Impressions: Finding Harmony Within

“That’s kind of cool. I didn’t know that I loved rhythm in particular when I was so young,” I remarked as I watched footage of myself, as a 4-year-old, ...

Dec 13, 2014

Graphic by The Gazelle
“That’s kind of cool. I didn’t know that I loved rhythm in particular when I was so young,” I remarked as I watched footage of myself, as a 4-year-old, tapping on my outer thighs simulating the Indian tavil, or temple drums, during my grandparents’ 60th birthday. The 60th birthday and each subsequent decade is regarded as a major milestone in Hindu custom and is often celebrated with as much fanfare as a marriage. It was nearly five years ago, when I was on a family vacation, when I watched that footage at my maternal grandparents’ place in West Malaysia. With some free time on his hands, my grandfather asked a cousin of mine to play the footage of his 60th birthday held in his ancestral place in India.
I was born into an orthodox Chettiar community — literally translated, city-dwelling bankers. Practical, prudent and puritanical, the Chettiars were, at least according to Thomas Sowell, analogous to the Jews and were known by the epithet “Jews of the South”. For the Chettiars, life revolved around God and commerce, both of which were symbiotic. In search of new fortune, they dispersed to places like Burma, Vietnam and Malaysia to establish new money-lending enterprises. Even at these far flung places, they kept their traditions alive; social dictates were maintained, new temples were built and religious observances were faithfully adhered to. While I don’t see myself as a custodian of the community, I can’t deny that my ancestry has indelibly shaped my worldview, my interactions with music and my beliefs about it.
The first music I was probably exposed to was in the community temple context. When I was young, my extended family used to visit the temple regularly. Temple visits were primarily for socializing rather than to seek spiritual solace. Community events, from marriage receptions to birthday parties were held in the temple and there was often a parallel religious function to sanctify it. The different parts of a religious function were marked by distinct ragas, or melodies, and talas, rhythmic cycles played by the temple musicians on the taviland nadaswaram, an instrument similar to the oboe. I remember taking a far greater interest in the music that they played or, at least, I showed it more explicitly than the adults around me. I would return back home, hum the tune and tap the rhythms on the surfaces to simulate the musicians. The juxtaposition of music and the sacred left in me an abiding respect for music. Music appeared to be a very advanced medium to develop and convey ideas which were beyond the realm of human cognition.
When I was young, my music choices were limited to the carnatic songs that I heard in the temples and the sparing Tamil cinema songs playing on the local radio station, which my father’s car radio was tuned into. Slowly I started searching for light music to accompany me when studying. Music was a tool to calm the mind and concentrate. Music still had a mystical aura to it and I enjoyed my association with it. I used to hum tunes with my younger brother and compose random lines to go with it.
My fleeting association with music soon morphed into an interest to learn it. I wasn’t ever entirely sure about pursuing it formally though. My conservative parents had an implicit rule not to stray from well defined academic pursuits. My family had little known history of artistic interest or accomplishment; they appeared to be a practical lot. It didn’t help that the world of traditional Indian music that I was most keen was dominated by the Brahmins and appeared exclusionary in spirit.
When I was 16, I finally made a decision to take a plunge .The instrument of choice was the mridangam — a double barreled drum placed between the thighs, used in carnatic music concerts. I generally liked the rhythmic aspects of music and reasoned that my late starting age might be less of an issue in pursuing a percussion instrument. My parents still resisted what I was doing. My experience learning mridangam was painful and short-lived. The guru was of an unusually commercial bent and operated on the paradigm that he was a service provider and I was the customer. That relationship didn’t have the innocence of the traditional model where the instructor is seen as a person who guides the student through life without seeking rewards.
While I enjoyed learning the instrument, I felt that my soul was being eaten away by my interactions with him. I slowly voiced out deep-seated disagreements and he was enraged at my critique of his approach. After just seven months, I departed on acrimonious terms. But even though I was rather shaken by the experience, deep down I still felt I had a connection with music that I had to pursue. Slowly, with the A-Level exams looming, school work took center-stage, repelling other commitments. This was followed by my mandatory national service, leaving little time for personal pursuits.
It was after a long hiatus that I renewed learning music formally. Around mid-March this year, I started trying out violin lessons at a music school near Sama Tower. It was a recuperative experience for me; the instructor was sincere, competent and encouraging. The practical difficulties in finding suitable timings and a convenient location led me to cease the class, but the three month interlude was important in putting me back on track to pursue music.
Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs famously observed that “you can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards: so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” I draw comfort from his observation. Every experience, be they seemingly positive or negative, does seem to have instructive value.
For me, music is symbolic of the tension between the intuited self and the present self shaped by my personal and societal beliefs. My musical journey has been buffeted by setbacks and gnawing doubt: Am I too old to begin learning music? Do I lack the raw ability to play music? Am I too rigid to appreciate aesthetics? But the chatter of the mind exists simultaneously with the voice of the soul which speaks of a special connection to music and the need to nurture it with effort. The notes will connect. They will.
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