The older I grow, the more I realise, everything in this world is relative. Our emotions, happiness, sadness…everything rooted in our experiences, and here’s one that changed mine.
Couple of years ago, I had a message on my phone from a very recent friend
“just wanted to give you a heads-up. A friend’s friend has a gig in France and she’s looking for a sitarist from Hyderabad. Expect her to call soon. So so excited for you, I can’t believe you’ll be playing in France. Let me know how you go!”
My first reaction was, is she joking……but she didn’t sound like she was. I was a classical music novice. I barely learnt holding a sitar a year and half ago. Performing a gig was way out of my league.
A week on, no one called, so I figured it was a mistake and went on with my life, rather went trekking with a group of strangers.
Soon after I returned, my phone rang… “Hi, my name is S. I got your number from a friend. I play electronic music and sing. I have a gig in France. They’ve asked me if I could collaborate with a sitarist. Would you be interested in joining me?”
This seemed unreal, but also as if it was meant to be. Does that make sense?
I nervously giggled and talked simultaneously, but mostly tried to tell her that I am too much of a newbie to play in a gig. I had no illusions of my own self. Indian classical music takes decades of dedicated learning to master and I could barely strum the instrument. But S persisted that I’d be fine “it’s not pure classical and it can be very simple… we have 5 months, so you can practice…”. And so, we were going to do it! I got off the call, danced, jumped, screamed, laughed, told my family, called a couple of close friends. My excitement was so palpable that everyone I shared it with, although only a few, seemed equally pumped and excited for me. Life was going to be beautiful!
You see, until a couple of years ago, I lived a life that felt incomplete. I always felt like I was missing a piece of the puzzle. There was this nagging feeling that I was wasting time. I never fit in, more in the sense of, I never aspired to the same things as those around me, guess I still don’t. I studied, worked but was never convinced it was what I was meant to do. In essence, I felt like I was living someone else’s life.
So, I quit my full-time job, moved to India and started traveling, and started living life without an agenda or sense of time. I followed my heart almost everywhere. From volunteering in Dharamshala, trekking Everest base camp, working in a scuba diving centre, vipassana 10-day meditation retreats, caravan road trips, remote islands… nothing was off the charts. I guess I was searching subconsciously to find that piece of puzzle.
In one of those journeys, I ended up deciding to do a yoga teacher training course at Nada Yoga School in Rishikesh. They teach a musical instrument for free as part of the course. I never had music lessons in my life, nor had much knowledge of music other than the bollywood songs.
There were 4 of us in the course. When we were asked to pick an instrument, I said Sitar. Weirdly, it wasn’t a matter of choice. It was instinctive, although I never heard it being played.
We had a few lessons, but it wasn’t as serious as I hoped it would be. The tutor told me I had a flair. I practiced few days but that was that. The month of yoga ended and I went traveling to Nepal with my fellow yogi friends. My sitar journey was done, or so I thought.
3 days after I landed in my hometown, my niece came home from school and placed a pamphlet in my hand. New music institute within 10 min walking distance from home, teaching sitar, classical singing, kathak etc. A sign from the universe?
Over the next few months I had my share of laughs and frustrations with the instrument that became my new muse. I cut my fingers enough times with over practice but the pain was a minor inconvenience. It gave me a high that I never experienced. My classes were what I looked forward to the most, and on most days I had butterflies in my stomach.
I had no idea what this instrument meant to me until the day I left the sitar on a bed, it rolled over, fell on the floor cracking its’ gourd. I was shattered and couldn’t speak for hours. For someone who didn’t blink on losing the latest iphone, it didn’t make sense to cry over a crack in an instrument that cost a fraction of the cost of iphone. Thankfully, the crack was fixed. But I became super protective and obsessive.
I still traveled, but travel was holding my progress. No practice during travel meant I was doing two steps forward and one back. I finally had an opportunity to combine my love for travel and the music when two colleagues at the institute came and asked me if I wanted to join a music festival in Thar dessert. I couldn’t stop jumping in excitement. My teacher insisted I should take the sitar and play. I wasn’t so confident but she convinced me that I should. And given my hyper protectiveness of the instrument, I took the most basic one from the institute, doubting all along if I will play in front of a crowd.
