Learning ragas & improvisation

I was practising alaap (slow improvisation) on Raga Bageshree tonight. I love Bageshree. It’s amazing how one particular note becomes exciting in a certain raga, how colourful and poignant that note feels every time you play it. In Bageshree I absolutely love dha (A/la). I guess that’s progress! When I started learning to play alaap on  the Indian violin it was an absolute torture to practise improvisation; I would play five minutes and get sort of exhausted from playing, as though someone had been pulling emotions out of my heart or stripping me naked in public. It would sort of feel heavy in my tummy or I would sort of become short of breath and so had to stop. I couldn’t certainly feel anything when I played alone. I was really intrigued about how some people could state that certain ragas have certain feelings attached to them. I mean of course it made sense; music is feeling, but I didn’t know how a musician could bring out that feeling alone, just by him or herself. It’s so much easier to feel music when you play with others. But in ragas, you can make yourself cry alone – this just sounded impossible before. I would cry with discomfort more than any other feeling, because improvisation just made me choke with embarrassment, self-judgement. Today I feel like a knife plunges into my heart whenever I hear that dha (A/la) in Bageshree. It’s just so deep, so thick like velvet, so dense; I don’t know just so full of a sharp sort of beauty.

I regularly use recordings of my violin teacher to play over his alaaps, to put myself into the mood of a raga, to be able to improvise better afterwards. Tonight again I did that, and then I tried to play over a recording of N. Rajam, too. The variety of styles within north Indian classical music (Hindustani classical music) is just amazing… Some sounds which N. Rajam produces are just impossible to get from just hearing them. Her way of jumping between notes, her jerking kind of approach to a note, some of her ornaments… N. Rajam is probably the most famous north Indian classical violinist of our times; she’s amazingly talented, amazingly sweet; her notes seem to transcend her skin. She’s 75 years old now. I saw her in concert last year in November and her sound was so pure that it pierced me right through the heart. Her violin cries; her melodies are warm and soft and sweet like honey. But tonight I realised that there really was no point in me trying to play over her alaaps. I guess the only sensible thing to do, violin in hands – because then I get guided from my fingers, is to listen to her so that I’ll know straight away which notes she plays and thus I can recognise the raga more easily. That way I can understand that raga better the next time I hear it bare-handed, and so I can also understand how her style differs from that of my guru.

Trying out another teacher

This insight urged me to write about guru faith. It’s something I have been thinking about regularly, but I was never ready to write about it before. I know many Indian classical music students in Banaras who have had a number of teachers. I guess the most serious students I know have changed teacher at least once since they started learning Indian classical music. I’ve had some frustrated moments that made me consider checking out new teachers, but I really never want to leave Sukhdev completely because he will always remain my guru. Last year I took some classes with another (sitar & vocal) teacher for two weeks while Sukhdev was away, because I had been wanting to take violin classes with a singer for a while. I wanted to follow voice with my instrument, to express vocal through my violin. It was really interesting indeed; I absolutely loved the novelty I experienced through those classes; I loved discovering a new teaching approach, and I loved getting to know that new teacher and spending time with him, because he is an amazingly sweet and honest soul, and the guru of a good friend of mine. At the time I was thinking I could continue taking classes on vocal or sitar medium with him from time to time because it would perhaps complement my training with Sukhdev.

Life got in the way; a year passed and I hardly saw him again… until he came to visit Sukhdev during my very first violin class this season. It felt a bit funny to sit and practise at Guruji’s house while the other teacher was sitting next to me, but I was really happy to see him. He had come to hand out some invitation cards for an event he was organising a few days later, so I asked him if he too had any concerts lined-up, because I so love him as a musician. And he did! A few days later I went to his concert. It was a very intimate  event in a school a bit far away from my area of town, and it was at 9 in the morning, but it was well worth he effort! It was a fantastic, bombastic concert. While I was listening to the sitar though I realised how different his style is from Sukhdev’s, and I realised I no longer had any interest in taking any classes with him. Sure it would be lovely to play with and learn from him if the occasion somehow arose, but I don’t want to go to him as a student again. I wouldn’t see the point now; it would just confuse me. I guess this experience also led me to understand what I would really like to learn: to accompany vocalists…

Rishikesh, Dec. 2010

Rishikesh, Dec. 2010

Analogy to the husband

I think I am a very faithful and loyal person; it is just my personality. I love being dedicated to just one person; dedicated solely to my guru in the same way that I am utterly and totally dedicated to the man I love. Perhaps ‘cheating’ on Sukhdev with the sitar teacher made me understand that cheating with another teacher was just the same as cheating on the man you love. I didn’t really cheat – perhaps it was just like a polyamory experience because I told Sukhdev straight away that I was going to take classes with him for a while and he was fine with it. Sukhdev always says I have to make my own experience, go and see for myself. Of course I love to play with other people, other musicians, but that’s a different story because those musicians are not my ‘official’ teachers. I guess it’s quite simple: Your guru is like your husband. Another teacher is like having an affair. Other musicians with whom you play are like friends. I can have friends but I won’t be having an affair again!

