Annapurna Devi & Her Music of Silence

On 13th October 2018, Annapurna Devi passed away. Her death was as peaceful as her life in the last 60 years had been, ever since she stopped playing music publicly, because of a vow she made to save her marriage to sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar. While the marriage still failed, she held her vow till the end. For the last 60 years she had lived the life of a hermetic recluse, seeing no one except for her music students. A life of pure devotion to her music and her goddess, Sharada Maa. I was lucky to be the first journalist ever to interview her in 2000 — a story that went viral many times over. This, with the wisdom of hindsight and maturity, is my final story about her. It was published by the Mumbai Mirror across six pages on October 14.

 

THE MUSIC OF SILENCE

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I was 27 years old when I was offered a chance to record the defining interview of my life — a story that would become the benchmark of everything else I would write, and would become the Rorschach test for my own changing attitudes to relationships as I grew older. I was Contributing Editor for a Men’s lifestyle magazine called Man’s World India — a respectable local variant of GQ or Esquire. Unexpectedly, into my lap, fell this opportunity from a friend of a college friend to interview a reclusive musical maestro named Annapurna Devi — so reclusive, I was told, that she would be speaking to a journalist for the first time ever. My friend introduced me forward to her friend, an affable diamond merchant by day and devoted student of ‘Maa’ in every spare hour, and my first question to him was, ‘Who is she?’

In a world where ‘low-profile’ means not giving interviews till your next album, here was a musician who had stonewalled the media — and not gone out in public, literally — since three decades before I was born. If there were no recent photographs of her, it was because she had not been photographed since 1956. Even in the world of Indian classical music, where she was a legend, she was more heard of than heard. Many of those who had seen her play live, at a clutch of recitals in the Forties till the mid-Fifties, were now dead.

So I began to piece together her story from fragments and shards for the first time. She was the daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan, widely acknowledged as the father of Hindustani classical music. In some sense, her lineage itself made her the equivalent of the first daughter of the Hindustani classical world. But she was more than that. Allauddin Khan’s youngest daughter was the foremost living exponent of the surbahar, a difficult instrument colloquially described as a ‘bass sitar’. Moreover, over the years, she had been the Guru Maa – a combination of music teacher and spiritual guru – to hundreds of students which included a veritable Who’s Who of rising stars of modern Hindustani classical music — Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ashish Khan, Bahadur Khan, Nityanand Haldipur, Sudhir Phadke, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, Pradeep Barot and many others. But the part that caught my attention, and the reason I was being given the interview, was because she was also the first wife of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. More specifically, what caught my attention was why she was no longer his wife: a tragic story that became the main reason why she had shut out the world beyond her music room.

From her students I learned that she had not played in public for 50 years because of a vow she had taken. I was further intrigued when I was told that the cult 1970s Bollywood film ‘Abhimaan’ — in which the marriage between singer Subir (Amitabh Bachchan) and his unassuming young bride Uma (Jaya Bachchan) breaks down because he is jealous of her superior talent — was based on the story of their marriage. It was this story of a fiery, ill-fated marriage of two creative artistes that I explored in my piece ‘The Tragedy of A Relationship’ in August 2000. So fiery, in fact that the stray sparks, still flying forty years after separation, had led to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the only reason the reclusive Annapurna Devi had agreed to speak to a journalist now was because her former husband had misrepresented their marriage in his new autobiography.

For the next few weeks, guided by her student Atul Merchant, I immersed myself in her life story, which was like a crash course in the history of modern Indian classical music. I interviewed some of her students and music critics. And finally, when I was ready, I visited her home. While appearing to be an ordinary tenth-floor flat in a South Mumbai apartment block, it was a portal into a world out of the ordinary — just as she was.

For one, the door had a plastic plaque: A request: Please ring the bell only three times. If nobody answers, please leave your card/letter. Thank you for being considerate. She was then living with her second husband Rooshikumar Pandya, a cheerful, worldly-wise psychology professor from Montreal, who seemed to have found a happy mix between being her student, confidante and caretaker. As I entered, there was a small holding area — as hotel suites sometimes have — beyond which access is not allowed except to music students. But that night, Atul Merchant took me through the passage into the ‘forbidden zone’.

On the left, we passed the kitchen, where Annapurna herself cooks. In the Hindu pantheon, Annapurna Devi is the Goddess of Nourishment and her namesake’s culinary skills are rumored to be worthy of this high epithet. Across the bottom of the kitchen door was a small wooden partition, a pet door for her dachshund Munna who had passed away twenty years ago. But Maa still keeps the door in his memory, Atul said. Annapurna, I realized, was not a person given to forgetting quickly.

Straight ahead was a door, which was shut. Maa is meditating, I was told and guided instead into the training room. This large room, with a row of sitars along its walls, opening out through sliding doors on to the sea, was the heart of the house — and it could be said, the epicenter of contemporary Hindustani classical music for the sheer number of musicians that had honed their skills here. Near the center of the room was a well-worn chattai mat. This is where every one of Maa’s students has sat and learnt from her, Atul pointed out, and this round cane munda (stool) is where Maa sits while teaching.

Even 17 years later, I remember two things about that room. One, it was frozen in time, as if it existed in its own reality where time moved slower, if at all. The light had the still, depthless quality of an aquarium, as if everything that ever happened within it stayed floating forever in its ethers. And secondly, I remember distinctly perceiving the air in the room was dense with silence. It was not just the dead silence of an empty room, it was the living silence of a monk’s cell, where every gesture felt magnified and every thought I had carried in from the outside world felt suddenly too loud and too vulgar.

Around the room were priceless paintings and bronze busts, and even more priceless, the surbahar she herself played, but my eye was drawn to a relatively smaller sketch in the corner. That was drawn by her son Shubho when he was young, Atul informed me. It was eerie and hypnotic: a stark black graphic illustration of a series of doors sucking you into them, as if each promising possibility led inexorably to doom. It could have been a metaphor for Shubho’s own unhappy life.

