human beings have this obsessive passion to reach perfection?
In any field to attain perfection is not easy. In Hindu philosophy, we say a perfect person is one who has attained >mukti or enlightenment. Adi Shankara in the Viveka Choodamani says that we need to be born a million times or more to reach that state! A state where you go beyond time and space. Then why do we pursue this almost impossible-to-achieve search? You could put it to the undying spirit of Man.
In a mundane world, seeking perfection is slightly different, more reachable maybe?
In Indian Classical music it is all about hitting that perfect swara. Of course it has other angas too, like raga, tala, laya, sahitya, presentation skills, stage personality and many more. But being in perfect sur is what music is all about. The Shehnai Maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan says, to him sur is namaz and namaz is sur. Meaning when you hit that perfect swara, it is almost like you have reached and touched God. Incidentally, asura means a demon so it follows that if you remove the a, then sur means God!
God is one who is always perfectly tuned and always in tune.
Sant Kabir sang with great simple devotion. Tyagaraja Swami sang with pure bhakti. But can a modern day musician, sitting in the comfort of an air conditioned auditorium, singing for money and fame, reproduce that same fervor or devotion or bhakti as those Sants? We hide behind these great compositions and pretend that because the piece is spiritual, the present rendering is spiritual too.
And we proudly claim that Indian music is spiritual.
To sing Kabir, I have to become Kabir.
Is that possible? The Buddha was an enlightened soul; does that make every Buddhist or follower of The Buddha an enlightened soul?
But then, music does elevate a listener and the performer to spiritual heights. How?
See the profoundness of this story:
Mulla Nasruddin is sitting in the village square one evening plucking the strings of the sitar. Little by little, as expected a circle of friends gather around him. He keeps on strumming just one note. Finally, one villager musters enough courage to inquire,
... that is a very nice note you are playing, Mulla, but most of the musicians use all the notes. Why don't you?
"They are still searching for the note", says the Mulla calmly, "I have found it."
To find the swara's place or sthan is nothing short of a miracle. I still vividly remember Pandit Kumar Gandharva's last concert at Savai Gandharva Mahotsav, at Pune. He came on stage and just waited, tuning the instruments, waited, tuning the instruments again, waited, just looked around, then closed his eyes and simply immersed in the sounds of the tanpuras. Seconds, minutes trickled past. A full 15 to 20 minutes had passed; he had by then erased the previous musician's recital from our minds! We were all waiting! Twenty thousand rasikas. Expectantly waiting for Kumar ji to open his mouth and sing.
He strikes with raga Shankara's Gandhar. It is now nearly more than a decade but I still remember that Gandhar sitting perfectly in its place and I would not be far wrong if I say I understood the place of 'Shuddha Gandhar' that day. Much later I read an interview given by Kumarji's son Mukul Shivputra who said that nobody understood or knew shuddha Gandhar like his father!
Now my memory goes back even farther to 1977, when I heard Vidwan M.D. Ramanathan's vocal carnatic music recital at Chennai. MDR as he was affectionately called, sang, no recited Sangeetha Gynanamu bhakti vina in ragam Dhanyasi. He sang it at such a vilambit laya, that it seemed like he was talking to us about bhakti and music. But each swara was in its place shining, pure and pristine. These are all memories that are so deeply etched in my mind.
To strike the note accurately is like walking on the razor's edge. Other than at that specific point, any other place is off-key - besura. And if by some miracle, one strikes that perfect position, it is no more a razor's edge!
It becomes broad. It opens into a vast space. Kumarji called it the Shoonyata.
One can stand, sit comfortably, and stretch on it and it remains ever that perfect note. This is called swara sadhana, where meticulously a student practices each and every note, polishing it, till it shines with purity and resonance, acquiring a tejas and an aura. It puts a well cut diamond to shame.
Sanskrit is a beautiful language, and swara what a giant of a word. It tells you what you need to do with it! It comes with a self instruction kit, to put it in mod-friendly term!
Swa means self and ra means to bring forth or throw light upon. Meaning the singer should go deep within and bring the essence of his self to the surface. Only then it touches the core of your being. The principle is the same as a pendulum clock; the oscillation is identical on both sides. So when a musician sings from within, almost touching her 'soul' then the pendulum swings in the opposite direction to touch your soul!
It only works that way.
Words or sahityam does not make music spiritual anymore than virtuosity would. Music needs no language, no gimmicks or mastery over the techniques. Film play-back singer KL Saigal had no formal training in music, yet how pure and simple and in sur his songs were! If language was essential then instrumental music would have had no place in Indian classical. Can you imagine the Indian music scene without Flute Mali, Veena Emani Shankara Shastri, Pannalal Ghosh or Ali Akbar?
Words, virtuosity, gazzling control, mastery over tala and laya, a massive repertoire are all fabrics with which a musician clothes that swara for people to enjoy, just like the sagun is nothing but the clothed version of the nirgun nirakar?
So, all that is required is humbleness or a near egoless state and a perfectly placed swara ~ that is spirituality in music.
And surprisingly one can find it in any music.
The writer is a performing vocalist in Hindustani Classical Music, who has worked on Pandit Kumar Gandharava's compositions and Nirguni bhajans along with the paramparic bandishes of the Gwalior Gharana, under the guidance of Vidushi Smt Shubhada Chirmulay, Pune. Kala has several articles published on Shastriya Sangeet and Indian thought to her credit.