The first time I traveled to India was in the summer of 2005. My destination was the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges, and I was to begin my formal studies of tabla with Pandit Kuber Nath Mishra.
I didn't know much about Kuber-ji prior to our first meeting, so I was clinging to what little information I had gleaned from my host; he came from a family of musicians, and was therefore a very traditionally-minded musician himself. He was one of the most prominent musicians of his generation who had been something of a child prodigy, and he was now one of the hardest working tabla players in Varanasi. His father, Pashupati Nath Mishra, was among the most highly respected vocalists of the older generation.
I was anxious to begin my training, but I was also excited to meet this man about whom I had heard so much. Everyone I had met in my first two days in Varanasi seemed to know Kuber-ji, and they were all very impressed that I was to be his student.
At our first meeting, I was instantly relieved by the casual environment at his house. Kuber-ji was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and his children, nieces, and nephews were running all around the house, most of them curious to meet his new American student. After some simple introductions, where my host did most of the talking as to translate for us, we were left on our own to begin our first lesson.
I can't remember exactly how those first lessons began, but I do remember that it only took us a few days to hit a stride. Once he realized that I had a strong background of musical training, and that I had learned a few of the fundamentals of Hindustani (North Indian) rhythm and tabla technique, he began to push me more and more in each lesson. Besides the vastness of the musical material, my main impression of Kuber-ji from that first summer was his devotion to the music, and his unwavering respect for it. In one of my first lessons, after we finished playing, guru-ji lightly touched the drum heads with his right hand, and then touched his forehead and his heart. I asked him about the nature of the ritual, which he had done at the beginning and end of each lesson. He paused before answering. Then he looked at me and said, very slowly and deliberately, "When you play tabla, you are speaking with God." I am not a particularly religious person, but this statement effected me deeply. It helped me realize that the sounds we create when we play a musical instrument are much bigger than ourselves. Producing sounds with a musical intent is a magical thing, and from that moment forward I have always tried to take a moment to acknowledge that mystery whenever I practice or perform. It also reminded me that the dedication required to gain technical proficiency on an instrument is nothing short of spiritual.
Many of my memories of guru-ji are actually from my second trip to Varanasi, in the summer of 2007. And, despite the truly countless hours that we spent sitting together in my lessons, the most vivid memories I have are from when I was riding on the back of his motorcycle. Varanasi isn't a practical city for cars, so most people commute using bicycles or motor bikes. For whatever reason, Kuber-ji was much more candid during our trips around the city.
Most of these conversations were pretty benign-- talking about the way people drive in India, or the many different kind of animals that are constantly roaming the streets. But one afternoon, when we were on the way to a concert where guru-ji would perform, he began speaking about music. Again, I can't recall precisely what he was saying, but I do remember that at some point I offered one of the few Hindi phrases that I knew and that seemed relevant to the conversation: "Sangeet hi Jivan hai." This translates, more or less, to "Music is Life." Guru-ji turned around and, in the same slow and deliberate manner (despite the fact that we were weaving our way through the crowded streets of Varanasi), "Jivan hi Sangeet hai" -- "Life is Music".
That may not sound particularly profound, but in that moment I was completely floored. These have become words by which I strive to live: "Sangeet hi Jivan hai; Jivan hi Sangeet hai." I think their most lasting lesson has been the way in which Kuber-ji realizes the truth of this statement in his everyday life. Everything that he does is in service of his musicianship, and his music reflects life in its every facet. Moreover, in order to achieve music of this quality, Guru-ji encouraged me to see the music in everyday life-- only then can we mirror the beauty of life with our art.
Indian music, though its theory is elaborate and its technique so difficult, is not art, but life itself.
- W.B. Yeats