A note on my three blogs

A note on my blogs

(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...

(2) vio; sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!

(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.


Monday, 16 September 2013

Death in India

To read this entry, please email me to request an invitation.

If you already have an invitation, you can read the entry here.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

On guru faith

With Guruji; first concerts (December 2010)
I was practising alaap (slow improvisation) on raga Bageshree tonight. I love Bageshree. It's amazing how one particular note becomes exciting in a certain raga, how colourful and poignant that note feels every time you play it. In Bageshree I absolutely love Dha (A/la). I guess that's progress! When I started learning to play alaap it was an absolute torture to practise improvisation; I would play 5 minutes and get sort of exhausted from playing, as though someone had been pulling emotions out of my heart or stripping me naked in public. It would sort of feel heavy in my tummy or I would sort of become short of breath and so had to stop. I couldn't certainly feel anything when I played alone. I was really intrigued about how some people could state that certain ragas have certain feelings attached to them. I mean of course it made sense; music is feeling, but I didn't know how a musician could bring out that feeling alone, just by him or herself. It's so much easier to feel music when you play with others. But in ragas, you can make yourself cry alone; this sounded just impossible. I would cry with discomfort more than any other feeling, because improvisation just made me choke with embarrassment, self-judgement. Today I feel like a knife plunges into my heart whenever I hear that Dha (A/la) in Bageshree. It's just so deep, so thick like velvet, so dense; I don't know just so full of a sharp sort of beauty.

I regularly use recordings of my violin teacher to play over his alaaps, to put myself into the mood of a raga, to be able to improvise better afterwards. Tonight again I did that, and then I tried to play over a recording of N. Rajam, too. The variety of styles within north Indian classical music is amazing... Some sounds which N. Rajam produces are just impossible to get from just hearing them. Her way of jumping between notes, her jerking kind of approach to a note, some of her ornaments... N. Rajam is probably the most famous north Indian classical violinist of our times; she's amazingly talented, amazingly sweet; her notes seem to transcend her skin. She's 75 years old now. I saw her in concert last year in November and her sound was so pure that it's pierced me right through the heart. Her violin cries; her melodies are warm and soft and sweet like honey. But tonight I realised that there really was no point in me trying to play over her alaaps. I guess the only sensical thing to do, violin in hands, is to listen to her so that I'll know straight away which notes she plays and thus I recognise the raga more easily, and so I understand that raga better the next time I hear it bare-handed, and so I can also understand how her style differs from that of my guru.

This insight urged me to write about guru faith. It's something I have been thinking about regularly yet I was never ready to write about it before. I know many Indian classical music students in Banaras who have had a number of teachers. I guess the most serious students I know have changed teacher at least once since they started learning Indian classical music. I've had some frustrated moments that made me consider checking out new teachers, but I really never want to leave Sukhdev completely for he will always remain my guru. Last year I took some classes with Narendra Mishra for two weeks while Sukhdev was away because I had been wanting to take violin classes with a singer for a while. I wanted to follow voice with my instrument, to express vocal through my violin. It was really interesting indeed; I absolutely loved the novelty I experienced through those classes; I loved discovering a new teaching approach, and I loved getting to know Narendra and spending time with him, because he is an amazingly sweet and honest soul. At the time I was thinking I could continue taking classes on vocal or sitar medium with Narendra from time to time because it would perhaps complement my training with Sukhdev.

