In the Spring of 1966 I first heard Indian music – Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan – and was never the same. It was passionate, evocative, sensuous, profound and climactic. Where had I been? Why had I not heard this music before? How could such a powerful, intricate, complex, and challenging music have been hidden?
Indian music was not the reason I decided to go to India – that had been decided for me by the organization that sent me (and in fact until the last minute I was to go to Algeria because of my fluent French. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I discovered that India was the perfect place for me at the time – demanding, exciting, kaleidoscopic, and brilliant – and learned that three months after deployment to Algeria, all Americans were declared persona non grata and given 48 hours to leave the country.
One of the first things I did, however, after getting installed in my rooftop flat on Peddar Road in Bombay, 15 floors up with a commanding view of the city, the Towers of Silence, the Gateway of India and the ghats climbing to Poona and beyond, was to engage a sitar teacher. I had no previous musical experience, and I figured that at the very least I would be able to listen to this magical music. It turned out that I had a very good ear, and before I could play note, I enjoyed tuning the instrument, strumming the principal strings and hearing the sympathetic vibrations of the thin strings beneath. My guru (as I called him) bought me a Calcutta-made sitar, a finely polished, elegantly simple instrument that I kept in a specially-made covering.
I didn’t stay in Bombay long enough to get into the music, for I was transferred to Delhi; but there I engaged a friend of my Bombay teacher – they both had been pupils of Ravi Shankar – and for three years studied with him. I never learned well. As I said, I have little musical ability other than a good ear, and although I managed creditably on the first, slow, contemplative movement, the alaap, I had difficulty with the syncopated rhythms of the second, the jhaala, and was totally befuddled by the complex 8, 10, 12, 14, or 16 beat rhythmic cycles. I told my guru that I would be quite happy if I left India with a decent understanding of the alaap movements of a few ragas. At least then I would know the note scales and the tonal feeling of the music. Each raga of course is different, major and minor keys, differing note scales, some played in the morning, others in the evening, and getting the feel of the raga and developing my own feel in the improvisational first movement would be a major accomplishment.
My Delhi guru bought me a new sitar, this time a gussied up, fancy hand-carved one again from Calcutta – the Cadillac of sitars, he said, and he was right – it was the chrome and fins version of Indian instruments. However, it had an even more rounded, resonating sound, and it was magnificent.
My teacher and I had a true guru-chela relationship. Basically in return from learning from the great man, I would be his slave. I bought him whiskey, new synthetic Terylene pastel-colored kurtas with silver buttons. I drove him wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with whomever he chose. I picked him up and a cluster of totally bagged up women from his house in the Muslim quarter of Old Delhi, saw a charming group of attractive young women emerge from the bags 100 yards out of the colony, and drove them all to musical events where my guru played. It was wonderful, and the exchange was in my favor.
The best times were when I went with him alone, a sarod player and a tabla player for jugalbandi – two principal instruments playing together, or playing off each other in solo riffs, close fretting, tight, competitive rhythmic patterns….all until 3 or 4 in the morning. Ragas never seemed to have a specific starting or ending point. Tuning gradually and progressively turned into the first notes of the alaap, and the raga was over when it was over. No rules.
My guru spoke very little English which helped out my Hindustani a lot; so by the end of my four years in India and three with him, my Hindi was far, far better than my music. I also got to be a part of the Muslim community in Delhi, a very rare thing for foreigners, most of whom fit the stereotype of living within vast houses one no different from the next. I somehow knew that this avenue of music would lead me farther into India than most.
About two months prior to leaving India in 1973, I was invited to a South Indian classical music concert in Delhi; and I had the same reaction as I did to my first raga in 1966. Where have I been? Where has this music been? It was so different from North Indian music – different instruments, the veena, flute, mridungam, kanjira, Jew’s harp, various other percussion instruments, and a swaying, pulsing rhythm that had a completely different feel. It was again, a magical moment. I listened to nothing else during my remaining time in India, searching out South Indian concerts wherever I could. My guru was not of much help, of course, but I was successful nonetheless. I made a number of unnecessary field trips to the South just to hear the music.
And just before leaving, I had my final musical epiphany – ghazals – Indian semi-classical vocals. We were invited via friends to a mehfil, a musical gathering at someone’s home, in this case a very wealthy Indian patron of the arts. She had a protegee, a young girl from Bombay just beginning her musical career. When she started to sing, it was angelic – as pure and beautiful a voice as I and the others had ever heard. It was graceful and lilting, moving from high notes to lower ones with perfect ease and phrasing. She sang two songs and stopped. “More, more…Please!”, we urged; but that was all she knew, she was just beginning, and Mrs. Naag simply wanted us to hear the sweet voice of this girl she had found.
I had never paid any attention to Indian popular music. It blared out from every tea stall and bus station; in every restaurant, from loudspeakers at all markets. The female voices were always in falsetto and the vocals simply became part of the noisy street scene of India; but when I heard what real vocals were supposed to be, I was once again transformed. I listened to nothing but ghazals, and over the years after India bought them in India and especially Bangladesh.
I spent only four years in India, but they were probably the most important or influential of my life. India is still with me, very much alive, especially when I hear the music, or smell incense, or Indian cooking. There is too much too tell because there was so much to see, hear, smell, and feel. I had thought that I was through writing about India and my travels, but when I realized that I had not yet written about music, I knew that I simply had been tapping the wrong seam in the mine of my memory.