Abhanga Repost – taking Bhakti poetry to youngsters

In an informal jam recording of the song – Pundalik Varde, the members of the Abhanga Repost band can be seen sitting in a tiny room in t-shirts and shorts, reciting the names of all the sants of the Varkari Sampradaya.  Not the lyrics one would expect from geeky youth – the names of the gurus of the bhakti movement associated with the Varkaris including Jnanesvar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, Tukaram and Gadge Maharaj.

Abhanga Repost is a folk fusion band which performs Abhangas written by these composers who worshipped Vittala (or Vithoba) in Maharashtra. But they have given these age-old compositions a modern twist.

Guitarist and vocalist Ajay Vavhal, harmonium player Piyush Aacharya, bass guitarist Swapnil Tarphe, tabla player and multi-percussionist Viraj Aacharya and drummer Dushyant Deorukhkar have come together to create a buzz around the Abhanga.

Historically, the Abhanga has influenced many musical traditions in India. The Sangeetha Ratnakara of Sarangadeva, one of the most important musical texts of India, was from Devgiri, which is in present-day Aurangabad. Both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions consider this to be a definitive text on music.

One expert on Abhangas told this author that while the first example of a scientifically composed South-Indian krithi was Jayadeva’s Ashtapadis, it happened at the same time as the Marathi Abhangas during Sant Gyaneshwar’s period. Marathi Abhangas have the same structure as krithis — eight lines and then the writers’ name at the end. Ashtapadis are sung in different locations in different manners. And the dhruvapada, which is the most important part in a composition is still sung in a chorus only in Marathi abhangas today.

He adds that the Varkari Sampradaya (those who walk by foot every year to Pandharpur on Ashada and Karthika Ekadashi) laid a lot of stress on community development and music in the community had to come through the participative element, irrespective of gender.

The dhruvapada is structured in such a way that the pitch is common to male or female voices. This unique feature of the Marathi abhanga is not to be found anywhere else in the world. It uses pakhawaj (percussion instrument) as an accompaniment which has a lot of base frequency. It also uses a very different tala structure of high frequency. Anyone listening is touched as it traverses the entire range of frequency of human receptivity. 

All the members of the Abhanga Repost band have a good sense of Indian classical music as they have performed with different classical/fusion bands/artistes. “We have been listing to Indian classical music since our school days and we also try to incorporate classical music in our compositions of Abhanga,” says Swapnil.

Tabla player Viraj is undergoing training under Pandit Ramdas Palsule and his brother and harmonium player Piyush has been trained by Pandit Ajay Jogalekar. He is also undergoing vocal training from Vidushi Nandini Bedekar. The band members also try to attend different classical baithaks to experience the nuances of Indian classical music.

The band was started in 2016 by Swapnil and Dushyant whose families are from the Varkari Sampradaya and so were familiar with these Abhangas. College mates, their mutual love for music and a sense of community brought them together. The lyrics of the Abhangas, deeply allegorical, appealed to the two youngsters. “Each Abhanga has message for a society. It is so commendable that whatever these saints wrote hundreds of year ago, is still applicable in the 21st century, be it be a call for revolution by Tularam, Bhakti worship by Dnyaneshwar or social awareness by Eknath.”

Abhangs are typically very high energy renditions, where the devotees dance, play the dholak and cymbals and everyone joins in the chorus. “In the traditional renderings many Indian instruments were used as accompaniments while presenting the songs. So we too decided to retain its originality by using the tabla and harmonium (which are a must in an Abhanga rendition.) The guitar imitates ‘iktari’ and drums and the bass guitar plays the role of the Pakhwaj and Dhol and this is how we ‘Repost’ it!” says Swapnil.

He adds, “Our performance is nothing but a modern ‘Kirtan’. We also dress traditionally while performing to keep that folk feel intact. We don’t wear the clothes which the varkaria wear but yes we make sure our clothes don’t look out of place.”

The band spends a lot of time on research on every Abhanga they render before tuning it, to maintain integrity with the original as well as to retain the meaning. They say while they themselves like all Abhangas, ‘Lahanpan dega deva’ and ‘Amhi bi-Ghadalo’ by Sant Tukaram are immensely popular amongst listeners.

Lyrics of ‘Lahanpan dega deva’

lahan pan dega deva | mungi sakhrecha rawa ||

airawat ratan thor |tyasi ankushcha mar||
jaya angi mothepan |taya yatana kathin ||

tuka mahne barve| jan whave lahahuni lahan||

mahapure zade jati| tehte lavhael wachati||

The lyrics refer to Sant Tukaram beseeching the Lord to give him back his childhood because it is the only time when man is without Ahamkara or pride.

The band members say for them Bhakti, revolution, art and music are the same. “One has to practice dedicatedly to achieve these things. We can say these are different roads leading to one destination that is divinity or inner piece!”

Their novel approach has brought new audiences to Indian music. “We have received messages from many people who are non-Maharashtrians telling us they were touched by the beauty of the Abhangas. We have also been successful in taking this literature to youngsters who identify with a young band like us.”

The Abhanga has travelled far from its early underpinnings. Sant Namdev has written poetry in Punjabi and his work feature in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is also commonly believed that Abhangas influenced Carnatic music, more specifically the Dakshina Bhajana sampradaya first started by Maruthanallur Swamigal. This in turn influenced the Trinity when Thanjavur was under Marathi rule. “So basically the concept is not confined to Maharashtra. We haven’t yet played in the southern part of India but we would love to perform there and spread the wisdom of these beautiful poems,” says Swapnil.

From Soft Power influence to Economic & Political Gains: India’s engagement with Brazil and the South American region

India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power hosted a collaborative discussion on the theme “From Soft Power influence to Economic & Political gains: India’s engagement with Brazil and the South American region”. The main speakers of the event were Mr. Shobhan Saxena, President of Indian Association of Brazil & Co-Founder, Bloco Bollywood and Ms. Florencia Costa, Journalist & Cultural Curator, Co-Founder, Bloco Bollywood. The round table was attended by numerous esteemed guests.

Speaking on the topic Mr. Saxena said “Bloco Bollywood is the most important Indian street carnival. It is a great hit among the locals. It uplifts India’s image in Brazil.” He also said “Through the carnival many sterotyped Information and Knowledge about India is removed.”

Ms. Costa explained how Yoga, Meditation, Indian Cuisine and Ayurveda as India’s great Soft Power Ambassadors in Brazil. She explained about the Mahatma Gandhi Carnival in the city of Salvador and how the peace principles of Mahatma influence the people of Brazil.

Both Mr. Saxena and Ms. Costa said “Culture Connects Countries.” The event ended with a discussion among the speakers and the guests.

Divya’s Kitchen – healing food in New York

Ayurveda is becoming more and more popular in the USA, so much so that large companies like Unilever and Pepsi reached out to me to consult them on Ayurveda in relation to food – Divya Alter

Divya Alter grew up in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She says her conscious relationship with food began when she was 18; while interning at the kitchen of an underground yoga ashram. She has been a vegetarian and a cook since then (27+ years). She says for her food is more than a means of sustenance, it is a friend that has “transformed and uplifted me on levels way beyond the physical.”

The chef/author of “What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen” cookbook, Divya runs her kitchen ‘Divya’s Kitchen’ in New York City serving conscious food.

How did you get your name and identity from Vrindavan? What fascinated you about Hinduism?

I am an initiated practitioner in the Gaudiya –Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism, and my Guru Maharaja, Krishna Kshetra Swami, gave me the spiritual name Divyambara Dasi. Divya is a shortcut of that, my nickname.

I studied in Vrindavan, at the Vrindavan Institute for Higher Education, on and off for about 5 years. Vrindavan Dhama is my favorite place on earth because it is saturated with the deep spiritual sweetness of bhakti.

I was attracted to bhakti-yoga because of the purity of the practice. Reading Sanskrit texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bhagavata Purana made a lot of sense to me (and it still does!).

Where did you learn Ayurveda and from whom. Ayurveda has many strict rules about cooking and diet. Was it easy to make the shift from your earlier diet and way of life?

I first encountered Ayurvedic doctors and treatments while I lived in India. Dr. Partap Gupta treated me in Vrindavan and inspired me to begin my studies in Ayurveda. It just made so much sense to me. My main teacher is Vaidya Ramakant Mishra of the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda lineage. He truly transformed my health and my life. I’ve completed his Pulse and Marma training as well as many other classes, including cooking classes.

I was already following some of the Ayurvedic dietary and lifestyle recommendations with bhakti-yoga; bhakti is a very sattvic practice. Adapting to even more Ayurvedic principles took some adjustment but it was not that difficult because I was committed to do everything in order to cure my autoimmune disorder.

In terms of lifestyle, it is still a bit hard for me to go to bed before 10 pm because I run a restaurant in Manhattan that closes at 10 pm. But I’m working towards it.

Please could you tell me something more about your restaurants, who are the clients who come back again and again, what do they like the most there?

My husband Prentiss and I started Divya’s Kitchen at the end of October 2016. It was the expansion of the culinary education (www.bvtlife.com) and Ayurvedic meal subscription service we’ve been doing in New York for 10 years. It is a vegetarian-vegan restaurant, and the menu incorporates the Ayurvedic principles of food compatibility and digestion.

