Sunday, November 22, 2020

Rising through the Ranks

I was reading a few decades-old journal entries this morning. Writing as a twenty-something, these are notes about what I did, some work, some thoughts, some ideology, some record of events or movies I’d seen. I seem happy, hopeful, occasionally anxious… it brings back sharply how I used to be. There is a sense of… how shall I put it… smallness? It’s all very small. Puny. And pathetic.

Now, if you asked me how I feel about myself, I’d say Regal. Yes, I feel Lordly. Less work than before, certainly less income, fewer activities to do, a shrunk social circle, a diminished presence in the world, and I feel more potent.

Kabir says:
हाथ में खूंडी, बगल में सोटा,
चारो दिशा जागीरी में ॥

A begging bowl in my hand, a staff by my side,
And all the world at my feet

If you had told me when I was in my twenties that the spiritual process was about being less of yourself, I’d have told you that someone out there was trying to con you. When intellectual people hear that the spiritual process is about dismissing the mind, they become very threatened and extremely suspicious. Why do they want me to put my mind aside? What am I without my mind, my biggest treasure? If I did silence it, then wouldn’t that leave me vulnerable to whatever insidious plan you have?

Having been there, I sympathise. But it isn't like that. You are not required to become an idiot or lose your faculties. It just needs you to look beyond what you have labelled as yourself. And it needs you to accept help from those who have already done it. It requires trust, I understand that. Indeed, you must only trust someone who has earned your trust. Someone you have judged to have the highest integrity. Someone with very clean hands.

But the quest IS to find out who or what you are. The gnanis tell us repeatedly: “You are NOT the Body, You are NOT the Mind”. Then, the question occurs, “Who am I?” First indignantly, and then with greater and greater depth and genuine seeking. Yes, if you accept those two exclusions, then Who ARE You? It is a question worth pondering. The ONLY question worth asking.

Which is why, I suppose, the basic requisite for the process is a certain thirst. You must arrive at the question. Repeatedly.

Looking back, this has been a fairly ordinary life for me. Enjoyable but moderate in all ways – middle class, middle of the road. And then, I stumble upon my Guru, who tilts my head to the stars.
Shankara says of the Satguru’s padukas: “Nripatvadabhyam nata loka pankteh…” Surrendering to these padukas raises those who prostrate to the rank of sovereigns.

I’m rising through the nobility ranks and will settle at nothing less than Sovereignty.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Sound Levels

There’s a special animosity in my heart for sound mixers who don’t understand the concept of background music. People so carried away by this music they’ve picked out that they must inflict it onto the situation. They couple up, in my mind, with attention seekers, who simply must have part of the conversation, preferably about themselves. Chaps who don’t get what a mosaic is, even if their work stands out like a badly placed chip.
I remember disagreeing with a video editor I was working with. ‘You can barely hear it!’ he said, of the B/g music track. What you cannot hear are the dialogues, dude. As for the background score, you don’t need to hear it, it just needs to be there!
And then I knew a band once where the leader happened to be the percussionist. You know what happened next. You could barely hear the vocalist, who was way down in the pecking order superseded by the drums, the strings and even the shruti box. And there was no arguing about it. ‘Brightness’, that’s what they said, ‘we need brightness’.
Rubbish fellows.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Jaan phoolan tan laal ni

There, in the rubble, and among the drying, yellowing leaves,
a clearing of a rough sort.
A grey-white shroud lies there,
a tell-tale trickle of smoke winding upwards.
What lies beneath? Is the fire alive? Asphyxiated perhaps by a blanket of its own burning?
The evidence of the slow burn mounts on me. Till I no longer know if I’m the heart of the burning coal or just the ash.
Layers of ash.
Many layers of ash.
One breath-fan from you and the construct falls apart. Blown in the wind, strewn around like wisp, inconsequential, a pack of lies.
One life-breath and I burn red-hot again. A ruby-red chunk of live coal coming up for Grace.




Title translates "Burns red-hot wherever He blows"
A line from Shah Hussain's kalaam Maaye ni main kinnu aakhan

Thursday, September 17, 2020

For those who came before us

It is amazing how something can stay hidden in plain sight. How nothing exists perhaps till you turn towards it and shine the light of your attention on it. I have said before that I only first paid any heed to death rituals when my mother passed away. Since then, there has been a further deepening of awareness how meticulous this land, this Bharat has been in dealing with its dead.

The dead are dead, you may say; better to turn our energies towards the living, you may insist. You’re right, but there is no dichotomy. Catering to the dead also takes care of the living. You are both assisting the disembodied as well as giving your own life ample room to maneuver and express itself.

