Asian Music and Dance

Reaching Out to the Unknown – Conversations with Pelva Naik and Mita Nag

“Dhrupad is a human endeavour to reach out to the unknown. It is a property of human beings, like a medium, a vehicle to reach out to the ultimate truth. I would not worship Dhrupad, like one would worship the ultimate energy, but I would practise Dhrupad because it’s my medium to reach out to that. It’s a very human medium, but of course it is given to us from the unknown energy – it belongs to both the worlds.”

‒ Pelva Naik

Pelva Naik is a Dhrupad singer. Dhrupad is also the foundation of the Bishnupur gharana of Bengal, to which sitar player Mita Nag belongs. Both musicians will be performing at the Darbar Festival in London this September. 

“He used to ask me to make a paste of ginger, green chillies and garlic on a stone, for more than one hour, and I had to put it in this thin cloth and wring it so hard that all the juice of it came out! I know it sounds really bizarre, but these are the times, when you are in pain, when you feel extreme joy, that’s when I could really feel the intimacy. It is beyond all other relationships, between teacher and student.”

“He used to ask me to make a paste of ginger, green chillies and garlic…”

I’m halfway into my conversation with Pelva Naik. Over a crackly Skype connection, from Hertfordshire to Ahmedabad, she is speaking of her unique relationship with her late guru, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar – alive as much in the kitchen as in the music room. We have already spoken of her richly artistic upbringing, largely curated by her mother, a dancer, and her father, a writer, musician and filmmaker. Her childhood sounds like an artist’s dream: a constant stream of poets, painters, social activists and creative thinkers: “I saw art in all its aspects from a very early age. For a long time I didn’t know there was another way of living,” she admits. “I thought that all households would be like this!”

“I didn’t know there was another way of living…”

It is clear that despite only beginning her study of Dhrupad music at the relatively advanced age of 18, Naik, now ten years wiser, has always had a soul connection with the arts. I ask her if she remembers how she felt, the moment she first heard Dhrupad music in a workshop at her high school. “Absolutely!” she responds earnestly. “The first thought that came to my mind was that this is something I would like to give my life to. I felt a sense of deep attachment to it, as if I had already heard this before, or had a very intimate connection with this form of music. I was ready to leave my painting, my dance, photography and nature studies, teaching small children, learning crafts – I was ready to just focus on this music, because I felt that through this one medium I would be allowed to express all of these things.” When I remark that this type of ‘love at first sight’ can tend to fade when the hard work begins, she points out that from the beginning it was a selfless feeling: “I always understood that when you practise an art, you do it for that art, not for yourself. I never wanted something back in return. The complete surrender came very spontaneously.”

“…when you practise an art, you do it for that art, not for yourself.”

Within months she was on an overnight train to Mumbai, to begin residency at the home of her guru, then aged 75. I ask whether there had been any test she had to pass before he agreed to train her. “No – there wasn’t. He (Ustad) said ‘you have good ears’. That is what matters. If you have good ears, you can learn this art. He saw that during the workshop at my school. I was already tested then I think. More than that they see what kind of a human being you are. Are you sensitive? Are you respectful? Are you humble?”

Training began in earnest with 3 am starts, cold baths, yoga, breathing exercises and total immersion into gurukula life. As per Dhrupad tradition, the students would practise kharaj sadhana in the pre-dawn darkness ‒ singing the lowest notes of the scale over and over. “It was like waking up with nature,” says Naik. “This one exercise really transformed everything, my voice changed, my muscles changed, I matured as a student – it really helped me to have a very different perspective.”

Days were filled with hours of practice, gardening, cooking and reporting back to Ustad – as much of a masterful teacher as a musician. He would tell us “do riyaaz very little, as much as one little cup of tea, but think about it as much as the space in this whole room – the thinking is much more important than the technical practice.”

“…do riyaaz very little…the thinking is much more important than the technical practice.”

At that time there were a mere five students training, of which Naik was the only girl.

“I was very free, but I was always conscious of the fact that not all parents are so encouraging for a girl child in Indian society. I still feel very special today.”

She is firm in her assertion that being a woman has been no advantage or disadvantage in her career. But she acknowledges the influence of women on a future generation of musicians and listeners: “I mainly teach women and children… if they are sensitive then the whole family will be sensitive.”

Since her guru passed away in 2012 she has mostly been on a journey of self-study. She admits it is hard at times but is firmly confident that the relationship with the guru is ever alive and dynamic. In his absence, I wonder how she feels she can become a better artist, apart from through practice? “Just by being a better human being,” she answers, with characteristic humility. “(I) just keep checking my dark side, keep pushing aside negativity, be more peaceful towards myself and towards others. Of course, as a singer, one needs to work technically on one’s voice, but that’s it! More than that, how are you as a human being? I keep doing my self-inquiry. I keep reading, I keep teaching, and be kind, and that’s all. Just love. I contemplate on love, to become a better artist.”

