Heavenly voices

by Gabriella Sonabend

Yesterday I did not want to go outside. I did not want to leave my room. I was still exhausted from the previous day and from the spiral of negativity I seemed to have suddenly fallen into. I ate breakfast early and locked myself in my room for the morning listening to the CDs that Navneet had leant me, desperately trying to get on with my writing work. I revisited the same paragraph about 30 times and each time felt hopeless. My words seemed forced and fake – I felt what I was writing was somehow pathetic and willow and I eventually gave up trying and fell asleep for the rest of the morning.

In the afternoon, frustrated by the lack of internet in my room, I took my laptop to Phyllis’s old studio and spent hours looking at hostels in McLeod Ganj in the North of India, planning my escape to the mountains for a week of serenity. I found myself following links about the Tibetan community and googling where I could get the best momos, (Tibetan dumplings), and have the best full body and head massage. I even went so far as to look up paragliding prices and three day mountain treks. In two weeks Kathrin and I are jumping on a train and heading 24 hours north of Varanasi to Pathankot. From here we will take a bus or car to McLeod Ganj where we will spent a week in the heart of the Tibetan community. (McLeod Ganj is where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government and population in exile reside). When I came to India in 2009 although Varanasi was the place that amazed, confused and overwhelmed me the most, McLeod Ganj was the one place, with which I truly fell in love. There, lives the most humble, generous, compassionate and mistreated group of people who long desperately for their homeland and who have scarcely any support from other nations in ending their plight. I have never met kinder people than the Tibetans. The mere idea of returning to see them fills me with such an enormous sense of joy that I am sustained by this excitement through darker hours in Varanasi.

So the day passed and for the first time since arriving here I spoke to both of my parents and struggled to convey to them my feelings about this extraordinary and terrifying place.

In the evening Navneet excitedly told me that the first classical music concert of the season would be starting that night. I have been persistently asking him to alert me about these. I showered, dressed in my new Indian attire, washed my face with cold water and told myself that I was going to enjoy this evening and leave my angst behind me. Thank god for that decision!

We drove in the big black car to the centre of town to the Varanasi concert hall. Here free concerts of an incredible standard are performed for anyone interested to come and watch. This is one aspect of Varanasi, which is truly remarkable. So strong is their belief in cultural activity, especially when concerning music, that they make these events available to anyone and everyone. We arrived in the old theatre, which was painted in large stripes of pale pink, yellows, blues and deep reds and made our way to a row of empty seats in the middle of the auditorium. A young man named Sudhanshu Dey sat crossed legged on stage singing, accompanied by a sitar, tabla and other instruments, which I could not identify.

As the musicians played their parts he sung a ululating, convulsive, deeply pained and desperate melody, rocking back and forth, flicking his fingers and hands, with each reciprocal phrase as if physically affected by the sound of his own voice. He is only about 20 years old but conveyed such a depth of emotion, wisdom and decisiveness through his voice that it seemed to have come from an entirely different time. It was almost like watching a man possessed by the sounds of thousands of years of thought and feelings.

I fell deeply and suddenly entranced within his long cries and time was forgotten. The city was forgotten. There was nothing then but this music and the heads which nodded and hands which flicked along with each sound.

After what seemed like a hundred years and one minute at the same time, his performance came to an end. A young boy of eleven took to the stage with an older man who would accompany him. The boy was completely calm and oblivious to the audience. He sat with his legs tucked beneath him and began with great confidence to play the tabla as the older man followed him with melodic strings. Again I fell under the spell created by this child whose command of rhythm and emotion seemed inconceivable coming from a boy so small and innocent looking. During his performance the power cut – but this did not break the spell, if anything it enhanced the performance as suddenly the speakers cut out and the entire audience shifted forwards on their seats stretching to hear the music, which continued like a whisper in the distance. The young performer seemed neither shocked nor deterred by the loss of amplification and continued naturally as if there had been no change at all. In these moments of strained listening those who had been talking through the performance stopped their nattering. I closed my eyes to listen closer; the sounds seemed clearer and more powerful than ever. When the power finally returned, the lights flicked back on and the sounds magnified. They returned with such force and energy that the entire crowd seemed invigorated by the new found power. Secretly, I hoped that the power would cut once more so that I could experience that quiet intensity again It was cut one more time, the child continued, the power returned and within moments the performance had ended.

The final act was a woman called Shruti Sadolikar who is a very well-known and highly respected Indian classical singer. Again like the first performer, she sat crossed legged at the centre of the stage. A group of accompanying musicians sat around her and behind her sat two women who would play the bass notes and sing occasionally. These women, (Navneet explained), were more or less Shruti’s disciples. Shruti reminded me immediately of Navneet’s aunt; she was a similar age and possessed the same regal energy, the same calm, collected and extremely intimidating manner. She smiled at each of the accompanying musicians as she turned her head and hand to each to check the tuning of their instruments. It was immediately apparent that she commanded enormous respect in them.

She began to sing a deep, lofty raga. A raga of the mountains, her voice enthused with the sound of water falling and winds gathering in deep valleys racing towards the hot south. It was as though she was painting a physical landscape with each sound as it left her body. I did not feel like I was listening to music but rather that I was watching a painter describing an idyll with her brush marks. What Shruti did with her voice can hardly be called singing. Her sounds could surely induce synesthesia in even the least creative of minds and while listening to her I left Varanasi. I left behind my concerns about my work, my thoughts. I simply sat frozen travelling at her command and I hoped that the music would continue forever.