Our clients are very nice people, from a wide range of backgrounds. We also attract a lot of yoga/Ayurveda practitioners, health conscious folks, people with special dietary needs, and more. Many of our regular clients consider Divya’s Kitchen a home-away-from-home because we serve fresh, delicious home-style food and also the ambiance is relaxing, home like. I think our regular guests appreciate not just the quality of our food but also the friendly service and calming atmosphere.

Is it difficult to source Ayurvedic herbs and ingredients in the US? Are people aware of Ayurveda as a medical practice?

I can easily find almost all specialty herbs and ingredients that we use at our restaurant and cooking classes—that’s one of the perks of living in New York City! Ayurveda is becoming more and more popular in the USA, so much so that large companies like Unilever and Pepsi reached out to me to consult them on Ayurveda in relation to food. The interest and appreciation of Ayurveda is only growing.

A lot of people in the West are moving towards Vegetarianism. Do you think Ayurveda can sensitise us to the environment and the change that needs to happen for people to be more environmentally conscious, responsible?

Yes, definitely. At the core of Ayurveda lies respect for all life and living in harmony with nature. Ayurveda regards the environment we live in as one of the pillars of health (along with diet and routine). The way we treat or mistreat Mother Earth has a direct impact on our health. By applying the universal principles of Ayurveda in our local environments, we can definitely contribute to the betterment of our life on earth and inspire others to do so.

Which is your favourite Indian dish. Where and from whom did you learn it from?

I like a lot of Indian dishes, but perhaps the one I eat the most is khichari. Of course, there are as many cooks as many khicharis! The way I prepare it is very nourishing and balancing. It is the healthiest comfort food!

Have you personally experienced the benefits of Ayurveda in terms of healing and well-being.

Yes, of course. This is what got me into Ayurveda in the first place. Over the years, Ayurveda has come to help me with different health struggles. In India, it helped me with a severe digestive disorder, jaundice, and other ailments. In the USA, it helped me cure an autoimmune disorder, chronic fatigue, and more. I believe in having a healing team—for dealing with health issues, we need to work with specialists in different medical and holistic fields, to approach the issues on all levels. I always make sure to have an Ayurvedic doctor on my healing team.

Hiten Mistry : Steering holistic living and wellness in the​ UK through Bharatanatyam.

Hiten Mistry is a young, dynamic,dedicated Bharatanatyam performer/teacher and dancer-therapist who lives in Leicester situated in the East Midlands region of UK. He has a BSc Honours in Mass Communications and Sociology. Presently he is studying Masters degree in performance practices from the De Montfort University Leicester. 

What is most special about this highly motivated and talented artist is that he works as a Movement Facilitator in Health settings, and at National Health service (NHS) Leicester, using Bharatanatyam exclusively as the medium for improving the health of patients with mental health and cardiovascular disorders. 

Hiten Mistry  runs a dance company called Bharatanatyam Leicester, and teaches many students both at Leicester and Birmingham.

Here is CSP’s ineterview with Hiten Mistry :

How little were you when you began lessons in  Bharatanatyam? 

I was 8 years old when I began learning Bharatanatyam, I had watched my very first teacher perform Alarippu at my Gujarati school’s Diwali Program and I was instantly attracted to the form, the music, aharya (costume)and energy and felt so drawn to it that I really wanted to start learning. You can say it was a twin flame connection. 

Who are your Natya Acharyas,what traits do you admire in them?

Smita Vadnerkar (Nupur Arts Dance Academy, Leicester U.K) – Extremely hardworking, a diligent teacher who gave a solid foundation in Bharatanatyam. She taught me that nothing is impossible if you apply yourself with total dedication and hard work.She really instills this courage, conviction, and passion for dance in me for which I am so very grateful.

Pushkala Gopal (Samskriti,UK) – Everything about her work on Bharatanatyam has inspired me. I admire  her musicality, her Abhinaya and openminded approach to teaching facial expressions, her choreography is has such amazing ideas, and her mathematical rhythmic calculations are incredible! 

The Dhananjayans ( Bharata Kalanjali, Chennai, India) – I absolutely adore the internationally renowned couple’s style for their clarity, strong nritta (footwork), emotive Bhava and their unique creative presentation-right from costuming to stage. Master and Shanta Akka are my Bharatanatyam Parents. I can watch them for hours and hours. I am fortunate  to be a small part of their magnificent international legacy!

What makes a good performer and good teacher? Can both go hand in hand?

In my opinion, a good performer is one who has a solid grounding in all the elements of Bharatanatyam. A fine proficiency in both Nritta ( pure dance) and Abhinaya(facial expressions), one not overpowering the other but complementing each ability makes a good one on stage. It is a tight rope walk to maintain both. A good performer is one who is able to forget the ego of themselves and transcend the body into molding themselves in the characters, emotions, and narratives being portrayed in the dance they present. 

Being a good teacher requires so many other qualities beyond the skills of being a good performer. For me it is down to the personality of the Artist, are they able to be a good host to their students? Keep them motivated? Inspired? On their Toes? Keep them challenged whilst bringing in lightness to the intensity that can often be associated with the training. BesidesCommunication and PATIENCE are so important!

I would say only few performers are able to be good teachers.

Which part of the UK have you performed and where else ?

I have performed all over the UK Nationally as a student and professional dancer, in community settings, and on the mainstream theatre venues. 

My first experience of performing was exhilarating!It was a huge production based on planets and solar systems called Vyom by CICD,UK in Leicester at the Phoenix Theatre. I loved the ambience of theatre, the excitement of the rehearsals, meeting dance friends, giggling, laughing and enjoying being on stage for the first time in front of public, wearing glittery make up and a new costume, all added to the excitement for me.

I have also performed in France, Italy, Egypt, India.

When did Bharatanatyam spread in UK?

As many Indian Bharatanatyam artists migrated to Britain along came with them  their dance form. In the early days it was the famous dancer Ram Gopal who brought Bharatanatyam and other Indian Dance forms to the major theatre stages around the UK and globally. He was for a long time the toast of Europe for the beauty and authenticity in brought in his dances, interweaving his skilled training in Kathakali, Bharatnatyam, and Manipuri forms. He introduced Britain to the marvelousness of Indian classical dance and performance. Ram Gopal was appointed OBE in 1999!

I was involved in a project called Incarnations – Choreographed by Shane Shambhu for the V&A Museum in London’s exhibition opening of Ram Gopal and his costumes, with the History of Indian Dance in the UK.

What Bharatanatyam topics interest the youngsters in UK ?

Bharatanatyam being such a comprehensive art form can really interest youngsters as an entire art but in particular, the dynamic Nritta (footwork) and Natya (dance drama )elements embodying a story and using  Mudras ( gestures) appeal to them. Rhythm and Music are concepts that can help in the study of Mathematics and would attract students.

How can Bharatanatyam be made more popular than Bollywood?

Bharatanatyam needs to be made more accessible, exploring different types of presentation style, the use of English voiceover or more orchestration in music rather be very sahityam (lyrics)heavy.Melodramatic Abhinaya ( facial expressions) can completely go over the heads of British audiences!

Bollywood is popular as it is catchy, fun and easy to do, people aspire to be like their favourite actors or actresses and want to dance like them. Maybe we need more Bharatanatyam superstars to raise the platform for our art, create innovative platforms to bring mass appeal; but there is a fear of diluting the essence of the form in doing so. 

My belief is that to experience essence, aesthetics and rigour, BN and it’s inherent spiritual, intellectual, emotional and transcendent qualities will always exist, people will seek to experience this and our art form will live on for centuries to come!

How has dance made you reach out to natives in UK ?

My work is predominantly in Bharatanatyam, whether I am dancing  in health settings (Hospitals, Day centres, Care homes) or teaching in my dance company or conducting a workshop, or performing in a stage , it is Bharatanatyam everywhere. 

British audiences love the storytelling and challenging nritta (footwork).  In my work with the National Health Service, people are beginning to see the Holistic and Therapeutic benefits of Indian Dance. I regularly engage with these patients in hospital wards, care homes and day centres.

One of my many dreams is to conduct in depth research into the area of using Bharatanatyam in a creative capacity as an holistic therapeutic approach to improving health and well being of people. 

How do they feel after your therapeutic sessions ?

Those who engage in this work really see the benefits of Bharatanatyam  beyond its visual magnificence as a performing art. I make them try footwork, and hand gesture movements. This definitely helps to increase levels of their activities, motor movements. They feel infused with a new sense of hope that helps them heal and I feel so blessed to care for their well being.

What are your challenges and rewards?

I would say my biggest challenge are the gatekeepers in the fraternity, financial support for my work, access to opportunites that are few and far in between, and people in your own sector who sabotage you . All these threaten and jeopardise the development of the dance. 

My biggest reward is seeing the joy, relief and the positive effects my work has on the people, my students who I teach on a regular weekly basis, and the dance therapy I do at the NHS. I have had people in bounteous joys and moved to tears in my performances. These moments reinforces my resolve to work, create and reach out more. 

Where do you like to perform in India ?

I would like to perform all over India but as a Bharatanatyam dancer getting approval of your artistry is paramount in Chennai! I would very much wish the support of Govt of India for the various art projects I have in mind.

What are your artistic goals?