As I stepped out of the jeep at the venue, a dessert village with couple of thatched huts, I heard the most beautiful music ever. I didn’t know what was being played, but my feet were almost in a trance and walked themselves over. Someone was playing a Sarod coordinating with a handpan. I couldn’t move. In some corner of my head, I knew my sitar was staying in the bag!
You see, a musical festival in my head was a hippie style singing with few guitars in the mix. I didn’t expect experienced classical musicians to play in a no man’s land, and that too that kind of variety of instruments– didgeridoo, djembe, flute, sarod, handpan….along with classical singing. Days and nights merged in music that was created on the go. This was music paradise and for a classical music novice…nothing short of heaven!
The next three days in that dessert filled the missing piece of the puzzle. I finally found the people, the life, the purpose, the place where I belonged. When I met my friends after those 3 days, they told me I looked different, that I looked happy and kept asking me what happened in those 3 days, or rather teasing me to know if I fell in love with someone. I was happy, not that I wasn’t before, but this was different. You see, everything is relative. They were right, I was in love, it only happened to be with music.
I did take my sitar out on insistence and played some basic tunes. I was terrible. These were people that played music their whole life and I was a conscious novice. The only time I probably played without being conscious was when I was too high on bhang and had no idea what I played. But I had comments that “it didn’t sound like a newbie at all, it sounded like a pro” and I had no recollection. They were being nice, is what I knew.
And so it happens, that S, who was asking her friends if they know a sitarist in Hyderabad was mentioned my named, from someone who was at the festival. Coincidence!
Life seemed to be playing itself out and I couldn’t be more excited. At the same time, I didn’t want to get my hopes high. I somehow couldn’t convince myself that this would happen. So when my teacher wanted to tell others in the institute that I was going to perform, I was adamant not to.
I looked forward to jamming with S with a child-like excitement. I worried if I would be good enough, so, I did the only thing that came to me naturally. I decided to eat, breathe and live sitar for the next 5 months.
I played for hours. When I didn’t play, I listened to sitar. I removed all social media apps, didn’t answer calls from friends, stopped traveling and stopped hanging out with friends. Thankfully, most of my friends ignored my blatant disregard positively.
Few weeks on, I started noticing strange things. Like I would wake up everyday at 5.00 am. Not 5.01 not 4.59. For someone who was never a morning person, and always late to school, college and even work, this was plain weird. But 5 am it was and I couldn’t stay 10 seconds longer in bed if I tried. I also noticed I no longer liked watching tv or phone when I ate. Food demanded complete attention. Somehow, sitar was changing my lifestyle.
I was also making progress in my playing. I could never tell scales by listening. But soon enough, I could tell exactly which scale S was singing at and tuned my sitar to her scale.
I woke up one of those days, as usual at 5 am…can’t believe I am even saying as usual, it just sounds wrong. Anyway, I woke up and started playing something on my instrument. The weird part was, I played something I never heard or learnt. It didn’t fit any of the ragas I learnt. But I somehow knew those notes will compliment what S sang couple of weeks ago. I knew which piece it would fit in, with an amazing sense of clarity, although I wasn’t even thinking of that piece since i’ve heard. When the conscious brain took over, I ofcourse doubted if it was any good.
When I played it with S, she convinced me that it worked nicely. It wasn’t a comprehensive tune in anyway, but those notes seemed to blend perfectly, atleast for my amateur music brain.
A week or two later, another tune, once again early in the morning. What was happening was beyond me. I was floating on clouds at this point. I didn’t mention it to anyone because I didn’t even understand what it was and my self doubt still prevailed.
I asked for my teachers help in identifying and learning the ragas and creating the music for songs I struggled with, which she so gladly did. Tickets were booked, schedule was finalised. I saw that I was supposed to play 3 solo gigs at different slots along with the mix with S. That was new, but I wasn’t too worried about the solos. The excitement, nervousness and an absolute obsession was something I don’t’ have words for. I felt alive, and fully living my life, as myself, for the first time.
6 weeks to go. I was at the institute, really enjoying playing that night. My speed and stroke were a lot better, the practice showed. I still struggled with some strokes, but for most past, I played. That night, I probably played my best.
