Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bangalore & the Havaldars

Thursday I took an afternoon train to Bangalore to visit with Dr. Nagarajrao Havaldar, the Hindustani classical singer I met last fall in Chicago. Havaldar had very kindly arranged for a hotel room near his home, and his son picked me up at the train to take me there. After a nice visit with son Omkarnath, we went off to Havaldar’s place for dinner. After some conversation, his younger son gave a wonderful demo on the tables, and then Havaldar offered the use of his “Magic Jack” (an internet phone) to talk to Virginia back home! Dinner was strictly vegetarian, but the food was all made from scratch with fresh ingredients by his wife, Sudha. I was very glad to have had some practice eating rasam rice and curd rice with Dr. Kausalya! While I didn’t embarrass myself too badly, they did kindly provide a spoon for future meals!!

On Friday, Omkar picked me up for some morning shopping. We started by browsing at an electronic musical instrument shop they often use—and I saw an electric veena for the first time in my life! I got a new flash memory card for the camera and went looking for some good books, but didn’t find much. We stopped at a really good shop for CDs and DVDs, though, and Omkar helped me pick out some good Hindustani classical recordings, since I don’t know the artists for the northern stuff as well as for the Carnatic music. Even though Bangalore is in south India, it is unusual in this regard—the Mysore maharajahs encouraged both Hindustani and Carnatic styles. Where most of India favors one or the other, both continue to be practiced here. Then it was back to Havaldar’s place for lunch and more talk. I asked him to tell me how he came to study with his gurus, and he gave me the whole story of his life as a musicians. It was wonderful! Havaldar is not only a gifted and knowledgeable practitioner, he is also a historian and storyteller at heart (with advanced degrees in both history and music!), and he knows countless stories about his gurus and all of the great Hindustani artists. He keeps talking about putting these in book form, and I can’t wait till he does! After watching a video of a performance by one of his gurus, it was back to the hotel for a rest. That evening I went back as a guest at a group lessons given by Omkar for some younger students. Virginia is dying to see the video recording of this; she is very curious to see how their work with younger students compares with Suzuki method! The room was full with four young students and their parents! The lesson proceeds in the traditional manner—the guru sings a phrase and the students answer. If they don’t quite get it, the teacher repeats it. If they’re way off, the teacher breaks the phrase into smaller chunks and students repeat those till they get it. Gradually they put together longer and longer sections. Part of the focus is on learning the melodic figures associated with a given raga, part is on learning actual tunes. After a nice home-cooked potluck dinner with the assembled parents and students (men in one room, women in another, and children who knows where!), it was back to the hotel where I stayed up too late watching TV movies!

Saturday morning Havaldar picked me up after breakfast for a driving tour of Bangalore. Once known as the “Garden City,” Bangalore has become a very busy, crowded city whose formerly-tree-lined streets have given way to the influx of people from all over India looking for work in the burgeoning IT industry (and cooler weather!). We stood still in traffic at several spots trying to get into the heart of the city to see Cubbon Park with its many government buildings, including the Karnataka state house and High Court buildings. Then it was off to one of the most unique concert halls I’ve ever seen—Chowdiah Hall (named for a great local musician) is build in the shape of a violin lying on its back! The hollow body houses the auditorium, surrounded by glassed-in hallways on all sides. There are side entrances with small courtyards at the waist of the instrument (between the upper and lower bouts), and the neck and fingerboard (there are even strings and pegs!) shelter a walkway that leads from a drive-up/drop-off spot (under the scroll) to the main entrance (where the neck is attached to the body). Just inside the entrance is a big picture of Chowdiah himself with a painting of the trinity or Carnatic music (Tyagaraja, Sastri, Dikshitar) displayed prominently nearby. Omkar will be giving the lead-off concert at their annual music festival in just a few days! Then it was home for lunch and more conversation, this time peppered with recordings and talk about some of Havaldar’s favorite movie songs (before going to college, he used to sing a lot of those songs for family and friends)! After taking some rest at the hotel it was back to see a lesson with a senior student, a fellow who is working full time at a very good job, but who is passionate about music. This time I got to see Havaldar himself at work with a student. Very enlightening! Dinner this night was my favorite of all. There was a really delicious dal dish, and we also had a small variety of eggplant that was very tasty. Good stuff!

