Gouri Dange did not become a sitar player or a singer. What’s she did turn into, though, is a keen listener. Here she remembers the motley mix of people who nudged her along on her music journey.
For the longest time, I have taken a “musical ear” for granted. From when I was perhaps four or five years old, a varied mix of people made it a most natural part of engaging with the world around me. But in the classic human syndrome of counting what you don’t have rather than what you do, I have looked hungrily on at the prowess, exposure and astuteness of more evolved musicians and music-listeners’ ears. Only in recent years, when I see people at Indian classical music programmes or appreciation workshops, ask searchingly, earnestly, “What to listen for? How to recognise and enjoy a raga better?” have I begun to value my own abilities and how I came to have them.
My earliest memory of Indian classical music is not so much an aural one as a visual one. I would be sat (literally plonked) on the opposite side of a harmonium, while my mother’s music lesson would be in progress. At that time, it was not the music that made any kind of conscious impact on me, as much as the mesmeric open-close-open-close of the holes at the back of the harmonium and the pink-printed-paper bellows. I remember feeling extremely sleepy or soothed, I cannot identify which of the two. Then one day, there she was at her music exam, for which I was taken along because I was perhaps not yet in school. She kept toying with the opening swaras of her chosen raga, till her examiner kindly asked her in Hindi: “Have you forgotten the opening words of your khayal?” She nodded gratefully and sheepishly, but before she could consult her notebook, I remember prompting her with the opening line: “Kaun gat bhayii.” My mother gave me a sharp, surprised and happy look, and proceeded with the exam raga that she had been asked to perform, Bageshwari. When she was done, though, her examiner and she and my father who had come along to accompany her on the tabla, treated me like they had suddenly encountered some sort of prodigy-savant — they were not sure if they were pleased or a bit spooked, because I was perhaps not four years old and talking not a whole lot as yet.
Fortunately for me, no one marched me off to a music teacher. But my mother did begin one practice, randomly and with no pressure or overblown parental hopes: If I happened to be sitting in on her music practice, after she hummed the opening notes of some raga, she would ask me the words of the khayal. I often got it right, and then she would simply say, “Hmm, that’s Shankara (or Jogia, or Malkauns, etc).” And that’s how some ragas got a name and face in my head by the age of perhaps five. I still didn’t know this as music learning; it was casually told to me like when she named condiments in the masala box while she cooked and I watched. “Hmm this is rai, see how it splutters… Can you smell the hing?... Only look, but don’t touch the red chilli…”
During this time (this was the late 1960s early 70s), my elder brother and sister became bhakts of Binaca Geet Mala. They would have vicious verbal-duels about who gained control of the new transistor radio during the programme, who could touch the tuning button, and who could decide on the volume. From those days, I got some more casual crumbs off the music table. For instance, Mukesh’s “Janey kahan gaye woh din”, my brother said, was a raga called Shivaranjani. The name itself reflected the gravitas of the raga!
My brother and mother then began to ask me (the newly-discovered savant) — “what feeling does this song give?” And I would reply “sad” or “happy” to start with, and on to “like praying” or “like boyfriend-girlfriend” or “like king-and-queen” (much to my family’s amusement, because I didn’t yet know the words “devotional” or “romantic”, or “regal”, but that is what I was trying to express). And so there it was: the raga name, its identifiable face or mukhda in a film song, and its bhaav or emotional charge, all “taught” to me in a non-lesson.
As I grew, Hindi film songs of the time and older ones became a rich repository of raga recognition. My mother would then often “staple” a raga that she was learning with a song that we liked, providing one more approach-road to the rich farmland of classical music. Was this a thought-out strategy to transfer music knowledge to her kids? I don’t think so. There was very little that was premeditated in my mother’s personality. So it is likely that she was simply joining some dots for herself and us, in a casual, relaxed journey of discovery.
Later, she did make stabs at formally teaching me “lakshan geets” — those delightful little compositions that embedded in their words and notes, all the attributes of a particular raga, for the beginner. This was a phase during which I would be trying hard not to yawn, and felt some amount of vague resentment, but all of it seems to have wafted into a music-memory reservoir of the mind.
