February 22, 2006


Hello all. This was supposed to come earlier but I spent the last week in Orissa having an amazing time meeting great people, making a new friends and meeting dolphins as well. All that will come later. For now, this is an e-mail I had prepared to send before I left but didn't.


Ok, here we go again. Not sure what to be saying as I have tried in vain to keep track of what goes on. Some things are etched in the memory, others are fleeting, mundane or perhaps will be there anywhere I go.

Let me see....oh yes, riding a two wheeler around this congested megalopolis. An experience I treasure. I can say I've never ridden any such motorized vehicle before, except as a passenger who once flew off the back of a motorcycle and fractured my skull (but that is a different story). After a couple of seconds you get the hang of it and realize the power that is under your fingers. So moving on the thing is fine. Now moving with everyone else is the real trip. I can only liken it to swimming with a current or joining some magnificent flow of energy as that is what you are doing. Like a bloodstream. You wait by the roadside, look for an opening, give some gas and you join the pack. Different than riding in a car because the intimacy with the road and your surroundings very clear and present, as is the danger inherent. And different than a bicycle as you travel faster and exert little to no energy save for your wrist. It is almost like not moving at all but everything else moves around you. Kind of like floating. Something Zen-like if I knew what that was. You feel so safe yet it can be taken from you in an instant (like every moment I suppose). I guess I understand people who enjoy motorcycles a little more. So I was cruising around on freeways, through traffic and around cars and buses. It was all a dream until I almost got hit by a bus. Now I walk the short distances, ignore everyone else's incessant horn usage and wait for the lights to change before I move.

On a different vibe…… since the rains had been plentiful, and the water tanks surrounding the major temples have been full for the first time in decades in many cases, theppam festivals are happening. Basically, the deity of the temple in question is taken out in a procession on a float with much pomp. I attended once such event. Around the tank, you could taste the excitement, the last time this happened was 35 years ago. At the steps of the tank was the float, gloriously decorated and lit up with depictions of the deity and his consorts and being prepared by the temple attendants. In the distance the sound of drums came and went, you could never quite figure the direction or distance but you knew they were coming your way. More people slowly crowding in, personal space becoming zero, security guards yelling, cotton candy and miniature rides for kids. Old ammas and infants all trying for a look. Across the water you spot a large umbrella dancing down the street so you know the deity is on the way and watching it approach you feel the energy grow more. Then the varied musicians arrive, the crowd parts and accommodates somehow and the deity, resplendent with jewels, flowers and offerings on a palanquin, is brought down the steps and onto the float along with several priests and two different groups of musicians playing different music and the same time….a little schizophrenic. After a few moments of suspense, the float is pushed off and the crowd surrounding the tank cheers for the first journey in 35 years. Very cool.

Then walking home a few nights after I happened upon something interesting. There is temple to Ganesh, the elephant headed remover of obstacles, on the street I walk down most days. On this night I noticed a quartet of tavil/nadaswaram (that is the heavily intense drum and pipe) musicians hanging out. Always one to enjoy, I hung around for a second. Then a small topless car came around and from the temple comes an man dressed sharply in white with an equally dressed female and about a dozen or so more women carrying plates of fruit, flowers, nuts and other offerings. The musicians are in front of the car while four other fellows hold much too bright kerosene lamps on each corner. The car starts with the "bride and groom" in the back seat and the musicians lead the way as they ever so slowly move on with some funky grooves, with me on the sidelines. After some inquiry back home, I'm told this is a part of marriage that isn't done so much anymore. Basically, the night before the wedding is to occur, the bridegroom is paraded around the neighbourhood for all to see and make objection if need be. Needless to say, it was the nicest walk home yet.

I can't say everything….sorry. How does one relay experience??? This is only the surface. The lessons I'm having with Guru Sankaran are profound. They transcend music. He, who is so exalted, with his virtuosity, ability, experience and wisdom, espouses simplicity in music. That was tonight's lesson. Not what you play but how you play it. You can be told this, but knowing it is different.

Speaking of virtuosity, a violinist lives in the same building and I've been visiting her and her family. Father a singer and grandfather a well-known musician from Kerala. They were quite taken with the mbira I brought with me and she really enjoys some Zimbabwean pop music I have as well. But a real treat was visiting the home of now deceased veena (a type of lute) virtuoso S. Balachander. Since my roommate is his nephew, we went to visit his family who lives in his old house. Of course, they offered to show me the old veena collection. But adorning the house, were literal masterpieces of one S. Rajam, the elder brother (who just turned 87 and has lived a life that could fill a hundred books). A master painter and singer, these paintings had that aura of something divine. Maybe because he depicts aspects of Hindu mythology. One whole room had the ceiling covered with ten huge panels depicting the evolution of humanity. And this led into the prayer room of the house that also housed the veena collection of Balachander. I would have to say that these were the most exquisite musical instruments I have ever seen. Tuning pegs made of carved ivory, gold and ivory inlay around the body, intricately carved headstocks of mythological creatures. Deep and warm wooden tones. I can only imagine the sound (well, I guess I've heard it on recordings!!!). I felt privileged.

All the best,


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