The interview began with the defining childhood moment at age ten when her father caught her correcting her brother Ali Akbar during his music practice. She had been playing hopscotch outside their family house in Maihar, 160 miles outside Benares, and her father had gone to the market. Teenaged Ali Akbar was immersed in his daily 18-hour riyaz on his sarod when she caught him playing a false note. To fully understand the significance of this moment, you have to know two things: One, Ali Akbar was no musical pushover, he was a child prodigy who made his stage debut at age 13, and secondly, that the youngest daughter Annapurna had received, until then, no musical training whatsoever from her father. (This was mainly because her elder sister who had been trained in Dhrupad had, after marriage, found her Muslim in-laws unwelcoming to a daughter-in-law who sang Vedic devotional songs. So Allauddin decided it might be in Annapurna’s best interest to not learn with her brother.)

So when Annapurna not only corrected, but also sang the raga flawlessly to demonstrate the correct way, it demonstrated a finely tuned ear far above even the abnormally high standards within a family blessed with musical genius. As she recalled the incident in my interview: “I was so involved in the music that I didn’t notice Baba returning and watching me. I was most afraid when I suddenly felt his presence. But instead of scolding me, Baba called me in his room. He perceived that I had a genuine interest in music that I loved it and I could do it. This was the beginning of my taalim (education).”

Annapurna With her father Allauddin Khan
Annapurna Devi With her father Allauddin Khan

Her taalim had begun, as was compulsory for all students, with vocal Dhrupad training. Then, she was taught the sitar. But very soon, her father asked her if she would like to shift to the surbahar, a larger and more unwieldy cousin of the sitar. His suggestion was far more significant than a shift of instrument or a notch-up to the next level of dexterity, it was an acknowledgement that she was spiritually and musically ready to be transmitted the highest teachings the Master had to offer.

As she recalled in my interview, “He said, ‘I want to teach my Guru’s vidya to you because you have no greed. To learn you need to have infinite patience and a calm mind. I feel that you can preserve my Guru’s gift because you love music. However, you will have to leave the sitar, an instrument liked by the connoisseurs as well as the commoners. Only listeners who understand the depth of music or who intuitively feel music, on the other hand, will appreciate the surbahar. The commoner might throw tomatoes at you. So what is your decision?’ I was dumfounded. ‘I will do as per your aadesh,’ was my simple response.”

In 1935, Uday Shankar, the legendary dancer, invited her father Allauddin Khan to join them on their tours. Uday Shankar had popularized Indian dance in the West by adapting European theatrical techniques to it. His little brother Robindra (he later changed his name to Ravi Shankar) was then a handsome dancer in the troupe, with an intense, exotic charm. In his teens, Robindra found another gift: he could fool around with any instrument — the tabla, sitar, sarod and flute — and create music even without formal training. He became obsessed with the idea of spreading this music to the West. But when he met Allauddin Khan, the teacher, with characteristic bluntness, told him that he was wasting his time and talent. Humbled, but inspired, in 1937 Ravi Shankar sold his western clothes, shaved his head, and moved to Maihar. The move was not just geographical, Robindra was moving from bohemian Paris into a stoic world, which was disciplined, and demanding.

It was Uday Shankar who approached Allauddin for the hand of his daughter Annapurna for his little brother. At that time, Annapurna was a shy thirteen-year-old and, in the words of Ravi Shankar, “very bright and quite attractive, with lovely eyes and a brighter complexion than Alubhai’s (Ali Akbar Khan).” But this was not a Hollywood romance between two prodigies, Annapurna reminded me. “I was brought up by Ma and Baba in an ashram-like atmosphere at Maihar. There was no question of my getting attracted to Panditji. Ours was an arranged marriage and not a love marriage.” In fact, before marriage, all Pandit Ravi Shankar says he knew about the depth of her feelings was that she had ‘agreed’. And on the morning of May 15, 1941, Annapurna converted to Hinduism and the same evening they were married according to Hindu rites.

He was 20 and she was 14.

Five years after the story was published, when I was well in my thirties, I got married. I found it a complex negotiation of little and big sacrifices, and I wondered what it would have been like for a fourteen-year-old who had barely left her hometown and never been with another man. And here she was, thrown into the deep end, with a debonair, worldly-wise musician with grand plans to change the world, and in whose presence girls giggled a little more than necessary. There is a mythic resonance to the story of the star pupil marrying the teacher’s daughter, as there is in the tale of a daughter marrying the one man holding the promise to someday equal her father. But their marriage was so ill fitted in every other way. It sounded like a match made in music heaven, but emotionally, it was a match made in hell.

Jealousy — sometimes suspected, sometimes confirmed — began to define their arguments. Like her father, Annapurna had a temper, and this did not get easier, when their son Shubho was born a year into the marriage. A year later, Ravi Shankar was attracted to dancer Kamala Sastri (later Chakravarty), a fact he would confirm in his book ‘Ravi Shankar: An Autobiography’. It was barely two years into the marriage, and they had just moved to Bombay when the affair took wing. An enraged Annapurna returned to Maihar with her baby and did not return until Kamala was hastily married off to movie director Amiya Chakravarty. Of this period, Ravi Shankar wrote, “This was first time in my marriage that I had become deeply attracted to somebody else. Annapurna doubted me with everyone anyway. So it was nothing new for her to doubt me with Kamala—only this time it was true. I was not in a state to think reasonably. Perhaps the moment reason set in, love frayed at the edges. She is so gifted! But she has a tremendous temper. Like her father. And at that time even I was very ill tempered. So we both would flare up together….”

What compounded this personal drama was that in music – the aspect of life that mattered most to Ravi Shankar – he was dogged by constant whispers that his wife, not him, was the real deal.

The first schism, according to the recollections Annapurna shared with her students, emerged a few months after marriage when she was invited by their father’s patron Maharaja Brijnath Singh Jiu Deo to play at his palace in Maihar. Ravi Shankar, unfamiliar with rigid court decorum, not only travelled with her but, after she ended a spectacular and much-appreciated hour-long surbahar solo, requested the king for a chance to play on his surbahar. The king allowed the unexpected intrusion into the schedule, but walked off fifteen minutes into the performance. Annapurna would later clarify that though Pandit Ravi Shankar had learned the surbahar from Allauddin Khan, the sitar suited him more and was his forte.