Yesterday was Mahalaya Amavasya – a phrase I have been hearing for most of my life without knowing the significance of. We have so many festivals and special days in our culture, it seemed just one of those things elders made a grand fuss about. Plus, a somewhat morbid concept – a fortnight to address the needs of pitrus… generations of dead ancestors who lived centuries ago. We don’t even remember their names – what then is the need to make such a shoo-sha about offering them balls of rice and sesame? Wasteful symbolisms! Doubtless this must’ve been the frame of mind that prevented me from even observing this rite with the consideration it deserved.

Sadhguru says, “Your body carries trillion times more memory than your conscious mind. Will you remember your great-great-great-grandfather? You don't, but his nose is sitting on your face because your body remembers. Your body remembers how your forefathers were a million years ago.” I now dimly understand that we are a continuum. The latest but not the last in a series of pop-up lives on this planet. Pitru Paksha is a way of paying homage to those who came before us, and it is also a way of distancing the influence of these pitrus over our lives – loosening, in a way, their genetic hold over ourselves, so that we may live free-er and fuller lives.

In recent years, Sadhguru has been paying inordinate attention to this aspect. His book on Death is an explosive one, a revealing treatise on a range of aspects that were hitherto veiled. Also, I have been thinking a lot about Kashi, the maha smashana, where death rituals are a way of life. [Of course, any excuse to remember Kashi will do. When can I go back there, I wonder?]

Yesterday, around midnight at the Isha Yoga Center, there was a rather magnificent ceremony – they’ve done it for years but the scale this year was a bit grander. This was in preparation perhaps for the Kala Bhairava deity that my Guru is in the process of consecrating.

Some pictures:


Wednesday, September 02, 2020

The Give-and-Take of Offence

Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, is apparently once again printing the objectionable cartoons that brought upon the savage attack by Islamic terrorists in 2015. And again my feelings are complicated.

I'm for free speech, but reasonable free speech - because words can wound. Five years ago, I had found myself conflicted and I remember thinking that each side had used the weapons it had found most handy and natural. One side had used words and images and mockery. And the other party had brought guns into the battle. In spite of the violence and the deaths, I do not know which attack was the more severe.

This time, I have a touch more sympathy for the publishers - not with the idea to demean religious sentiments but because they are making a brave point after a ghastly attack. 

The most offensive of all intentions, to my mind, is the need to desecrate. Whether it is the destruction and defilement of thousands of temples and idols across North India, or the recent breaking down of the Buddha statue in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, the building of a toilet on the remains of an Uyghur mosque in China or indeed the Hebdo cartoons - the intention to desecrate is most foul.

Sadly, it has been rampant throughout history. Always the victors have danced all too gleefully on the fragments of the oppressed. And the more the value attached to a monument, a structure or an idea, the more it has been broken down.

I am impressed with Charlie Hebdo for their gesture, but it is a disquieting keg of explosives to be sitting on.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Remembering Pandit Jasraj

The news of Pt Jasraj's passing came yesterday and it seems indeed like the end of an era. He has always been on my go-to playlist of favourites. His classical performances but equally his bhajans and chants never fail to move me.

As a journalist, I met him in 2001 in Nizam College, where the Pt Maniram-Pt Motiram Samaroh used to take place in those days. I remember his warmth and affection. He was speaking and I was nodding at everything he said. Suddenly he broke off and asked, "Why aren't you writing all that down?"

"Mujhe yaad rahega, Panditji," I had smiled. I seldom made notes apart from dates and specific references. 

"Yaad-dasht achchi hai tumhari, hein!?" he had patted me on my head. 

Jai Ho, Panditji!

This piece appeared on 28 November 2001 in Hyderabad Times, Times of India

Acharya devo bhava

It's like clockwork. Come November 30 every year, the city is fortunate to welcome into its midst, some of the country's most talented and most promising musicians. Because every year, Pt Jasraj, the stalwart of the Mewati gharana pays tribute to his father Pt Maniram and grandfather Pt Motiram with a sangeet samaroh. The man behind it all, Pt Jasraj, is in the city and Hyderabad Times met up with the maestro for a chat.

These past few days, Panditji has been holding long sessions with students in Hyderabad, imparting his knowledge of a lifetime. It's a curious fact, but of all the masters in the world of Hindustani music today, no guru has yielded quite so many disciples as Pt Jasraj. Of them, Sanjeev Abhyankar and Tripti Mukherjee are seen as worthy successors. Rattan Mohan Sharma is yet another promising singer.
"Yes, I find as much pleasure in teaching as I do performing," says Panditji, in response to that observation. "You see, some time or the other the human body gives up," he explains, "and what will we leave behind us, if we don't impart our knowledge to younger people?"

