When I tell people that I’m a musician, they often ask what sort of music I play. When I tell them that I sing Indian Classical music the conversation usually stops right there. A select few curious or worldly souls venture further. Many of those want to know how I got tangled up in such an odd affair. At least one fellow (suspecting me of orientalism, no doubt) demanded to know why I was doing Indian music, rather than ‘Western music’. Which Western music should I have been doing? Which art forms are mine anyway, and which are someone else’s? Is there a continuum between culture and race? How was I drawn toward this music? Why don’t I join the local legion of singer-song writers with guitars around their necks? It was to answer these questions that I wrote this post. For it to make sense though, I have to tell the whole story…
Let’s start at the beginning. Which musical culture did I actually inherit? My first memories are of classic Rock’n’roll and American-style Country. Hang on! They don’t come from my country- not even from my hemisphere my dear. But thanks to my white skin and habit of speaking English, I inherited the divine privilege to Rock it out. Unfortunately, I worked out quite soon that this wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to go. Where was I trying to get to?
I hardly took much interest in music (I don’t think I even owned a record) until I was 15. Then, a friend invited me to his neighbor’s garage, to listen to the makings of their new band. The neighbor, who could play a little drumkit, played the guitar instead (which he had no idea how to tune), and my friend who couldn’t play the drums… played the drums. Of course, it didn’t really cut it, but as I sat in the garage thinking just that, I became aware of something new: the spaces were charged with a different quality. My musical journey began.
After curiosity led me out of the garden of American popular music, I began exploring other genres and styles with enthusiasm and energy. From then on, really every thing was ‘ethno-music’. None of it was ‘mine’ to begin with. The wanderings from the home village got further and further, until I lost my way home (thank God).
I discovered Heavy Metal, and was enthralled by its musical sophistication, its intensity, and its deep subject matter that drew from literature, myth, ritual and history. My mum wasn’t so enthralled. I explored electronic music and Western Classical, which lured me into one of the country’s top conservatoriums, after leaving high school, to do a major in composition. There I first heard Indian Classical music, at a concert of the late sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. It literally blew my teenage mind. The vastness of the musical landscape, the penetrative emotional force… and it sounded all spontaneous: how were the two musicians able to keep it so tight? I enrolled in an elective of ethnomusicology and began to devour the world music recordings in the School of Music library. I loved the Aka Pygmy singing, Flamenco guitar, Japanese voice with koto and Classical Persian music- but the Indian Raga music haunted my soul like no other.
My own artistic exploration sailed through many instruments and approaches: keyboard, electric and acoustic guitar, didjeridoo, shakuhatchi, bansari, sarod, drums and voice… What was the source of my restlessness? What was driving me to look beyond the norms?
Quite early in the journey, music brought me experiences that challenged my received notions of reality. There were incredible moments of attunement when the flow of my inner experience was continuous with the other musicians, and with the listeners. I discovered that I wasn’t a wandering island. There was a state of mental depth where one could feel a greater Unity, through the music, and where the music was both creating and being created by that collective zone. A dependant co-origination: no centre, no single cause, but a mysterious grace which might manifest… or might not. In my attempts to make sense of these experiences, I started using words that were bizarre in my upbringing, like ‘spirit’ and ‘magic’.
At some point in the journey, I became aware of singing as magic- in the true sense of the word. My exploration of the didjeridoo played a strong part in this. The first vocal expressions that really came from my soul were accompanied by the sound of this instrument. In the Yongu language, in the heart-land of the traditional yidaki (didjeridoo) culture, the word for voice, garra, also means ‘spirit’. When we hear the sound of a didj, made from a naturally hollowed tree trunk, we are hearing the garra of the ancestral creator serpent, which she left in the trees: a seed of potency.
For a while I was crafting, and painting these traditional instruments, in my hometown in central New South Wales. I made an overnight outing one weekend to a remote property where there were large stands of ‘mallee’, the tree that I made the yidaki-s from (after the termites had eaten out the core). The first day’s search brought very little except exhaustion. That night I was attacked by giant killer mosquitoes. The next morning’s hunt also brought nothing and there were signs of a storm brewing on the horizon, which could leave me stranded out there. I gave up the hunt, and began to sing. It poured out from me spontaneously, in unknown word-forms, until my heart felt purged and pacified. During the singing I had been wandering in a circle in the forest, eyes half closed in the trance of self-expression. Now I opened my eyes and turned to the point where I had been circumambulating. There was a tree that I hadn’t previously seen which was missing its top: a sure sign of termite attack. I approached it and could see that it certainly had the structure of an old white ant nest right up to the point of breakage. It was a perfect shape and size. What was the catch? I walked around behind it to check for cracks or holes. There were none. I cut it carefully with a handsaw and in one shake emptied the core, revealing a perfect, smooth bore. There was nothing I needed to do, except put the wax for the mouthpiece. I named this instrument ‘the gift’ as I felt sure that it was only revealed to me in return for a song.