Sunday was my last day in Bangalore, and it was a fitting finale! Havaldar picked me up again and we visited a book shop with a better selection of scholarly books than Omkar and I had found at Sapna. From there we went to see the work of a local painter who has worked closely with Havaldar, G. Jagadish. He does lovely work in several genres, including nature, religious themes, Rajasthani folk, and even abstract. He is also interested in interdisciplinary work, and has frequently been the guest artist at concerts, where he draws at his easel while the music plays! By an auspicious coincidence (again!?), we came in while Dr. Aralumallige Parthasarathy was visiting the studio. Havaldar had just loaned me a copy of this man’s biography of Purandara Dasaru, perhaps the greatest of south Indian composer-musician-saints, and the one who is often said to have “created” Carnatic classical music. Parthasarathy is especially interested in the spiritual side of his subject, and as a parting gift he presented me a copy of his latest book, an explanation and interpretation of the thousand names of Vishnu. No surprise that these three, artist, literary scholar, and musician have found each other—they all shar a common interest in art as a spiritual discipline! Then home for a tour of the new flat they are buying. Their flat just isn’t big enough for three practicing musicians to teach and rehearse, so they’re just now completing the paperwork to purchase a place that opened up in their building for use as a studio for their foundation. This will give much-needed flexibility, and even a guest room for people like me—next time! They dropped me off at the lovely Lalbagh gardens, a huge green-space built by Tipu Sultan and later expanded by the Brits. It was a lovely place to hang out on a Sunday afternoon, and it was just a ten-minute walk from there to the hotel. I rested, packed my bags, checked out, and waited for my ride to the concert. We must have traveled to the far northeast side of town to a small hall in one of the suburbs. They concretize about once a week, and they like to perform in various locations around town. It was a superb concert! Havaldar is a master, and his maturity and depth of expression were evident throughout! Omkar took the role of his backup vocalist. It is a difficult role. Even when you would like to shine, you have to stay in the background and make the lead vocalist sound good (though Havaldar needed no help with that!). It’s like being the guy on the volleyball team who sets up the ball so someone else can smash it. After the concert we had to pay respects to a family Havaldar hasn’t seen for awhile, and then off to dinner at the concert host’s home. Very nice time, but before I knew it, Havaldar said it was time to head for the train. He gave me a hug and paid a porter to make sure I (and my bags) got safely on the train.

If I have a new sister in Dr. Kausalya, I have a new brother in Dr. Havaldar. His generosity continues to amaze me. At one point during my visit he asked if it would be possible to do some kind of residency at Elmhurst College during one of his annual visits to Chicago. It didn’t take long to figure out how that might work! I teach a special topics course in music history every other year, and I’ve been threatening for some time to make Indian music the topic some year. That course comes up next in fall of 2011, and to do that course with an artist like Dr. Havaldar in residence would be phenomenal. He could talk about the great musicians and their music, he could explain raga and tala and other theoretical concepts, he could discuss the history and traditions of his music, and he could give singing lessons to the group and to individuals. What would have been an interesting course now looks to become a phenomenal experience for Elmhurst music majors! I am again humbled and amazed to be one the receiving end of such generosity, especially when (as I see it) I am giving so little in return. Still, this is a relationship I am growing to cherish more and more, and I sense once again the depth of our mutual understanding of music. We use different words and understand theoretical concepts in different ways, but when it comes to grasping deep musical expression and the depth of spirituality inherent in music, we are very much on the same page. I can’t wait to see him again next October and to begin making plans for 2011!!