The great teacher

by Gabriella Sonabend

Yesterday I was thinking all day about music.

At 10am Saurabh, (the musician who I met with Phyllis earlier this week) came to the residency to talk about my ideas for creating sound works in Varanasi. Rather unsurprisingly there was an aspect of confusion as I had thought he was arriving to play music with me and for some reason I was convinced he would be coming with some kind of instrument. But neither did he have any instruments nor did he come expecting to sing or play. This was slightly disappointing but I did not want to waste his journey and so we spent the morning sitting in the gallery office talking about his work with disabled children and discussing Indian classical music and how to think about sound in India.

Saurabh taught me about the ‘raga,’ the term for a type of Indian melody which uses 5 or more musical notes. He explained that the ragas have been written to reflect the different times of the day, as each time is associated with different moods and emotions, which are conjured through the different melodic structure. Although this is basic knowledge to those who know anything about Indian classical music, this is all new to me and this concept seemed extraordinary and very moving.


After he left, I mused on this for a while and thought about the different sounds which this city conjured throughout the day.

In the afternoon Navneet took me to meet his aunt who is great classical singer and teacher, known across India for her eloquence, knowledge and her great musical talents. We climbed into the big black car and drove about a kilometre down the road to the campus of the theosophical society, a society run by Navneet’s uncle, which gathers across India to encourage the study and discussion of religious values, ideologies and practice. We turned off the main road and passed through a large set of gates, on the other side was a strange paradisaical oasis. There was a beautifully manicured lawn lined with tall trees and many flower beds, there were well kept impressive buildings with large verandas interspersed throughout the garden and once at its heart it was almost impossible to connect this calm refuge with the rest of Varanasi, (as I have seen it so far). We walked through the impressive gardens and eventually reached the house where the great teacher lives and spends her days. Now she scarcely gives performances and can rarely be persuaded to sing. Today Navneet was bringing me to her, to see if she would accept me as a student and be willing to introduce me to the teachings of classical Indian vocal music.

As we entered the house, I saw her sitting on an armchair perfectly poised; dressed in a traditional sari with large glasses, jet black hair and an air of distinctive elegance. She smiled as she received me and offered me a seat and watched me intensely as I sat beside her. I had been told about this woman’s great reputation and her integrity, which had led her to give up performing as she was not interested in the corruption, politics and self-interest, (in the performing world), in continuing performing. She was not prepared to sacrifice her principles and diminish her true passionate feelings for music. I had also been told that she is an expert in her field, and not only able to express herself eloquently in Hindi and English but also in many other Indian dialects; that she possesses an extensive knowledge of literature and culture – to put it simply, here was a woman of great knowledge which seemed to radiate from her as soon as I was in her presence.

Sitting beside her I felt as though she was looking into me and right through me, seeing something that I myself was not even aware of and I felt extremely self-conscious wondering what judgments she was forming of me. She asked me about my interest in music and I explained that I have very little knowledge but that it is a personal passion of mine, a private indulgence. I explained that I have no background academically in music and have never studied it – this seemed to please her somewhat as I made no claims to having any particular knowledge. She spoke briefly about what music meant to her and in her few words she spoke more profoundly, intensely and passionately about her art than any musician I have ever previously known. She spoke with a clarity, which was not only inspiring and intimidating, but also almost awkward to witness; her straightforwardness in discussing such lofty, beautifully crafted ideas was overwhelming. I was lost for words and sat politely smiling and listening, watching. In moments of silence I did not speak but waited for her to continue a thought or to ask me something. Her questions seemed both direct and deeply weighted at the same time.

We stayed less than an hour with this extraordinary woman and during that time Navneet insisted that I sing to her (so that she could decide if I am teachable). I was horribly nervous; it was not a pleasant experience. I sung a few lines of a folk song shyly, (and probably out of key and off tune).When I finished she did not say anything about my voice but rather told me that she would be out of the country for the next week and we could meet in a fortnight to discuss how I wished to learn. At least she did not say I was unteachable. I am not entirely sure what my motivation is for pursuing these lessons, but after meeting this great teacher I am convinced that only positive things can result from spending time in her presence.