Warning! More than 350 words without a photo or video clip. Some focus and concentration may be required.
Forgive me, but a longer than usual set-up is needed here. Back on November 27, 2012 I put out a query among my fellow Guild members (The Screen Composers Guild of Canada) asking for info on any SCGC members who might be into Indian music. I did't know if I wanted to study raga, learn the tabla, the sitar, or what. I just knew I was going to India in two months, and wanted to somehow touch into what I knew was a very rich Indian Classical music tradition. I received 5 or 6 responses before the day was out.
God bless Charlie Finlay, the young man who replied with a message about these two sax players with whom he had gone to Humber College, and who "studied in India in Kolkata, I think." He gave me the Monsoon Music URL and Andrew Kay's email address. First thing I see on the Monsoon website is that alto player Andrew & his tenor playing brother, Jonathan, along with bass player Justin Gray, organize a festival every year called the Toronto Indo-Jazz Festival, and it's happening in 10 days! Fortuitous becomes Auspicious becomes Awesome. Down to Toronto's Rex Tavern I truck, and now, here I am in their Kolkata 2-bedroom three months later.
The Kays and I have a couple of things in common. Firstly, their Uncle Alastair Kay is, IMHO, the premier trombone player in the country. I have hired him on many a recording session. Secondly, Andrew, Jon & I share a love of jazz and in particular John Coltrane, whose spiritual approach to the music we have each found inspiring. In fact, they tell me "Trane" was a catalyst for moving to India to study with their guru, Pandit Shantanu Bhattacharyya. And, thank goodness for Copy & Paste commands, because I would have to study many hours just to learn to spell this man's name. Could be worse. English has antidisestablishmentarianism, and German has rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.* Fortunately, Shantanu Bhattacharyya Raga Dhwani is most often referred to as Guru-ji. That, I can spell.
I arrive at the apartment at about 5:00 and within an hour or so, Guru-ji has come over to give a lesson. I am like a kid in a candy store. Only the store is filled with sweets I have never tasted. I've been eating candy for 60 years, but THIS candy is like nothing I've ever seen, or heard...
I used to think I knew what "in tune" meant. But when Guru-ji turns on the Tanpura drone box and sings his first "Sa" (the tonic, or root of the scale in Western terms) I feel a kind of buzzing energy between my ears, and experience an in-tuneness like no other.
Give a listen below.
(use of headphones highly recommended)
Obviously, Guru-ji knows how to be in tune with something besides the music. Or rather, maybe the word Music is no longer sufficient to describe what I'm hearing/feeling.
It's quite a jolt to see something with which you've been intimate your
whole life - as I have been with music - from a completely new angle.
Imagine a photographer seeing light itself in a brand new way.
Last November, when the Kays so hospitably invited me to come stay with them, I thought it would be the three of us. Things changed. Jonathan's long-time girlfriend, Shayna, was going to be coming to town. Oh, and she would be accompanied by Andrew's girlfriend, Delia. OK. So being a 5th wheel can be fine. Every car needs a spare tire, right? And I could still have a bit of privacy. It was a two bedroom, and I wouldn't be kicking anyone out of their room. But there was one final surprise. Shayna's friend, Tiffany (whom I had already met as a Yoga teacher in Toronto), was also going to be visiting.
Jonathan and Shayna are very gracious in giving up this beautiful bedroom for me. They take a spare net and mattress and plop it in the living room along with Tiffany's and hang a curtain for a little privacy. I'm basically being treated like royalty.
I'm up and at 'em at 6:30. The others are asleep, so I head out for a walk. But, I find the main gate to the building is locked, so I tiptoe back into the apartment and read. Within an hour, coffee is perking. Yes. Perking! Not a granule of Nescafé in sight.
Tiffany announces that she's happy to lead a yoga class up on the roof. How fortuitous to have such an excellent teacher.
Rooftop yoga class, courtesy of Tiffany.
We come down from the roof for breakfast. I am seeing foods I haven't seen since leaving home. Sprouts! Granola! Cacao nibs and a smoothie! And grapes! Sure, I've seen fruit, but haven't eaten anything without a peel because I haven't had purified water to wash it in. Needless to say, I pretty well gorge myself on this feast, while making a mental note to buy them all-you-can-eat groceries a.s.a.p.
The Big Secret
Jonathan tells me he'd like my help with some kind of favour. I'm so grateful for their hospitality, I'm happy to do practically anything, but he's being very secretive. Tells me to come for a walk with him. Once out of earshot of the others, he tells me he's going to get a wedding ring for Shayna, and would like my help! An acquaintance of Guru-Ji's mother is hand-making a setting. We're going to go pick it up and then we'll take it to another store and select a diamond. I am honoured to be part of such an intimate and joy-filled event, but what does Jon need me for? I'm no jewelry expert. "Just moral support," he tells me. He's no expert either.
And it's a good thing I'm there, too, because the gold setting is generally rough and poorly crafted. Plus, communication is difficult so Jonathan is happy to have me there to corroborate, commiserate and play 'bad cop.' We decide to leave the setting with the jeweler, forget the diamond for now, and just take some pics of the setting to show to Ma so she can have a little chat with the man and hopefully straighten everything out.
Yes, "Ma." That's what everyone calls her. Sounds so unsophisticated, doesn't it? Maybe even a little disrespectful to a Western ear. This is a wise, accomplished and highly respected woman, so I'm guessing "Ma" is maybe short for some 14-syllable Bengali term of reverence and devotion, or more likely just an endearing diminutive.
On the way home, we stop for some groceries in the local market. This is my chance for some payback. Jon accepts gratefully. (Note the sign.)
While fixing lunch, we have a grand discussion about the nature of practice (musical and spiritual), the value of tradition vs. innovation, Sri Aurobindo, and Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. The Dr. Darrol experience continues! It's very easy to talk with these "interested & interesting" young people. We don't necessarily agree, and that fuels the discussion rather than stalling it.
There just happens to be a big classical music festival in Kolkata this week presented by The Kajalrekha Musical Foundation. The guys have arranged tickets (including me! How thoughtful!). But they are double booked. They've been invited to a wedding and so will only attend the first portion of the concert. The wedding is a big deal, and Shayna and Delia start preparing well in advance.
This is Chanda-di, housekeeper and winner of the BSAI Award (Best Smile in All of India). OMG. What a total sweetheart. Here she is giving a sari lesson to Delia. It's an incredible process getting one of these things on, and getting it to stay on, too.
Shayna has more sari wrapping experience than Delia, but is still glad to get a hand from Chanda-di.
All ready for the wedding. I've personally never seen a more dapper foursome.
Perhaps 'dashing' is a better word. Somehow the 5 of us squish into the Ambassador and head downtown for the concert.
The beautiful old Birla Sabhagar Hall.
The main singer this evening is a young prodigy named Sri Arshad Ali Khan. In the video below, he is flanked by two tanpura players, with tabla on the far left and harmonium on the right. Khan takes the singing I heard last night in the living room to a place that's just on the edge of my abilities as a Raga listener. It's extremely fascinating and sounds tremendously difficult, but I know it's not something for which I have yet acquired a taste. Check it out for yourself.
The next main act is quite another story. Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya plays raga on a slide guitar, and this is extremely easy on the uneducated Western ear. So much so that he was nominated for a Grammy in 2009. Wikipedia tells us that he makes his own guitars. His most popular albums are: "Mahima" with Bob Brozman, and "Calcutta Slide-Guitar, Vol. 3" on Riverboat records and they're ranked in the top 10 of the Billboard World Music Charts.