He has an interesting story to tell about why he regards the guru-shishya relationship so highly: "When I was 11, I had been playing the tabla for five years. One college student asked me if I would teach him and I agreed. We had this little ceremony of tying the 'ganda' (a sacred thread) and he gave me a dakshina of Rs 3 with prasad, etc. When I came home, my mother was so annoyed with me. She explained what a responsibility it is to accept a student, and what a deep bond it creates. Since then, I have never taken that role lightly."

He has four schools in the America alone - one each in Vancouver, New York, New Jersey and Atlanta, where he teaches. He teaches in Mumbai also. But for all the time he spends on his students, he doesn't charge a paisa. "Vidyadaan is a very special thing," he says, "unlike money it doesn't get spent. And it enriches the giver as much as the recipient." His sincerity strikes you, when he narrates, "I've always hated to accept money for tuitions but till 1963, I had no option. But once, I prayed to God, asking him to give me enough to run my household, so that I wouldn't be obliged charge my students. He listened to me, for that very day, I got a telegram offering me Rs 800 per month."

His children Durga and Sharang haven't taken to classical music, but then you know he means it when he says, "All my students are my children."

Tuesday, August 11, 2020


I hailed one of our street vendors this morning to buy flowers for Krishna Janmashtami today. They were fresh and lovely and I splurged on a bit of everything - chamanti, sanna jaaji, malli, lilies, roses... 

It's been almost ten years since my mother passed away and still he said wistfully, "Amma achche se, chchaav se lete the!" I remember Leelamma specially on festival days too - she would sit in the tiny pooja room, and sing as she weaved garlands. Our neighbours across the back wall still remember pausing in their work to hear her sing. 

Wonderful, isn't it, to be remembered like that, a decade after you've left?

But then what of Krishna? That Glorious One who walked this earth more than 5,000 years ago? And still we talk of his beauty, his feats, his cuteness, his charm, his colour, his clothes, his lovers, his enemies, his wiles, his compassion. Even today, people dress up their young children in his image, tying up peacock feathers in their hair. Even today, songs are sung in longing for him.

Still to remain an intimate experience for millions of people, still tangible... you could close your eyes today, reach out for him, and manage to touch him. 

How truly wonderful to have lived like that! 



Edited to add:

Friday, June 19, 2020

Faizbaksh Din

I was changing computers and the move threw up the inevitable dust. There were many finds, many things I had not needed in years, but which I have carried on anyway into a new home, in the vague hope that some day, a good cleaning will happen and I will live a light life.

In a folder hardly visited, I found a recording I had made - on some afternoon that my sister remembers better than I do. It was a recital of Faiz's Yad also known as Dasht-e-Tanhai.

I cannot even remember if it was before or after my mother's passing. But I know it was a phase drenched with the syrup of Urdu poetry. In 2011, we took a short course called Tehseen-e-Ghazal - to learn how to appreciate that beautiful form. What a joy it was! I had encountered Faiz before then, but the course served to immerse us, steep us in his luminous words.

Here is the nazm in Devnagri:

दश्त-इ-तन्हाई में ऐ जान-ए-जहां लरज़ाँ है
तेरी आवाज़ के साये तेरे होंठों के सराब
दश्त-ए-तन्हाई में दूरी के ख़स-ओ-ख़ाक़ तले
खिल रहे हैं तेरे पहलू के समन और गुलाब 
उठ रही है कहीं क़ुर्बत से तेरी सांस की आंच
अपनी खुशबू में सुलगती हुई मद्धम मद्धम
दूर उफ्फाक़ पर चमकती हुई क़तरा क़तरा
गिर रही है तेरी दिलदार नज़र की शबनम
इस क़दर प्यार से ऐ जान-ए-जहां रख्खा है
दिल के रुखसार पे इस वक़्त तेरी याद ने हाथ
यूँ गुमां होता है गरचे है अभी सुबह-ए-फ़िराक
ढल गया हिज्र का दिन, आ भी गयी वस्ल की रात 

Transliterated in English:
Dasht-e-tanhai mein ae jaan-e-jahan larzan hai
Teri awaaz ke saaye, tere honton ke saraab
Dasht-e-tanhai mein doori ke khas-o-khaak talé
Khil rahen hain tere pehlu ke saman aur gulaab
Uth rahi hai kahin qurbat se teri saans ki aanch
Apni khushboo mein sulagti hui madham madham
Door uffaq par chamkati hui qatra qatra
Gir rahi hai teri dildaar nazar ki shabnam
Iss qadar pyar se ae jaan-e-jahaan rakhha hai
Dil ke rukhsar pe iss waqt teri yaad ne haath
Yun guman hota hai garche hai abhi subh-e-firaaq
Dhal gaya hijr ka din aa bhi gayi vasl ki raat