With a husband you learn to grow together; you build trust, life as one. Difficult times are but opportunities to make your relationship more loving and beautiful, and if you have the maturity to communicate with honesty and respect, with perseverance you will go through them together to come out stronger and more devoted towards one another. And in India, your husband is your god and your wife is your goddess. With a guru it’s the same. Guru is way more than a music teacher; you touch his/her feet in respect which, it is said, helps you progress faster because you ‘take’ some of your guru’s energy in the process. I don’t know if this is literally true, and it took me a long time to do it because although I find this gesture extremely beautiful it used to make me feel very uncomfortable. Still, today I certainly feel that being close and devoted to my guru helps me progress on the violin and I even feel that devotion is as important as violin practice (as long as it is honest, i.e. done with the heart). So your relationship to your guru is a deep one which you build, develop and maintain. In India you get to know all of your guru’s family; you even become part of his family. In addition to my guru’s blood family, all of his students have become my brothers and sisters, and the students of my guru’s brothers my cousins.

Haldwani (Uttarakhand), Sep. 2013

Haldwani (Uttarakhand), Sep. 2013

Serving the guru

In India, you also have to serve your guru. For instance my Indian ‘siblings’ massage Guruji regularly. The first time I saw this (four students, two massaging each of his arms and and two massaging his legs) I thought this was really too much, but this is common practice! I still have a (big) issue with massaging my guru; I guess it’s the touching and I’m not very good at massage anyway, but I serve him in different ways, like giving him Reiki, designing his website, doing translation work for some of his projects, helping him on the computer, etc. I think we Westerners have a big issue with selfless service, because our society is very individualistic, and we often associate devotion with blind religion. But I love serving my guru and I do it heartily. One of my ‘cousins’, a tabla student of my guru’s brother, still follows the authentic tradition of guru-shishya parampara, which is quite rare nowadays. He lives in his guru’s home and get free classes from him, in return of which he performs many domestic tasks for the family. For example, the women of the family send him out shopping, he looks after the instruments, or work as a concert ‘assistant’. It is believed that living in the gurus home, from immersing yourself with his presence, with his energy and with the energy of the ancestral tradition, allows you to progress faster. At the moment my ‘cousin’ also looks after his guru‘s dying father, our “grand-guru”.

Disciples also offer their selfless service (that’s called seva) during concerts. They carry their guru’s instrument and the tanpura to and off the stage, and the guru’s concert is considered a very important part of their students’ training, so they sometimes have a special place to sit near him/her. I absolutely love this, because you sometimes get the chance to come close to wonderful musicians. This is the groupie side of learning Indian music! And I have ALWAYS been a groupie! When I lived in Europe I used to only listen to alternative music and small musicians, so somehow whenever I would go to concerts I could come close to my favourite musicians if I wanted, and I always loved being able to express my love and gratitude towards those people who played the music that moved me. I loved going towards them after concerts, even if I felt too shy to speak, just to look at them closely and feel their presence, and I have even hugged a number of my favourites! Many of my friends used to say “Hey, you’re such a groupie!” and I used to be shy and ashamed to admit liking to approach my favourite musicians (silly mind!) but the truth was always that I absolutely loved it! Today I live in India and being a groupie doesn’t get me called an ass-licker; it is common practice when you learn classical music!!! And it’s amazing because you even get to play with your favourite musicians! In India your favourite band or singer can become your teacher! Just imagine going to meet Devendra Banhart after a concert and asking him to teach you the guitar, hey!? How great would that be!? So I have come to terms with my ‘groupiness’ thanks to Indian classical music and thanks to my dear guru – well, I have come to terms with many things thanks to Indian classical music and my guru!

I don’t know if I have ‘the’ ideal relationship with my musical guru, but I certainly know that I have a very beautiful relationship to him. I am very lucky indeed because not only is he a fantastic musician (and apart from N. Rajam I have yet never heard an Indian classical violinist whom I liked equally or more than him), but he is also a great and encouraging teacher, and a very fun and cool guy! I know he’s not perfect and he is certainly not my life guru; he’s my ‘musical’ guru only. I wouldn’t throw myself outside of a window if he told me to do so, but I never refuse to do some work for him if he needs it, I hardly ever miss his concerts if he plays near me, and I feel enormous respect, enormous gratitude, and deep unconditional love towards him. With him I have not only grown to be a musician and even a violin teacher myself, I have also grown to be a healthier human being, I have challenged my deepest fears and made my wildest dream come true, I have become part of an(other!) Indian family and dived into the most ancient of Indian (musical) traditions…

In conclusion

With your devoted husband you grow as a human being, you build a relationship and a life together which it would be immature to shatter just for the excitement of novelty or entertainment or for the fear of going through hardship. Likewise, with my guru I have grown (and am still growing) as a human being; all the difficulties I went through with him were opportunities for me to grow and the frustrated moments have passed thanks to honesty, communication and perseverance. With my guru I have been building a profound, beautiful relationship which I am devoted to nurture, because I feel the relationship I have with him is as important as the music I learn. The relationship I have with him gives more depth and meaning to the music I learn with him. The additional techniques I could learn by going for another teacher would never make up for the loss of a beautiful, deep and growing relationship. With one you dig in and deeper you grow; with too many now-where you go.