Saturday, August 05, 2006

India/Australia 2006 report


My, my, I have been a slack journal-writer. It's been 4 months since I've sent any kind of diary out to the world and more than 7 months since I genuinely wrote something... I think it's because I've been having so many experiences I don't know where to begin... So I'm going to try and put something together with the aid of my weekly mini-journals, which are sent along with weekly concert news to friends in Japan and Australia.

9th Jan: "
Well, while most of you lovely [Brisbane] people were partying on at Woodford or elsewhere over the New Year period, I was sitting up in Pomona practising Vipassana meditation 10 hours a day. At times it was hard, mostly for myself battling boredom, but in the end I feel it has changed my life. I feel very clear and a lot more resistant to various negative emotions, cravings and aversions. I recommend Vipassana to anyone who ever feels troubled by such things - and who doesn't? (See for more info.)"

It certainly was life-changing. In the coming months, Vipassana was to have a big impact on my musical life, allowing me to focus much more on my practice and disregard the many distractions around the place. Unfortunately, once I got back to Australia I let it fall by the wayside. Pure Vipassana-meditating Shen seems quite distant...

24th Jan: "
Well here I am in Kolkata, enjoying long nights of Indian classical superstars at the 54th annual Dover Lane Music Conference. Highlights so far have included Shahid Parvez (sitar), Veena Sahasrabuddhe (vocal) and Rais Khan
(sitar). But the best is yet to come, with tonight's lineup including Ali Akbar Khan-saheb (sarod), Shiv Kumar Sharma (santoor) and Parween Sultana (vocal). Tomorrow wraps up with Hari Prasad Chaurasia (bansuri) and Amjad Ali Khan (sarod) and more. Tabla superstars performing include Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Choudhury, Sabir Khan and Shubhankar Banerjee. If you don't recognise these names then please go out and buy a CD by any of them and you'll understand just how fantastic this all is! Kya baat hai!!!"

Now more than 6 months later, I'd have to say that the main act which sticks in my mind was Hariprasad Chaurasia (bansuri - Indian bamboo flute) and especially the accompaniment given to him by rising tabla whiz Shubhankar Banerjee. It's amazing how despite the amazing quality of the music, it's still almost inevitable that one will tire of it after 5 long nights. All the Benares people couldn't wait to get out of Kolkata. Actually, there's quite a split between those who love Kolkata, and usually think little of provincial Benares, and those who adore Benares, and find Kolkata far too big-city flash. Lovers of Kolkata music claim that Benares music doesn't stimulate their minds; Benares-music devotees claim that Kolkata music doesn't touch their hearts.

2nd Feb: "Writing to you at last from Varanasi, where my days are filled with music - practise alone, practise with sitar, occasional concerts, etc etc. It's great to be back among my music-devotee classmates, seeing everyone's improvement year by year. We had a home concert at Guru-ji's place on Friday for Saraswati Puja (in honour of the goddess of music and learning). I accompanied sitar player Hiro Minamizawa, who played a very moody Raga Marwa and made a good impression on everyone. We will also play together at Guru-ji's memorial concert, March 17/18."

Yes, one of my biggest impressions at that time was the "classmate" feeling - kind of like being in university, and seeing one's fellow students again after the holidays, except that the campus is spread over most of Varanasi. Such camaraderie! Such bonhomie! :-)

The annual Saraswati Puja concert at Guru-ji's house is one of the most important events in my musical year. It has been running for at least 50 years, the only exceptions being 2 years ago when Guru-ji had just become fatally ill, and last year during the period of mourning following his passing. There is a very special devotional mood, with the focus of attention being the statue of Saraswati, before which the musicians sit facing Her with the "audience" behind and around them. Sri Debashish Dey, an excellent vocalist, still comments to me about the purity of Hiro Minamizawa's Raag Marwa that day - "It was Marwa from beginning to end!"

21st Feb: "
Full-time musical life in Varanasi and I love it. Hindu festival observers might like to know that this Sunday 26th is Shivaratri - Shiva's night - one of the biggest events in Varanasi, the city of Shiva. Everyone here will be downing bhang lassis and getting into the festive mood, and there will be at least 2 big music festivals - one Dhrupad (ancient classical), one Khayal (modern classical). Please note the release of the Indian classical santoor CD "Rei-Mei" by Mr. Setsuo Miyashita ("Jimi-san"), with tabla accompaniment by yours truly."

