Essays | poetry | Spoken word
I wrote this essay in April of 2015, when I began to access a depth of musical exploration that I’d been afraid of for many years. After a brief hiatus, I’m slowly getting back to that depth, intentionality and patience with my practice of music. Perhaps the habit of listening is one that can easily be forgotten if it is not constantly nurtured, but rediscovering the insights of my younger self is helping me forgive myself and move forward in this process.
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It was the summer of 2009. I was in a hot Mylapore flat, jetlagged and sleepless after a night of no power (and as a result, no air conditioning). This had been the first trip that my mother and I had taken alone, and emotions were running high. Her mother (my grandmother, and a second mother to me) had passed away just a month before, and here we were in Chennai, embarking on what would become two draining months of rigorous musical practice and half-hearted mourning. It was late morning and despite the heat and my insomnia, I was still in bed, covered head to toe in the tent of stolen airline blankets I had created to protect myself from the ravenous mosquitoes that frequented our dusty bedroom. These were persistent mosquitoes, and even in the dry Chennai summer, they thrived on the blood of the residents of Alamelumangapuram Road.
My mother told me one last time to get out of bed. I groggily came out of the bedroom and she handed me a stainless steel tumbler of coffee that had been heated and reheated many times since she woke up. The tumbler sat in a davara, a shorter, wider version of the cup – something like a saucer, but deeper and used to cool down whatever hot beverage one was drinking. I poured the hot, milky coffee into the davara. The tumbler had become unbearably hot, and my already unsteady fingers trembled even more as I tried to transfer the coffee back to it. My fingers finally gave in and the hot coffee spilled all over me.
There certainly wasn’t enough time for my mother to make more coffee and for me to shower. It was already 10:30 am and my guru, H. K. Narasimhamurthy, would arrive at eleven. Over the past three years, HKN Mama had made a series of two-month visits to our house in Maryland, where we spent four to five hours every evening with intensive learning and practice. He taught me hundreds of songs, and spent the school day meticulously notating and printing out the compositions he planned to teach me that evening. When I came home from school, we would sit across from one another in the living room, which had been completely cleared out, except for a large rug, and a few photo frames and souvenirs that sat on the mantel of our broken fireplace. We covered every kind of improvisation, trading phrases back and forth, until we were tired of whatever raga we were in. I had never met so humble a musician. He would remark on how practicing with me was a challenge for him, and how we were learning and growing together. He was proud to have worked so closely with one student, and it satisfied my ego to dwell in his compliments. At the end of his trip in the spring of that year, he told my parents that he would like to take me to his guru, Parur M. S. Gopalakrishnan. MSG was a legend, and it had been my mother’s dream to have me study with him, or at the very least train me in the Parur style of violin. MSG rarely taught, and had very few students, but HKN Mama believed that he would agree to teaching me.
When he arrived at eleven, we had our typical session, practicing and improvising through various compositions and ragas for a few hours. He asked me to play some varnams (warm up pieces that were especially essential to the Parur technique), and after much discussion, he decided that I would show MSG Sarasuda varnam in raga Saveri. MSG was famous for his rendition of this varnam, and as far as I knew, I, too, had mastered it.
“MSG” was so legendary a name that he existed almost as a fantastical person in my mind, and the gravity of learning from such a genius had yet to set in. I had seen him play live when I was very young and less serious about music than I was now. Other than that, I only knew him through recordings of his concerts, which I seldom listened to. In spite of his international renown, he lived in the same Mylapore house he was born in. This was the house where his father Parur Sundaram Iyer locked him in his room for hours and made him practice. The rigor that had made MSG a household name was unimaginable. I had heard stories that Sundaram Iyer would leave MSG to practice for up to eighteen hours a day without a break for food. HKN Mama, Amma, and I sat in the oversized ambassador car that we had hired for the summer, which our driver Satyamurthy squeezed into the increasingly narrow streets of MSG’s neighborhood. There was a crooked yellow board that read “Parur M. S. Gopalakrishnan, Violinist” hanging over two thin, rusty, grated doors that opened to a terrifyingly constructed cement staircase. HKN Mama climbed them without looking at which steps were slanted and which were too short. My mother, who was extremely afraid of heights, asked me to walk behind her, so I could catch her in case she fell.