Life got in the way; a year passed and I hardly saw Narendra again... until he came to visit Sukhdev during my very first violin class this season. It felt a bit funny to sit and practise at Guruji's house while Narendra was sitting next to me, but I was really happy to see him. He had come to hand out some invitation cards for an event he was organising a few days later, so I asked him if he too had any concerts lined-up, because I so love him as a musician. And he did! On 1st September I went to his concert; it was a very intimate one in a school a bit far away from my area of town, and it was at 9am, but it was well worth he effort! I had the amazing surprise to see that his nephew Shubh Maharaj (grandson of renowned Pt. Kishan Maharaj) was accompanying him on tabla, really bombastic and amazing for his young age, and it was a fantastic concert. While I was listening to Narendra's sitar though I realised how different his style is from Sukhdev's, and I realised I no longer had any interest in taking any classes with him. Sure it would be lovely play with and learn from him if the occasion somehow arose, but I don't want to go to him as a student again. I wouldn't see the point now; it would just confuse me. I guess this experience led me to understand what I really wanted to learn: to accompany vocalists. And that's what I am actually doing with the children in Khajuraho!

I think I am also a very faithful and loyal person. I love being dedicated to just one person; dedicated solely to my guru in the same way that I am utterly and totally dedicated to the man I love. Perhaps "cheating" on Sukhdev with Narendra made me understand that cheating with another teacher was just the same as cheating on the man you love. I didn't really cheat - perhaps it was just like a polyamory experience because I told Sukhdev straight away that I was going to take classes with Narendra for a while and he was fine with it. Sukhdev always says I have to make my own experience, go and see for myself. Of course I love to play with other people, other musicians, but that's a different story because those musicians are not my "official" teachers. I guess it's quite simple: Your guru is like your husband. Another teacher is like having an affair. Other musicians with whom you play are like friends. I can have friends but I won't be having an affair again!

With a husband you learn to grow together; you build trust, life as one. Difficult times are but opportunities to make your relationship more loving and beautiful, and if you have the maturity to communicate with honesty and respect, with perseverance you'll go through them together to come out stronger and more devoted towards one another. And in India, your husband is your god and your wife is your goddess. With a guru it's the same. Guru is way more than a music teacher; you touch his/her feet in respect which, it is said, helps you progress faster because you "take" some of your guru's energy in the process. I don't know if this is literally true, and it took me a long time to do it because although I find this gesture extremely beautiful it used to make me feel very uncomfortable. Still, today I certainly feel that being close and devoted to my guru helps me progress on the violin and I even feel that devotion is as important as violin practice (as long as it is honest). So your relationship to your guru is a deep one which you build, develop and maintain. In India you get to know all of your guru's family; you even become part of his family. In addition to my guru's blood family, all of his students have become my brothers and sisters, and the students of my guru's brothers my cousins. I guess I feel that more with my Indian "siblings" because they follow and feel the guru parampara (guru tradition) a lot more than my European "siblings".

In India, you also have to serve your guru. For instance my Indian "siblings" massage Guruji regularly. The first time I saw this (4 students, two massaging each of his arms and and two massaging his legs) I thought this was really too much, but this is common practice! I still have a (big) issue with massaging my guru; I guess it's the touching and I'm hopeless at massage anyway, but I serve him in different ways, more western or educated ways I guess, like giving him reiki, designing his website, doing translation work for some of his projects, helping him on the computer... I think we Westerners have a big issue with "selfless service", because our society is very individualistic, and we often associate devotion with blind religion. But I love serving my guru and I do it heartily. One of my "cousins" still follows the authentic tradition; which is a rarity nowadays: he lives (part-time) in his guru's home for free in return of which he performs many daily tasks for the family, like when the family wives send him out for shopping, looking after instruments, being a concert assistant etc. Living in the guru's home, again, from immersing yourself with his presence, with his energy and the energy of the ancestral tradition, allows you to progress faster. At the moment my "cousin" also looks after his guru's (dying) father, our "grand-guru"... Sometimes I wish I would do it too, like feed this aged man who used to be an amazing sarangi player and for whom I have great respect...

A guru's students also offer him/her his selfless service (that's called seva) during concerts. They carry their guru's instrument and the tanpura to and off the stage, and the guru's concert is part of his/her students training so they have a special place to sit near him/her. I absolutely love this, because you sometimes get the chance to come close to wonderful musicians. This is the groupie side of learning Indian music! And I have ALWAYS been a groupie! When I lived in Europe I used to only listen to alternative music and small musicians, so somehow whenever I would go to concerts I could come close to my favourite musicians if I wanted, and I always loved being able to express my love and gratitude towards those people who played the music that moved me. I loved going towards them after concerts, even if I felt too shy to speak, just to look at them closely and feel their presence, and I have even hugged a number of my favourites! Many of my friends used to say "Hey, you're such a groupie!" and I used to be shy and ashamed to admit liking to approach my favourite musicians (silly mind!) but the truth was always that I LOVED LOVED LOVED it so much. Today I live in India and being a groupie doesn't get me called an "arse-licker", it is common practice when you learn classical music!!! And it's amazing because you even get to play with your favourite musicians, and I'm the luckiest of all because my favourite Indian music musician is my teacher! In India your favourite band or singer can become your teacher! Just imagine going to meet Devendra Banhart after a concert and asking him to teach you the guitar, hey!? How great would that be!? So I have come to terms with my groupyness thanks to Indian classical music and thanks to my dear guru - well, I have come to terms with many things thanks to Indian classical music and my guru! ♥

I don't know if I have "the" ideal relationship with my musical guru, but I certainly know that I have a very beautiful relationship to him. I am very lucky indeed because not only is he a fantastic musician (and apart from N. Rajam I have yet never heard an Indian classical violinist whom I liked equally or more than him), but he is also a great and encouraging teacher, and a very fun and cool guy! I know he's not perfect and he's certainly not my "life" guru; he's my "musical" guru only. I wouldn't throw myself outside of a window if he told me to do so, but I never refuse to do some work for him if he needs it, I hardly ever miss his concerts if he plays near me (I wonder how many times I have seen him in concerts actually; more than 100!?), and I feel enormous respect, enormous gratitude, and deep unconditional love towards him... With him I have not only grown to be a musician and even a violin teacher myself, I have also grown to be a healthier human being, I have challenged my deepest fears and made my wildest dream come true, I have become part of an(other!) Indian family and dived into the most ancient of Indian (musical) traditions...

With your devoted husband you grow as a human being, you build a relationship and a life together which it would be immature to shatter just for the excitement of novelty or entertainment or for the fear of going through hardship. Likewise, with my guru I have grown (and am still growing) as a human being; all the difficulties I went through with him were opportunities for me to grow and the frustrated moments have passed thanks to honesty, communication and perseverance. With my guru I have been building a profound, beautiful relationship which I am devoted to nurture, because I feel the relationship I have with him is as important as the music I learn - the relationship I have with him gives more depth and meaning to the music I learn with him. The additional techniques I could learn by going for another teacher would never make up for the loss of a beautiful, deep and growing relationship. With one you dig in and deeper you grow; with too many nowhere you go.

Monday, 2 September 2013

A (fun) example of Indian bureaucracy


To update my address in my bank pass-book.


Thursday evening-
1) Ask landlord for a letter & a copy of his phone bill. Wait 15 minutes, get it.

Friday morning-
2) Cycle to the bank (crossing the overflowing river that has reached the road on the way). Meet the branch manager. Manager ponders, ask if my landlord has an account in this bank for security check. Phone landlord; the answer is no. Manager ponders, asks another few questions. "I need a photocopy of your landlord's pan-card", manager says. Phone landlord; he's away til Sunday. OK, I'll come back to the bank on Monday. Cycle back through the overflowing river and get home.

Sunday afternoon-
3) Get pan-card photocopy from landlord.

4) 10:30am - Cycle through the overflowing river and to the bank. Go to the manager's office; show him the pan-card photocopy of my landlord.

5) Manager: "But he hasn't signed his letter! I can't do anything til I get a signature of your landlord that matches the one on his pan-card." "You're an educated lady, you should know that a letter should be signed to be valid" etc. etc.