And a fine translation by Ayesha Khanna:

In the desert of my solitude, oh love of my life, quiver
the shadows of your voice,
the mirage of your lips
In the desert of my solitude,
beneath the dust and ashes of distance
bloom the jasmines and roses of your proximity
From somewhere very close,
rises the warmth of your breath
smouldering in its own aroma,
slowly, bit by bit.
far away, across the horizon, glistens
drop by drop
the falling dew of your beguiling glance
With such tenderness, O love of my life,
on the cheek of my heart,
has your memory placed its hand right now
that it looks as if
(though it’s still the dawn of adieu)
the sun of separation has set
and the night of union has arrived.

Anyway, now that I have retrieved this recording, I've pumped up the volume a bit, so here it is:

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Class: Insecta

Thanks to the lockdown, this is the longest I've been at the Isha Yoga Center and I've never been here during the summer. I tend to come for Guru Purnima and stay for "the annual fest of the wind", a time when gales from the Velliangiris lash at us at the foothills. On the other side of the year, I come during the winter solstice if my Sadhguru has something special planned (many of the consecrations are conducted around that time), but definitely around Mahashivratri, padding my visit with a few weeks on either side.

I was dreading the summer a bit, but we've had a simply gorgeous one this year. It has been hot, but the really muggy days have been broken by refreshing thunderstorms. Bountiful heat and residual moisture - what more does life on this planet need? The hills are lush green, and life in the ashram is thriving.

For a few weeks, we've been privileged to cicada concerts. All of a sudden, the occupants of one entire tree will set up a loud din, and soon tree after tree takes up the song till it stretches across the expanse.

In other delights, there are the butterflies. There are a variety of species but the most spectacular sighting is the Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona). The ashram must have some millions of them, I should think - and what a sight it is. Along any path or road, we see streams and streams of these pretty yellow gossamers flitting along some mysterious but cohesive route.

One akka signaled furiously to us the other day as we strolled along to brunch. We peered through the foliage to see where she pointed. By the stream were hundreds of butterflies puddling in the mudflat, moving their wings restlessly in the golden sunlight. A pied wagtail hung about, making darts into the kaleidoscope for an easy meal. Soon a few of us had gathered, including Viji akka, with her handy camera.

(Photos by Viji Ranganath)

Of course, the baddie is around in large numbers, and a host of other crawlies. Well, they're more useful to the planet, so we'll shut up and not complain.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Tu ka Tu

A change in header was long overdue. The winter chill has given way to a rainy, moody summer.

But, of course, there are big things on our minds. The pandemic is going viral and we’ll be remembering this year for a very long time. What will change, how, which industries will stay, which will fall, who will win, who will lose, will humankind recover its conscience, or will this be a blip that only momentarily eclipsed our collective daily grind?

Time will tell, but in the meantime, a haiku by Paul Pfleuger, Jr.

behind the death mask,
this is God, too

My Guru, ever compassionate, held our hands for 43 days, giving us darshans – a glimpse of him and room at his feet every single day. That makes a full mandala – a length of time approximately 40 days in which the human system completes one physiological cycle. When we take up something for one mandala, it gets written into our system like software and functions on a completely different level. Across these days, he spoke about a range of matters including this crisis facing us. How his constant presence has transformed us, I cannot even begin to guess.

During one session, someone asked him what Shiva thought of the virus.

His response reminded me of these verses by Kabir:

Inka bhed bata mere avadhu, acchi karni kar le tu
Dali phool jagat ke mahi, jahan dekhun va tu ka tu

Tell me the secret, Avadhoo, shower your compassion
In all of nature in this whole world, wherever I look, I see you

Hathi mein hathi ban baitho, chinti mein hai chhoto tu
Hoye mahavat upar baithe, hankan vala tu ka tu

Massive you are as an elephant, tiny when as an ant
Also as the mahout you sit, the one riding the elephant is also you

Choro ke sang chori karta, badmashon mein bhedo tu
Chori kar ke tu bhag jaave, pakdan vala tu ka tu

Among thieves you are a thief, you sit among scoundrels too
You are the robber who robs and runs, the one who catches him, also you

Jal thal jeev mein tu hi biraje, jahan dekhoon va tu ka tu
Kahe Kabir suno bhai sadho, guru milaye jyun ka tyun

In water, earth and all life you are present, wherever I look, only you!
Says Kabir, listen Seeker, the Guru shows you the unsullied You!

A version of the song by the awesome Prahlad Singh Tipaniya: