My Wife Said, “Let’s Have Some Indian Music.”

Ravi ShankarIs that a good title for today’s blog? Well, I believe it is. I’ll tell you why.

So, yesterday, Park Slope Food Coop — a member-run not-for-profit specializing on healthy foods — put her in charge of preparing meals for some of the longtime staff at the coop. Obviously, because of her new reputation with Mukti’s Kitchen, they asked her to cook Indian dishes.

She found a number of volunteers to sous-chef, and I volunteered as one too (!).

It’s a two-day process. The first day, yesterday, five or six coop members helped her to cut vegetables, boil and peel eggs, grind spices, and then cook some of the dishes. The second day, today, they are going to finish it all — to cap with a sumptuous lunch. They’re all looking forward to it.

So, a half hour into the preparation early in the morning, Mukti said, “Why don’t we play some Indian music?” I said to myself, “Why couldn’t I think of it first? It’s natural today.”

On my iPhone, I began playing a Ravi Shankar sitar. He is a legend I spoke and wrote about many times. Here’s a CNN story after his passing. Moni Basu quoted me in it.

Ravi Shankar’s sitar was the first thing that came to my mind. Salute to the great maestro, who along with Ali Akbar Khan had thought about bringing Indian music to America long time ago, back in the sixties, when the Beatles became his fans, and George Harrison took sitar lessons after the phenomenal concert in California.

Then, Nicholas took over. He was one of the sous-chefs.

Nicholas turned on the coop kitchen computer, and put on an incredible sitar off YouTube. I don’t know who the artist was: could be Ravi Shankar, Vilayet Khan, or Budhaditya Mukherjee — one of the new maestros. I am not exactly sure.

But it was absolutely beautiful. I could use other terms to describe it: magical, spiritual, divine. But I would leave it up to you to decide. Meditative and relaxing, for sure. The entire environment in the kitchen lit up. He left the music on for the entire day — it played from 8 A.M. to 1.30 P.M., when we adjourned.

Today, August 14, is the day when I left my beloved India, Bengal and Calcutta — out of emotional and political desperation — to come to USA. It was extremely difficult.

Looking back, I am deeply sad that I could not stay back in a place that I care for so much. Its people, its love, its poetry. Looking back, I am extremely happy that along with my wife, I built a life from zero in an alien land, and gained knowledge, critical thinking, and reputation. (Oh yes, I couldn’t speak a full sentence in English before; now I can — a little bit.)

Both countries have given me so much. I owe so much to both places. In our small ways, we are giving back to both of them.

My wife is giving back through teaching Indian cooking secrets to her American students — literally hundreds of them. I am giving back through teaching my labor union worker students — literally thousands of them. Writing and translating 24/7 about our culture.

Ravi Shankar did it in his magnanimous way. He brought the treasures of the Indian civilization to America. And Americans — like Nicholas — are still in love with it.

We are doing it in our little ways.

I’m glad she was the one who thought of playing Indian music in the kitchen, and we all loved to help her cook Indian food, for the enlightened and embracing American friends.

Today, August 14, is a good day for us — to celebrate.

Sincerely, in love and gratitude,

Partha Banerjee

Brooklyn, New York

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MK foods
Courtesy: Mukti’s Kitchen, Brooklyn, New York.

God, in a Random Thought

Ravi Shankar in Calcutta.
Ravi Shankar in Calcutta.

A Word About God.

Every morning, when I wake up, a thought comes to my mind. It’s a thought. Or, it’s a dream. It’s the time when I am the purest. Kindest. Happiest too. It is the time when round, plump and glistening dew drops on a soft lotus leaf invite me to talk silently. To be a part of it. It tells me, don’t worry, your dream is all right. It says, you may not believe in God, but that is your God. That thought. That dream. That is God. Because it is pure. I get distracted by other, less important and more mundane thoughts during the course of the day. Then again, when I go back to sleep at night, I get excited. Because I know, next morning, when I wake up, it will come back to me again. I close my eyes, and wait for that moment.

______________

Sylvia Plath, angel poet.
Sylvia Plath, angel poet.

How do you write poetry?

How do you paint a painting? You need training. You need to learn the craft. You need the intensity. Inspiration. Passion. But it’s more. Much more. It’s like when early in the morning, you must go. You know you have to go. Crude? Vulgar? So what? That’s how poetry comes. Art comes. Your first public speech comes. It builds inside. Uses your blood, food and gut. It takes a shape. And it happens because you have done something for it. Cried for it. You have now come to a point when it happens. It will happen. Naturally. Don’t force it. Embrace it, with closed eyes. It’s a spiritual experience. Bliss.

______________

The other angel.
The other angel.

A Prayer and More.

9/11 “Dust Lady” Marcy Borders died this week of cancer at the age of 42. Many people have remembered the terrorist attack, but forgotten the lies and hush-ups that came with it. Bush, Giuliani and EPA director Christine Todd Whitman, along with big media, all lied to us that everything was safe, and there was no potential health threats. They sent kids back to school on Ground Zero when the fire was still burning, and asbestos was free floating in the air. Chuck Schumer’s wife who worked for the city DOT made the toxic dumps barged next to Stuyvesant High School. Now, with Marcy’s death, I hope people revisit the potentially catastrophic health bomb to explode on our children. And challenge the authorities — Republican and Democrat — on their lies.

______________

Sarah N. Cleghorn, my girlfriend.
Sarah N. Cleghorn, my girlfriend.

Post Script.

“The golf links lie so near the mill

That almost every day

The laboring children can look out

And see the men at play.”

— Sarah N. Cleghorn, American poet, and a Christian socialist. She wrote it in 1917.

Just about a hundred years ago.

Think.

Sincerely,

Partha Banerjee

Brooklyn, New York

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Ravi Shankar: Sitar, Shanti and Soul

Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar and Baba Alauddin Khan
Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar and Baba Alauddin Khan

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.

RaviIn 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 Ravi and Rayplayed 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.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Anoushka