In my travels, I came to put complete trust in singing as a way of self-healing, both physical and emotional. To sing was to come home, to spin a sonic refuge in a strange land, to remember one’s origins. All demons, my own or otherwise, trembled when I connected heart to voice. I knew that I had found an answer in my quest for the ultimate instrument, for the most intimate contact with the beloved Sound, but it took me some years to find the courage to step onto that path and dare to call myself a singer. Some old voice was whispering ‘how dare you’ and ‘you can’t do it’. Then in the year of my Saturn return I heeded the voice of my true Guru, and blew the battle horn to the other voice: on the cusp of the millennium.
In the relentless process of questioning musical structures, and the myths that they were based on, I had sailed into the formless: or so I believed (actually I hadn’t even left the harbor). I questioned cultural forms with the fervor that I questioned lifestyle. They are the same thing. Art is an expression of human society, it reveals the way we live, the way we think, our values and our connection to our origin. Artistic innovation entails a change on every level.
At some point I felt that I had taken the rejection of form to its practical limits, and that I needed to find a teacher and a tradition to work within. It was about going beyond the limits that I could hear that I had. I sensed the possibility of a traditional form that I could learn from, but which would also be my yogic practice: a form that could grapple with the full potency of music as a doorway to the sacred, as path to our sky roots. I was moving intuitively towards traditional Indian music, but which tradition?
A guide appeared who had studied pakhawaj in India. He introduced me to recordings of dhrupad (like the Gundecha Brothers) and there was an uncanny sense of recognition. I recognized many fundamental ideas and principles that I had explored myself, but the whole thing taken to another level of development. And then there was a quality to this music which one didn’t hear in the other forms of Indian Classical music. There was the blissful, peaceful essence that it could sustain even throughout the more energetic sections. There was the vast unfurling of the raga, which was too focused and perfect to be improvised, yet too living and organic to be pre-composed. There was the trance-inductive power of the pakhawaj drum and the perfection of interval and voice stability. I could sense that I had so much to learn here.
With the sound of those recordings echoing in my head I caught a plane to India. My guide had told me stories about the Dhrupad Kendra of Fariduddin Dagar in Bhopal, but I had resisted it due to the scary image that city conjured for me. I first went to the ancient holy city of Vrindavan to find Vidur Mallik, but learnt from a local harmonium maker that he had died 3 months previously and his school wasn’t running well. I caught a train to Bhopal.
There was much serendipity with me during that journey and despite the fact that I had no contacts, nor addresses and couldn’t speak Hindi, I was delivered almost effortlessly to the doorstep of two of the most high profile and high caliber dhrupad musicians, and disciples of Ustad Fariduddin, the Gundecha Brothers. “Why do you want to learn dhrupad”, chota Guruji (Ramakant) had asked me in his most serious voice as way of a preliminary interview. “I don’t know, there’s something deep in it…” This seemed to satisfy him, as he didn’t need to hear anymore. I know that he would have taught me anyway, so the question was probably more important than the answer.
As my learning started I had the feeling that this is what I was made for. This was something huge that I could spend the rest of my life delving into. But there was also a natural simplicity in the music, a lack of contrivance and artifice. So much can be expressed through this vehicle, from the depths of serenity and beatitude, to fiery eruptions of power and ecstasy. But most importantly, the learning and creation of dhrupad is a personal meditative practice. It is a yoga. The musical form, I believe, is conducive to insight and transformation, because it is founded on deep natural patterns. “This business is purely for the soul”, Pran Nath would say.
Since then I have continued my own dhrupad practice religiously, hardly missing a day in 14 years. Often when I’m learning a new raag, and marveling in wonder at its pristine beauty, I have the sense of standing on the shoulders of a giant. How many lives dedicated to music did it take to arrive at this? The subtle micro-tones, the tonal architecture, the elusive glissandos, breathtaking compositions… we are reaping the harvest of a linage of sound seekers who each carried the torch for the next generation, as the flame burnt brighter and clearer. Others, who like myself, believed music to be a path to the One, a dialogue with the ineffable soul, an offering to the living divinity. Dhrupad is a marga sangeet (‘path music’) that expresses, not where we come from, but where we are going: a culture both ancient and modern, seeking to transcend time and space on a path to the universal destination.