Memories are extremely precious, and in my case, extremely haunting.
When I feel alone, very old memories take me back to those sunlit, golden days back in Calcutta. I have written a lot about it, both in English and Bengali. And I am going to write a lot more.
Memories are lovely, and memories are friends. What’s more: they are therapeutic.
Try this immigrant life in America. You’ll know.
Here’s a picture of my little notebook I carried with me all the time when I was in my early twenties in Calcutta. We didn’t have means to buy new notebooks. This one was one from 1970, which I was using in 1980.
In fact, it is still with me. (But the bed sheet in the picture — the blue one I used all the time in that little half-room in our North Calcutta home — well, it was a part of my life.)
This page in Bengali is a description of a classical all-night music program I attended in one of the public auditoriums — if anybody remembers where it was, let me know.
November 22, 1980. — The program started at 9 P.M. and went all the way through 6.30 A.M. the next morning.
Artists who performed:
1. Dinanath Mishra (vocal). sang Raga Jog, and a Bhairavi thumri
2. Buddhadev Dasgupta, accompanied on tabla by Swapan Chowdhury — played sarod. Raga Bagesree, and a Pilu thumri.
3. A dance recital by Mira Chatterjee — I have completely forgotten about it. Not a trace of memory on this.
4. Sunanda Patnaik (vocal) — Raga Bilaskhani Todi, and a famous Bhajan in Bhairon (Jagannath Swami…).
5. Sohan Lal Sharma on harmonium and Tarun Bhattacharya on santoor — Duet — Raga Hansadhwani.
6. End of the program soiree — Sitar by Manilal Nag, accompanied on table by Maha Purush Mishra. Raga Ahir Bhairon.
I could write a hundred pages on this memory. But I am savoring it tonight. I will sleep with this tonight.
This Friday, October 9 at 7 P.M., I am going to read a few pages of my memoir manuscript. Location: Park Slope Food Coop, Brooklyn. The event is free and open to all. I will also play a couple of songs off my Tagore CD album. I invite you to come and encourage and support my little effort. I am posting the flyer.
Sitar virtuoso, Indian music legend Ravi Shankar is no more. Pandit, Guru Ravi Shankar passed away in his California home on Tuesday. He was 92.
Many Indians, particularly the pre-kitsch, non-Bollywood-type Indians, and surprisingly a large number of Westerners know about Ravi Shankar and some of his remarkable achievements. They know of Shankar’s close association with Beatles’ George Harrison in the “psychedelic” sixties when Harrison took sitar lessons from Shankar, and promoted both the instrument and Indian classical music to the West. Some of know of Shankar’s memorable music direction to Satyajit Ray’s watershed movie Pather Panchali. Many others know that Ravi Shankar had a daughter out of a short-lived marriage, and the daughter is now a world-famous pop singer Norah Jones. Some others perhaps also know that Shankar had another marriage later which gave birth to Anoushka, who is now a well-known sitar player herself and has often played with her genius father at concerts all over the world. In fact, a simple Google or YouTube search would instantly find you thousands of stories and video clips on the legendary father and his two famous musician daughters.
It is common perception that George Harrison brought Ravi Shankar to the West. That may be true and Harrison did a rare act of recognition and appreciation for the Eastern culture; he also brought out the suffering of Bangladesh to the West during its 1971 Liberation War. But untrue is the nuance that Ravi Shankar became Ravi Shankar — the world-renowned musician — because of George Harrison. A genius like Shankar did not need any particular push to become a genius.
In fact, I have said it elsewhere that “Had he been born a Westerner, he might have been a household name like Beethoven or Mozart.” What I meant is that had he been an American or European, and not a Bengali-Indian musician from a West-undermined Bengal and India, his genius would be much more readily acclaimed at educated American and European living rooms. He would not have to find fame at select, elite liberal homes and even more select, elite university music departments — especially through identification with George Harrison or the so-called psychedelic sixties. Americans today have only remembered the marijuana smokescreen of the sixties and sadly forgotten all about its revolutionary search of peace and soul.
About that often-misplaced association, Shankar said “he was happy to have contributed to bringing the music of India to the West… The music he played, he said, was sacred.”
In fact, the music he played all his life was about soul and shanti. It was about humanity. It was about an ancient, thousand years of Indian civilization that taught the world how art and music can transcend the boundaries of man-made silos. Shankar and his co-disciples such as Ali Akbar Khan and their percussion accompanist Alla Rakha, as well as the more recent tabla prodigy Zakir Hussain all showed how the school of music they grew up in could take both the player and the listener from the world of mortality to immortality. To a Western aficionado, it might sound rather abstract, but in India, music is a way of worshiping Saraswati the goddess of learning. Music is a well-accepted spiritual yoga. One does not have to belong to a certain religious school or denomination to attain supreme religiosity.
Of course, some might say it’s not really that different in the West. They might say, other non-Harrison virtuosos Ravi Shankar played with: violinist Yehudi Menuhin, saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Phillip Glass or conductor Andre Previn — all touched God through their music. But as someone who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical school, I would not be able to tell exactly what these legendary personalities thought about soul-searching through their music; I can only assume that all of them found their God when they performed. I know I can look at Menuhin pulling his bow on the violin, his eyes closed, and I know that he transcended from our lowly, mundane, fractious world to a blissful, divine height. We can definitely say that about Ray Charles too: his side-to-side sways while singing gave it all away. I know he had found his God.
