‘Learn an instrument to be at peace’. I forgot where I read the saying, but it always stayed with me and I wondered why. To find its true meaning I enrolled myself into a Bansuri Gurukul after my SSC exams. Plus, the prospect of knowing how to play a musical instrument seemed cool to me. Flute is a simple instrument made of bamboo with holes burnt into the wooden piece, plugged with a cork at one side and voila! Ready to play!
That’s what I thought, until I held a proper side-flute for the first time in my hand. When I first held the flute, she looked all shiny with red and black threads over it. I looked through the holes and I could smell the odour of charred bamboo. It was intoxicating. I kept looking at the flute, turning it upside down, sideways, up and down like a monkey who had never seen a mobile phone. My guru Anant Ramchandra Dhotre who sat there smiling asked me to play it. Let alone play I didn’t know how to hold it. I mimicked him and then my sir adjusted my fingers in the right position on the holes and asked me to blow. It took me 20 odd minutes to get a sound which sounded only a little close to a musical note. Guruji clapped and asked me to keep blowing. I surrendered in intervals losing myself in the melodies other students produced with ease.
Guruji asked me to practice in front of the mirror initially to keep my finger positions in check. He asked me plug one hole after the other. To keep blowing until I do away the shrill sound to a fairly constant tone. Five days later I could blow the note ‘PA’. PA sounds after all the holes in the flute are plugged.
The most difficult one. I almost felt as such one feels after reaching atop a mountain after a long trek. Little did I know, the pinnacle was that of a hillock not even a full size mountain, and not even a pinnacle for that matter. With every class I realized music is a really long trek in a mountain range, one after the other each exercise tests you like the mountains do. At times there is an easy looking climb but the mud is slippery. Then there are sharp corners which are not sometimes very tough to pass. Then there come blind turns where only your judgments are your beacon. As you go up the oxygen level drops, your heart beats faster and every breathe matters. The last allegory is not even an allegory but a truth.
Long practice sessions until your breathe accustoms to the regime makes the head swirl. There is a funny feeling in the nose. It feels as if your nostrils have enlarged and been massaged with camphor. Your head feels lighter but the blood-flow is very perceptible and there is a mild disorientation. Your fingers feel like they are back from their own private ’finger’ gym. And if you are doing it right, you also feel hungry at times.
The struggles are beyond physical too. The body gets use to the exercise pretty soon as compared to training the ear. Training the ear actually means training your auditory faculties to be sensitive to various frequencies, in simple words, to match the tune with the notes. Step one is to know how to play the note. Step two is to follow a progression of notes. Step three getting the timing right in following progression which in other words could be called ‘taal’ or ‘beat’. Fourth, knowing when to stress on a note and how much. Fifth, doing all of the above by just listening to a tune and reproducing. Sixth, produce tunes by yourself. My version of exploring an instrument is a rather rudimentary. It goes a lot deeper. Coming back to my eight hole journey, after practicing for a good 60 days of dry tunes which are just note progressions to train fingers and the breathe, my guruji declared I was ready to start learning classical music. I was overjoyed and also scared. Till then, I had not listened to one full raag in my lifetime. And here I was starting a new chapter in my life. We started with ‘song of the swan’ known as Raag Hansadhwani in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. Classical music serves more than mere entertainment. It is a form of expression that engages a practitioners mind and body both at a micro to macro level, while its effect is long lasting on the listener as well in comparison to other forms of music.
Every raag evokes an emotion. Every raag is unique. Raaga is not a song it’s an enquiry in one’s emotion and an attempt to go deeper in the mind of the ‘Sadhak’ or practitioner. The scales held for long durations in strict progressions and rules to be followed are to evoke emotions which are calculated. It has physiological effects on the practitioner, for e.g. Singing a particular raag in the right posture and right progressions engages pressure points in muscles. The pressure on these points can fight diseases, neurons react to sound waves and moods change. Calculated music can alter moods and bring about a phenomenal effect. Music therapy is based on the same principles. This is the purpose of classical music.
So, my guruji taught me raag after raag, not in full depth because that takes years. He kept on teaching new ones in pursuit to not let me lose interest. With each raag you advance a little closer to music. The quiet phase of raags and disciplined practice with winding ‘taanas’, slow ‘aalap’ and ‘ghat’ (parts of a raag), were all challenged as I auditioned for my college band in my first year degree college. The first practice session was a nightmare. A boy who hardly listened to music and novice at Indian classical was asked to fit the ‘sacrosanct Krishnas pava’ into a Beatles song. It was like asking a vada pav wala to make the vada look good with sushi. I had no clue how to do it. On top of that I was a nerd trying to become a musician with the help of written notes because my ear was not trained enough to reproduce just by listening. We stuck to two scales alone. I acted almost as a dummy and blamed the tech set-up at the college fest for the flute to not be audible. It broke me.
Next year at the same college festival, I was featured in a video by ATKT.com as one of the best talents at the festival in 2016. Ever since my first performance on stage, I fell in love with the band culture. The times in jam room were the best part of my entire college life. Honestly, I did not make great friends there but the process of moving from haywire tunes to a symphony at the end of practice was magical. I would struggle to match the scales. Once you get it, the cumulative sounds of instruments emit one tone. That one tone from which we take off into a song, one after the other we string melodies.
Music taught me to learn from my juniors. I learnt all that I know about Pop, Rock and blues from them. I learnt how Western music is different from Indian yet how closely they are bound. After mind-boggling calculations in scale, note and chords to get the flute, electric guitar, synthesizer, acoustics and the vocalists on the same page, it reminds me of a line from ‘the Alchemist’, ‘all things are one’.
There came a time when I had decided to quit the flute because I was not practicing classical in the right sense. Around the same time, another band performance came up at a college fest. Following the tradition I went to the success party as my college mates won the festival. Some friends prodded me to play something in the claustrophobic, tobacco smoke infused bar. I played ‘Iktara –Wake up Sid!’. As I played the first few notes, I saw goose bumps rise on a girls hand who was attentively listening to me play. I wanted to cry right after I saw that. That one moment renewed my purpose to pursue the flute. I realized there is more and that my eight hole journey, is far from over.
My eight hole journey is more about understanding the self than music itself. Every time I blow into the flute, I acquaint myself to a part of me. The flute gave me an identity in life. The adrenalin rush one gets while on stage, all the cheering during the performance, is worth dying for. When the auditorium resonates with the sound of the flute it disconnects me from the world outside. The flute gave me so much love, I cannot thank enough. Folklore says, ‘Once you master the eight holes of the flute, you are able to take complete control of your actions and emotions.’ I guess the quest will go on till I get there.
By Chinmaya Dighe
Photo - Chinmaya Dighe with his Guru Anant Ramchandra Dhotre