I'd really like to recommend Jimi-san's CD (with my humble tabla accompaniment). Please check the following link for further info:

1st March: "Shivaratri (Shiva's night) on Sunday once again saw Varanasi filled with pilgrims, both Indian and foreign, the countless Shiva temples around town decorated with flowers and "Aum Namah Shivaya" blaring from numerous temporary sound systems. Lately I've had a student come from Nepal to study tabla - with me! So now I've become the teacher in Guru-ji's house. I've arranged a room for him here in Munna House in return for some cleaning work for Munna, plus he's helping me out a lot by cooking my lunch every day while I practise.16 days til our big memorial concert!"

Unfortunately my Nepali student Shambhu couldn't stay in Varanasi too long. After a couple of weeks his uncle fell ill and he had to return to Kathmandu.

9th March: "
Thank you to all who have sent concerned messages following the bomb attacks in Varanasi on Tuesday. I'm OK, as are all my friends! One bomb went off in the Sankat Mochan temple, a few in the railway station, and a few more were found undetonated. It has obviously caused quite a shock in the city but the general vibe is that everyone wants life to remain undisturbed, both Hindu and Muslim."

The bombs were later found to be the responsibility of a Bangladeshi Jihadi organisation. As I said at the time, though, the very laudable result was the resilience that the people of Varanasi displayed, and the expressions of mutual support by leaders of both Hindu and Muslim communities. (

21st March: "
The second annual Ashu Babu Memorial Concert was a great success. There were many comments that the overall atmosphere was really nice, devotional and music-focused (as opposed to spectacle-focused). Shujaat Husein Khan was absolutely brilliant and showed himself to be a complete master of sitar. Padma Shri (like "Sir") Madhup Mudgal was likewise wonderful - so devotional, such a pure voice. And my friend Hiro Minamizawa and I were privileged enough to play before both of them! Lots of positive feedback, and good press too..." (FULL REPORT HERE, PRESS COMMENTS HERE)

Yes, it was a great experience. I had an excellent build-up, practising 6-7 hours a day and maintaining a relatively pure heart with the help of Vipassana, and Hiro-san and I were elated when we finished! The main benefit I got from these couple of months was that I really learnt a lot about devotion and Indian classical music (and all music for that matter). When one plays music, one is opening one's heart for all to see. All positive emotions like devotion, joy, peace, and so on draw the listener in to the music; as Guru-ji used to say, they become "spellbound". And just like the opposite pole of a magnet, all negative emotions like pride, jealousy and fear ("I'm not good enough") will repel the listeners.

Shortly after the Ashu-Babu Memorial, I organised a home concert for Jimi-san and some Japanese Kathak dance students at Munna House (my home in Varanasi). I wrote about it HERE, with special attention to the qualities of devotion and love which Jimi-san and the other musicians involved possess in abundance. If only more musicians and the wider public would follow their lead!

My last couple of weeks in India became, as usual, frantic, wrapping things up and trying to get in as much as possible. This year I completed Navaratri - the nine nights of the Goddess - for the third time. It basically involves practising all night, non-stop, from around 9pm until dawn each night for 9 nights. To minimise disturbance to others, I went to a dark room in the basement of Munna House, where I also slept until the early afternoon each day. (I ended up getting some jet-lag after that as my body-clock re-adjusted to the natural solar cycle.) The first time I performed this puja was 5 years ago, the second 2 years ago. I found this time much more matter-of-fact, much more like an exercise I knew I could complete, as long as I just passed the time. Not quite so mystical as the first time, but still very beneficial.

Before and after Navaratri I was also quite busy as a tabla merchant, ordering, checking, and sending tabla to customers in USA, Canada, Australia and Europe. This involved travelling to Kolkata to get cases, and kept me quite busy.

On my return from the Kolkata tabla-shipping trip, I was lucky enough to perform with sarod player Shuji Yamamoto, a student of the great Amjad Ali Khan. The concert was organised by my Guru-ji's son, Debabrata Bhattacharya, especially for my benefit. All due to Guru-ji's many blessings! I wrote about the concert, including some photos from the newspapers,

25th April: "On my last day in Kolkata I met Raka Mukherjee, a lovely Indian classical singer who is arriving [in Australia] tomorrow for concerts and workshops in Ipswich, Brisbane and Maroochydore over the next couple of weeks (tabla accompaniment by yours truly).