Ravi Shankar continued to develop his expertise on the more challenging and rewarding instrument but an almost-identical rejection a few years later became the last straw for their marriage. After a live surbahar jugalbandi (duet) performance by the couple in Delhi in the 1950s, audiences rushed up to surround her and critics congratulated her, ignoring Pandit Ravi Shankar, and the writing was on the wall. In later years, Annapurna would repeatedly clarify that it was only because Panditji was playing the surbahar that the contrast was glaring. But on that night in their home, the silence was deafening.

Marriage is considered sacred in Indian culture. Hindu marriage rites bond a couple across lifetimes. Ending it was so unheard of that until the Hindu Marriage Act was created in 1955, divorce was not even recognized by law as a means to end marriage. To save her marriage, Annapurna Devi took a vow before a picture of her father and an image of their family goddess Sharada Ma never to perform in public again.

Even though my access to Annapurna for the interview had come with the unspoken caveat to portray her side of the story, I tried to stay true to both sides — using quotes from Ravi Shankar’s multiple autobiographies on every incident Annapurna spoke of, in the absence of direct access. But I underestimated the iconic power of this single image: a wife making the ultimate sacrifice at the altar in a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. After that, nothing could rebalance the scales, which tipped heavily with the weight of centuries of masculine and feminine archetypes. Perhaps because of it, the article didn’t just end up as a profile of a reclusive genius, it went far beyond the rarefied world of classical music aficionados. It spread on weblogs, Internet chat forums and bulletin boards; and a decade later, when Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp emerged, it resurfaced and continued to remain viral, like a never-ending social media Mexican wave. In 2016, when I posted a copy of the original article on my personal blog, WordPress stopped recording statistics after it crossed 10,000 shares on Facebook alone — within a week! Every month I still get comments about it, which essentially say the same two things in different words: how amazing Annapurna Devi is, and how awful her husband was.

I did note, for example, in my article that Ravi Shankar recalled this defining incident differently: “As long as we were married I used to force her to play along with me and give programmes… But after that she didn’t want to perform alone. She always wanted to sit with me. And after we separated she didn’t want to perform… She maybe doesn’t like to face the public or she is nervous or whatever but it is of her own will that she has stopped. This is very sad because she is a fantastic musician.” But it didn’t have the iconic ring of a vow taken before the gods, and in popular imagination, Annapurna’s version endured.

Annapurna Devi & Ravi Shankar
The Newly Married Annapurna & Ravi Shankar

As I grew older, I sometimes wondered if it could have ended differently for them. In the photograph of them on their marriage day, they look like any other couple, giddy with possibilities and promise. No one sets out to have a bad marriage, but theirs unraveled almost as soon as it began, and I wondered why. Surely it showed poor judgment for Ravi Shankar to expect a traditional Indian woman like Annapurna to allow him an infidelity pass. Much as I admired his honesty in acknowledging in his book that he was “deeply attracted” to dancer Kamala Sastri “for the first time in his marriage” — he didn’t note that this first time was barely two years into the marriage! Or had Ravi Shankar misjudged himself? Had he been so carried away within the ashram-like atmosphere of Madina Bhavan-Shanti Kutir, living with his Guru’s family for seven years, that he had forgotten that he — a dancer since age ten in Paris — was someone else inside? Looking with today’s eyes, I would wonder if their age was a factor: it was, after all, an underage marriage and teenage parenthood. In later years, I even wondered if her determination to hold her vow — even after the marriage was lost, even after Ravi Shankar passed away — was a twisted way to deprive the world of her music: a punishment that held an unforgiving finger of blame forever pointed in the direction of Ravi Shankar.

As the years passed, and my own marriage began to come apart at the seams, I realized more clearly that in real-life, relationships aren’t divided into heroes and villains, into victims and oppressors, even if that version of the story offers us the comfort of sympathy, or of righteousness. It felt, because of the scathing criticism of Ravi Shankar in the comments I received, that I had done an injustice to the full truth of this story. After all, to define Ravi Shankar’s life by his failed marriage would be grossly incomplete. He had gone on to do more for Hindustani music than almost any other contemporary musician. He had not just become a global face of Indian music — he had become a patch-cord which plugged a whole generation of the West into the spiritual source of Indian music, musicians like George Harrison, Robbie Coltrane, Philip Glass, Yehudi Menuhin, Pete Townshend, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And I believe Annapurna Devi felt the same way, because in later years she did clarify her undiminished respect for Pandit Ravi Shankar the musician, torchbearer of the Maihar Gharana, even as she continued to stay silent or cryptic on Ravi Shankar the husband and father.

Perhaps if Ravi Shankar had not written about Shubho’s ‘sleeping pills incident’ in his 1997 biography, she would still have let her angst remain locked up in her music room. Perhaps if their story had ended with separation, it would have been simply a cautionary tale. But with the addition of the story of Shubho’s little life and early death, it got sordid.

Hospital records would show that Shubhendra Shankar’s life was difficult from the beginning. Within eight weeks of his birth in 1942, he was diagnosed with a painful intestinal obstruction. Staying awake all night with a crying child after ten hours of sitar lessons every day put the first strain on his parents’ marriage. Ravi Shankar recalled in his book, “…Because of that trouble Shubho had now developed the habit of not sleeping in the night. It continued for the next year or so, and gradually I saw Annapurna’s personality changing. For both of us it was extremely strenuous, and our tempers would fray.”

Little Shubho was taught to play the sitar by his father. Since his father was constantly busy, either on concert tours or travelling for films and ballets, his musical education was taken over by his mother, who, like her own father before her, was rigorous and uncompromising. He continued to stay with her after the couple separated. In his teens, he showed an interest in art, and even as he continued his daily riyaz, he enrolled in the Sir JJ School of Art. This seemed partly an act of teenage identity-assertion and partly because he somehow believed graphic design promised a more reliable source of income. By all accounts, he remained a shy, sensitive and solitary boy.

