"I made up a taan sheet," read a Whatsapp message from a student.
I had, the week before, given my sitar students an assignment which entailed creating two improvisations. They were to be short ones, not exceeding eight beats. This was a part of the exercise on learning how to manoeuvre rhythm. We were starting small – four to eight beats. We had done three months of simple exercises that should have equipped them for this. Yet, when I assigned the exercise, raised eyebrows stared at me. I stared back at them, waved them off and bid them an enjoyable week of fingers tripping over each other.
Having been a product of an education system that places emphasis on one’s rightness, for me, teaching music has become partly about unravelling this conditioning that makes us complicate simple concepts. Those that aren’t so simple would become so with experience, and conscious living. I suppose my drive comes from years of self-torture before finally getting to the point where I threw up my hands, scratched off previously held beliefs and started over. But one never can completely start over. There is always some remnant of a past that lingers on. What we really do is rearrange parts of our learning and our selves. So to be more accurate, I threw all the pieces on the floor and began again. And again and again. Beginning again, for the record, can occur multiple times until you are satisfied with the outcome. This is the beauty of the process.
So anyway, this Whatsapp message came in at eight pm (this is early for this student).
"I made a taan! But I can’t play it.'
He was laughing.
'I also made up a taan sheet." (Taans are runs that show the artiste’s understanding of the movement of the notes according to the grammar of the raga – mode if very roughly translated – in various rhythmic combinations).
He then sent a photograph of his spreadsheet consisting of sixteen columns and rows. Each grid represented one beat. In each he had written in his musical notes.
I held my phone looking at the image with an emotion that was leaning towards horror. Think about the scene (maybe Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland) – in the film where a photograph causes a portal to open and the actress is sucked from her colourful world into another one that looks like a wasteland – cold and devoid of colour. Such was the scene in my room that night. It lasted a few seconds but its impact was forceful.
"Well talk about making the music completely logical!" I exclaimed, using my relevant emoji.
It was an ignorant statement of course, a knee jerk reaction to the spreadsheet – the reader should keep in mind that traumatic events can often result in irrational behaviours. Do consider this when judging me – because, in fact, improvisations in the first instance relies on an understanding of basic mathematics. However, a part of this understanding also depends on one’s internalisation of rhythm so that, logic and feeling (as a result of internalising) combine to produce the music.
Key word: internalisation. As long as music is conceived as notes and remains "something to be learnt, something that must be played," there is no real learning that is taking place, at least not in my world. Though aware that the student must first understand the form of the rhythm (as said student had done with the spreadsheet) along with this must come a focus on the body’s understanding of it. And so, this week’s assignment for all classes was "practice in your head. Recite, play an imaginary instrument in the air if you wish but walk the rhythm." Internalisation, after all, begins from the conscious and eventually ends up in the subconscious so much so that rhythm then becomes a part of one’s musical conditioning.
This not only applies to music, but to our sociological conditioning and drives the way societies evolve. These days I muse about where our internalisation of fear is going to take us. When I leave friends’ homes or decide to go out on a morning or evening run, people’s first words to me are, "Be safe," or, "Please be careful." I wonder whether governments realise the negative impact that their negligence and inability to control crime has on citizens. When we have completely internalised our fear, what sort of society are we going to become? What sort of society would we be should we all feel safe and protected? I can only dream about what that might feel and look like. Perhaps a spreadsheet is not a bad idea for our MPs, if that helps them make seemingly abstract ideas clearer.