6) Get frustrated. "But he wrote it himself, and some people's signatures are just their name in writing, how could I know!?"! "Being angry is not good", says manager. "I know. I'm OK, I'm just human" says I. Calm down. Get out of the office. Retaining my tears of frustration, phone landlord - thank God he's home; he was about to get out in 10 minutes but he will wait for me.

7) 11:00am - Cycle through the overflowing river (& the Indian traffic) back home; get landlord's signature.

8) 11:30am - Cycle through the overflowing river and back to the bank for the second time. Sit down in front of the manager; hand him the landlord's letter with his signature. Wait in manager's office.

9) Manager goes to his employee's desk and instructs her to update my details and issue a new passbook. Wait.

10) Get my new passbook. Go back to manager's office to get it signed by him. "And now say thank you!" says manager. "Thank you, dhanyavad, bahut dhanyavad", says I, smiling away.

11) 12:30 - Cycle through the overflowing river and back home. Cook lunch. Eat lunch. Getting ready to photocopy the front page of my passbook; open passbook - my address was typed erroneously. ARGH!!! OK, it was my fault too I should have checked. Actually getting amused wondering what the manager will look like when he sees my face approach his office again.

12) 14:00 - Cycle back through the overflowing river and the Indian traffic and to the bank for the third time. Check-out the manager's eyes growing in size as I approach the office. Sit down in front of his desk. 3-4 people are waiting for some work to get done - as usual manager deals with all customers at the same time. "The address is wrong", I say. Still calm(ish). Wait.

13) After a while, the manager looks at my passbook. "What now?", he asks. "The address was typed wrongly", says I. "Ok ok. My colleague is having her lunch. We have to wait for her. She will make a correction on the second page of your passbook", says he. I feel anger rise again. "No no, I want a new passbook! I need a strong proof of address for some official work, I want it to look right!" "I've been coming three times! I had so much to do today I have done nothing at all!" Letting anger out trying to control myself. "It's not good to get angry." says manager. "I am a human being, kind sir. Humans do get angry from time to time, no?"

14) Calm down. Wait for others customers to get dealt with, focusing on my breath...

15) After a wee while... "Smile!" says manager. I look at him; I'm calm but I can't possibly let a smile out. "Anger is not good; but lying is also not good, right sir? So If I smiled I'd be lying, and that's not good either!" says I. "Actually, that's quite true", says manager. I burst out laughing. In the meantime, the other customers have left and I'm alone with the manager.

16) "Haha." smiles manager, in a "See, you're smiling!" kind of look! "You know, there used to be 6 employees in this office. Now we are only 3 people and I'm the only officer. See this pile of paperwork on my desk; but I never get angry. In my life, I just want to give, give, give" says he, moving his hands eagerly in the air... "No take, just give... That's what Jesus used to say no?"

17) "Uh?!" I say; I didn't understand what he said because of his accent. "Jesus" he repeats. "Ah OK! Jesus; hm I guess; I don't know." "You don't know??" asks manager in disbelief. "Nah, I never had any religious education. Actually I know more about Hinduism than Christianity".

18) More talking about how to be a good human being. Getting more and more amused by his funny wig-looking like hair style and his slightly gay-looking expressions and gestures.

19) Manager gets up and goes to the toilet just besides his office. Half a minute later he comes back and proceeds to open his lunch box. "I'm just going to get some water', says I. "No no!" says manager. "I have some water. Here you take it. You can drink from above, right?" - "Yep". Pour water into my mouth without touching the bottle.

20) "Please I won't let you go without sharing a chapati with me; just one." says manager. "No no, thanks that's very kind; I've just had my lunch sir". "Oh please, says manager. Just one chapati!" A bit embarrassed but impressed with myself for having shouted at him earlier and now getting to share his lunch (!), I come round his desk, take a chapati, dip it in his paneer (cheese) dish." Yum! While biting my chapati, I look outside of the office and see a surprised customer looking at the foreign lady sharing the bank manager's lunch.