His father was by now estranged, living and touring in the West. Around 1966, when he came to India, he heard Shubho play on the radio by chance. He reached out to invite him to move to the US with him — an invitation that cannily was sent directly to Shubho instead of Annapurna. For Shubho, comparing his spartan lifestyle of endless hours of solitary practice, against the promise of travelling to pre-ordained fame as Ravi Shankar’s heir, the choice must not have been difficult. His mother was determined that he should complete the remaining two years of his taalim. Ravi Shankar proposed to Shubho that since the same guru had taught him, he could complete Shubho’s training too. As a final offer, Annapurna requested for six months. But Shubho was adamant to leave with his father – and then, one night, he opened the first of many doors that would seal his fate.

In his autobiography 1997 ‘Raag Mala’, Pandit Ravi Shankar wrote, for the first time, about this incident — the controversial ‘sleeping pills episode’. He wrote: “When I was staying in Bombay sometime in early 1970, I received an SOS call at my hotel from Shubho, asking me in a feeble voice to come home and take him away. I didn’t know what was happening and was terrified by his tone of voice, so I rushed to the flat in Malabar Hill, which I had not visited in the three-and-a-half years since I left for good. There I saw Shubho lying down and looking ill. He clung on to me desperately, like a little boy, and begged me to take him away with me to America, as he could no longer stand the hot temper and harshness of his mother — not only in connection with music but in general too. Coming from a man of 28, this both melted my heart and angered me. I did not want to make a scene and managed to control myself even as Annapurna was shouting in fury, ‘Yes, take him away! I don’t want him!’ After we left I learnt that Shubho had taken 8-10 sleeping pills in an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, the doctor had arrived just in time and emptied Shubho’s stomach completely.”

For my original interview, Annapurna wanted me to put it on record that father and son had concocted this episode. She called it “a stage-managed drama to malign me and to take him away from me.” She said, “Shubho was immature at the time and hence unwittingly became a party to his father’s plot. I think he realized this later and stopped communicating with his father a few months before his untimely and possibly preventable death. Let me share with you what did happen… When I was told that Shubho had taken sleeping pills, I immediately called a doctor who examined him and confirmed that nothing was wrong with him. We also searched for an empty bottle or any other telltale signs but nothing was found. As a matter of fact, Shubho himself called his father at that time and told him to take him away as per their plan. My only plea to Panditji at that time was, ‘You have ruined my life and now you are ruining your son’s life. Why?’ His only answer was, ‘It is because of you’.”

When Shubho arrived in America, it was the Summer of Love. Shubho moved in with his father in Hollywood, and was gifted a Ford Mustang. But the glamorous doors of La-La Land only sucked him in deeper into a black hole. Shubho fell in love with an American girl Linda, whom he met at one of the concerts and, against his father’s wishes, decided to get married. After marriage, he gradually lost interest in playing the sitar. He found solace in drawing and devoted his talents to earning a degree in fine arts from Parsons School of Design. Cut adrift from his cloistered world where he was revered as Ravi Shankar’s son, he was cast into blue-collar America. Soon the baby-faced scion of the Maihar gharana was working part-time as a clerk in a liquor store and drawing illustrations for telephone directories to support his wife and two children.

shubho_ravi
Shubho Shankar

At the age of 40, Shubho took his father’s advice to return to music full time. He began playing the sitar again with Panditji and returned to India for a few concerts. He met his mother again, after twenty years. It was an emotional moment and as he touched his mother’s feet, he told her he wanted to complete his music studies. His delighted mother was ready to begin immediately, but it was soon palpable that this was not the bright-eyed boy who had flown to claim his destiny, this was a defeated and broken-down Shubho whose last paying job had been as a pizza delivery boy. When he played together with his father at the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune in 1990, a few music critics carped that he was out of tune. This was enough to crush him. Once again, Annapurna tried to convince him to stay back in India and once again, he declined. He had concluded by now that it was too late for him. And he flew away once again.

The promise of bearing the musical genes of Annapurna and Ravi Shankar, the promise of being the most eagerly anticipated heir of the Maihar lineage, the promise of conquering America with his celebrity father, the promise of finding his identity apart as a painter, the promise of a new beginning with his final trip to India — every doorway of promise had turned into nightmare for Shubho.

In his last few months, he cut himself off from everyone. He contracted bronchial pneumonia and on September 21, 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported that the son of renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar, who had been ill for the last several months at his home in Garden Grove, had died at Los Alamitos Medical Center. The obituary noted: ‘Shankar is survived by his wife, Linda; their son, Somnath, 17; their daughter, Kaveri, 13, and his 71-year-old father, who is recuperating in London from surgery to clear blocked arteries.’ For some reason, deliberate or otherwise, it made no mention that he was also survived by a grieving 65-year-old mother, who did not have a passport to go to the US — a mother who had perhaps believed that a tragic divorce would be the biggest shock she would ever have to face.

Her day-to-day life was not different from an Indian housewife. Her day began at six in the morning when she woke up to take in the milk. She spent the day cooking, cleaning the house — and even washing her own clothes, because her father had told her to do this in childhood. Besides music, her only obsession was pigeons: another quality she had imbibed from her father. Every afternoon, she would feed hundreds of pigeons on her balcony. The rest of the time, she taught in the training room, never leaving the house, except a couple of times for medical reasons.

While it was a hermetically sealed life, it was not an unhappy one; it was a life that had made peace with the seeming imperfection of its own story. Her deeper sorrow was the declining standard in music. She was born in an era of royal patronage (she was bestowed the name ‘Annapurna’ by the Maharaja of Maihar). In her lifetime, the world had moved from Maharajas to Maharaja Macs — her students now needed to please the lowest-common denominator of the masses to survive. She relentlessly trained her students in the same exacting way her father had taught her and her father’s guru had taught him, but everything outside the windows of her training room had changed. Even as her newer students immersed themselves in decades of solitary 12-hour-sessions, they would see half-trained musicians zoom past as pop musicians and Bollywood music directors. Some students got mundane day jobs for survival but over the years found the pressures of work, marriage and children hard to balance with this demanding spiritual path. While none would openly question Maa, they sometimes wondered if they were trying to be a Timex in a digital age.

Much has changed for everyone in the story since the article came out. Three decades of marriage to Prof Rooshikumar Pandya seemed to have settled Annapurna and healed long-held scars. A trained psychological counselor, I suspect he helped her as much as she helped him. Ravi Shankar also softened over the years. When Annapurna remarried in 1982, he was one of the first persons to congratulate Rooshikumar Pandya. Pandya recalled that though Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi never met or spoke to each other after her second marriage, whenever Ravi Shankar spoke to him over the phone, he would enquire about Annapurna – and her pigeons.