In a nutshell, my goals are to serve my art form to the best I can in my capacity, create a home for my dance work and to able to make British people and the society see how dance movements can make a great positive difference in their lives. I wish to tour throughout the country and abroad with my productions, along with my community of dancers. I desire to raise the global profile of Bharatanatyam. 

How long would you like to be dancing?

I Dance therefore I AM. It is more than my identity, something I cannot describe. Bharatanatyam is my happy place, my companion. It is the truth of my existence. I am definitely one of Lord Nataraja’s chosen ones to serve this great art. I am humbled and blessed. 

From Bahrain to India: How Yoga Changed My Life

CSP caught up with Fatima Al Mansoori, the internationally renowned yoga therapist from Bahrain on how she took to yoga, her keenness to study yoga in India and the ways in which she is influencing Bahrain and the Middle East in enabling them to be self-aware:

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

How did you take to yoga?

In July 2006 I had a major car accident and had mild concussion, bruises and stitches. After that there were a couple of years of struggling with fatigue, not feeling refreshed after sleep, and widespread pain. In 2008 I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. Doctors said that there was no cure for it. I tried to find a cure, believing there must be a treatment that would work, but nothing worked. I finally decided to accept this dis-ease and be at peace with it rather than try to fight it. Acceptance was the key, and then I found myself guided to live a healthy lifestyle, practice yoga, eat healthy, and meditate. We live in a society that constantly teaches us to fight and never give up, but not everything can be sorted out with resistance; some things need acceptance. There’s a difference between giving up and surrendering to God, and only through complete surrender do we find peace and guidance. I didn’t know much about yoga but I knew that it was more than what was being offered at the gym halls! I was God-guided to travel to India to learn yoga. I never expected that I could be cured. My intention was to improve my quality of life and manage the symptoms. As I kept practicing an authentic holistic way, I started to notice results after three months, and I felt noticeably better in six months. Within eight months I was back to normal and my energy levels were even better than at any time before.

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

What specifically pushed you to come to India to study yoga? What made you want to teach yoga to others?

I knew that there was something more to yoga other than just a physical practice; I wanted to learn the therapeutic approach… I was looking for authentic knowledge so I had to seek from the origins of yoga… India.

After recovering I wanted to resume my career (previously a founder and director of a graphic designing company). I was so attached! However, when I started sharing my experience on social media many people were inspired by my recovery and needed help and guidance, so I chose not to look back and decided to take a new path to serve humanity. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made and one of the most important lessons I needed to learn and practice/apply in order to grow. Let go.

What specific aspects of yoga were you most drawn to? Have you been able to relate to the spiritual aspects of yoga? Were you aware of the spiritual side of yoga when you first began practicing?

Patanjali’s Yogasutra and Ashtanga yoga. Practising Yoga gave me a compatible perspective on my own spiritual practice as a Muslim. Yes and I loved the interfaith aspects of spirituality.

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

How would you describe the perceptions that people have about yoga in Bahrain today?

When I first started offering sessions most locals who joined had never heard about yoga and some who had heard about it thought it was a Buddhist ritual, some thought it was a Hindu religion and some thought it was what they see in western movies – acrobats and stretching or posing. Some even thought it was a Chinese form of cultural art!! Bahrain always had groups who knew what yoga was and practiced it since the 90s – mostly foreigners with few Bahrainis. Gyms and sport centres have been offering yoga asana sessions almost everywhere in Bahrain but that doesn’t help in terms of propagating the science, it actually gives a wrong perception of what yoga is! Since I came back from India my mission was to share the health benefits and to propagate yoga therapy which wasn’t popular. It has come a long way since 2011. It’s never easy to get the acceptance and recognition from the medical community but I had my recovery experience and that attracted a lot of medical doctors to pay attention; they even started referring patients. Soon I was asked to offer sessions in government and private hospitals and medical centres. It’s all about integrating a scientific approach and using the right terminology and continuing regardless of disappointments and shut doors. It’s also about learning the gaps and where to fit. Soon it spread like wild fire… I started getting invitations to deliver sessions at schools, community societies, institutes and universities, cultural centres, EVERYWHERE – to all groups and societies!

Is yoga officially recognised by your country’s government? Do you require an official license or certification to teach yoga in your country?

No, when I went to the National Health Regulatory Authority to inquire with regard to applying for my accreditation as a yoga therapist so that I can get the necessary license to practice, I was told that it is not categorised as a therapy since it’s not invasive so no license is required and it can be taught as a sport! Since then I have been demanding categorisation and sharing why it is essential on local media like TV, radio and newspapers and on my social media accounts. It was a great achievement to hear the Minister for Health at the Yoga Day in 2016 stating that “Yoga is a medical modality” during her opening speech at the International Yoga Day event.

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

You are an adjunct professor at the Human Consciousness & Yogic Sciences department in Mangalore University. Tell us about how you got into the role and what aspects of yoga do you teach?

I was a student at the Department of Human Consciousness and Yogic Sciences in Mangalore University and I completed the basics of Yogic Science Course at the department. After two years I returned to deliver case presentations and joined the Yoga for Stress Disorders International Conference. I kept submitting my activities and after another year, I was honoured with the professorship due to my achievements in the field. I have been visiting to deliver special lectures to the students. “Teaching Yoga in GCC Countries, Compatibility and Challenges”, “Public Speaking for Yogis”, “Yoga and the Sustainable Development Goals”, “Yoga for Humanitarian Crisis”, “Integrated Yoga Therapy Clinical approach” – these are some of my lecture topics.

Do you think there would be a demand among university students to come to India to study yoga at an official institution like you did?

It’s challenging to live in the hostel or ashrams. They need to adjust to the living conditions but I think it’s part of the experience, to eat what is given to you and to not have the luxury to select your food or room… acceptance and adjustment, becoming flexible and adapting to different living conditions is a very important lesson. My first night wasn’t easy, I remember walking to the registrar’s office the next morning with a swollen eye due to a mosquito bite, and I remember she said “Which course are you signing up for? I’m sure it’s the shortest course and I don’t think you will finish it!!”

Can you give us a sense of the students that you cater to by teaching yoga?

My sessions are individual, by booking. For therapy purposes I don’t believe in group sessions… It’s a clinical approach. I have designed a therapy course for chronic conditions. A lot of doctors refer patients with stress disorders, breathing issues, IBS, obesity, diabetes, skin issues due to stress, sleep disorders, headache, chronic pain as well as pregnant women. Some come for prevention and some come seeking a cure. I do not and I will never claim to give cures but all they need is guidance and they find their own way to recovery. I’ve seen and documented that over and over again. Doctors are happy with the results we are achieving.

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

How often do you visit India? Your impressions of India?

I love visiting India; I learn something new every time! I should visit more often (every semester to deliver lectures) but I can’t always visit due to needing to renew the visa. It becomes a stretch because I get invited all over the world to speak in conferences and sometimes I can’t jump to India from another country due to visa expiration!

On average what are the demographics of your classes? Is it mainly a local audience? Are there Indian nationals who attend? What is the average age of attendees roughly?

Everyone is welcome; mostly locals come – both male and female, from children to teenagers, all ages up to retirement age. Some Indians and Saudis cross the bridge to seek the therapy sessions as well as few Europeans and other Arab nationalities, due to appearing in the most famous Arab talk show on TV, which attracted people of different nationalities.

Image source: Fatima Al Mansoori

Finally, tell us about the vision and mission of your entity, the Sustainable Humanitarian Development.

Apart from the clinical sessions, many group sessions are offered free of charge to support the community groups of special needs, blind, sickle cell patients and lots of other groups and there is an increased demand. I have also witnessed from my humanitarian missions that the experience is of great benefit and we get amazing feedback for providing the sessions to refugees. Due to the increased demand and the need to grow, in 2018 humanitarian initiatives became a priority and I established SHD (Sustainable Humanitarian Development) Educating, Training and Consultancy, so that I could provide services and overcome the challenges much more efficiently. There is no sustainable funding or support to such initiatives and that is why I ultimately decided to launch Sustainable Humanitarian Development as a registered entity so that it can sustain itself by offering payable corporate services, educational programs and workshops that can provide basic logistic fees for the missions.

The vision was:

– Establishing a Not for Profit, social entrepreneurship entity in this part of the world was a challenge to begin with, due to the lack of understanding of social entrepreneurship. Promotion of human welfare, while working towards advancing the wellbeing of humanity and promoting human dignity in the middle of man-made crises or natural disasters with active participation to alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity.

–  Promoting sustainable lifestyles which can have a great Impact on quality of life, health and wellbeing.

–  Integrated Health Promotion and community wellbeing.

–  Providing corporate training programs to boost occupational health and wellbeing

– Spreading awareness of clinical yoga therapy in Bahrain and the GCC region so that it becomes an essential supportive component in governmental hospitals and primary care centers and gather evidence on the effectiveness for the treatment of different ailments and to promote and encourage research in the field.

– To introduce mindfulness and yoga in schools in Bahrain and the region.

-To conduct educational training programs and create career opportunities in the field.

In search of sound

A native of Seattle, Daniel Miller is a composer, programmer, instrument builder, and field recordist. His creative practice centers on perceiving and responding to the vitality latent in simple processes, materials, and technologies. Recent creative interests have included explorations of found objects, live animated interactive scores, and feedback cycles between performers and stochastic processes or acoustic automata. In 2013, he was a recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a grant that made possible twelve months of research on music and technology in seven countries. This article is the trail of all the sounds he covered in four continents.

