There was a time when I would appreciate the elegant beauty of a mathematical equation, especially its pretty economy when it would succinctly and successfully encapsulate a wordy essay in Economics. Of course, one needs to be equipped to be able to read/write that equation, explain its variables and defend the nature and direction of causation. But that thing of beauty would give me so much joy that it made the exploration of the caveats to it a pleasurable exercise too.
Of course, my thing of beauty may be a mere ugly thorn to you, and vice versa. For aesthetics are essentially subjective. And I do not contest that at all. My point is that beauty could be anywhere and everywhere, not just in the visual but in every possible form and sense of the human experience. A scientist could find a perfectly designed experiment with its unique incontrovertible result her thing of beauty and joy. There could be an artistic elegance in the arrangement of a sequence of steps, be it in a recipe for a culinary dish or in a proof to a theorem or in a movement in a dance. Art pervades every aspect of our life irrespective of whether we are cognisant of it or not, and along with it come dimensions of aesthetics whether we perceive them or not.
Today, as an artist and as an acolyte of musical notes and the written text, I see and am stirred by beauty every day. But I search beyond it. Musicians, writers, painters, actors, dancers et al can, when they are true to their calling, best be described as seekers. The term ‘seeking one’s truth’ has become overused and tired and cheap in today’s world, but it still epitomises an artist’s voyage, searching not only for the truth in the world as she sees it but also the nebulous truth that rests within her own being. Aesthetically marrying the two and then celebrating that marriage in the language she knows best. Through a musical composition or a building up of a Raga through a khayal or even a short musical phrase. Through the etching of a scene on the walls of a cave or through the strokes of a brush on a canvas or on the ceilings of chapels. An epic or an ode or an epistlolary offering. A ballet of power and grace or a single stoical stance capped with a precise mudra. An alignment of the entire body to depict the personage enacted on stage or in front of a camera, or a fleeting emotive nuance in the performer’s visage. Words, notes, colours, forms, textures, and so on represent the medium of expression, the subject of expression is always that essence of discovered truth. That thing of sublime beauty.
When I sing, I could be so immersed in the spell cast by the notes of the Raga that I lose myself completely, my mood merging into that of the Raga. All I see are those polished notes lighting my path helping me find my way through the melodic maze of the Raga. Irrespective of whether one sings to one’s potential or rises successfully to the challenge of the Raga, every presentation, performance or session of riyaz is a tryst with oneself, entirely by oneself. Secluded from the world around, wrapped up in a cocoon spun through melodic strands. There are times during riyaz when I am so in sync with the emotional content of the notes that I feel I could almost dispense with words. They appear to be superfluous or at best crutches that I lean on when too lazy to walk on my own. That the current of emotion seeking expression powers through, no, blazes through on its own sans the sub-titles of lyrics.
To me, notes are complete in themselves, each one of them with a distinct personality of its own. Each appearing and behaving differently in different Ragas, revealing some facets of its personality here, hiding others. Just like us humans, opening up or bottling shut according to who we are with and where. Camaraderie with friends, formality with our boss, intimacy with our families, reserve with strangers and for those of us who believe, a laying bare of our very souls to the god we worship. So also with notes: sometimes a lover, sometimes a friend, a lord, a servant, a mother, her child, deity, devotee, each note dons the robes to suit the Raga it finds itself in. Each note then interacts with the others in the neighbourhood of its Raga and that builds up the emotional ambience that is that Raga. The words of the khayal or the bandish may annotate that swirl of emotion to the uninitiated, but they do not define it per se. In fact, there are compositions wherein I have found the words ill-suited to the temperament of the Raga, sometimes describing a visual that has no relation whatsoever with the emotional current of the notes. In which case, I merely go ahead and compose another, one that appeals to me and conforms to the mood that is being explored. This mirroring of melody in lyrics stems from a sisterhood of the arts of music and poetry. Similar to the fraternity of Mathematics and Economics that once enabled me to write that equation then.
(Image Source: Pinterest)
To illustrate: if I am singing Bhairav, which is an early morning Raga, I am seized by the sense of dawn breaking. I see myself eyes closed, the world around shrouded in darkness, and I will myself into a meditation of that combination of notes. And then as my Bhairav builds up I sense the streaks of amber that begin to light up the horizon, the sun rising from its slumber and gradually awakening the sleeping world. It is still a world of quiet, of serenity, of an enriching yet calm absorption of that pure and distilled morning air. There is that essence of purity in Bhairav, almost ascetic in nature, that to me cannot and should not be vitiated by any other element. My khayal cannot be about a frolicking Krishna in the pretty surrounds of Brindaban. It could be a call to Krishna to awaken, it could for that matter be drenched in Yashoda’s motherly love, but it cannot be an image of his Rasalila. Of course, your Bhairav will be different from mine, but the underlying well of emotion is the same, a well that is defined by the character of that peculiar combination of notes, a well from which we can drink only when we surrender to it completely, drowning in it, allowing its depth to swallow our individual egos. So even if the words you sing are a lavani about Krishna romancing his gopikas, the detached purity in the Bhairav notes reasserts itself, tempering the erotica, and that is what I hear. My Bhairav is always an homage to the rising sun irrespective of the words you dress it with.
The mirroring works both ways. There are times when I have woken up in the dead of the night and heard a musical phrase or aalap playing repetitively in my head. The soft cajoling strains of a Tilak Kamod. Fortuitous. For that aalap translates exactly into the words of the mother in my story, gently, tenderly coaxing her child to close her eyes, to sleep, for night is gathering and there are beautiful dreams waiting to be dreamed. And I can’t wait to hit the computer and pour it all out in faithful text.
(Image Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dgsb/hd_dgsb.htm)
Moving away from specifics, collaboration extends to all the arts. For it is the creation of a beautiful and enriching experience that matters, irrespective of whether it entails the invoking of one medium or more. Dancers portraying the theme of a verse through their abhinaya. A sequence in celluloid relying on a piece of music to build up viewers’ expectation. A singer or a dancer in a trance inspiring a painter to reach for his brushes and palette. A sculptor freezing a dancer’s pose in stone. Each knocking on the doors of the other and borrowing that cup of sugar. Knowing that that cup will be freely given.
For underlying it all is the artist’s ceaseless voyage. Of discovery of self, of the other, and the contexts in which these find themselves, merging, separating, merging. My vision of myself and of the world around me is mine and mine alone, it may or may not coincide with yours. My medium through which I express myself is mine too, it may not be yours. Even if it were, my expression is mine, not yours. Yet, I see and respect the path you have travelled. I see and respect the hunger and energy in you that drives you to explore further along that path. I see and respect that joy of discovery, that brief resting in it and the restlessness that spurs you on again. I feel your excitement, your pain, your heartache, your angst, your loss, your gain, your frustration, your validation. Empathy. For we are bonded in a sisterhood of our arts. Creating under the aegis of and in the service of our muse.