The Mindful Bard – Anoushka Shankar

Vehicles by Which the Essence Can Be Perceived

Artist: Anoushka Shankar
Album: Home

“To us, music can be a spiritual discipline on the path to self-realisation, for we follow the traditional teaching that sound is God?Nada Brahma: By this process individual consciousness can be elevated to a realm of awareness where the revelation of the true meaning of the universe?its eternal and unchanging essence?can be joyfully experienced. Our ragas are the vehicles by which this essence can be perceived.”
– Ravi Shankar

“I think sometimes when you speak about something like ?Indian classical music? and ?ragas? . . . it can be quite intimidating, in the same way that I have sometimes found opera and Wagner intimidating . . . So I’m quite keen to just say, ?You know, just listen.? If one’s curious and wants to know more, one can, but in the beginning you can also just listen.”
– Anoushka Shankar

Indian ragas always bring to mind the time when my best friend and roommate took me to a Hindu temple in Halifax on Krishna’s birthday. The congregation sat on the floor for more than an hour and sang hymns, lead by a pandit. The singing and clapping slowly rose in intensity until girls began handing out handfuls of flower petals for us to throw at the statue of Krishna.

The long, slow rise in intensity of feeling, culminating in an explosion of flowers is exactly how I think of Indian classical music even today. A far cry from western trio sonata form, It’s a delightfully novel experience for the Western ear.

Home consists of two ragas composed and performed live by sitar player Anoushka Shankar. The first raga is called “Guru” and the second, “Celebration” “Guru” is an improvisation on “Raga Jogeshwari,” a work by Anoushka’s father, the iconic Ravi Shankar who collaborated with Beatle George Harrison, among many other notables, and brought classical Indian music to the world’s attention.

This album is aptly named Home; in it, the globe-trotting, Grammy-winning Anoushka?whose colossal achievements as a composer and performer have included dabbling in jazz, flamenco, electronica, and other world music?returns to the classical Indian tradition taught her by her father.

In case you haven’t yet been introduced to this genre, and at the risk of minimising the mystery and wonder of classical Indian ragas (which you can really only appreciate through listening), let me just say a few things: First, Raga students learn not by notation, but by being shown by a master, second, the music is improvised on a melody, third, ragas have their own scale, including microtones and a special way of ascending and descending, and fourth although the music is somewhat modal, It’s not comprised of a repetition of modes (short tunes) as found in Middle Eastern music, but rather consists of series of notes that undergo minor changes as the music progresses.

“Guru” begins with the Alaap movement, in which tender tones swirl slowly from the silence in an elegant vortex punctuated with short series of notes so expressive they almost speak, evoking sweetness, purity, and goodness as well as an occasional sense of the ominous. This goes on for eleven minutes, which is actually a much more uplifting experience than it sounds.

In the second and third parts, (Jod and Jhala) the rhythm picks up and the music rises in intensity. In the fourth (Gat) movement the tabla joins and creates a release of tension even as the rhythm speeds up and the music becomes more lively and intense. It’s here that you find the “explosion of flowers.”

The compassionate nature of this music takes on a special meaning when we learn of Anoushka’s involvement in the One Billion Rising campaign (to highlight violence against women). In her video message, dedicated to Jyoti Singh, the Indian student who was gang-raped by six men on a Delhi bus, Anoushka revealed that as a child she’d been sexually abused by a friend of the family. When you know this and listen to her playing, you don’t need any more proof that music can be not only a heartfelt response to suffering, it can also be a source of healing.

But healing requires patience.

Anoushka Shankar said it best in an interview with NPR: “This music is a slow burn, you know? If someone’s used to the average two-and-a-half-minute song on the radio, it can be hard to understand what’s going on, because at two and a half minutes we’re still just playing the first notes and establishing things. Give it the time to open up and play, and then it sort of seeps under your skin, and it has a very profound impact as a result.”

I’m happy to hear that there’s now a “Slow Listening” movement following in the footsteps of the equally meritorious “Slow Food” movement. This album should be on the movement’s desert island list. Besides that, It’s just the thing to help mindful bards feel calmed, centred, connected, conscious, and creative.

Home manifests seven of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda.

– It provides respite from a cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.

– It’s about attainment of the true self.

– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.

– It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.

– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

Many thanks to the research assistance of Bill Waterman.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.