As he reached the narrow top step, HKN Mama said, “Namaskaram sir!” MSG’s wife came and opened the door. We came in, awkward and apologetic of our presence, as was custom when meeting such brilliant artists. I hugged my violin, and my mother carried a plastic bag of fruits to offer him. MSG sat hunched over, looking out at the netted balcony and listening to the distant cacophony of horns outside, completely unaware of the fact that we had come in. He wore a tight, worn, short-sleeve undershirt and an old veshti with occasional holes in it. His wife brought a tumbler and davara and sat them on the wooden chair in front of him. “Paal,”she said. Milk. He poured the steamed milk into the davarah. His fingers trembled like mine at the heat of the tumbler, but instead of immediately pouring the milk back and forth, he held the tumbler with his two palms and rolled it back and forth, slowly and meditatively, letting his ring clink against the tumbler in steady rhythm. “Vaango,” he said. Come in. And he poured the milk back and forth between the tumbler and the davara.
Once introductions had been made, HKN Mama told him that I would play Saveri varnam for him. He watched and listened closely as I played it. Once slow, twice fast, the second time in staccato or ‘cutting bow’ as we called it. When I finished, MSG was silent. And instead of addressing me, he looked at his student and said, “What is this, Narasimhamurthy? You’ve taught her without any gamaka?” Gamakas were the oscillations and ornamentations that were the cornerstone of Carnatic music, and were particularly important to MSG’s rendition of varnams. It was a painful moment. HKN Mama and I had both disappointed our gurus. After a beat, MSG turned to me and quietly said, “Okay, so you want to learn from me? This week, we will only work on this varnam. If by the end of the week the way you play this varnam has not completely changed, you don’t have to worry about coming back here.”
We had been there for half an hour, and in the next fifteen minutes, MSG Mama began re-teaching me the varnam. He played each phrase slowly, correcting me as I badly reproduced what he had played. And then he sent me home.
That evening, I practiced Saveri varnam and only Saveri varnam for four hours. Making the adjustments that MSG Mama had asked me to make. The next day, he listened to me play the varnam again and again for 45 minutes, occasionally making a comment or an adjustment. I went home and practiced Saveri varnam for seven hours. And so it went the next day and again the next day. It was frustrating and unending. I slept, ate, and breathed with only Saveri varnam on my mind.
But MSG Mama’s silence during these 45-minute sessions was perhaps the most terrifying. I suddenly became painfully aware of the fact that unlike HKN Mama, who always played along with me, MSG Mama could hear everything. He was listening intently as I played the varnam again and again. And all of a sudden, I was listening, too. It was something I had never done before. To actually listen to what was happening! To listen to the point of forgetting that it was me that was playing and MSG Mama that was listening to it. My seven-hour practice sessions of Saveri varnam became more and more intense. They were trance-like. I had played the varnam so many times that I was no longer playing it. I was just existing in it, and slowly becoming it. It was no longer about the placement of my fingers, or the speed at which I was playing. It was about something much bigger than that. During class, MSG Mama stopped correcting me. He just listened as I became the varnam and the varnam became me.
After one week, I played the varnam for 45 minutes again, and at the end he said, “Good. Come at five tomorrow. And think about what you would like to learn next.” The rest of the two months went by very differently. Each day, he would ask me what song I wanted to learn, or what raga I wanted to work on. He would record it for me. I would go home and memorize it. The next day, he would help me internalize it and record the next song. The rigor of my seven-hour practice sessions lessened. I had become so preoccupied with learning the next song that I forgot what had happened that first week. What happened with Saveri varnam was beyond memorizing and internalizing. It was about forgetting, becoming, and then transcending. And I had naively neglected to follow the process that MSG Mama had taught me when I first met him.
A year later, my mother and I returned to Chennai for another two month intensive with MSG Mama. The morning after we reached, she handed me a tumbler of hot coffee and a davara. I poured the coffee into the davara. The tumbler was hot. My fingers trembled like MSG Mamas. I rolled the tumbler between my palms, and the heat began to transfer to my hands. The tumbler cooled down and my hands became warm, and I rolled it until my hands and the tumbler were one.
* * * I have just, after a very long struggle with music, returned to the kind of rigorous practice I had when I first started learning from MSG Mama. My mother and MSG Mama have both passed on, but it is only now, after almost five years of depression and anxiety around playing music, that I have been able to actually begin processing the lessons that I had with MSG Mama and truly feel transcendent when playing. Last week, I was practicing Saveri varnam, and started to relive what happened during that first week of lessons, and the way that MSG Mama rolled his tumbler was such an important part of it. Encapsulated in this little act was MSG Mama’s entire approach to musical meditation. With patience and intentionality, he took two seemingly separate entities and equalized them. Whether it was him and the violin, him and the composition, or him and the audience he was playing for, the drive behind his music was always connection, transcendence, and oneness, and for those who have really opened up and listened to his music, it is this overwhelming transference of energy that we have felt.
- Anjna Swaminathan