Hindustani classical music

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Shunya (Void)

Shunya Or Void In Classical Music

Bindu Chawla

The Times of India 2013/07/04

It was the traditional, eastern way of things. In terms of basic numbers, what followed as we counted after the number nine – a number known as poornam or completeness – was not 10, or even one, where the count begins again, but zero. The concept of zero, otherwise referred to as nothingness, emptiness or the void, is shunya, a state of everythingness, fullness, or wholeness, and a condition of mind our gurus asked us to reach before the singing of any raga, before its unconditional manifestation could begin.

Shunya in the ancient texts is known as pujyam or ‘worthy of being prayed to’. In Buddhism it is ‘the phenomenological term for the experience of Absolute Reality’. Shunya is also another word for equilibrium, the state of equipoise, a state of ‘yuja’ or union, the end and beginning of all cycles of existence. And that is why in classical music it is symbolised by ‘sa’, the first swara or note, the root note where all notes rest, lying in dormancy.

Japa or chanting of the ‘sa’, which in universal language is the same as the japa of ‘Aum’ or any other mantra, activates the shunyata or nothingness of ‘sa’, which then begins to manifest unconditionally. Whatever it manifests, provided it is unconditional, or pure, and not conditional, or sullied, is the active word of God, and his message for all. Ashunyata stirs, so does the divine, opening out its light, along with nada or sound, its initial manifestations or vibrations, which then formulate as swaras unfolding the Brahmanda or universe of the seven notes.

When the raga is sung by a pure soul, the notes will be accompanied by light (difficult to see for the ordinary listener), a light that will reflect the colours and hues that the specific raga configuration shows up, which have immense healing properties. The raga and its colours are the celebration of intuition, the inner eye, having no reason as its manifestation, and that is why also, the classical raga in our music has to be sung without reason, or ‘conditionality’, or nihilism or empty zeroes.

On the other hand, any music sung conditionally is a spiritual contortion. And so, singing with your breath was unconditional; singing with your external voice was contortion. Thejabda taan or the fast pattern in the khayal sung with the jabda or jaw was contortion, and the halak taan or the fast movements in the khayal sung with the halak or breath were pure and unconditional. Singing for yourself was unconditional. Singing for an audience was conditional.

The temples, symbolically, have a garbhagriha, garbha meaning womb, or an innermost chamber, where the ‘deity’ is. When you visit, one chamber opens into another, and another, and another, till you finally reach the garbhagriha. And when that is opened for worshippers, ‘nothing’ lies there, it is empty to the naked eye. It is this that symbolises the fullness of Zero.

We were once in Milan, where my guru, Pandit Amarnath, was preparing for a concert at the Teatro Piccolo di Milano. Each green room had a huge mirror into which was reflected another, which was across, and that seemed to reflect another and so on, almost like a series of chambers opening into each other, like our own temples of old, ending with a small tiny mirror inside which was finally nothing – like the garbhagriha. Pandit Amarnath was overjoyed when he saw this. But it took me 20 years to understand the master’s joy. And what he meant by telling us all the time – ‘Shunya ho kar gaao.’ {Sing, with your mind cleansed of everything else]

Spiritual life force


Bindu Chawla

It is the wetness of water, the lilt in a melody, or the hue that radiates with the play of light on colour. Like the meaning of the word ‘Krishna’ — ‘an inner element which attracts’ — the concept of rasa in Hindustani culture and music helps transmit an elusive but profound tattva or principle of life.

Rasa is the spiritual life force, the affirmation of the spirit in life, which radiates when ragas and talas are honed to a shine. And yet, the ragas of the entire Hindustani system have been categorised under nau rasa or the nine rasas. They are the shringara or love, hasya or humour, raudra or anger, vira or valour, the adbhuta or wondrous, vibhatsa or odious, karuna or compassionate, bhayanaka or fearful, and shanta or peaceful. All raga moods are to be contained within the gamut of these nine prescribed bhavas or emotions, with some mix and match as well.

“Rasa is the essence, the abstract quality of the raga,” explains Pandit Amarnath of the Indore gharana. “There is basically one essence or rasa in all of Hindustani music, and that is the bhakti rasa; if it is shringara rasa or the emotion that represents love and its celebration, it is for bhakti. If it is adbhuta rasa or the mood which represents the sense of wonder, it is for bhakti. The underlying rasa is always bhakti. That is why the nau rasa theory is more relevant for the actor, rather than the musician, when things have to be dramatised.”

In Hindustani music, ragas are said to number no less than a total of 999, representing as many shades of mood and emotion of the human heart. And they contain one underlying rasa!

In our times a musician normally sings or plays a quarter of this number in an entire lifetime. In the human heart, rasa lies in the emotional sparkle. Emotions, also said to number no less than perhaps a total of 999 in the cosmosphere, representing as many shades of mood in the human heart, contain one underlying rasa: bhakti.

Once a disciple asked Pandit Amarnath, “Guruji, why is it that in the slow aalaap or improvisation of the raga it is all emotion and rasa, and in the fast or taan portion the rasa seems to vanish completely?” To this he replied, “What we experience in the fast portion is not rasa but a thrill, which is not emotionless, but a climax of the slow build-up of the emotion to its own resolution.” In other words, a kind of heightened intoxication before the release, or the culmination of the meditation of the raga.

Close on the heels of the word ‘rasa’, conveying the same meaning and used in the same context in music, is the word ‘rang’, meaning colour, used to refer to the ‘colour’ of the soul, or spiritual colour. Rang chadhana, or raag ka rang chadhana, in other words, the colour of masti, or intoxication, the performer and listener both imbued with the spirit of the raga being sung or heard.

From the word rasa comes the word rasika, or the listener charged by music which is spiritually emotive and deep. The rasika can distinguish between the exhibition of music, and its intension, and gives his heart to the soul of the musician. Rang barase! Rasa barase! What is beautiful about the concept, finally, is that rasa sees life in spirituality, and spirituality in life. Hindustani culture sees rasa, finally, as passion, as lust, and as life. As an eternal celebration of the Divine within the human.

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