A white-bearded Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away in 2012, after a concert in San Diego in which he arrived on stage in a wheelchair, on oxygen, and played Raga Bhimpalasi in memory of Hurricane Sandy victims. A year later, with much less media coverage, Rooshikumar Pandya passed away after a cardiac arrest. Annapurna stopped teaching and cancelled the annual Guru Purnima celebrations, the one day of the year when her doors were open for all her students, and anyone else who came with offerings of gratitude. And on October 13th, well into her ‘90s, she quietly moved on to her next journey.

Our minds — addictive story-telling machines — jump blithely across decades of idyll to connect incidents and make meaning; connections that perhaps don’t exist for those living them. Maybe there is no cause-and-effect continuity between the tempestuous 15-year-old wife and the struggling 35-year-old single mother and the dignified 55-year-old music teacher. We want to combine these dramatic and disparate notes of her life into one raga, but maybe they belong to different songs, with the previous tracks erased. In some cases, like with Annapurna, the daily, hourly flow of time across the many intervening years having smoothened out jagged memories into peace. In other cases, as with Ravi Shankar, the crowd of new faces replacing the old neighborhoods within the mind with newer skylines.

In his final interview, with Tathagata Ray a few months before he passed away, Rooshikumar Pandya gave the sanest and most concise summation I have read about the Annapurna-Ravi Shankar saga: “Two persons sometimes don’t match. It is very simple and happens all the time. People are only interested about their marriage. But what people don’t understand is that it was over long ago. Both of them have remarried, lived happily, and lived a full life. Both of them have contributed enormously to the country’s music. While he chose to perform in concerts, she chose to spread her father’s music among her students.”

ravi-shankar
Ravi Shankar with George Harrison

And sometimes it is hard to grasp how long the gaps in time have actually been. They were married in the age of scratchy vinyl. They separated in the year Phillips introduced ‘compact cassette’ players. Shubho went to the US just before the Sony Walkman became the rage. She remarried Prof Pandya at a simple Arya Samaj ceremony in 1982, the year music began moving to Compact Discs. And then the year after Shubho died, mp3 killed cassette tapes forever. My original interview happened exactly a year before Apple launched the iPod, which put ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. And that was still 17 years ago.

Blame it on serendipity or algorithm, the next video YouTube throws up for me is a performance of Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the same raga, at Woodstock in 1969. From the first notes, one can sense a showman’s instinct for connecting with the audience and carrying them along into a joyous place. When he plays Manjh Khamaj before a live audience, it can almost classify as ‘fun’ in the way of a rippling Santana guitar solo or Satchmo ripping his trumpet. The performance is soulful, intricate and not lacking in dexterity, but it is also dazzling and one can picture open-mouthed American teens sprawled out in rainy Woodstock that weekend wondering what in God’s name is this wizardry. The difference is clearer here than anywhere else. While Annapurna’s joy seemed to be in playing for herself and for her goddess, Ravi Shankar’s role seemed to be to share the nectar of the gods with the world. Fluent in both Eastern and Western musical languages and a charismatic, polished stage performer, Ravi Shankar was undoubtedly a natural, and better, ambassador for a dying craft.

Somewhere, that is where I find my peace with their story. One of them was designed to scale mountains of glory, and one of them was designed to plumb solitary depths of the valley of devotion. In themselves, they were pinnacles of the two functions of music — as an inner doorway to divine joy, and as a medium of sharing divine joy with others.

The world may see Ravi Shankar’s contribution to music greater, but I would lean towards Annapurna, because of a story I heard a few years after I wrote my article. Till then, I had always likened Annapurna to Mian Tansen, the legendary 16th century musician in Emperor Akbar’s court, who could start fires and create rainstorms with his ragas. (In fact, the Maihar gharana traces its teachings back 400 years directly to Tansen, so in some sense she is musically a direct descendant of Tansen.) But after hearing this story, I began to think differently.

Legend has it that one day in court, after yet another soul-satisfying musical performance from Tansen, the Emperor Akbar declared there could be no voice more divine than Tansen. The singer humbly replied that if the Emperor could hear his teacher, a hermit called Haridas, his own poor efforts would be forgotten. The Emperor wanted to immediately summon Haridas to court but Tansen cautioned him that it was not possible – his teacher did not sing on demand, only when he felt inspired. Intrigued, the Emperor, with Tansen, set off for the forest in Vrindavan where Haridas lived in a hut. When they arrived, it was early morning, and the teacher was deep in meditation. Akbar hid in the bushes while Tansen prostrated himself before his guru and began singing a sacred hymn his guru had taught him. The teacher, still deep in meditation, did not open in his eyes. Then Tansen, as planned, deliberately sang a note off-key. His guru immediately opened his eyes and corrected him. Tansen begged him to remind him of the correct notes. So the guru lifted his voice and rendered the same hymn so magnificently that Akbar fell into ecstasy. It was only then that Tansen revealed to him that the guest hiding in the bushes was the Emperor of India. When they returned to the capital, a bewildered Akbar told Tansen he had been right: his teacher was beyond anything he had heard before, but one thing puzzled him — how could there be such a vast difference when both had sung the same song, and hit the same notes, flawlessly. It is said that Tansen replied: ‘The cause is simple — I sing to please the king, he sings only to please God.’

Annapurna Devi Final
The rare, final photograph of Annapurna Devi, taken a few months before she passed away.

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#annapurnadevi #music #classicalmusic #indianclassical #mystic #rip #ravishankar #sitar #longread #wordpress #obituary #feature #story #annapurna #genius #divinefeminine #spiritualmusic #unknowngenius

Rajshri’s River of Hope

Most of us, when we read social media posts about a natural calamity like drought, we click angry-face LIKE and hit ‘Share NOW’, perhaps with a dark comment about government inefficiency. Some of us donate money. Very few volunteer time with an NGO. My friend Rajshri Deshpande went a step further: last month, she set out to single-handedly revive a river.

