Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa

by Gabriella Sonabend

I am filled with nervous excitement; I worry about being late and dressing appropriately. I worry about how to speak, how to sit, how to present myself. I arrive at the Theosophical Society where she lives. It has a beautiful campus encircled with tall trees and exotic flowers, monkeys patrol the pathways and school girls sit around in the shade before their classes. Her house is at the very back of the campus. Navneet brought me here the first time and I am amazed at how easily I become lost following pathways, which lead to buildings I have not seen before. After ten minutes of circling and panicking I find Manju’s house. I am slightly early and I am offered a seat in the front room where I sit and wait taking in my surroundings. In front of me is a daybed covered in cushions and a top one of the cushions rests a tanpura. Either side of this sitting area there are small tables with lamps with wicker shades. Directly above the seat hangs a Tibetan Buddhist Thangka painting. There is a coffee table, a circle of low wooden chairs and many beautiful ornaments arranged around the room. The room has a high arched ceiling and blue painted doors. Manju enters the rooms and I stand. She invites me to sit with her on the daybed where she picks up the tanpura. I remove my shoes and she asks me to sit facing her with crossed legs.

She begins to tune the instrument tweaking ever so slightly to attain the perfect tone. The tanpura is a beautiful 4/5 stringed instrument used to accompany the voice and other leading instruments in Indian classical music. It is the partner of the singer and carries a unique tone, which allows the voice to float on top of each trembling note, the tone of each string is so complex and rich I can’t conceive how a simple instrument could create such a sound. She looks at me curiously and asks what I would like to do. I explain that I would like to learn one raga, but I understand that that requires a lot of knowledge and that I do not have very much time. I simply want to begin my journey into Indian classical singing and discover how far I can pursue its depths. Manju seems satisfied with this answer and she begins to strum the tanpura, she takes her time and slowly she begins to teach me about the Indian notes. Similarly to Western music there are 7 notes in Indian singing Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa, but unlike Western music the scales are driven by emotion and each note holds its own specific emotional core, which is its key. For example Manju explained to me that ‘Ga’ is a tender note, it should be sung as if cradling an infant, and it is filled with care and love. ‘Dha’ is a note of longing, a note filled with romance and deep beauty. Each note in itself is beautiful but it is the arrangement of the notes with one another, which allows the artist to paint pictures and create emotional landscapes. Manju explained to me that every raga, (the traditional Indian song based on at least 5 of the notes), has a structure but once that structure is set the notes are free to morph and form as they please. The singer must learn first the discipline of each note and then how to release these notes and let them surpass structure and rules.

Manju’s command of language is deeply moving. Her ability to use words both simply and poetically with true conviction is unique. She began to sing. Looking directly into my eyes, playing the tanpura with one hand and creating swirling gestures with the other as her voice slid up and down the various scales, she smiled with each light note and looked forlorn with darker and heavier exhalations. Her voice escaped her effortlessly and seemed to seek its own pathway the second it passed her lips; she was enveloped within her own sounds, which seemed to be drawn from her towards the tall ceilings, the long windows and the wooden doors. She sang directly and without pretension. She did not sing to impress, she was honest. I realised in those moments that perhaps for the first time in my life I was sitting in front of a true artist, someone whose craft was their entirety, someone who lived to serve their work. In those moments I was completely enthralled and could have declared that I would spend my life sitting with this woman, learning from her incredible depth of knowledge. I felt tears welling in my eyes, I swallowed to hold them back, I was afraid of seeming foolish.

Manju demonstrated the difference between the sharp notes and the flat notes and showed how changing one simple note could affect the entire meaning and feel of a raga; it could transform it from a song of joy to a song of longing in an instant. I felt immensely privileged; I was receiving a private performance of such quality and integrity. I could not understand why I was allowed to be witness and a part of such a moment. Manju wrote down the notes for me and together we began to sing. We sang up and down the scale for an hour and she taught me how to reach the right tone for each note, how to hold it for the right length of time before allowing it to fall or climb to the next. I am not accustomed to singing crossed legged.Within 30 minutes I had terrible pins and needles and had to stand and jump around to bring my legs back to life. Manju found this rather amusing and explained that it could take a while to get used to singing in this way.

At the end of the lesson I told Manju I would be going away for a few days and she said we would resume daily when I returned. I told her how beautiful her voice was and how deeply it had moved me, that I had been on the verge of tears. Manju smiled a knowing smile and told me that I must allow these emotions to prevail and take over me; if I must cry then I must cry. She told me of concerts where she was so overcome by the power of a raga that she stopped singing and paused in awe of the beauty of the song She allowed herself to cry in front of a crowd and did not for one moment doubt her behaviour. This is what it meant to be fully involved with one’s music; it was an instrumental part of progressing as a musician.

I sat in a rickshaw and let tears fall. I did not question the why or the how. I simply accepted that I had been overcome by my experience and smiled through watery eyes.