My father practised the tabla every day of his life to his last day. Just for fun. For the mathematical joy of it. All he ever nudged me into doing was to sit at a harmonium when I was about 10, and hold the lehera for him, repeating the cycle of notes against which he would do his doubles and trebles and all the other mysterious maths of percussion.
When I was 14, a sitar found its way to our home in Mumbai, all the way from Bijapur. It was a modest little thing, made-to-order for a frail great-grandfather who had decided to learn in his late 70s. After his passing, it was wrapped in several old razais and made the journey from Karnataka to Maharashtra. From then on, a series of colourful, less-known and wonderfully good sitar teachers opened new inroads for me, to that heady field of music-marijuana. They taught me music and many other little life skills.
The first one, one Mrs Sinha, introduced my fingers to the pain of the string and the pleasure of finding just the right note and amplification. After the slog of the everyday sargam, one day she began me on a Kafi, and I fell in love with the sophisticated new note in my life, the komal-nishad. She also dismantled my visceral fear of the loud eunuchs who wandered her galli; she gave them tea and water and they dropped their aggressive act; they would sit in her little porch counting their day’s earnings, and half listen to some of us struggling students.
Then there was Rajamma, an elderly sitar teacher. She and I shared a virtually non-speaking relationship, both most comfortable in the other’s taciturnity. She lived in a small spare Chembur Mumbai flat, the aroma of rasam curling out of the kitchen and into the small front room where we sat. The room contained one folding metal chair on which she sat (she could not sit on the ground), one chatai on which I sat, and two of the best sitars that I have ever learnt on. Here I learnt how to work with the meditative notes of the kharaj from her, and watched with awe as she produced beautiful deep-voiced meends from her sitar, her face and body completely impassive.
With my non-existent Tamil and her sketchy English and Hindi, she communicated to me that I should tell her on the days that I had my period, in which case she would ask me to sit in the corridor of her little flat; I would have to listen to what she played, but not touch a sitar. The prospect of volunteering info about one’s newly-operational body plumbing was so appalling that I would duck classes rather than spell out those words.
In the right-royal style of insouciant teenage, one day I simply stopped going and omitted to tell her that I was leaving for college in Pune, and we lost touch. But when I hear a musician accessing the deepest lower-octave notes, I know something about where they come from and the work involved.
In Pune, a feisty, no-nonsense teacher, Mrs Kanade, taught me a plethora of pretty ragas, as well as set-pieces for two people to play, the music intertwining, together and apart. She also taught me how to tune an instrument till every string sang out in joy or in empathic anguish, as you played the notes. (In later years, I found myself being able to guess what raga was going to be played by a performer when he began to tune his instrument. In the US, this came in quite handy, as friends would wager a dollar if I got it right. But with recession, this was quickly downsized to 25 cents.) This amazing woman became old and arthritic, but her hands remained beautiful, almost girlish, the disease showing some uncommon consideration during its rampage. Her sharp manner saw to it that I learnt the difference between any musician playing well and “doing high-jinks”.
My last music teacher, Siraj Khan, taught me much music and how to make biryani from scratch (including the trick of coaxing pudina/mint to grow). He had that priceless ability to switch you on to the beauty and magic of a phrase, and yet he could teach you to stop being gob-smacked, and get down to the business of mastering it. He would play it, say a 16-note phrase, in all its glory. Then he would ask you to undrop your jaw, and would simply deconstruct it for you, clearly showing you its components; he would then reconstruct it again. In this process, you could learn the phrase piece-meal, then put it back together and play it with panache.
To employ two overused words (favourites in award-acceptance speeches), I feel blessed and humbled by this mix of men and women who have walked with me a while, providing signposts, water, and food on my music learning and listening journey, while taking little or nothing by way of toll taxes in return.
Gouri Dange is an author, columnist and family counsellor based in Mumbai and Pune.