After meeting Raka-ji, I went to a concert in the nearby Bharatiyam arts centre. It was a very "artistic" event - firstly some healthy young men "dancing" in the foyer, then first act on stage was the Shakti and Vasantamala Dance Company from Tokyo, performing a modern dance piece based on "The Pillow Book". The main act was tabla player Bikram Ghosh in collaboration with the Mezcal Jazz Unit from France. I'll be writing more about this in my upcoming India-trip report..."

This being the much-belated India-trip report, I must write something about Mr. Ghosh and co here... Unfortunately I wasn't too impressed with this performance. I went to see a good tabla player taking part in a cross-genre fusion project, and hoped to get some good ideas from them, however I ended getting more ideas about things I don't like in such music. It's probably the only show I've ever seen where the bass was too quiet and the tabla too loud (it's usually the other way around). And our Bikram didn't seem to know when to stop playing. I would have liked to see him supporting the other musicians with some nice grooves, instead of the constant showmanship he was attempting. The Mezcal Jazz Unit, on the other hand, were excellent - very tight, very mutually supportive, constantly listening, and using very nice dynamics, breathing as a unit. If only Mr. Ghosh had caught the vibe...

9th May:
The tour with Raka Mukherjee is now complete and I can say that it was a great experience for all concerned. She really is a wonderful singer, as those who attended her concerts can attest. I have learnt a lot and also benefited from a lot of exposure to classical music lovers in the Indian community. I don't have anything in my diary in the coming weeks, so it's back to work to save money for plans later in the year..."

Raka-ji and I performed 8 concerts in 9 days in the Brisbane/Ipswich/Sunshine Coast region, for audiences ranging from yoga students to the Indian community. Thanks very much to Raka Mukherjee and her husband Kanchan for inviting me to join them on the Brisbane leg of their Australian tour, and to Sheri for all her hard work as tour manager. Raka-ji will be back in Australia next August and luckily for me I will once again be accompanying.

Following Raka-ji's tour I was lucky enough to secure a room in the beautiful riverside "treehouse" (well, it's surrounded by trees and clinging on to the hillside) at 45 Rosecliffe St. I posted some photos and a brief write-up

After all the adventures I've described above, the next couple of months seemed much more humdrum, although I suppose compared to Mr. & Mrs. Average it's still all pretty lively :-). I worked 5 days a week at Padma Imports, quite an enjoyable place to work. Padma imports incense and handicrafts from India and Bali and then ships the merchandise around Australia to various homeware, gift and new age shops. Hard days are when 1 or 2 containers come in and we have to unload tonnes of boxes of stock. Regular days are taken up with preparing consignments for various shops around the country. It is a very good job for me, in that (so far) I've been able to walk in and out of it at my convenience and can just about work whatever hours I like.

Outside work I've been teaching some tabla students - about 5 adults and 3 kids this time. I have some very good students now - very sincere and quite dedicated. I'd like to think that most of them will continue for at least a few years, and I'm very happy with their progress so far. It's very satisfying. I'm now reaching the stage where, if I decided to stay put in Brisbane for a while, I could make a basic living just teaching tabla.

Musically, after Raka-ji's tour things slowed down, but one project deserves special mention - Tibet2Timbuk2, featuring Tibetan singer Tenzin Choegyal, Persian multi-instrumentalist and singer Cieavash Arean, singer-guitarist Marcello Milani and myself. It is a really fun group with a lot of potential. Please visit our mini-webpage at I also had a really nice show just last week with mbira player Yeshe, with a band consisting of a bunch of old Brisbane world music buddies, something I think we'll be seeing much more of in the coming years. (It's the Classmate phenomenon again, but whereas in India and Japan it's the Indian music class, in Australia it's the world music fusion class.)

I've now just arrived in Japan for a 3 month trip. It's kind of a funny thing... I know I won't cover my expenses at all, but I'm happy to be here and have the opportunity to play some really good Indian classical music again. The contrast between my musical life in Australia and here is substantial. In Australia I can play lots of great world music fusion and have lots of good tabla students, and it's quite easy for me to make money there. However Indian classical music is not great there - there are a few Indian artists, but to be honest, the fire which comes from regular devoted practice is missing. In Japan, on the other hand, I feel like I'm part of a huge club of Indian music devotees. BUT, perhaps because of the plethora of musicians, it's harder for me to collect students and harder to make money from concerts. There's also the visa issue - without a full-time job (or a wife), I can't stay longer than 3 months. And due to linguistic and cultural issues I'm quite dependent on Japanese musicians for work. I'm not sure what will happen on this trip... I have some support but not as wide or as dependable as I need to really commit to life in Japan. But it's all an adventure!!! :-)

No comments: