Asian Music and Dance

Kamaljeet’s India Diary

It’s 23.30 on Monday 15th September and I have finally arrived in Mumbai, the 24-hour city of dreams. The last time I was here was in December 2002 when I was fortunate to become a disciple of the santoor maestro, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma. Six years later and my first chance to come back, I have taken five weeks off from being the Performing Arts Manager of  Manasamitra, to immerse myself in music and my mission, to come back home a little bit better than when I arrived!

I will be staying with my good friend Sharanya Rajgopal (radio presenter, writer, carnatic vocalist plus a few more things!), who has arrived to pick me up in the pouring last rain of the monsoon season. It takes us twenty minutes to get out of the small gridlocked car park, packed full of taxis, people and groups of beggars that only ask for foreign currency! Here’s to the beginning of a much anticipated trip…

The next morning I am eager to speak to Guruji, with the hope that we can begin our lessons as soon as possible, but he informs me that he will be away touring till next week! 

After an hour of pondering with Sharanya the best course of action and a quick call to a friend, I decide that I should go to Kolkata, one of the richest cities for the arts and music in India, I will definitely be able to get some practice done and visit some friends.

Tuesday 16th Sepember, It’s 19.30, I am sitting in a yellow and black Ambassador taxi (remnants of the Raj) found mostly in Kolkata, with Kousic Sen, a fantastic tabla player and disciple of Pt Kumar Bose. I have known Kousicji and family for a few years and am very happy that I will be able to spend time with them. After reaching home, and catching up over good food and Kolkata’s famous ‘mishty’ (sweets) I am shown to the room that I will be staying in which isn’t actually in their apartment, but two floors up and vacant. I am given a key and instructions to use this apartment to practice as much as I can manage, for everything else I just need to go back downstairs. What more could I want! 

For the next week I was living a dream. My average total hours of practice were about six daily, which may not seem all that much to a professional musician but from one to two hours every day (if at all!) at home, it was a vast improvement! Throughout this time, as well as the wonderful food I was also fed stories of performances that Kousicji and Aditiji, his wife, an accomplished kathak dancer (Jaipur-Style) had given, the people and friends that they met along the way and their teachers and family who instilled in them discipline, strength and will to succeed in this difficult profession. I also visited friends and was able to meet Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty of the Patiala Gharana of vocal music. I have had the privilege of knowing Panditji for a few years as he frequently visits and teaches in the UK. He gave me his ashirvad (blessings) for a fruitful trip, and just like that my time in Kolkata was over and I was back aboard a plane to Chhatrapati Shivaji airport in Mumbai.

Tuesday 23rd September, the day of my lesson with Guruji, I am sat in his music room which has an air of stillness and peace, the large rugs on the floor have a multitude of cushions on top of them leaning against the walls to my left and right with a large window in front of me framing the fiery red setting sun, everything is just as it was. Guruji has asked me to tune up to the Raga that I am going to perform for him and gives me twenty minutes to tune, I choose Raga Yaman an early evening Raga, it is simple enough to be played by beginners yet has the depth and complexities for even the most accomplished musicians to explore for hours on end. As Guruji re-enters the room and sits directly in front of me, I am making sure that I have my recorder ready to go, he asks if I am in tune and to only play the Alaap Jor Jhalla sections. I lower my head and ask his permission to begin; he acknowledges and I strike my first note. I progress through the Raga as I have been taught by my teacher in the UK, Shri Harjinderpal Singh a senior disciple of Guruji, taking care to make the phrases and Rasa (feelings/nectar) of the Raga, my intentions and the tempo as clear as possible. It takes me fifteen to twenty minutes to complete the section; I feel it went well which is quite unusual as people who know me can tell you those words seldom come out of my mouth and to my utter surprise Guruji thought so too! I quickly look down to make sure that it recorded ok but I forgot to press the button! As soon I press it Guruji starts to tell me about the Alaap Jor Jhalla section, he says that this cannot be fully taught, you can be given the method of progression and the technical skills but the rendering of the complete emotion, which is very important in the Indian classical arts, is in the hands of the musician and to only listen to this section gives a very good indication of the level that they are at hence why that is all he needed to hear from me. The remaining lesson centred around the Alaap as a whole and a detailed explanation of each section. You can listen to an excerpt of this at the end of the article.

Friday 26th September, Guruji has invited me to a private concert in Navy Nagar, South Mumbai. I am backstage waiting for another of his disciples to come and take me to our seats in the auditorium, I listen to him, telling his tabla player Ram Kumar Mishra about what he will be playing, this is it, their rehearsal, he tells him the tala’s (time cycles) that he will be playing and the raga and that’s it, all he needs to know…

…I am sat in the audience, listening to raga Maru Bihag; he starts with the alaap jor jhalla, it is unravelled to near perfection, the phrasing is clear, dynamics and laya bring out the mood of this charming and romantic raga. This feels like a master class, all I was taught is clear as day and reminds me I have a long way to go!

The time between my lessons was spent soaking up the culture of the city (as well as practising!). I went to see three fantastic concerts of Sabir Khan (son of Ustad Sultan Khan), Rashid Khan and Yogesh Samsi and Rahul Sharma, sat in the first few rows in the time span of one week; it would never be possible for me to do this in the UK, it would be too expensive!

I was also invited to be interviewed and perform on Radio Mirchi (Mumbai). The show was called Mumbai Misel with R.J. (Radio jockey) Sharanya. It was a little embarrassing because I had to speak Hindi! Which I’m usually ok about but I was a little nervous and my Hindi suffered as a result! If you want to have a laugh, feel free to listen to this excerpt at the end of the article.

As well as my 25th birthday, I celebrated the season of Navratri and Dussera, Mumbai style! Throughout this time every large outdoor space is converted into a dance area with live musicians or a good sound system and D.J. Old and young dressed simply in kurta tops and jeans, saris or all out Gujrati glamour and danced till midnight. The story of Diwali or the Ram Leela could also be watched in open air plays amongst hundreds of people under the moonlit sky in every part of town including the burning of Ravan on the day of Dussera. Everywhere, the city was alive and together in the spirit of celebration; living in the UK I have never seen or been involved in anything on this scale and can only imagine what it will be like at Diwali but unfortunately I will be in Leeds by then.

Friday 10th October, Today is my last lesson with Guruji, he will be away touring starting tomorrow and will get back one day after I have left. I am taught two compositions in raga Jog, a late evening raga. He teaches just like he plays, calm and measured, he sings the compositions and explains the interaction of the tala (beat) within them; when I don’t understand he is ever ready to repeat what has been given. He introduces me to some improvisational ideas in the time cycles of seven (Roopak) and sixteen (Teental). I have been told to sit with Harjinderpalji when I get back as much as I can to solidify these ideas and to practise everything that has been given to me. Before I leave, Guruji says he is happy with the progress that I have made but I have a long way to go and gives me his ashirvad to carry on the path that I am on, I touch his feet (this is done as a sign of respect for your Guru or an elder figure) and thank him for giving me his time and generosity and promise to practise harder. 

 Sat in Mumbai airport I thought about how much I had done in an amazing five weeks, the people I had met, the places I had seen, the musicians I played with, the friends that I made and the time I had spent with my Guruji and music in general, I thought back to my mission to be a little better than when I arrived. I think I achieved it, but I will confirm that when I play for Harjinderpalji when I get home!



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