Asian Music and Dance

How to Listen

Having led an incredibly successful few sessions for Pulse at Alchemy Festival earlier this year, multi-disciplinary artist Ansuman Biswas shares his passion for listening – something he has dedicated his life’s work towards. 

“what is really important about it [Indian music] …is how it teaches us to listen.”

If a classic is eternally and universally relevant, then the Indian approach to music is truly classical. Beyond the particularities of the human accidents of culture and history is an understanding of listening as a direct relationship between consciousness and the vibrating matter of the world.

Though Indian classical music may be identifiable by certain superficial features of instrumentation or technique, what is really important about it – the speciality which makes it universally relevant – is how it teaches us to listen.

Listening is the most subtly active of the senses. Photons percuss against the retina, and molecules sink into the olfactory nerves. Moisture saturates the taste buds and waves of air lap against the eardrums. The spectrum of touch includes within it the soft touch of the air, but listening does not begin and end in the ears. Listening wades, ear-first, into a huge Ganges of vibration until the whole body is immersed. Then the body/mind is suffused with a sense of somatic presence, a feeling. 

Through deep listening we tune ourselves and begin to understand music not simply as the noises things make but as the movement of everything that happens. Consciousness of all that happens is rooted here in the body. Deep listening reveals music as emerging not from some mystical faraway source but right here in the self. 

The awareness of the relationship between the individual life force and the whole cosmos is what is at the heart of Indian classical music. This is why its royal path is through the voice. It is in the voice that the mind manifests and the body resonates. From the breath may arise countless languages, instruments, and forms to revel in and wonder at, but they are dangerous distractions if they lead us to forget the primacy of the ear and the voice. Indian classical music constantly leads us back to this body where listening happens, back to this heart.

Caught in that powerful current, the heart of any careful listener of Indian classical music must be moved, whether only silently or through every action, to sing.

Listening for Sa

I have three tanpuras going. ‘Squeak’ on the laptop, iTanpura on the iPhone and a real one rising from my lap. It’s a choppy sea. I am drowning. Trying to keep my head above the water. It is MY head. I am stuck inside it. Against the world. Me against the world.

I switch one off. Put another down.

Now I sing, and immediately am astonished to hear the ringing rainbow overtones spring out. As I listen they move across the ridges in my throat and I feel and hear the movement simultaneously. It is like swallowing a stream of soft jewels, a river of crystal water perhaps, ringed by my throat. There seem to be tiny bands of muscle I never knew about. Now that I notice them I find that I can play with them, squeezing and releasing the flow in different places, feeling them move and the sound colours change.

The tanpura is no longer around and outside, but permeates me. It buoys me up. I swim in it. There is no surface.

As I release my body into the ocean I begin to notice my own breath within its currents. It becomes apparent that my breath is the centre of my influence on this vast, rippling field. Suddenly I remember the yoga asanas I was practising last night, when I discovered a whole new way to breathe, hitting a spot with the stream of air somewhere deep in the back and centre of my chest.

Now breath, throat, tongue are finding a new centre which is not even simply inside the body. Looking for Sa, I find it is a sea. A field of ripples and reflections.

I gasp and stumble on through births and deaths, fighting to prolong my sound. But the more I simply listen, accepting the discontinuities, the more smooth and fluid the variation becomes.

At another level there is the disturbance of my heartbeat, adding a quavering to my voice; a stumbling, nervous, fumbling constriction, a fearful quality. But the longer I listen the quieter this dancing rhythm becomes and the voice begins to glide, full and deep, without obstruction. It rides like a bird on thermals that lift it far above the undulating ground.

And in this mental moment, with an eagle’s eye or a dog’s nose, I become curious about the source of the sound, the root impulse from which the breath rises.

There is something that shakes through, ringing me like a gong. My whole body vibrates. But the question remains. Where is the centre? Is it in the belly, or the heart, or out somewhere in the sky? It seems to rise everywhere at once. Where is the mind?

I breathe again.


Standing at a bus stop I begin to try to find my Sa. Where is it today? Where do my breath and my heart and the muscles of my throat meet? Then, climbing the stairs to the top deck I stumble upon a continuous practice that is uninterpretable; a practice that is available wherever there is hearing. The engine of the bus throbs through me. The babble of voices quickens my curiosity. I breathe in the ambience of Dalston Kingsland. I watch the urge to resolve the noise into consonance. And as my voice channels my hearing I observe the tension created by attempting to imitate what is inhuman. In my imperfection is my uniqueness. The sound of traffic shudders through me. Engines and minds are filtered through my voice. I am a filter against the world.

I hear many sounds in this mechanical urbis that are beyond me, outside the frequencies of my body. So I wait, listening more closely inside each sound for what is common to me and it, what vibration we share. I listen to my own voice setting my body into motion and allow myself to be surprised by the relationships I find, the rhythms and counterpoints.

Rasa – the taste of a moment

And if I resist the fidgety fear of discord, accepting, even savouring, the phasing vibrations, I suddenly understand meend. The slide from point to point, which I might have heard before as the ‘Indian-ness’ of classical music, is revealed as a practice of deep listening. By braking and slowing any tendency to fall into the gravitational well of simple relationship I am able to microscopically explore the emotional tensions that constitute the noise of the world. This exploration, conducted by resisting the urge to hurry towards the conclusion of consonance, this minute examination of the pain of suspension before the desired resolution, is the point at which deep listening transforms the mere physical vibrations of sound into the eroticism of music.

“…the pain of suspension before the desired resolution.”

On another day I find that if I allow my jaw to relax right from where my head joins my neck – literally open my ears, then the root of my tongue drops down and the sound wells into my cheeks, filling them as a breeze gently rounds the sails of a boat. Then the inside of my mouth feels like an audible sphere. I hold the apple of the note within it and the ripples and reflections are a coruscating mouthful. It has a flavour.


Watching a musical performance may be a mere entertainment, a distraction from the tribulations of my daily life, or it may be a spur to practice listening in my own life. There is a strong element of showmanship and competition in Indian music but, while that may serve to draw excited crowds, there is a subtler taste which compels only a few to remain, and which ensures that Indian classical music will remain a teaching relevant through the ages.

“…there is a subtler taste which….will remain a teaching relevant through the ages.”

A performer plays to demonstrate skill or superiority but a guru plays as an enaction of his or her listening. By demonstrating to us how to listen, an artist unites the environment, the breath and the mind, and invites us bystanders also to be open to our whole selves. Then, in breathing together, we share a common inspiration. To listen only with admiration or respect is to only half listen. To fully absorb the teachings of a great performer one must enter wholeheartedly into the activity of listening, until there is no creator of the ocean of vibrations, no great prodigy and no humble audience, but simply a self-sustaining music ringing through all apparent forms.

Listening is the key to tuning our individual mind and body to the system in which it finds itself. Instead of holding oneself rigidly against the world, separate from it, wrestling with it, the ardent listener releases him or herself into the current, dissolving all boundaries. This particular moment is then freed to awake to the expression of its own particular properties as a raga. The great listener, as Tagore sings in Baajaao, aamaare, baajaao, hears oneself as an instrument in the hands of a cosmic musician.



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