“I contemplate on love, to become a better artist.”

She is looking forward to performing at Darbar, and feels a great responsibility to present Dhrupad faithfully. “My guru was always telling us: ‘When you are performing, it’s the music you are highlighting here, not you…’ If I can share how I have been touched by this music, if people can appreciate the little nuances and sensitivity of this music, then I would not ask anything more.” 

Later I speak with Mita Nag, probably double the age of Naik, yet her voice brims with the energy and enthusiasm of a young girl. One question about the Bishnupur gharana, to which she belongs, yields a lengthy musical response – “da-diri-diri-dah-dah-diri-diri-dah…” she sings brightly. Like Naik, her childhood in 1970s Kolkata was rich with art, but a little more focused. With her family belonging to a six-generation lineage of sitar players, music was a constant presence. 

She recalls that “the TV set had not yet arrived in Kolkata houses at that time, so people often enjoyed live concerts in and around Kolkata. All-nighters were very common. Some of the finest musicians lived in our neighbourhood, and there was a real feeling of brotherhood, of community, warmth and love. The musicians were not so overtly professional as they are nowadays. They would come over to each other’s house and play and chat for hours.”

“There were no electronic devices and nothing was written down.”

Her grandfather, Sangeetacharya Gokul Nag, kept one eye on her as she undertook initial training with her mother at the age of 5. She learned on a toy-size sitar, which one of the great sarod makers of Kolkata had gifted her father, Pt. Manilal Nag, and quickly graduated to learn with her father at the age of 7. “There were no electronic devices and nothing was written down. It was only through listening that I remembered the exercises he gave me – it was all shruti. I just had to keep it all in my mind and keep on practising till my next lesson.”

I ask if she was aware that she had a natural gift, or was it just expected that she would follow in her father’s footsteps? “No, it wasn’t just a way of life, and neither was it being imposed on me just because it was the family tradition. Even when I was a toddler I used to go to the classroom of my dad and sit very quietly, listening without stirring the least – I think I had an inborn love for music, otherwise I could not have been playing till this day.”

As she grew into her late teens, she was stretched in a way that few young musicians today have the opportunity to experience: “…all these great tabla maestros used to visit our home and do this riyaaz with my dad. He would call me to his practice room and ask me to sit and follow him. I had to do all sorts of mental exercises, and sometimes he would just stop and say ‘Well, now you just play a spontaneous tihai from this point’, or he would say ‘I’m coming back in ten minutes, you just keep practising with him…’ I would feel so nervous and shy and wouldn’t know what to do! But those few years of rigorous following really gave me the vision that one should have to become a full professional musician. In my dad’s days it was the vogue that when there was a young brilliant musician coming up, the elderly maestros used to encourage and provide opportunities. Today these opportunities are very restricted to some very prestigious institutions and organisations. Highly-talented students who don’t come from an affluent background and who aren’t connected in the music world find it very hard to get good opportunities. I feel very sad about it.”

“It’s classical, not massical!”

She has spent her life pursuing ‘parallel careers’ as she puts it – decades as an English teacher, while also teaching music, and performing, often with her father in duets, all over the world. She is hopeful for the future, especially for keeping the less-heard Bishnupur gharana alive, but is frustrated with the attitude towards classical music of the powers that be: “It’s classical, not massical! Something which is classical can never be meant for the masses – whatever is popular is meant for the masses. But perhaps classical music could reach out to a greater population than it currently does. Even the Indian central government does very little to promote classical music in social media, broadcasting etc., for prime slots. No one wishes to sponsor the artists because the reception is limited to a smaller percentage of the population.” To this end, she teaches vigorously, her students are aged from 7 to 70 years old and she loves to stay connected with the younger generation.

“…her students are aged from 7 to 70 years old…”

For her first concert at Darbar, she hopes to present some rare ragas of the Dhrupad-based Bishnupur gharana, and speaks vibrantly of its emphasis on the meditative experience: “It’s a kind of divine communion – after the recital the audience should feel bathed in an aura of peace, love and… sunshine… it’s not a state of momentary excitement or celebration, we just try to delve deep into the expression of the raga – we try to invoke it on the stage like a deity, with a unique personality and character.”

“…the Dhrupad-based Bishnupur gharana… [has] its emphasis on the meditative experience…”

shruti: a microtone. There are twenty-two in an octave.

tihai: repetition of a phrase or rhythmic pattern three times, often concluding a section.



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