More recently, Daniel was a Fulbright-Nehru research fellow based in Mysuru, India from 2017-2018 where he collaborated with Indian musicians and sound artists at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology and was advised by Dr. Mysore Manjunath at the University of Mysore.

By Daniel Miller

The glass terrariums by my bedroll were covered, but not as securely as I would have liked considering that they contained a diverse collection of Australia’s venomous reptiles. My host was an affable professional snake catcher with a genuine admiration for scaly creatures of all kinds. He took in strays, both reptilian and human; his house, a suburban pad on the outskirts of Brisbane, was a menagerie. Besides the snakes, there were crayfish in a former swimming pool, bearded dragon lizards in a pen in the garden, and a rotating roster of human guests who seemed to stay anywhere from a few days to a year. Among this small community of geeks and students, itinerant circus artist and wandering buskers, my obsession with recording the sounds of Australian frogs doubtless seemed only slightly out of the ordinary.

          At night my host took me out into the abandoned quarries near town, where he taught me how to spot the glint reflected by a spider’s faceted eye, catching the glare of a flashlight beam even from its hiding place in deep grass. It was here too that I first heard the bizarre chorus of “barking” frogs, attempting rather unsuccessfully to capture their distant jeering cry on my tiny Zoom H4n digital audio recorder.

*    *    *

          The year 2013–14 was one of the most transformative experiences of my life, both as a person and as a sound artist and composer. After graduating with degrees in music composition and philosophy from Lawrence University, a tiny college in the rural American Midwest, I had the astonishing honor and privilege to be granted a Watson Fellowship. Established by the heirs of the late IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, the grant funds a year of self-directed research overseas for selected graduates of 40 of America’s small, liberal-arts colleges, irrespective of the graduates’ countries of origin or citizenship.

          My thesis—which I ultimately pursued in seven countries on four continents—was that sound artists, musicians, and composers are particularly perceptive to the sounds of their immediate environment. Whether urban or rural, classically trained or self-taught, the practice of listening deeply to sound changes a composer’s perception of the act of auration itself. Inevitably the sounds of one’s surroundings influence one’s music, and this is particularly true of artists who work with microphones, the surrogate ears through which we attempt to copy, emulate, and even distort the object of perception.

          A condenser microphone is a fortress built to protect an almost indescribably delicate membrane. At the microphone’s heart is a minute drumhead, like a tin-man replica of the human inner ear, just half the thickness of cling wrap and stretched under fearsome tension. Through this delicate skin, perhaps covered in a fine lamina of gold, a fleeting electrical charge courses, fluctuating with the vibration of the air and passing on the barest tickle of current to circuits that will capture and amplify the signal.

          The field recordist is an artist with the almost foolhardy task of pitting this feather-light stylus against all the violence of sound in its natural habitat. We go to absurd lengths to protect the tiny metal grill from the barest breath of wind, cupping our body around the mic, or encasing it in blimp-like fuzzy nylon “socks.” Though some prefer the gonzo thrill of hearing even the physical body and movements of the recordist in the recording (a reminder that no human-made record is ever free of the particular auration of its creator), if we are to truly listen deeply we must practice being still—very still. One becomes aware of even the tiny creaking of the bones in the hand or the sound of one’s own breath. Recording, and listening through a microphone, becomes a kind of contemplative practice in itself.

          Dorothea Lange—the iconic photographer of America’s Great Depression of the 1930s—is quoted in a biography by Milton Meltzer: to take her camera with her in the morning, she said, was like “putting on her shoes.” Tellingly, she goes on to emphasize the importance of the camera as a tool for learning to “see without the camera.” Similarly, field recordists commit themselves to using the microphone as an instrument for learning to listen, with or without its mechanical assistance.

          But while a photographer has significant leeway in how they frame a scene—deciding what objects to include and which to cut from the frame—most microphones are less directional. What the field recordist can hear, the microphone can generally hear with even greater sensitivity. To listen through a microphone is not to ever hear “the” actual sound but rather a sound which is mechanically enhanced or attenuated. We cannot escape intervening in that record, but neither can we ever entirely control the outcome of a recording.

          I found that these competing themes of control and intervention versus exploration and discovery reappeared in countless ways in the work of artists I met, collaborated with, and interviewed during my twelve months on the road. But to understand the context, both cultural and acoustic, of the musicians I met along the way, I first had to engage with the environments I traveled through on my own terms.

*    *    *

          Starting my journey in Perth, Western Australia, one of the most isolated cities on earth, I hiked part of the Bibbulmun Track, a 1000-kilometer-long trail that snakes down the coast through dense Jarrah forests conspicuously inhabited by flocks of wild cockatiel birds. My soundtrack, for the first time in my life, was the creaking of my heavy pack’s straps, the bright red, iron-rich earth underfoot scarred in places by tumultuous subtropical rains. In a rite of passage for any young field recordist, I clamped little copper contact microphones (a simple microphone that records vibrations in solid surfaces rather than in the air) to metal cattle fences along the trail, listening to the reverberant hum of metal vibrating in the wind. Laying the contact microphones face up on anthills, I listened to the sound of tiny desperate footfalls as the insects investigated the intrusion of this alien copper disc. One night, in my tent, I heard, from very close by, the growling hiss of a goanna, a giant carnivorous monitor lizard that can grow to two meters long.

          Flying to Brisbane a month later, I had the pleasure of meeting Lawrence English, the Johnny Cash of field recording, as dapper and distinguished in person as he is in promotional photos for Room40, his well-respected record label. English is a keen listener with a penchant for philosophical contemplation, and his recordings are as extraordinary for their clarity and complexity as they are for the creativity of their environs. A recording which I always return to is his 2011 recording of a toy store in Tokyo (Toy Store Ueno Japan. “And the Lived In.” Room40, 2012)—a rich tapestry of electronic warbles like a field of cicadas at dusk, a bizarre mimesis, the synthetic masquerading as the biological.

          Another Australian field recordist who influenced me a great deal was Martin Kay. More abstract and interventionist in his aesthetic, Kay has largely focused on “prepared” field recording. A typical experiment for him is to place a microphone deep within a storm drain or culvert to record the distant crowd noise some kilometers away from a major sporting event.

          In prepared field recording, “composition” becomes explicitly about composing the placement of microphones. Microphones may be placed inside enclosed or resonant vessels, the vessels partially submerged or subjected to wind, ice, or steam; or the microphone may be located in a generally inaccessible place, such as on the roof of a moving elevator. (Japanese sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda once famously recorded birdsongs with a microphone placed in the tailpipe of his car.)

          In mid-October I flew north to the Indonesian island of Java through white-knuckle turbulence that rocked the Airbus A330 as we passed over the sultry beaches of Darwin. The former capital of the Mataram Sultanate, Yogyakarta, has long been a cultural hub for Javanese traditional arts and is now at the center of a new kind of artistic revival. Many of Yogyakarta’s young artists draw on classical Javanese arts as well as the contemporary concerns of their community to create work that is at once fresh and culturally aware. Two artists who exemplify this trend are Rully Shabara and Wukir Suryadi, who together form the band Senyawa.

          I first met Suryadi at his farmhouse at a distant edge of town. With little more than a GPS coordinate and a cell number, I walked through shaded lanes and lush farmland, past feral chickens and children who inevitably stopped to stare at the obviously quite lost American guy who would have had to stoop to fit through any normal-sized doorway.

          Suryadi’s house at that time was filled with traditional farming tools, all in various stages of being converted into electronically amplified musical instruments. In pride of place was an enormous wooden plow, which dominated his front entryway, strung with taut wires like the rigging of some shipwrecked vessel. A backroom contained dozens of objects in various stages of modification: bamboo rice winnowing baskets with attached contact mics, lutes made of hoes and spades, and a bamboo spear strung around its circumference with amplified wires.
          Like Senyawa, the community arts collective LifePatch draws on environmental and agricultural concerns of the community, staging workshops on water quality and fermentation, and creating works of art that electronically sonify environmental processes. Its model is deeply interdisciplinary and idiosyncratic; its core members include artists and musicians, a biochemist, and a farmer. I spent many evenings in their cluttered but creative clubhouse, the smell of tobacco smoke and hot electrical circuitry richly accenting workshops on the open-source programming platform Pure Data. Not to be outdone by Senyawa’s heavy metal aesthetic, LifePatch members once placed flags with embedded electronic synthesizers and speakers near the summit of Mt. Marapi an active (and very lively) volcano. Each flag’s motion sonified the fickle and ash laden winds on the summit. (Sadly, the installation was perhaps destroyed in an eruption shortly thereafter.)

*    *    *

          In the months that followed, I wandered from country to country, savoring the changing soundscape in each new place, always in awe of the artists I met and the generosity of the musicians who let me sleep on their couches.

          I moved on to Taiwan and Japan, hanging out evening after evening at SuperDeluxe—Tokyo’s legendary noise-music dive famous for hosting the likes of JapaNoise idol and art-house heartthrob Masami Akita (aka Merzbow). Immersing myself in Tokyo’s vibrant underground noise music scene, I heard and met artists such as free improv collective Marginal Consort and, on one particularly memorable evening, “Zombie Music,” a recorder-playing pneumatic robot designed by eccentric Japanese composer Yasuno Taro. My reluctant departure from Japan in January was briefly delayed by a historic snowstorm that stranded me in Narita Airport for three nights, sleeping in the airport’s public observation deck and waking each morning to the unusual sight of deserted, peaceful runways.

          I spent the spring of 2013 in beautiful, perplexing Buenos Aires, jamming in the eclectic folk-instrument-strewn apartment of Alejo Duek, a member of the Argentine freak folk band La Suena de los Elefantes. His workshops (Experimentación Sonora) draw an eclectic crowd of porteños: cynical studio guitarists, New Age spiritualists, folk musicians, and painters. The results fall somewhere between avant-garde and freestyle meditation.

          Weekends I would often spend at cheLA, a former asbestos factory turned center for media art and technology, which hosted, among other things, a practice space for circus performers. Here I met the charismatic Luciano Azzigotti who runs ConDiT, an experimental music project founded in 2011. Since its inception, ConDiT has staged more than 60 events, many with an international scope. ConDiT composers have drawn on a pre-Columbian tradition of cooperative labor and community service known as Minka, reinterpreting this tradition through a method of communal artistic creation, composing a musical work collaboratively over the course of a day.

          Sonic coincidences—fortuitous moments of overheard beauty—were everywhere, from my kitchen in Tokyo, to the cold mountains of the Atacama Desert. One day, standing on a ridge high above the town of Tupiza, in Bolivia’s arid southwest, I recorded a school band and a military parade echoing in simultaneous oblivious counterpoint from different parts of the little town, fading in and out of background noise of the dry, dusty little town at the edge of the desert. Music is where you stop to listen.

          Shortly before the end of my fellowship, my trusty hydrophone (underwater microphone)—which had served me well recording the cacophonous creaking of ice in the glacial lagoons along Iceland’s south coast—met its untimely end in a boiling pool of geothermal water along Iceland’s Laugavegur trail. Yet for the brief time during which the hydrophone was able to record, I captured the most amazing soundscape, one which none of us will ever hear with our unaided ears: the thunderous growl of geothermal water boiling up from deep beneath a volcano, and at one point a long, loud wail of escaping gasses, which scared me so much (listening in through my headphones) that I scrambled back up the trail, leaving my recording equipment behind, expecting at any moment that the hot volcanic crust around me would give way to a freak geyser of boiling sulfurous effluent.
          In my twelve months of wandering, the only place I struggled to find any sound at all, was deep in the Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats that cover 11,000 square kilometers of Bolivian highlands. Here, on salt as hard and flat as ice stretching as far as the eye could see, not even insects relieved heavy silence. In the occasional pools of shimmering brine, no bubbles disturbed the soft hiss of digital silence in my headphones. American composer John Cage talked frequently of hearing his own blood rushing in his veins when he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951. It was an important moment for him, a realization that we are perhaps never without sound (save perhaps, as Lawrence English has suggested, in the moments just before death). I can’t say that I heard my own blood pulsing in the Salar, but I can say that I felt very strongly the fragility of life in that moment and the great importance of sound for most people even in the most mundane moments of our lives.

*    *    *

          From a sociological viewpoint, musical traditions can be classified according to how one participates in the music making: participatory music, in which the community collectively acts as both the performers and the listeners; presentational styles, in which the music is presented by a group of expert performers before a quiet receptive audience; music disseminated primarily through audio recordings; and even works of experimental sonic art that originate entirely in the synthesizers and other alchemical sublimations of the recording studio.

          My own experiences suggest that we might understand a global community of musicians in a different way, defined instead by the object of their curiosity. In particular, I am interested in the community of artists working outside of the limelight, perhaps with little or no formal institutional backing. Their work may seem to be an obscure hobby, but without the pressures of sluggish institutional support, their work can connect with communities in new and interesting ways; their music is as influenced by their environment as they choose to let it be. They are lovers of strange sounds, tinkerers, and inventors. They are not exclusively of any particular musical tradition, although they draw on and thrive alongside classical, vernacular, and contemporary traditions in many countries. They embody the spirit of do-it-yourself/do-it-with-others, open source, acoustic curiosity.

          Now more than ever the acoustic eccentric thrives, ridding a resurgent interest in presumed “authenticity.” The cool new gadget is the collection of wires, speakers, and circuit boards hand-soldered in a garage somewhere. The sophisticated audio software that processes the signal from a mic can be downloaded free from freeware repository GitHub.

          Of course we must not overstate the accessibility of this music or the community that nourishes it. To participate in an international community still requires some resources. While open-source software may be “free,” it still requires the resources of a computer to download it, and in many cases one must have some understanding of English (or at least a programming language) in order to use it. Though DIY hardware hacking can produce electronic instruments of great beauty from cheap and available parts, these components are not free, and one must have the time and knowledge to learn to solder and assemble them. Though contact microphones can be made or found within discarded consumer electronics, the best condenser mics are unaffordable for many. Experimental music, regardless of its providence, still remains most accessible to the middle class in most countries, and there remain important questions about “experimentalism,” an ideal that has historically been valorized alongside colonialism.

          Nevertheless, the internet and the cheap availability of digital recording equipment have somewhat democratized sound art. Whereas in the 20th century the heartland of electronic music experimentation was in the large government-supported sound studios of Europe and the mainframe computer labs of America’s Ivy League universities, today with the resurgent interest in small-scale analogue circuitry and “maker” culture, tinkering has become the new standards for uncompromising creativity. Perhaps this trend will help to replace the troubling concept of a monolithic and static “authenticity” (so often implying latent exoticism or orientalism) with a recognition that most artists draw on complex and evolving influences within a rapidly globalizing artistic community.

          As Rana Ghose—a New Delhi-based concert promoter and organizer of the Listening Room concert series, which presents noise music shows in several Indian cities—recently told The Hindu Business Line reporter Bhanuj Kappal, Indian artists have always been experimenting with DIY sound and noise “in the privacy of their own homes.” (Kappal, Bhanuj. ‘Signal to noise.’ The Hindu Business Line, May 27, 2016).  It is an encouraging sign that such music is increasingly receiving press attention in many parts of the world; shows, often organized by the artists themselves, are finding an audience outside of the small vanguard of audiophiles who themselves produce or perform the music.

          If my experience is representative, chances are there are artists near you who are doing something unimaginably strange and exciting with sound. But if not, you could always do it yourself.

(Daniel’s music has been performed in North America, Europe, and Asia. Past collaborators include Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, ensemble mise-en, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Ensemble l’Itinéraire, Sound Energy Trio, the NOW Ensemble, Ensemble MotoContrario, and folk duo Undlin & Wolfe. He was a recipient of BMI Student Composer Awards in 2016 and again in 2017. A former student of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, Daniel is a recipient of degrees in music composition and philosophy from Lawrence University. Most recently he completed a master degree in the Digital Musics program of Dartmouth College. Daniel is currently a Fulbright-Nehru research fellow based in Mysuru, India, where he is advised by Dr. Mysore Manjunath at the University of Mysore.)

Does music make you empathise with the person making it?

In Conversation with Vijay Iyer

“The artist is the consciousness of society… but musicians’ role is very special. It’s a way of making an example of the perfect state of being for the observer, causing, if it’s successful, the observer to forget just for a moment that there is anywhere else existing except that moment that they’re engaged in, and to eclipse everything that was happening to them before they began that process of being the observer, or being involved in/engaged between art and music and listening… and to transform that life in just an instant, so that when they go back to the routine part of living, they carry with them a little bit of something else.” — Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith

My first experience with pianist-composer Vijay Iyer’s music was in 2011 through his then newly released album Tirtha, which also featured guitarist R. Prasanna and tabla artist Nitin Mitta. Listening to Tirtha struck a chord within me as something truly unique and revolutionary, amidst the host of shotgun attempts at fusing elements of Indian music with the vocabulary of jazz.  As a young Indian-American scrambling to figure out what it meant to be a professional musician in the U.S., I was immediately hooked and wanted to hear more. As I continued listening, I found that Vijay’s music boldly defied genre and resonated with me in profound ways, creating continuities within my consciousness where there had only been contradictions before. Sounds and sensibilities that I never believed could coexist were interwoven seamlessly in his music.

Since 2011, I have had the honor and joy of working with Vijay in various musical situations in New York City and learning a great deal about improvisation, rhythmic modulation and composition. Through him, I met a whole network of his collaborators — brilliant musicians and community-oriented artists — further illustrating to me the compassion, expansiveness, and spiritual rigor at the core of Vijay’s music. In 2015, I joined the new cross-disciplinary doctoral program in music at Harvard University, which Vijay initiated as part of his new appointment there as Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts. As his PhD student, I have gotten to know the academic roots of his artistic philosophy. Vijay continually pushes his students to reflect on the improvisational potential of social movements and the radical magic involved in communities coexisting through sound. Below are excerpts from a conversation I recently had with him on March 14, 2016.

In your life, you have cultivated a delicate balance between your performance career, academic research, and community activism. This strikes me as an incredibly difficult nexus to occupy, rife with contradictions and conflicts of interest. How do you envision the dialogue among these worlds and your role as a facilitator in that conversation?

