Importing Benaras to Seattle … and reflections on the oneness of the world

On Friday night I attended a Hindustani classical concert … it had been a while. How could I miss this one? Rajan and Sajan Mishra of the delightful Benaras gharana were going to be performing in the University of Washington campus. Rarely does one get an opportunity to hear such stalwarts of Hindustani classical music – live – sitting so far away in America. Besides, I was startled to realize that the last time I had heard the Mishra brothers live was when I had actually played the tanpura for them, at a Spic Macay concert held in my high school in New Delhi. I was 17 then, and it was one of the first times I had sat next to musicians of such stature, let alone support them in any way. (Eventually I went on to meet and support several, and had the tremendous fortune of receiving musical guidance from Pt. Jasraj and his top disciple Pta. Tripti Mukherjee.) I remember my fingers trembling as they moved over the tanpura strings and my throat choking up with tears, as I soaked up the Mishra brothers’ mellifluous voices.

So, I donned on a saree and made my way to the UW campus. It’s one of those rare occasions I get, to transform myself back to my Indian identity. Besides, listening to a live concert of Hindustani classical in jeans and a shirt just doesn’t seem to cut it. So there I was, in my turquoise Lakhnavi chikon chiffon saree (it’s the last weekend of summer) and pearl-and-topaz earrings, all by myself. Classical music concerts are one of the rare Indian venues at which one can show up alone and not stand out too much, because a number of Indian couples go solo over this one activity – one stays home with the child(ren) while the greater classical music enthusiast of the pair enjoys an evening in unfettered bliss.

As I walked through the majestic UW campus quad, I witnessed a gathering of thousands of kids for a lawn concert, presumably held on the first weekend of the fall quarter. It struck me that I was going to be in a totally different musical environment within minutes of crossing the quad. I also stuck out in my turquoise flowing garments, yet when I asked for directions a couple of times, none of the early-twenties kids looked at me strangely. Welcome to the world of global citizenry; when I was in graduate school 10 years ago, traveling between Pittsburgh and State College, people in parts of remote Central Pennsylvania used to look at me like I had just landed from Mars. I was also reminded of how wonderful graduate school in America really is: a true melting pot of global culture.

Once seated in Kane Hall, I was instantly transported to … well, half my age. The Padma Bushan Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra sounded just like they had back then, but what I recalled as their salt-and-pepper hair was now silvery white and luminous as a full moon. Sporting identical ivory silk kurtas whose lustre matched that of their hair, they sat together in collaborative samadhi, producing the most exquisite blend of voices. Considering their age (I am guessing that they are in their 70s now), their voices showed no waning of strength or full-bodied melody. Raga Jog Kauns (one that I have never learned) seeped through my skin and into my heart. After the khayal performance they sang a traditional tappa (which I have rarely heard in live concert except by Girija Devi) from the Benares gharana that had the most staccato quality I have ever experienced in Hindustani singing. After a short intermission, they sang three gorgeous pieces in Raga Nand. As the Mishra brothers built up to the upper “Sa” – first in the gentlest of tones and then with full vigor that made everything in the hall reverberate, I was filled with a gratitude: in those fleeting moments was a direct, undeniable experience of God. This must be why the pursuit of music (or any art form) was considered a path to the divine. And as their lilting notes brought out the various formations of Nand, my mind wandered to imagining what this music might sound like on the holy Ghats of Benaras. In a global world of outsourcing and export, I was getting a little slice of Benarasi “ras” in Seattle.

Later that night, when I cuddled up to my American boyfriend raised on a ranch in South Dakota and he asked me how the concert was, I could offer no more than the paltry “It was wonderful.” I wondered briefly if I would ever be able to share with him the heart-rending beauty of Jog Kauns or the lilting, flirtatious notes of Nand … and if he’d ever know why those things make tears spring to my eyes. But at the end of the day, in his heartbeat, I hear the same rhythm as mine, and in his voice the same stock of melody that makes being human joyful. It occured to me that being truly multi-cultural is about nurturing the ability to embrace with equal love and gratitude, all our seemingly disparate identities, allowing each of them to simply be in their right places without feeling a desperate need to reconcile them all. 

With a happy sense liberation, I realized that while in external form, things appear to be separate and distinct, internally, each of us is blessed with eternally vast and limitless capabilities for assimilating and holding countless facets and identities … to the point that the whole world can be encompassed inside oneself, and one becomes truly ONE with everything else.  THIS is the journey of life … we may be born with one identity but as humans we have the precious opportunity to assimilate all our lives and round ourselves out to experience the oneness of the world. Only our egos are in the way – they constantly seek to define and hold on to a separate and distinct identity, for if there is no distinctness then the ego must die. And that, the ego does not like! So in its fear it fights to preserve itself in creations of ME, YOU, THEM … and keeps itself busy holding on desperately to these artifical distinctions, and judging, criticizing, rejecting everything that it identifies as distinct from it.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta



9 Comments

  1. Ansha A

    I love the line ‘It occured to me that being truly multi-cultural is about nurturing the ability to embrace with equal love and gratitude, all our seemingly disparate identities’ – so true. Specially the mention of gratitude – the teaching that diversity offers us is truly one to be grateful for. I also like the description of how attitudes have changed. But that is maybe because its West Coast vs. East coast!

  2. Khushi

    I felt like I was attending the concert. Reminded me of Spic Macay concert of my school. And how music can transport you back.

  3. Anonymous

    Good description but you lost me a bit in the ME YOU THEM part about the ego.

  4. Tana

    Hi Anonymous,
    Yes, you’re right, the last paragraph is somewhat obscure. Thanks for the feedback!

  5. smitha

    You are right about “one can show up alone and not stand out too much”.My hus lovs classical musics and he would go alone..I am not into it so I am happy to stay home and watch the kids.

  6. Yasmin

    Hi Tana,
    Really liked your post…
    It’s so nice to meet you here, after so many years.

  7. Tana

    Hi Yasmin,
    Thanks! Ya, it’s quite unbelievable that we should run into each other this way. And that you have TWINS! 🙂
    Please feel free to find my contacts through the Bloggermoms owners.
    Take care!

  8. indrani

    Hi Tana

    You description of the concert was beautiful….. actually while reading it I felt as if it was happening in front of me. I loved the line ” in his heartbeat, I hear the same rhythm as mine, and in his voice the same stock of melody that makes being human joyful.” Indeed very thought provoking.

  9. Tana

    Ansha and Indrani,
    Thank you for your thoughtfulness … for acknowledging the lessons I was taking away from this experience. Being multi-cultural is an open-ended, active process, requiring constant thoughtfulness!

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