Vandanajyoti immersed herself in an alien musical culture in order to share it with others. Here she remembers some of the lessons learned, and her teacher
Sitting behind a huge desk was a tiny old man in his eighties with white hair, startlingly white teeth, a white kurta and lively, searching eyes. This was the Principal and founder of the most prestigious music college in Delhi, the Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, whom I had gone to interview on my second day in Delhi. He seemed to be listening as I explained that I wanted to find out about how music was taught in his college. He watched me for quite a while and said nothing. Could he understand my English? Was he prepared to answer my questions? Suddenly, he said, ‘Sing this’, and poured out a stream of highly ornamented and beautiful melody. I tried my best – and he said, ‘Right, I will teach you!’ He knew better than I did that I needed a teacher and was ready to learn.
Back in London I was in charge of the music department of a South London comprehensive school. Students from Punjabi families were asking for lessons in Indian music alongside the instrumental tuition in Western music that we already offered. So that year, 1987, I studied for four months with this great teacher, whose name was Vinaya Chandra Maudgalia (pictured right). He was affectionately known as Bhaiji (‘Big Brother’) and respected by everyone in the Indian music world. On that first visit, he arranged there and then for me to stay across the road from the music school and he instituted a rigorous routine. 5am: accompanying Bhaiji on his very brisk and usually silent morning walk. 6am: make his two cups of chai. 6.30: to my room for a lukewarm bucket-bath, meditation and breakfast (tea and toast with jam but no butter). At 8am, the other students would arrive and we would have a lesson until 10am. For the rest of the morning, I would sit on the floor for singing practice, playing the tampura, a beautiful drone instrument used by singers to accompany themselves. After a light lunch with Bhaiji and his family, I could sleep a bit and then at 4pm I had a lesson with Bhaiji to check I had understood the morning’s teaching. Most evenings there would be a concert in the nearby concert halls or in the music school itself. There I met some of the most inspiring North Indian classical musicians: Amjad Ali Khan playing sarod, Hariprasad Chaurasia, the great Indian flute player, Kumar Gandharv who sang an unforgettably magical full-moon concert in a mango grove, and many other great artists.
Bhaiji was patient and understanding as I struggled to understand the structures and idioms of an alien musical form. Sometimes I felt frustrated when my musicianship was challenged and I could not grasp what Bhaiji was trying to communicate to me. He was unfazed and always encouraged me to carry on, even when my Western-style individualism was in revolt at my strange situation. I had been taken on by a kind and committed guru, and was being trained in the ‘Guru-shishya’ model of music education that had been the custom for centuries in the North Indian music tradition. I was learning to submit to the care and instruction of my teacher but I also knew that he expected me to put all my effort into developing my individual skill and understanding of the marvellous music which he was passing on to me.
I learned that each of the hundreds of ragas existing in North Indian classical music has its own set of melodic patterns, as well as tiny variations in pitch which a talented student would learn from their teacher as they explored the raga. Everything was taught by ear – although I ended up inventing my own system of notation, as in our Western music training our musical memories are not developed in the Indian way.
A few weeks into my first visit, I made a great leap forward. I had a moment of pure joy when I perceived for the first time how repeating rhythmic cycles underpinned the structure of the music. These cycles often had sixteen beats (‘tintal’) but sometimes seven, twelve or fourteen, subdivided with heavy or light stresses. All performances are based on a precomposed song or ‘bandish’, each line of which covers one rhythmic cycle. I began to see that the soloist and percussion player were engaged in a complex dance where each in turn played the rhythmic cycle (called the ‘tala’) while the other freely improvised around it but both arrived back together on the first beat of the cycle. This arriving together could sometimes be delayed for two or three cycles while the improvisation went deep and wide. The longer the return is delayed, the more dramatic and celebratory it feels to the aware listener. I realised I had begun to hear the rhythmic intelligence of the music – before this, I had only connected with the acoustic pleasure of it. But from that point onwards, the music sprang into ‘perspective’. These were hugely exciting discoveries which fuelled my learning through a Master’s degree and two more visits to Delhi before my dear teacher’s death in 1995.
A couple of years later, while I was on another four-month stay, Bhaiji asked me to give a talk about Western classical music to students from Delhi University. I had not heard any Western music for months, completely immersed as I was in the idioms of Indian Classical singing. I borrowed a recording of Mozart’s Requiem to illustrate how western musical language works. As I listened, I had another insight, this time into my own beloved musical heritage. I was reconnecting deeply with the musical conditioning which has determined the course of my life. I felt a ‘coming home’. The tears began to flow. In a flash, I saw that I could never find a fulfilled creative resting place in the language of Indian music – not without living in India most of the time, speaking Hindi and devoting myself to developing deep roots in broader Indian culture. The Mozart showed me that my life would not follow that course. I had a good ear, I could reproduce what I was hearing. But that reproduction was not mine. It had a hollow core where the music of my heart was longing to flower. What I could do in Indian music was to be a respectful copyist and a dedicated listener, taking every advantage to learn a bit more when chance comes my way. ■