People often pin the tag “activist” on me, and I am honored, but I know political activists, and I know I’m not one of them because they work really hard, tirelessly and thanklessly, and really put their lives on the line… I think that there’s a certain consciousness that underlies the work I do that is in line with some core activist principles or ideals, but for me to call myself one is a little bit false, so I’m careful about that. All these sensibilities that you’re talking about come from being a person of color here in the United States. In our case, we’re what are called “non-Black people of color” (NBPOC), which means that we have a particular and complicated vantage, because we come with a set of privileges that often get swept under the rug when we frame ourselves in political terms. It has become hugely important to me, especially in recent years, to be a little bit more honest about where we stand and what “coalition” means, for example.

In my life, it kind of all fell together, especially the period in the 1990s when I was living in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area, and in graduate school at UC Berkeley. I just fell in with all these different communities… different crowds that I found myself running with: African American activists and also young African American artists in the Bay Area, you know, poet-activist-artists, performers, MCs, music makers, DJs… I connected with Steve Coleman, George Lewis, Asian Improv, and Amiri Baraka. So the academic path I found myself on was informed by all of that, in the sense that I was basically finding my way into this area of research — music perception and cognition research — but I found that it didn’t represent the music that my life was increasingly centered around. It didn’t really honor Black perspectives in music. What I found myself doing academically was just trying to redress that in some small way by offering some other supplemental theoretical framing through which we could understand music perception and cognition that wasn’t predicated on all these Eurocentric assumptions about what music is, how music works, and what’s important in music.

Coming to New York in the late 1990s… A few of us tried several times and failed to start this organization called Creative Music Convergences. We wanted to form an organization to present experimental work by people of color. Because that wasn’t something that was being valued in the scene here. We wanted to feature intelligent discourse about music, and very strongly curated music, too. I’m not sure I would call it activism… Artists have a slightly different function. You take action in public, and it can become a sort of moment of focus, of public focus — it can concentrate a lot of energy in one place because people gather around it, but it’s not the same as doing activist work. It is just compatible with activism, or it can be a precondition for activism.

The reason I mention the word “activism” is because it’s radical for an artist to truly see their work as engaging with society in a fundamental way. Art is widely seen as transcending the social or as a way to escape the problems of society.

That’s true, but it’s partly also about who gets to be an artist. And that’s probably really where it started for me. I didn’t think I could be an artist. Eventually opportunities presented themselves that led me to suspect that maybe the world would let me be an artist. When we talk about art, we act as if it’s not in a marketplace, for example. On the one hand, there’s the artistic impulse, which everybody has. But on the other hand, there’s this thing that’s almost treated like a substance. This “stuff” called art. And usually when we talk about that substance, we’re already engaging in certain assumptions about where it comes from, who gets to make it, and what makes it valuable. That usually has to do with power, as distributed in culture…  I’ve known musicians who bristle at the term “art” or “artist.” Steve Coleman is one, he doesn’t really wear that term very well*. He’s aware of the whiff of elitism that’s inside that word. But on the other hand is insisting on wearing that term, especially when we do it as people of color.

[*Steve Coleman is an African American saxophonist and composer, and was one of Vijay’s mentors. I had the opportunity to study with Steve as I started working more in the jazz scene.]

You frequently reference your indebtedness to the African American creative music tradition in shaping your music. What do you think world (particularly the South Asian diaspora and India) stands to gain from engaging rigorously with the African American experience and struggle?

We’ve been speaking from a particular vantage of difference in the U.S., which is maybe not so apparent or comprehensible to people in India. India is full of divisions, and it’s extremely hierarchical, and there’s a tolerance of inequality… not just a tolerance, but an investment, a preservation of inequality. In that way, it’s not that different from here, actually. So that’s where there may be some kind of link, or a way in to these concerns. It’s a historical reality that the struggles for civil and human rights among African Americans here have been informed by and have also informed struggles for equality among Dalits, for example. Just as much as Gandhi informed Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X has informed Dalit struggles, and Marcus Garvey informed Dr. Ambedkar. So there’s been this awareness that there are lots of parallels. I find myself constantly conscious of this, partly because I work in a musical tradition or form that was created by African Americans… I would just hope that people hear in African American music a certain kind of insistence on being heard — a refusal to be silenced — and maybe imagine what might be some analogous movements or social situations in India that you might learn about by listening — by listening more carefully. I mean one thing music does is it dares you to empathize with the person who’s making it…

In light of these resonances, how do you personally connect with and define your heritage or community?

I don’t really find terms like heritage, or tradition, or even culture, to be very useful or empowering, or specific enough to define the life that I live. What it amounts to, for me, is a certain set of experiences. Heritage becomes a way of closing the circle, or delimiting it. But when you really think about it as a set of experiences, or movement within and across difference, we’re dealing with diaspora basically — and particularly, having a vantage as a non-Western person of color in a place that’s defined by these horrific histories. I’m not descended from enslaved people. That doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with people who are, or build community with them. But it means that I’m in a structurally different position than they are, so building community across different structural positions has to be part of our imagination. So my concern about building community around nation, around ethnicity, is that it limits the imagination.

I feel at a certain remove from communities in India, but I also know that we’re more connected now than we ever were, so I do know that we’re all kind of at least watching each other from afar. You know, when people see me enjoying what seem like the trappings of success or prestige, being a professor at Harvard or getting a MacArthur fellowship… then that’s used as some kind of validation of “Indian pride.” And I find that to be really dangerous, because it’s about coalition at the expense of others. What binds us is a set of experiences: it’s not about genes or ethnicity, except insofar as those create a certain historical circumstance for us to have a shared set of experiences. But it’s the experiences that matter, not that other stuff… I guess I try to be aware of similarities. And how similarities can emerge that aren’t purely ethnic, that can lead us to find a deep common experience with someone who’s ostensibly nothing like us…

Has music ever helped you through potentially uncomfortable situations?

It happens every day. It happened yesterday! That quote from Wadada, which you’ve probably heard me mention a few times**, where he talks about how music can eclipse the reality outside the door… That it offers a moment for people to imagine a “perfect state of being” so that when they return to the “routine part of living,” they take with them something else… So, the “routine part of living” is made up of power relations and difference. In a way, it’s deceptively simple when he puts it that way… The thing about music is that it vanishes as soon as it’s done, it’s gone. So it’s only about how it works at the moment that it’s happening. And then whatever mysterious residue it leaves as people scatter afterward. It’s in those mysterious moments of gathering around this strange ritual of making sounds together and listening to them. It’s like a ritual of forgetting. At some level it’s not real, and at some level it’s the realest thing there is. As a ritual, it’s staged and performative, but it’s also working on the body in a way that’s very hard to talk about. That’s where the work happens. It’s how we are in time together; it offers a glimpse of how we can be in time together.

[**quoted above — Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and composer, and an important pioneer in the African American creative music tradition. Vijay and Wadada recently released an album together on ECM, entitled A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016), inspired by the artwork of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990).]

What do you hope to accomplish through this new program at Harvard? What are the ramifications for artists, for academia, and for society at large?

What I’m doing is bringing everything I’ve been talking about to that environment. Which means tapping into the energies that are there but also bringing in energies that aren’t there. It’s about relation, about difference, about creating movement within and across difference through production of knowledge, and through art making and music making, which is a little different… They like to use the word “research” to refer to what I do as an artist, as well as what Mahadevan does as a physicist***. But I’m aware that what I do is a little different, because it has to do with performance, which means it has to do with interacting with the public and generating public perceptions. It means that it’s about activating a certain awareness across difference. That’s what I see my role as in a place like that, really anywhere I go. It’s just that I’m developing a sense of how to do that at a place like Harvard. But I’m also developing a sense of how to do that at a place like the Metropolitan Museum of Art****. Or at a jazz festival, or an arts nonprofit. What I find myself doing at Harvard is generating the kind of movement that feels right and that I’m able to do in that circumstance — by cultivating certain relationships across disciplines and inserting a certain destabilizing sensibility into the conversation, while at the same time inviting students to respect the process of art making and really take it seriously. Why the latter, I think it’s because what that does is it gives more people an opportunity to do what I’m doing, which is to interact with the public and deal with difference in those particular ways. So, working with even a dozen or two dozen performers every semester, they will carry that forward in a way that another kind of student wouldn’t. Because they’re going to make it their business to carry those ideas forward in public.

[***Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan is professor of applied mathematics, organismic and evolutionary biology, and physics at Harvard University.]

[****Vijay has been artist-in-residence this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and curated a series of performances in March to open the new Met Breuer building.]

(Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished young mrudangam artist and disciple of maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians and dancers, touring widely in North America and India. Over the past few years, she has been collaborating and performing with distinguished artists in the New York jazz scene, including pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Steve Coleman. Rajna holds degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland College Park. She is currently pursuing a PhD in music at Harvard University)

Hinduism accepts that no matter who you pray to, it is prayer and not a ‘sin’

Janani Chaitanya, aka Jananisri, has studied Vedanta since 2007. She completed a three and a half year intensive Vedanta and Sanskrit course in India with Swami Dayananda Saraswati, scholar of Sanskrit and Vedanta. Swamiji blessed her with the name Jananisri, meaning Divine Mother, at the end of her study in India.

“At the end of the residential course Pujya Swamiji told that one should never judge oneself by the ‘state of the mind.’  At the time one person next to me was crying while another was laughing; it is such a relief that the thoughts and emotions which come and go are not representative of ‘I’.”

