I have just returned from a 10 week study trip to my teachers’ school, or ‘gurukul’, in Madya Pradesh, India. The project was largely funded by a grant from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, which helps artists to develop their skills overseas. The Gundecha’s gurukul (The Dhrupad Sansthan) is situated in a rural environment, just outside of Bhopal, in the central heart of India. Students come from all over India and around the world to study in the ancient dhrupad style of Indian raga music. Although predominately a habitat for vocalists, they share their niche with a handful of pakhawaj players (genus: drummer) and some rare species of instrumentalists, such as surbahar, rudra vina and even a saxophone-silver flute duet of Italian origin. During my initial period of training with the Gundecha brothers, beginning 10 years ago, lessons were held at their house in the city and I mostly stayed in a room just down the road. For an Australian country boy, the Indian city environment was quite grungy and confronting, an ordeal that I went through only out of love for this wonderful music. These days I find staying at the gurukul a much more pleasant and sustainable option. It’s quieter, the air is cleaner and the walk to the local village never loses its charm. Rustics in flouro turbans driving teams of sleepy buffalos, eccentric retired cows with blue painted horns, earthy weather worn women in saris behind tribes of lustrous goats, occasional camels, barely clad children smeared in heavy black eye shadow, playing in piles of tattered plastic, hungry dogs clinging to life and that classic Indian setting sun, mysteriously red behind its veil of anonymous haze.
The advantage of staying in the gurukul comes not only from the excellent teaching that one receives from the guru, but also from being in an environment where one can focus on music full-time. There are very few distractions. It is easy to fill one’s days with several hours of undisturbed personal practice, plus time listening to the classes, discussing music and sharing musical knowledge with other students. It was especially encouraging to get feedback from others at the gurukul, which tended to remind me of the preciousness of the skills that I have cultivated, and of my responsibility to share them with the world. In Australia I often get affected by the complacency towards traditional art forms, especially music, and when I go to India I am reminded of the value of my vocation.
And it was good therapy to be away from a computer for almost 3 months, out of range, or stranded in the real world, only a few treks to the dysfunctional internet joint in New Market to threaten the digital sobriety; otherwise cold turkey on all 2D apparitions and deep immersion in Nada Brahman.
During this visit I focused on polishing aspects of style to bring my presentation to a more impressive standard. I worked on accuracy and articulation in the jhala (the fast section of the alap) and I looked more closely at vowel sound and its relation to vocal culture and intonation. The discipline around vowel production is one of the most difficult and crucial dimensions of dhrupad singing. It is also an amazing yogic practice in its own right, a discipline through which the mind can be relieved, for a moment, of its cravings: ‘Nuns fret not at their convents narrow room’ (Wordsworth).
My teacher’s main area of research, and place of genius, is teaching the microtonal intonation of each raga. Traditional raga music is not equal tempered and the tuning of each note varies subtly between ragas. This means that ‘komal’ (flattened) Re (2nd), for example, can have many different places, depending on the raga. In bhairav it’s high, in bhairavi lower, todi and gunkali lower still and raga shri very flat. This micro-tuning is predominately what delivers the feeling or rasa of the ragas. All of the notes are calibrated to achieve a perfect unity, against the revealing backdrop of the well tuned tambura. The Gundechas are among the few musicians in India to still teach and promote this understanding of raga music, which has suffered the impact of Western equal tempered music (enter the harmonium). Over his years of teaching, Guruji’s conception and articulation of raga temperament has become more refined and comprehensive, so it’s always worth revising old material with him. After 10 years of practice he’s still telling me that Sa (the tonic) is out of tune. I hear echoes from my very first class.
My sojourn at the Dhrupad Sansthan concluded with a 1½ hour performance which I gave, accompanied by Bengali pakhawaj player Roman Das. I had come down with a virus just a few days before and my throat was quite irritated, and I wondered if I would last the distance. I avoided practicing for a few days before the performance and my wife promised to make supplications to Tibetan goddesses on my behalf. I began with a full dhrupad style alap (unaccompanied improvisation) in raga Darbari and a composition in chautal (slow 12 beat cycle). Then I sang raga Yog in tivra tal (7 beat), followed by raga Megh in sadra (10 beat). I concluded singing raga Malkauns in sultal (fast 10 beat) in response to a request. This meant about an hour of improvisations with the drum, for me the most exciting and enjoyable dimension of this musical form. From out of the deep introspective immersion of the alap, we dive into the world of engagement, communication and interaction. From the pristine order of the transcendental we confront the spontaneous chaos of worldly life, with a sense of playfulness. When I got to this section, the energy of the drumming generated heat in my body and this rose to protect my voice, which became fully resonant again by the end (but the next day it was trashed).
Guruji seemed very happy with my performance and spoke of organising more concerts for me when I return to India. I am hoping to be back by the end of the year. We also spoke of the idea of creating a duet with Japanese student Inoue Sou and performing together in the USA and Japan.
It was hard to leave an environment so full of beautiful friends and sublime music.