I wasn’t keen on anyone in the institute still knowing about the gig, but somehow word was out that night. Some congratulations flowed in.
The following morning, I was up again at 5.00 am and started playing. 5 minutes into it, shooting pains went through my thumb and index finger. Most of the hand was swollen. It was surreal. I knew something was seriously wrong and my stomach twisted in knots.
I gathered the courage and tried to go to the institute, trying to convince myself that it was temporary and I had to keep listening to the music. But, the well-meaning congratulations from everyone was rubbing salt on wounds. They had no idea ofcourse! And, that wasn’t even the worst part. What was, was watching someone play and realising I am unable to play. I broke down within minutes of watching anyone play.
The nightmare continued. From modern meds to home remedies, physiotherapy, having hot wax poured over my hands to acupuncture needles on my palms, I ran through a maze of treatments. The physical pain was nothing compared to the emotional one.
With each day, it got worse. From swelling to my palms being on fire, numbness to waking up in the middle of the night unable to feel my hands. Terrified is an understatement.
My heart was slowly breaking, as though one crack every minute. Tears streamed down without my knowledge, day after day, night after night. Watching someone play the instrument was like a knife tearing through me.
S was as supportive and positive as any human could ever possibly be. But it was going to affect her. She was willing to give it until last minute to see if I somehow healed. I knew it wasn’t fair on her to keep her hanging, but I struggled to decide.
3 weeks to go and I was barely able to hold the sitar. My elder sister came to rescue. “if it’s your destiny, you’ll play, it will always be yours. You don’t’ need to perform to show it to others. Let go of the pressure. It’s not helping you.” I needed to hear those words. The following morning, I emailed the organisers, and it was by far the most difficult email I would ever write.
My worst fears of letting S down seemed to have come true after all, but not in the way I thought. The only saving grace was that she could still go on!
The next few weeks, months and years all merged. I slowly lost the grip on a hand and stopped playing. I barely existed. My thoughts went from, can I play the gig, to can I ever play sitar again. From carpel tunnel to arthritis, doctors gave me dreadful names. To me, those names only meant one thing. It took the one thing away from me that made me feel alive. It didn’t make sense. Why would something like this happen, what was I supposed to learn from it, or is there a learning at all or is life just a series of random events with no reasoning. Days turned to nights and nights to days, but I lay there, tears flowing that I humanly didn’t think were possible. Life slipped through my fingers, literally!
My family watched, hovered, tried to do everything they possibly could to help. I’ve always known and had been grateful for the most beautiful people in my life, my mum and sisters. But they gave a totally new meaning to family. Not once did they show a hint of annoyance or frustration, which I guarantee, they had enough reasons to. Not once did they think, let alone say, get over it, or do something else, or it’s just an instrument. Not when the days stretched to weeks or weeks to months and eventually years. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or do anything. Things like brushing, shower, eating were all chores that felt too hard. Something within me had died and life didn’t make sense. Some conscious part of me said I need to get out of it. But nothing seemed to matter anymore. Nothing was going to be remotely quarter as worthwhile.
I also have some of the most beautiful friends. They understood when I wouldn’t answer their calls and didn’t feel like talking, or spoke to me for hours when I felt like talking. I even managed to get out of my house once thanks to them, and go to Spiti valley, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Externally, this place was magic, but my heart was still empty. Once again, that nagging feeling, the missing piece of me, were all too familiar. Things did come a full circle!
Rabindranath Tagore may not have meant this literally…but it resonates so beautifully……
“The song I came to sing
remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in stringing
and in unstringing my instrument.
The time has not come true,
the words have not been rightly set;
only there is the agony
of wishing in my heart . . .”
You see, as much as I’d like to say I wish none of this happened, somehow, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was an experience that didn’t make sense, was beyond reason, beyond comprehension. Nevertheless, it was one hell of a time, literally too!
As I said, everything is relative. This experience showed me the highest of highs and lowest of lows, and I don’t regret either. Because, what is life if not for some drama!
And this is not how this story ends! The song I came to sing remains!
As they say….Be Realistic…Plan a Miracle!
Until the next chapter……..