Today Jananisri teaches beginning Sanskrit, Vedanta and Vedic chanting and assists her teacher, Swamini Svatmavidyananda, editing and publishing teachings of Vedanta. Quoting Swamini, she says, “When there is a pause to re-collect the mind and see that it is ‘a state’ and not the truth of ‘I’, Swaminiji’s description arises of walking the ‘I-notion’ from its mistaken identification of being one with the mind to simply being ‘I’. ‘Walking’ the incorrect understanding of ‘I’ to repatriate it with its true nature is an image that I never tire from.”

Why did you choose to come to Swamini Svatmavidyananda and explore Hinduism?

                Thankfully I was in the right place at the right time.  Within the first hour of hearing Swaminiji talk I felt confident that the questions I had about the inner world of humans and how it impacts the outer world, could be answered.  Because Swaminiji’s teachings seemed so relevant to this question and to me, it did not matter whether it was Hinduism or not. 

I love how the teaching operates at a subtle level with clarity about the truth of one’s own nature resulting in being non-demanding, appreciative and compassionate.  I have found that as clarity grows the struggle to either conform or go against societal expectations decreases.  I see the texts and shastras to be open and all inclusive in a way that I’ve not encountered in other traditions.  For instance, in Hinduism it is accepted that no matter who you pray to, it is prayer and not a “sin,” as other traditions might call prayers to a Divine Being other than the one identified with their tradition.  No matter whether one believes in Allah, God, Ishvara, or any other Divine Being, for a Hindu prayer will bless one.

Is it possible be spiritual and yet a-religious? How is it beneficial to take the religious and spiritual path instead?

                I don’t think there is a spiritual path that is devoid of an altar of worship.  The knowledge that ‘I’ is non-separate from what is, the whole, Brahman, requires a place to lay down incorrect notions, a place where one can ‘as though’ let go of what is not ‘I’.  Those who know themselves to be whole, however, do not see a ‘path’ or for that matter any differentiation between religious and spiritual, so naturally they have no need for religion.

Does one have to undergo pain and sorrow in the path to inquiry?

                Any inner inquiry usually begins from a place of pain and sorrow and so it might be that one confuses the pain and sorrow resulting from not knowing oneself – even after one has started one’s inquiry – with pain and sorrow related to the inquiry.  Indeed, inquiry tends to push one out of one’s comfort zone therefore leading to increased opportunities for pain and sorrow to arise.  However, the pain and sorrow is not related to the inquiry and one finds that as one’s clarity increases, pain and sorrow become less frequent, less intense and more quickly recovered from.

Has learning Sanskrit and listening to Sanskrit changed you. Was it difficult? Does it offer inroads to greater understanding of Indian philosophy?

                Sanskrit is a beautiful language that carries the culture of Indian traditions within itself.  For instance the word anilaḥ is translated as ‘wind,’ but etymologically we can break it into the negative particle ‘an’ and the root verb ‘il’ which means to stay still, resulting in a definition of wind itself as that that which does not stay still.  There have definitely been challenges in learning Sanskrit but as the teachings of the Upanishads and shastras grows clearer, it seems so too does Sanskrit.

Redefining the Way Women Travel in India

F5 Escapes is a unique start-up company committed to enabling and ensuring safety of women-only travel in India. Founders, Malini Gowrishankar and Akanksha Bumb started the company with the premise to change the perception that India is an unsafe travel destination for women. Today they curate many experiences for single and group female inbound tourists and also keep the local economy alive.

CSP caught up with the founders of F5 Escapes on why they took to entrepreneurship, what drives them, and out-of-the-box ideas to promote responsible tourism in India:

Image source: F5 Escapes

What inspired you to take up entrepreneurship and why tourism?

Akanksha: Travel planning has been a passion. I wanted people to experience India in a way that forms a connection and not just as a tick on the box. Tourism in India is an exciting place to be. It is challenging, no doubt, but that is all the more reason to be in this space. Entrepreneurship gave me the freedom of experimenting and approaching an itinerary in a non-conventional way. Building something from ground up and creating a work culture that is unique and reflects our shared values, is what keeps us motivated.

Malini: Travel and giving back to the community are things that keep me going. Hence entrepreneurship, that too in tourism, was a natural choice for me. The choice of women travel weighed heavily in the fact that India wasn’t considered a women-friendly destination and the time was ripe to solve that problem.

In your eyes, what is the best that India has to offer in terms of experiential travel?

Akanksha: If it has to be one thing I pick, it will be people. We are a beautiful chaos. India is such a diverse country and every nook has a different story to tell. Although the people are so different from one another – even within the same state boundaries – the warmth is consistent. Once you start immersing yourself in the lives of your hosts, your experience becomes layered, multi-faceted and so much more emotional.

Malini: For me, it is the mind boggling cultural diversity again, over and above the rich geographical diversity and ancient history. No other country has such a unique combination of features and I truly feel honored to represent and showcase India in the travel arena.

Yes, Padhaaro Mhaaro Des. Vaango!

Image source: F5 Escapes

Your motto is to redefine the way women travel in India through F5 Escapes. Can you explain?

Akanksha: Growing up, I never thought travelling as a woman will be difficult or any different from travelling as a man. My naïveté stemmed from the fact that as a young woman, I was accorded the same freedom and confidence at home as my male counterparts. It was only when I looked around at my female classmates and colleagues and saw their and their families’ inhibition to go out alone, I realised that I was raised as an exception. When I started travelling on my own, I understood some of their fears and inhibitions. Travel for women needs to be redefined in India, not because women lack capability, but because our mind-sets and general infrastructure do not support our free movement. As a country, we are still not used to seeing a woman on her own; and as women, we are seldom taught or encouraged to be on our own. F5 Escape’s approach is two-pronged – change the mind-set that still isn’t very comfortable seeing a woman by herself and create support systems, safety measures and a vetted list of vendors to enable a safe and comfortable journey.

Malini: Interestingly, my life had been the other extreme and that’s what made me take up to travel. I grew up in a very protected environment where I was not allowed to venture anywhere in the same city on my own, let alone travel to somewhere else by myself. I know for a fact that it takes tremendous guts to take that first step. The presence of a support system like F5 for women can accelerate this process of claiming their own space and help them feel way more confident in the process. The rest, Akanksha has explained very well.

Image source: F5 Escapes

In your assessment, from which country does India get the maximum amount of interest and why?

Both: Based on the data we have, the USA has been a major contributor to inbound tourism. A lot of first generation NRIs – across countries – have a great interest in rediscovering their roots. This segment is also potentially more open to experience authentic local tourism.

What are the ways in which India can become tourist friendly and offer to the world distinct value propositions?

Akanksha: Civic sense. As a country we have failed so many of our heritage monuments and natural landscapes.  Most of our hikes are littered with plastic. Some of our monuments are defaced with spit marks and graffiti. As citizens, we need to be more aware of how we dispose of what we consume and how we leave a place we enjoyed, intact for other to enjoy it as well.

From the government and civic bodies, we need better waste management systems and not just in cities. Most of India’s tourist destinations are smaller towns and they just don’t have the wherewithal to handle the waste that tourism generates; mountains especially.

Malini: Clean toilets – there is a lot of work to be done in this area. Natural loos, compost toilets, etc., I am sure would find acceptance among tourists as long as they are clean and hygienic. Embracing technology – a tourist will feel much safer in a country if they have access to local amenities – police, hospital, judiciary, etc. With the connected world that we have, time is ripe to cut thru the red tape and make important services accessible to tourists via technology.  Encourage problem solvers – encourage more and more problem solvers / travel entrepreneurs – ensures that the benefits of the various schemes actually reaches the folks who deserve to be helped.

Image source: F5 Escapes

What are the increasing or changing areas of interests for inbound international tourists vis-a-vis India?

Akanksha: I would like to believe that tourism is getting more local in terms of experience.

Malini: I strongly agree with Akanksha. With travel infrastructure becoming standardised across the world, local experiences are the key differentiators of the future. I think language based tourism can be a great idea. For example, someone from Japan can come to Tamil Nadu to study Tamil. India is home to some of the most ancient languages in the world and we have a ripe opportunity there for the future.

Medical tourism and film tourism seems to be lucrative and are picking up. Your thoughts?

Both: As long as the money flows back to local operators and the practices are ethical and unexploitative, why not!

What ought to be done to enable the soft skills of the labour force in the Indian tourism industry?

Both: Sensitisation. The one thing we hear the most from our foreign and domestic clients is that they get stared at a lot. The curiosity of seeing someone who looks very different or even seeing a woman alone, results in stares. It is often harmless and occurs just because it is not commonplace. Sensitising the workforce about interpersonal communication – verbal and non-verbal can go a long way in making India a women-friendly country for travel.

Image source: F5 Escapes

What would be your recommendations for India to tap into the potential of social media to attract inbound tourists?

Both: Responsive tourism boards. Encouraging local operators. Regular meets of stakeholders and more ease of doing business.

If you were to suggest a possible campaign for tourism in India, what would it entail?T

Think Beyond the Taj Mahal!

“The best thing about India is I became the person I wanted to be “

Katya Tosheva is a gifted multi-style dancer from Bulgaria, an artist who has found inspiration in three main classical dance forms of India, a country with which she has a deep emotional connection. Trusting her heart, Katya quit her job as an engineer and began an endless journey into the depths of Indian classical dance. She currently learns three Indian classical forms of dance – Odissi, Kathak,and Bharatanatyam under highly respected and internationally recognized teachers – Sharmila Mukerji (Bangalore), Ravi Shankar Mishra (Varanasi) and Nivedita Badve (Pune).