Rajshri Deshpande

An audible groan runs through the Jet Airways afternoon flight to Aurangabad as the captain announces temperature at destination: 45 degrees. It’s the kind of weather in which an actress-slash-model like Rajshri Deshpande should be safely within a cafe near her beachside home in Mumbai, sipping iced latte and discussing the European tour for her debut film ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’. Instead, she is in a village some 350 kms away, mediating a quarrel between two villagers.

As she uses her tough charm to calm down both heated parties, you realize she faces a challenge even more ancient than drought – the human ego. A barter deal she had struck with the village dhaba for free diesel to run the hydraulic earthmover has hit rough weather. We are in Pandhri Pimpalgaon village 30 kms away from Aurangabad, standing on the banks of the river Bembla, or at least what used to be the 160-foot-wide river Bembla until 2002. It is now an arid dustbowl overrun with thorny scrub, so scorched even the dusk breeze stings our eyes. And here is Rajshri Deshpande, using her education as a lawyer, her talent as an actor and some milky sweet chai to resolve the problem so the stalled work for resuscitating the dead river can begin again.

An old villager remembers the beginning of the end came when the trees on its banks were chopped for wood. Every year after that, the riverbed retained less water. The perennial river soon had dry months in which spiny shrubs and cacti began weeding its riverbed. When the rains came, thorns clutched plastic trash and choked the flow. The loosed sediment slid down its banks and morphed the riverbed into the almost-indistinguishable rolling scrubland where we stand right now.

Rajshri Deshpande has taken it upon herself to reverse the process for this little river Bembla. The immediate plan is to clean out three large pits within the riverbed which can become ponds after the monsoon. While raising funds in the city, she has also asked villagers to pitch not only in their spare time but also a small part of the cost. The larger reason, she explains, is not so much to save costs as to have them feel invested and empowered. The biggest problem here, Rajshri says, is lack of motivation.

Drought Farmer
Farmers and their fields await the monsoon in Pandhri

When it comes to drought, most city-folk are like Jon Snow: we know nothing. Reading media reports we picture emaciated farmers’ bodies scattered across deeply fractured lands. As journalist P Sainath points out in his darkly humorous classic ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought’ the truth is drought comes in many forms, not all of which look like the clichéd ‘endless parched lands’, not all of them caused by the clichéd ‘cruel monsoons’ and not all of them causing deaths of clichéd ‘starving farmers’.

The truth is different. In Maharashtra, as in many parts of India, drought is man-made, so an above-average monsoon is no guarantee drought will not recur. We may point fingers at the government’s indiscriminate digging of water-sucking bore wells, poisonous urea-farming, destruction of ancient ponds, diversion of rivers for city-dwellers’ electricity and water-guzzling sugarcane factories. But other fingers should point at the farmers themselves – at their focus on instant solutions for immediate profits. The cliché of cruel nature causing drought, I learn, is only partly true.

Secondly, thanks to heavy subsidies on dal, rice and wheat, most farmers do not actually die of starvation. This year, the government is providing free tankers of water twice a week to fill the ubiquitous 200-litre blue plastic barrels clustered like oversized garden gnomes outside every hut. With a little stretch, this is enough for the farmer family’s essentials but not enough to support their extended family: the animals who starve with little fodder and lesser water every year. And for centuries-old farming communities, it is not enough to sustain their withering farms. Year after year, men and boys flee farms to work as construction laborers or, as Nana Patekar cinematically put it, to knock on the windows of your car to ask for loose change. This is the broader problem caused by drought. More often out of loss of will than lack of a meal, 6000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last four years.

The biggest problem, Rajshri keeps repeating, is lack of motivation. There are farmers here who are dirt-poor, she says, but there are farmers who have money also. Our donations for water-tankers can help them temporarily, but next summer the farmers will be in the same place… and the water-tanker contractors will be much richer. To make a long-term change, the farmers need to revive their land and rivers. They need some motivation to do things beyond immediate gain. For that they need a little push from outside, just like we all do at times.

In fact, motivating herself to take on this project without money, resources or a team was the first challenge for Rajshri. This is what I found most fascinating about Rajshri’s story: while many NGOs, non-profit organizations and volunteer teams are doing praiseworthy projects for drought-relief, hers is the story of how far an individual can walk with a little bit of faith and a little bit of insanity. But that was not how it began.

Initially, she contacted Nana Patekar & Makarand Anaspure’s ‘Naam Foundation’ to take on the Bembla river project. They were stretched thin, they said, but offered her a Pokland earth-mover for free. Another NGO she approached quoted a heavily padded estimate to take it on as a turnkey project. Yet another asked for a 10% profit share from all funds she raised. The monsoon was approaching in less than two months so she finally took a deep breath and braced herself for whatever lay ahead.

Convincing the villagers of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon was her next challenge. It helped that Rajshri’s mother had worked with the Zilla Parishad in nearby Aurangabad so she grew up in these parts; in the parochial village mentality, this Marathi-speaking and Marathi-swearing girl is ‘aamchi mulgi’… our girl. But she still had to work against deeply embedded wrinkles of distrust. Broken promises by successive elected leaders – whose tenure was a snatch & grab race to collect as much money as they could before their five-year term ran out – had made the farmers cynical. On her first visit, an old woman hoarsely predicted to everyone in the village square that like others who had promised to help, Rajshri too would never return.

Dr Ajit Gokhale
Dr Ajit Gokhale’s workshop for the villagers in progress

But she did return, along with an environmentalist and natural solutions expert with two decades of experience, Dr Ajit S Gokhale. He set up a bench in the village field and demonstrated to the farmers using their own soil how urea-farming and tractor-tilling was killing their land.

But information, Dr Gokhale knew from his experience of helping 170 villages, is never enough to motivate. So he asked them his favorite trick question: Has the government done anything for you? In unison, the villagers chorused an angry NO! This was perhaps the only subject upon which they agreed across all caste, class and religion lines. Dr Gokhale smiled and asked: So who made the roads? Did you make them? The villagers were nonplussed by this new line of questioning: roads came from the government, of course. And do you create your own electricity? That too was from the government, they had to agree. The school your children go to? What about ration shops? And fertilizer subsidy? Slowly, the point of the questions began to dawn on them: Dr Gokhale was offering them the option to stop sitting on their haunches and blaming the government for everything wrong with their lives.

