24 hours between Country Rock and Indian Classical … or the truth about unity

Intellectual discussions on diversity, multiculturalism, and blurring of identities are one thing, but to live these things actively is quite another. Such an undertaking is challenging, pushing one to unfamiliar territories and uncomfortable places, and if the lines are also blurred by time, it is tremendously revealing … of the truth of unity and the myth of duality.

On this note and by any measure, the last 24 hours have been surreal. On Thursday night, my boyfriend took me to a Native American casino in Snoqualmie, east of Seattle, for a live concert of John Anderson. The concert ended at 11pm, and the next morning I caught the earliest flight to New York JFK to see my Indian classical Guru, and train with her again after nearly 6 years!

JW has been playing country music in his truck on all our hiking trips and exploratory drives into the countryside, and I have come to like the music in a totally unexpected way. The lyrics, whether I resonate with the world-view or not, are beautiful just for their simplicity and directness. There’s no big agenda, no heavy message, just unabashed chronicles of everyday life, not different from much of the folk music of India. And the melodies are also simple, clear, hummable, and stay with my heart. So when JW announced that he had tickets for a John Anderson concert, I had already adequately dusted off any hesitancy and prejudices to welcome the opportunity to hear country music live.

Little did I know, however, that I’d find myself cutting through clanking betting machines and thick smoke (-yes, they allow smoking on the casino premises-) to get to the concert, and that I’d be the only brown woman in the crowd, sitting in the second row, surrounded by crazy, excited, drunk fans in white shirts, tattered jeans and cowboy boots. I too am in jeans and a black silk top, but with my brown skin and with Jiddu Krishnamurti’s book Freedom from the Known in hand, I must make a spectacle. I settle into my seat, plugging my ears for the Kentucky Headhunters who open the show, and later unplug my ears for John Anderson’s melodious voice. Soon I find myself swaying to “I’m just an old chunk of coal … but I’m going to be a diamond some day,” and “Swingin” … still reading intermittently from pages of Krishnamurti in the beams of purple stage light. At one point in the performance, the violin player in the band makes me tear up with the heart-rending notes he so skillfully folds into Anderson’s lyrics and melody.

Cut to Edison, New Jersey, under 24 hours later. I arrive at JFK in the fading afternoon light and freezing temperatures, and am whisked away immediately by my Guruji, renowned and illustrious disciple of Pandit Jasraj, Pandita Smt. Tripti Mukherjee, to Edison, New Jersey. We drive through everything Indian – grocery stores, saree shops, electronics stores, restaurants, dry cleaners, computer repairers … and arrive at her school-home, Saraswati Bhavan. And a few hours later, I find myself in a local high school auditorium, for a concert by her. I am now wearing a silk salwaar kameez with gold jhumkis and a deep red bindi on my forehead, carrying one of her tanpuras, helping her and her other disciples on to stage, where a Swamiji in orange robes is supervising the goings on. The crowd of Bengalis are pouring in for the performance, later to be joined by hordes of Tamilians, Andhras and Kannadigas for a dance performance by what seems like hundreds of kids of all sizes and ages. Guruji’s concert proceeds to be spectacular, with highly inspired and riveting renditions of Raga Shuddha Sarang and Raga Multani. At one point in her highest notes, I find myself tearing up … once again within 24 hours.

And here I am – face to face with that same truth that seems to knock on the door of my soul repeatedly. Anderson’s music and Guruji’s music, can both touch my soul, inspire me, and move me to tears. I grew up with Indian classical music, training since I was 3 years old. It was always a given in my life. Yet I now have a window into another kind of music, which represents a culture I have absolutely nothing in common with, but can resonate with its underlying vibrations at the deepest levels of my being, where my history, background, culture, identity, all become immaterial, and I am nothing but a human being.

In terms of “identity” I am as strange and outlandish a character in Edison’s seriously Indian crowd, as I am in the Snoqualmie casino. I am a misfit in both places. But as a soul, I belong in both places, because I see the same glint of spiritual knowing, the same soulfulness, the same peaceful joy, the same divinity in John Anderson’s watery blue eyes as he smiles into the crowd, as I see in Guruji’s beautiful black eyes as she opens them on a high note, looking up to the Higher Power in the sincerest of offerings. Both speak the same language to me, beckon me, take me up with them to purity, to divinity, to timelessness, to boundarylessness. It is in that moment I see it ever so clearly, yet again – we are all one, with each other and with god.

 

P.S. The surrealism was made complete when all of us went to a spanking new Edison movie theater to watch Three Idiots after Guruji’s concert 🙂

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta



6 Comments

  1. Khushi

    Very nice post. Having internet issues, will write in detail soon.

  2. Anonymous

    Very well written. Music is such an unifier. I remember your post on Banaras music last year. I think you make less of a spectacle than you think because country music fans welcome new fans. I once saw a movie at Edison. It was an Indian movie hall but my movie was an American one, I think it was Legally Blonde. I was the only American in the movie hall. Movies are a unifier too.

  3. Tana

    Thanks Khushi and Anonymous! Anonymous, I really enjoyed your perspective and little story about watching Legally Blonde in Edison 🙂

  4. Anonymous

    Tana, this is a different anonymous, for a reason you will see. On my first visit to India with my Indian husband I decided to go for a Indian concert. We had gone to several Indian concerts in the US and this was not new to me. I was expecting great music and quite excited. When we reached there, I was the only American in the crowd. Everyone gave me a welcoming smile, looked away for 20 seconds, and then stared at me after that. I was not very much at ease even though the stares were appreciative. The singer began and I wanted the music to envelop me. Nothing happened. It was very flat and repetitive, not like the conerts of Indian classical music in the US. Soon I saw two girls in jeans in front of me sniggering. From the back row people were filing out. My husband wanted to leave but I was afraid being the only white woman in the crowd, we would really be noticed. Suddenly I exchanged a glance with an old lady. She just shook her head and made a face – saying this is pretty bad. Then the two girls started smiling at me as well. They said, this is not typical Indian music, its pretty bad. We are planning to leave. Suddenly I was not uncomfortable any more. So the point of my story is that bad music can break barriers too.

  5. Tana

    Hi Anonymous #2 – that is quite hilarious! Thanks so much for sharing the story. I’m loving the fact that we are indeed getting cross-cultural commentary on this post, and so many nuanced perspectives. Also, my Guruji was just lamenting the fact that the traditional atmosphere for Indian classical music is now missing in India, and getting stronger here in the US! Her comment was that like yoga, Americans might be teaching us Indian classical pretty soon! 🙂

  6. Indrani

    Dear Tana, Just saw your post. What a lovely piece indeed as always. Music surely break barriers and so does any form of art – dance, painting as well as books.

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