Very few people perhaps know about the source of that spirituality Ravi Shankar brought from India to the West. It was his mentor Baba Alauddin Khan, a Bengali Muslim who identified a young Ravi’s talent when the Baba (or father) toured with the ballet troupe of Ravi’s illustrious dancer brother Uday Shankar, and took the teenager sitarist boy in for an in-house disciple. Alauddin Khan taught young Ravi how to play the sitar and tabla, sing, and understand the ocean-deep treasures of the Hindustani ragas — the many musical moods and structures. Just the same way the Baba showed him the countless improvisations and varieties, flexibilities and nuances and departures from the raga — properties that are primarily different from a rigorously structured Western classical — the Homer of modern-era Indian classical music, who lived through the age of 110, also trained Ravi on the lessons of a sacred, yet completely secular lifestyle — a lifestyle of humility, spirituality and peace. Muslim Alauddin Khan named his daughter Annapurna, a Hindu goddess, who some say was an even more talented sitar player than Ravi, and she became Ravi’s first wife.
When I talk about Ravi Shankar’s music transcending the boundaries of race and religion, I talk about humanity. I talk about peace. I talk about a progressive, futuristic way of life. That is life’s way our Eastern mentors taught us through centuries. Whether it’s the ancient saints or medieval-era Sri Chaitanya, or whether it’s the more recent Godly personalities like Rabindranath Tagore or Ramakrishna Paramhansa, this value is what streams through our blood streams.
Baba Alauddin inculcated that forward-looking lifestyle on all his students: his children. Ravi Shankar carried that mission forward when he played his sitar and built bridges between the East and the West.
Through his music, Ravi Shankar touched his God: humanity.
This is a departure from my normal blog routine. Here I write about Tagore music that is my inspiration, my spirituality, my healer. I hope you join me on this blissful journey.
For those who appreciate Indian music, and particularly the Tagore school of music, I present a few of my recordings I did a few years ago (Name of CD: Preme, Praane, Gaane — In Love, Life and Song – Music2000, Kolkata, co-recorded with my sister Poorna). I present three of my recordings and one score sung by Poorna. I definitely know that if I post more of her songs, you’re not going to come back to hear mine. Therefore, I made a conscious, cunning choice to outnumber her.
Plus, she lives in Kolkata, is not nearly as Internet-savvy as I am, and it’s unlikely that she’s ever going to snoop to discover what her big brother is saying to her global, distinguished friends.
I plan to record a new CD later this year when I’m in India. I hope you have time to listen to my songs, put up with my humble effort, and let me know your thoughts. Don’t praise Poorna’s song too much; praise mine more. You don’t want to see your favorite blogmaster sad and depressed, do you?
Lightheartedness aside, Rabindranath Tagore’s songs give me my spirituality; they bring the Dr. Jekyll out of my mundane and troubling Mr. Hyde.
When I’m in deep pain, anguish and distress, Tagore songs hold my hand and walk me through the woods. For me, it is intense love and spirituality. I listen, I sing, I read, and I translate. I cry. I get in a trance. Honestly, it is quite incredible for an otherwise unremarkable and ordinary man like me.
For you, I’ve also translated these songs into English. Maybe, I take more pride in my Tagore translation than my inept, undereducated voice. (However, honestly, I take deep pride in Poorna’s music).
I’m going to post more translations soon. Promise.
Happy to report to you, new and old friends, worldwide.
The poet of all poets already said it what I always wanted to say. And he said it a hundred years ago…so effortlessly. I translate Tagore songs in a unique way: I do a purposeful rhyme. Because I cannot ever translate his out-of-the-world tune, this is my forced alternative to his celestial magic. Weak and inadequate alternative, I know; but because his songs are always “old-fashioned”ly rhyming, and because I do not think a prose-form translation of his songs does justice to his heavenly sorcery with words, at least a rhyming translation would supplement for it to some extent. I leave it up to you to decide if my efforts are worthwhile or not.
let me sit, please
would you, by your side
only for a little
and I shall will wait
to finish my chores
true, if I miss
but lookin’ in your eyes
my heart won’t pause
in midst o’ my chores
will wander around
by oceans abound
bereft of cause.
at my flung-open bay
with fanfare, breeze
’bout ‘n around
lush garden and trees.
’tis time for us two
only me and you
I look in your eyes
you look in mine too
and ’tis time to sing a song
the submission song
from a heart to a heart
all quiet and long.
Whatever you say, you say
It doesn’t affect me, no way
I choose to live life ‘most without a reason
My days and nights keep flying away.
Only this crazy wind, this crazy song
Blow over my mind, blow it all along
Today, this moment, this life with no clue
Scatter over the sky the beautiful blue.
My song then does it: it plays the right keys
It does it eventually deep down inside
I look ’round and among the ever-buzzing bees
And I search for the nectar in a relentless stride.
Whose vision is way out and up above there
Whose vision’s wide across the serendipitous blue
Surely it reaches up my own mortal eyes
Finally it finds its way, and lights them up too.
Blessed is my life, Mother, I am born in this land
Blessed is my life, Mother, I’ve loved you so grand
Never want to know your riches like a queen
It only matters you bring me solace serene
Where saw a garden where flowers bloom so fragrant
Where was a heaven where moonshine’s more radiant
Dawn opened my eyes the first time seeing you
Dusk will close them in the end seeing you.