When he saw his point had hit home, Dr Gokhale changed tack. He asked: Are any amongst you helping anyone other than your own family? Something altruistic in which there is no thought for your own gain? The villagers squirmed. That, Dr Gokhale concluded, is the real reason for the drought – you don’t think about your neighbor, your village land or even your grandchildren.

He reminded them of the dust-covered ‘Yogeshwar Krushi’ board he had seen while walking through Pandhri village; Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s beautiful concept where the entire village also tills one patch of common land, the produce from which is used to help whoever has unexpected need that year. He advised them to revive that half-forgotten practice. Dr Gokhale’s conversation worked like magic. In less than an hour, they went from helpless victims waiting for relief to citizens ready to take responsibility for their situation.

Next Rajshri picked her two local champions for the project. Dattabhau, at 55, is the senior, experienced and respected one. Having bought his first plot of land by pawning his wife’s mangalsutra, he worked to educate his sons through engineering college and his daughter to an MA in English – so he’s hardworking and future-oriented. Twenty-something Yogesh, on the other hand, is affable and talks with a smile. When most of the farmers were still skeptical, Yogesh was the one who spoke individually to at least listen to her.

But finally, it was the day Rajshri directly dialled veteran Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure to give the villagers a speaker-phone pep talk that they began listening to her with newfound adoration. (An unanticipated side-effect: Makarand mentioned that she was an actress, not realizing she had hidden this from the villagers until then.)

Rajshri Deshpande Drought
The Hydraulic Excavator provided by Naam Foundation. Tractors provided by the villagers.

Since then Dattabhau and Yogesh, along with a handful of village volunteers, supervise the clearing of the riverbed in night and day shifts. It’s been two weeks, and straw-haired Dattabhau who walked with a limp when work began, now sprints with youthful excitement.

He has reason to be: in ten days, they have completed one pit and soon, when the work is done, it will support two villages: Pandhri and Pimpalgaon, with a combined population of 2500. By official statistics, around 80% of them are small farmers with less than five acres for their cotton, soybean, millet, jowar, bajra and pomegranate fields. But for Dattabhau, all of them are faces he has known his entire life. If they manage to complete all three pits before the rains, the water will also benefit a zopadpatti (slum) nearby. And just maybe, if the rain gods are benevolent, then the five toilets in the village can be reopened so they don’t have to go every day for a long ‘morning walk’.

As Dattabhau lithely climbs a concrete backwall across the dry riverbed, he points me its cement slab: This wall is government work… means total duplicate work. Where they need ten bags of cement, they use two bags. That’s why this happens… He shows me gaping holes with exposed twists of metal rods, and then adds with pride: By government rate, our river project would cost Rs 30 lac, with our work it will be not more than Rs 3 lac. Ten times difference…

Later, I discovered this little Bembla river shares its name with another larger, more infamous Bembla river in nearby Yavatmal, which became an icon of corruption for its massive, misguided dam project which remains incomplete even after 25 years. The biggest irony: after spending Rs 1857 crores, the Economic Times reported that the project is providing water to a mere 1,200 hectares – which is the exact size of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon villages put together! When Dattabhau estimated a ten-time difference between his costs and government costs, he was way, way off.

Rajshri Deshpande's Team
Rajshri with her champions. Dattabhau stands second from left. Yogesh second from right.

At dusk, we sit on a charpoy overlooking Yogesh’s field, and a small crowd gathers around. Rajshri tells them she is arranging for a medical camp with the help of a hospital in Aurangabad whom she contacted through her older sister, a doctor. She needs them to let her know through Yogesh which kind of doctor they need to visit them. The conversation flows into dinner at Yogesh’s two-room corrugated-roofed house. Like most village homes, it has porous walls: neighbors and children wander through and join conversations and meals without questions asked. Rajshri discusses the next steps over dinner: once the digging work is done, they should plant trees on the banks, to complete the reversal of the original degradation process.

One of the guests’ cellphone bursts into devotional song. Light-eyed pomegranate farmer Thombre picks up and speaks rapidly in Marathi. He shyly offers his ancient Nokia phone to Rajshri tai. The call is from a woman who heard about the Bembla river work, asking if Rajshri can come to help their village next.

‘If you motivate one village,’ Rajshri says to me as we leave, ‘it becomes an example for others. And in future, villagers like Yogesh and Dattabhau can manage it themselves. I will help from outside. It may not be easy, but it can be done.’ When you consider that a river which ran dry for fifteen years is being revived in a little more than a month, you realize this is not ‘Savior Barbie’ optimism, nor is it too faraway a dream.

At night, after the village babies have rocked off to sleep on their swinging cotton hammocks, after the nightly hari-katha song of the village women in the Vitthal temple porch has fallen silent, Rajshri checks one last time with Yogesh and Dattabhau to see which villagers are going to monitor the work for tonight.

“Yogesh, next year I want to see a bumper crop in your field,” she says, as she sits in her car. Thombre asks shyly if they can talk to Makarand Anaspure once again from her phone. She laughs. But tai… only to thank him… for his support… We should thank him, no? Thombre stammers. Everyone laughs as the car starts.

The battered car is throbbing warm even though the air-conditioning is a full noisy blast. Rajshri Deshpande adjusts the steering wheel and braces for the eight-hour drive to Mumbai, as she has done seven times in the past month. But she knows the more difficult challenges await her back home. So far, through family, friends and a personal contribution by Masaan writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan from their National Award money, she has raised Rs. 1,25,000; somehow she will have to get the remaining money. There are other problems too, some undreamed-of: like the one where a stranger came to surreptitiously take pictures of their worksite to con people online for donations: what can one do in such cases? She takes a deep breath and straightens her rearview mirror. In the distance, Dattabhau watches as the car turns past their tree-canopied Hanuman temple onto the highway: the highway from where the fast-moving world will soon slow down to marvel at the miracle of an ancient river come back to life.