Her training includes dozens of individual classes and group lessons with famous teachers and performers such as Swati Tivari, Saraswathi Rajathesh, Kalayamamani Kutalam M. Selvam, Vidha and Abhimanyu Lal (India), Karan Pangali (UK), Christina Zanni (Greece) and Stefan Hristov (Bulgaria). Visiting different parts of India, Katya explores not only the classical but also the rich folk dance tradition.

Following her dreams, she has founded an Indian Dance School “Kaya”, where she shares her knowledge and interests with joy and enthusiasm. She conducts regular classes in Sofia and Plovdiv and teaches at Indira Gandhi School – the only school in Bulgaria related to India’s culture. In 2018, Katya received an invitation from the Embassy of India to perform for the Independence Day celebration and for the President of India during his visit to Bulgaria. Katya has also participated in numerous events dedicated to the traditions of India, in Bulgaria and abroad.

For three years, she was invited to teach in Serbia, and during her trip to India in September 2018, she won the first prize at the prestigious dancing festival in Pune.

Katya’s performances have been greatly appreciated in Greece, Cyprus, Spain, France, Serbia and India, where she engages the interest of the media. Her interviews are published in some of the most widely read newspapers, as well as on the national television channels Lok Sabha and Doordarshan.

Here is CSP interview with Katya Tosheva, the multi-talented dancer from Bulgaria :

What made you choose Indian dance?

I wouldn’t say I have chosen Indian dance – the dance chose me ! It came in my life so naturally … I didn’t even realise how the dance filled my days. I don’t know when and how it happened but I remember how it took me months to have the courage to search for teachers. I was thinking I will not be able to move so gracefully and so fast, to have the strength, the stamina… I still think the same way. But now I am brave enough and I keep trying! 

Who were your teachers and how long was your training ?

 I am still learning! This is a process which will never end. Presently, I am studying Odissi with Guru Sharmila Mukerjee in her Sanjali centre for Odissi dance, Bangalore; Kathak with Guru Ravi Shankar Mishra, Varanasi and Bharatanatyam with Nivedita Badve, Pune. I started 7-8 years ago and I through the years had the honour to take lessons from other respected artists in India – Swati Tiwari, Delhi and Saraswathi  Rajadesh, Bangalore.

What are the dance forms in Bulgaria, how different is it from Indian dance ?

There are a  lot of similarities between the folk dances in Bulgaria and India. We also have very rich dance tradition. The name of the dance is “Horo”. It is a group dance performed in a circle during festivals and all kinds of celebrations. There are other different styles from every region in Bulgaria. Each has it’s own typical costumes, ornaments and decorations. There is a special fire ritual dance performed barefoot on smouldering ember, called Nestinarstvo.

How has Indian dancing changed you and your life style?

Dancing and Yoga has changed almost everything – my way of thinking, of understanding,  my vision about what is important in life, my emotions, everything around me – people who I meet, things which I do every day. Surely I can say  I live healthier and I am more active. After I quit my office job my schedule changed completely and I am happy to spend more time dancing than sitting in front of the computer!

We see you learn 3 classical styles simultaneously -Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi. That’s’ amazing ! What makes it easy and difficult when transferring from one dance form to another? 

I have much more to learn about each of these styles. The good thing is that the stories,the mudras, and the expressions in dance are the same.The hard thing is to maintain the specific posture of each dance, to keep clean its essence. The difference in the position of the feet between Aramandi and Chowk is only a few centimeters:)  

Any preference of styles?

I really can’t say I have favorite style. Each has its amazing beauty and it challenges me in a different way. I love Kathak because of its fast foot movements, the graceful wrists and the spins! Bharatanatyam with its sharp and geometrical movements, jumps and the expressive mudras are so beautiful!Odissi is impressive with its fluidity, torso movements and tribhangis.

How did you find the teaching methods of your Dance Gurus here? 

Every one of them has its own energy and approach. But the demands of a good discipline, hard work and everyday practice is common. I am thankful for their patience, as I need more explanations in regards the meaning of the lyrics, all the stories and characters. 

What are your practice routines? How did you manage your time from one class to another?

I try to have time for yoga practice every day, two days in the week for practicing every style. Also I have lessons with my students almost every day, which keeps me moving all the time. Of course when I have an upcoming performance I focus on the style which I will be performing. But many times I need to perform two different styles in the same program and this poses a challenge.

Did the Classical art form of India bind you and Rosen in your happy marriage ? 

Actually Rosen taught my first yoga lesson and I this was very important moment in my life. I remember  when we were dating and I gifted him a batik with the image of the meditating Lord Shiva. Now this  batik is in our home in my studio. Many times Rosen helps me to understand the rhythm when we practice together. He plays the tabla for me on the stage,this is like a dream came true!

Do you work/perform together ?

Yes, we were happy to be students of  the talented Bulgarian tabla player, jazz drummer and percussionist Stefan Hristov.Last year Rosen was with me in Varanasi and took lessons under my Guru Ravi Shankar Mishra. Since that time we had many opportunities to perform together at different festivals and events. We had the opportunity to perform for the Honourable President of India Shri.Ram Nath Govind .

 Where have you been to showcase your arts ?

We have performed together at various festivals in Bulgaria for Asian Festival, organised by the embassies of the Asian countries, in TV shows, concerts, and many cultural programs. Rosen is drummer in a rock band and percussionist in different musical projects. I have had the chance to perform in other countries too – Spain, France, Serbia, Greece, Cyprus and of course India!

 How do you manage the music for your dance?

For most of the performances I use recorded music, especially for Bharatanatyam and Odissi as in Bulgaria there are no musicians and vocalists who can perform Indian classical music. I am blessed to have live music for my Kathak performances, with Rosen and Marije Hristova – a very close friend and a talented violin player as my accompanists on stage. Recently we organised a classical concert with north Indian music and dance in Plovidv – the European capital of culture for this year. It was really an exciting experience for us – it happened for the first time in Bulgaria with non – Indian artists! 

 When did you establish your dance school ? How do your young students respond to Indian culture ?

I started teaching 4 years ago. I really wanted to have a group to share the happiness with. So in the beginning I had only adults students. I was renting different studio for my classes and often my students weren’t enough in count to cover even the rent. So sometimes we were dancing outside. One day we were in the yard of a school and while we were practicing a few kids came and asked whether they can join us. On the next day I went to the director of the school and introduced my self. To work with kids is amazing.We talk a lot, we build together our  team, support each other. Of course our favorite moment is when we are preparing for performance.I am proud of the discipline of my students, the bigger ones help me with the smaller ones, everyone has a responsibility to take care of. 

 Do schools/ Universities in Bulgaria have knowledge about Indian dance ?

There is only one primary school connected with Indian culture in Bulgaria and it is the Indira Gandhi School where I teach. Sofia University has an Indological department where they teach Indian languages, history, literature, and culture. May be in the future they will include dances in the program too.

Please share with us your difficulties in the journey of a dancer. What suggestions do you have to solve them ?

The main difficulty for me is earning money. Many times I am invited to perform at festivals and all kind of events for free. It is really annoying  when an artist needs to explain that there should be a payment. I hope in the future people will have better understanding and will care more about art. Of course there are all sort of challenges in the studio, but its part of the process. The pain in the muscles brings a lot of satisfaction and pleasure when the audience is appreciative.

Has the Govt. of India supported any of your programs?

I had the honor to dance for the Independence day celebration organised by the Embassy of India in Bulgaria and also before the President of India during his visit to Bulgaria in 2018. I was also invited to perform along with the famous Saraswathi Rajadesh in Paris, France on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti. I have been invited to perform in cultural programs and festivals , organized by different Indian or Bulgarian organizations. 

What is your goal as an artist? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years with the richness of the dances you are so passionate about ?

My hope is to be able to continue with my studying.To be able to travel again and again to India and to be with my teachers! To go deeper and deeper in this magical world of Indian art and to be able to share it with more people all over the world! I am sure I will continue with the three dance forms which I am learning now and, who knows, may be I will start exploring another one!

How do you find your Indian dance mates?

I just love my classmates!!! Especially those in Sanjali center for Odissi dance. Whenever I am in Bangalore I stay in a school and have the amazing opportunity to attend every class with the kids or with the senior students. I observe their dedication and passion, and it inspires me a lot! The best moments are when I am practicing with the others! They always give me useful tips about steps, telling me about the rituals and everything which I need to know. 

What was the best and the worst thing about India during your stay?

The best thing about India is the diversity, the people, Yoga and the best of the best – I became the girl I wanted to be! The worst thing during my stay – if I don’t count the few times when someone tried to steal my things and lie to me, I can’t say I had bad experiences in India, everybody are really nice with me and I am happy to have friends all over India! 

Katya’s interview for BBC News was translated into Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English and reached more than million views in two weeks!

The Bulgarian with a passion for Indian classical dance

Katya Tosheva became so "addicted" to Indian culture that she ended up learning not one but three different classical dance forms – Bharathanatyam, Kathak and Odissi.(Via BBC News தமிழ்)

Posted by BBC News India on Thursday, June 6, 2019