21) "Who made this?" ask I. " My Mrs made it." says manager. Manager proceeds to ask me about my family, tells me his daughter lives in America; his wife works in a bank like him, and "You speak very good Hindi; where did you learn? etc. etc.

22) Manager gets up; his employee is back from her lunch and has come into the office. Manager hands her a small pile of paper, including my passbook. "Please issue a new passbook for the lady; the address is wrong." Employee looks surprised that she'll have to issue a whole new passbook for me but complies. I follow her to her desk. Wait 5 minutes. Get my new passbook. I check it; the address is right.

23) Get back to manager's office. He signs my passbook. Big smile. "Thank you sir, bye"....

24) 15:35pm - Cycle through the overflowing river and the Indian traffic and back home. Sigh. 4pm. Horrah! I have my new passbook! And I SHARED THE BANK MANAGER'S LUNCH IN HIS OFFICE!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! I LOVE INDIA!!!!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Banaras floods 2013

At the very beginning of August, although it hasn't rained very much in Varanasi this year, the Ganges river burst its banks onto the edges of the Holy City. This is due to the floods which devastated Himachal Pradesh earlier in June...

I went to Khajuraho on 31 July, just missing the floods, and the river retrieved back into its bed. After a few days however, Ganga rose again, dramatically this time and for at least three weeks. The south of the city (Nagwa, Lanka, Samne Ghat) was most deeply affected, with many unfortunate families losing their houses and all their belongings in the floods... Although this was obviously a tragedy for many, some people got very excited by the floods because they had never ever seen anything like it, and I too really wanted to see them. I came back to Varanasi on 28 August, and after dropping my bags home the first thing I did was to go for a wander from Assi Ghat to the Main Ghat to see the river and take pictures...

I firstly walked to see my most familiar landmarks around Assi Ghat. The water had reached the beginning of the lane of my old guesthouse. My mouth dropped open when I saw Ashish Cafe and the Assi steps... After that, on the main road I walked to Shivala, to climb onto the rooftop of my friends' house, who live by the river there. Next I really wanted to see Harischandra Ghat, because it was my first home in Varanasi. I was in total shock when I saw how far up the water had come there... I dared into the dirty water and squeezed into a narrow lane that was still dry; I wanted to see where the cremations were happening, in such little space. But life never stops in India, even in the biggest tragedies, and so the wood was stored in the street, and cremations crammed into a tiny round lane behind some dilapidated family homes by the river. I managed to squeeze past the crowd of watching men onto the side of the lane, somehow, to reach to the river. I had to climb onto mounts of mud and shit and bamboo sticks and lean onto a burning hot stone wall. Three bodies were burning in a 3-meter-squared space; I could hardly breathe.

Like me, many people had come to see the river gone mad, with a mixture of love, admiration and fear. They admired the power of their beloved Mother-River, yet for the first time in their lives it seemed to me that they feared it, as it had devastated many families; and how far up would the waters still rise?... Along my way all the people I met were kind and helpful telling me where the water was least high and which way I could go; helpful in the way that when tragedy happens you're all part of the same boat (no pun intended) and it brings you closer...

It was amazing to see a Varanasi in such a new light, so familiar yet completely different somehow. And fascinating and scary to imagine that below the water it was not sand and stones that lied, but familiar steps, walkways, temples, shops, and houses engulfed into nothingness. Despite the tragedy, people enjoy the novelty this bring into their lives. You see naked kids splashing one another with water on the sides of the road. You try having fun slowly cycling in 50cm-high water without knowing when you'll hit a hole in the road and fall off your bike. If you walk you don't know exactly what you'll meet in the thick dirty waters - cow shit, plastic bags, stones? You see cars and rickshaws producing a wake pattern as though they were boats... Of course the photos I have posted below hardly depict what I have seen with my own eyes...

The water has retrieved considerably since I took these pictures, but God knows what the future brings...

To see the rest of the pictures, click here.