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Bill Watterson’s Advice On Creating the Soul-Fulfilling Life

Bill Watterson, I find, is a rare human being. He created the modern classic ‘Calvin & Hobbes‘ but fought bitterly against licensing and merchandising his characters, sacrificing millions of dollars. He changed the way syndicated cartoons are published in newspapers but stayed away from the media spotlight himself. When ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ was at its peak, he quit the comic strip and settled into a reclusive life in his home town. As an artist who has lived our modern dichotomy between creativity and commercial cleverness, his sane advice is invaluable for young artists and creators. In this rare public appearance, a commencement speech at his alma mater Kenyon College in 1990, he spoke about finding your voice, selling your soul and living a fulfilled life. Excerpts:

Calvin & Hobbes Dust Speck

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE REAL WORLD BY ONE WHO GLIMPSED IT AND FLED
Bill Watterson, Kenyon College, May 1990

[…] So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.

[…] Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.

To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.

As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I thought about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.

Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.

The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.

On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the syndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we’ve been fighting for over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where the desire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.

You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.

But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

Further Reading:

  • The Two Types of Creativity on my own struggle with creative integrity and my mentor GD’s spiritual perspective on the same.
  • At Zen Pencils, young cartoonist Gavin has crated a brilliant comic tribute to this speech.

The Two Types of Creativity

Creativity2

To read the PDF text version to this post, click here.

It’s Cool To Be Good Again

It's Cool to Be Good Again

Last week, on a whim, I met up with two former colleagues for coffee. When we had first met a decade ago, we were charging full-speed ahead in our corporate careers. Today, all three of us are at very different places, but answering the same call.

One of them had been the patron saint of the macho hedonistic life. Today, as he bit into his salad, he said he had given up drinking and smoking. He now volunteers as a sports coach at St Catherine’s Orphanage every weekend. Once a collector of $200 Diesel jeans, he said he hadn’t bought new clothes for six months. His face looked radiant as he spoke, his eyes clearer than I ever remember them when he spoke: “I go home from work at 5:00 pm these days. My old dreams of success are still around. If they work out it will be great – but they don’t define me anymore.”

The other colleague at the table was a former marketing head honcho. He recently founded a company to innovatively use media and technology for education. His first project would reach a million poor children soon. “I pay myself much less than what I could have earned as an MBA at the age of 34,” he said to us, “but I feel good at the end of the day. I have everything in life – a house, food, clothes, dog, car, computer – and a beautiful woman to spend it with. I could have had a bigger car and a bigger house and two more Plasma TVs but I feel good about my life right now.”

When I look at my Facebook timeline, I see that more and more friends around the world, young and old, are waking up to something. My 70something dad has begun a water conservation campaign that has saved 5.5m litres of water and a pretty 20something hypnotherapist I know has begun an NGO for slum children. Not everyone is quitting & serving society – some are just beginning yoga, some are reconnecting with creativity, some are finding themselves drawn to spirituality or alternative healing, some are beginning to question whether their lifestyle is worth it and some are simply forwarding positivity daily. Old beliefs, thought patterns, persons, things and situations are exiting – sometimes creating temporary chaos and confusion as people grapple with ‘what-next?’

Psychics, channels and spiritual teachers say these are all effects of the rigid patriarchal Old Energy making way for a free-flowing New Energy: effects that we will see more clearly in hindsight decades from now. Whether you believe in this spiritual perspective (like I do) or have never heard of it (like my two friends), it doesn’t seem to matter. The change is happening anyway.

Much as I dislike most advertising, especially cola advertising, they do capture the zeitgeist. The recent global Coke ‘Crazy For Good’ campaign features random acts of kindness from London, Cape Town & Buenos Aires. “People call me ‘crazy’ and ‘weird’ and ‘strange,’” the young do-gooder in the Coke commercial says. “But it’s cool. I like it.” Right message, wrong spokesperson.

Speaking of wrong spokespersons, last February, even the arch-icon of ‘80s excess, Gordon Gekko, has a new mantra. In a new FBI ad, Michael Douglas denounced corporate greed and says his Gordon Gekko character was wrong — greed is not good after all.

If you can smell it all around, it has become cool to be good again.

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The Best Spiritual Advice You Got In Kindergarten

rowboatYesterday, as I was listening to my mentor GD share his increasingly clear experience of the entire field of consciousness as a dream, I remembered an old nursery rhyme. Repeating the lines one by one, I was stunned that there was such precise spiritual guidance encoded in four lines:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream

We are conditioned to believe in hard work, control and struggle as the way to go up (stream) in life. The first two sentences offer a kinder suggestion of gently guiding your boat downstream to the goodness and perfection that Life already has in store for you. In two simple lines, the verse captures the essence of what we now know as ‘the law of attraction’.

As long as one believes one is the ‘doer’ of life, the best advice is to row gently and go down the stream. The harder you push, the more reality you give to the false ‘doer’. So take it easy: for life is not a static lake but a stream that has its own natural, divine flow.

In the third line, there is a child-like joy of repetition, which gives the feeling-sense of how life may be lived: merrily. And in case you didn’t get it the first time, we’ll say it four times for you! That’s how much fun this thing called Life is!!!

The most beautiful part of the rhyme for me is the last line. The subtle connection that merriment in life arises not from where your boat takes you, but from the final understanding: ‘life is but a dream’. Go merrily, it advises, for life is but a dream. Again, notice that it doesn’t say that life is like a dream – it says life is a dream.

Reading it again, I noticed how the verse progressively moves from personal to impersonal. The first line has a sense of a ‘you’ rowing a boat. The second describes a scenario of a boat going gently down the stream. The third does not say: ‘you should be merry’. It is simply expressing the pure joy of it – merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. And the fourth, with one joyous lift-off, transcends the whole of life. In four little lines, the song traverses the whole journey from apparent duality to non-duality, between where we (think we) are and the final understanding.

Now that I am a father (in the dream!) teaching nursery rhymes to my little son, this is the one I would encourage him to hold on to for the rest of his life. Maybe someday, on a demanding day at work, he will hum it by chance and rediscover the same spiritual advice encoded in these four simple lines:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream…

A Timeless Little Reminder

Heart

For all those out there who may be feeling temporarily
lost and uncertain about their direction in life…

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