Monday, May 24, 2021

Memories, Music And More

A couple of months ago, before my son Nayan's summer holidays began, I started my search for a music teacher for him.  Nayan had been missing his music classes, which had abruptly ended with the pandemic.  I thought this would be a good time to restart.  

I knew my son well enough to understand that he couldn't be put into a very regimented programme.  He rebels if he feels pushed and I also didn't want his joy of music turned into a routine of monotony.  My husband and I discussed this.  I couldn't think of where to start but my husband suggested folk music.  That seemed to be perfect but- how does one find a teacher for this?

I asked a lot of people- parents, teachers, musicians.  It took a month and a half until I was finally connected to a folk singer in Bangalore.  He promptly got in touch with me but said he mostly played folk instruments of Bengal and could sing a few folk songs but only in Bengali.  I felt it would be difficult for Nayan to learn songs in a language he was not familiar with, so the musician very kindly offered to introduce me to someone else in his band who was a singer and knew Hindi.

It took a while to get connected and the singer said he was too busy to take classes, but he would ask a friend of his.  And so on.  This went on as a kind of Chinese whispers, each step taking us one step further from our point of initial contact.  After a while there was just silence.

One day, while talking to my sister in law in Delhi, I mentioned my ongoing search.  Immediately she said, "I have the numbers of some teachers who taught my children."  In a few seconds, a number flashed on my screen.

"What does she teach?" I asked feeling a bit dizzy.  It had been too fast.

"Western music.  Fun, happy songs."

"Er- do you have anyone for Indian music?" I asked, not very hopeful, but yes, she had!  My sister in law is a walking repository of information and numbers.

"This is a very old number," she said, "but try it."

I tried it and within a minute I got a reply.  "Please call tomorrow evening to discuss this."

The next day, the classes were fixed up and we were to begin soon.  I still had no clear idea of what Nayan would learn (whether he would learn at all, sitting in front of a computer) but it was a beginning.  I hoped it would not be too classical or rigorous for him.

Now, two weeks down the line, I can only smile at the way things have worked out.  We are learning Indian classical music.  It is rigorous, it involves work, it is also playfully done, and my son loves it!  I discovered the teacher was Bengali, and now we are also being introduced to the language and music of Bengal through him.  I say "we" because I have also been induced to learn music, initially as an attempt to help my son and now just because it is so enjoyable.  It is a strange feeling to embark on this learning so late in life but if my vocal chords are not complaining, why should I?

My husband's mother comes from Bengal and this is why the Bengal connection is particularly meaningful for our family though it has cropped up inadvertently in the music class.  I remember snippets of Bengali music heard in the past years- Rabindra sangeet in Kolkata, songs of boats (because my mother in law worked with boat builders) and the beautiful folk music of Bengal.  I cannot forget the Baul singer who visited the family house in Kolkata every few weeks and his simple yet haunting songs.

With all these memories floating through my mind, I am pasting below a snippet from an earlier blog I had written about the Baul singer and his song that I had recorded at the time-
"In the midst of all this, I feel truly blessed to have our local Baul visit every Sunday morning.  He walks down the street, playing his simple string instrument and singing his soulful songs.  Hardly anyone listens but he always stops in front of our family house, where he knows someone or the other will emerge.  And if I am there, I always do.  I love listening to these down to earth songs with mystic roots.  Songs which remind us that God must be searched for (and discovered) within our own hearts, by ourselves.

Bauls- the wandering mystic minstrels of Bengal used to travel from village to village, bringing these messages and their wonderful music to the common man.  Each village would provide them with food and shelter and take care of their needs.  Now things have changed, the Bauls have to fend for themselves and their travel is restricted.  They are hardly seen in urban settings, except for a few high profile ones, who perform periodically in concerts.  These performances are quite powerful but they often lack the spontaneity and simplicity found in a more natural setting.

This time I was fortunate enough to have my cell phone with me while rushing down to hear the Baul.  And so I made my first recording of one of his songs, the link is given below.  There was plenty of neighbourhood action at the time of the recording (and my hand finally shook when my little son made a beeline for the road).  People were coming and going, the driver was revving the car, the dhobi arrived with his bundle of freshly ironed clothes, an irate crow was demanding his biscuit breakfast and so on.  But the Baul was lost in his music and in his world - which is as it should be - and it reminded me to search for what gives my life meaning and pursue it without distraction (or at least attempt to)!"

I am also putting a link to a tune played by Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan long ago for a concert in aid for Bangladesh, called Bangla Dhun.  It still echoes in my mind occasionally, reminding me of stories I have heard from my husband's family- of the plants (the special round chillies, the fragrant coriander-like herbs, the gandharaj neebu), the ponds near each house, the playful rivers, the birds and their songs- and the special Padma river fish- the ilish maachh- not to be found as easily any more.  But the memories- and the music remain.

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