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Sounds from the silence

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

30 June 2018

9:00 AM

From Janpath Road in the centre of Delhi, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts appears almost deserted. I’m at the wrong gate, but the security guard manning it lets me slide through anyway and points me in the direction of the amphitheatre. A faint glow can be made out on the other side of a rise. The few people about the place are making their way here.

It says something about the places I’ve been staying—places like the hotel down the road where, when I opened the window earlier this evening, it came off its hinges and dangled precariously from my grip four stories above the street—that this is the first time I’ve seen the Indian middle-class in any great number.

The women, in particular, look resplendent, dressed as they are in their fine silk saris, and everyone is speaking English in an accent that suggests more than a passing acquaintance with private school. Only the technical staff speak Hindi, and they try to go about their work invisibly. They are soon to fail monumentally at this and become the unlikely stars of the show.

The actual star of the show is Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, a Carnatic vocalist who hails, not from her namesake city, but from Kolkata. In 2003, Jayashri was nominated for an Academy Award for writing the lyrics to Life of Pi’s ‘Pi’s Lullaby’. But beyond that, and having never seen Life of Pi, I know approximately nothing about her. I know approximately nothing about Indian classical music, either, except that it moves me in a way that not much music does. I’m here because I’d like to learn more about it—namely, how and why it does so.

The performance starts about twenty minutes late, which, by Indian standards, is to say it starts early.

Jayashri is a thin, sinewy-looking woman, her face both severe and entirely at peace. She welcomes us in English while the musicians tune up. Only they’re not tuning up. They’re already playing. Or perhaps they were tuning up and then transitioned to playing and the point at which they did so was imperceptible to the outsider. (I will later learn that this is called the alap, and it ends, or at least becomes something else, when the tabla kicks in and establishes rhythm.)

Whatever the case, the music hasn’t started so much as emerged, like the sun rising over the Ganges in Varanasi, or the moon appearing through the branches of the peepal tree looming above us this evening.

In The Jewel in the Crown, the first book of his Raj Quartet, Paul Scott writes of the Indian people that ‘even their music is silence. It’s the only music I know that sounds conscious of breaking silence, of going back into it when it’s finished, as if to prove that every man-made sound is an illusion.’ That is certainly the case with the pieces this evening. It is as though launching in would be to offend silence: it is better to work gradually, to ease one’s way into the audible.

But then Jayashri does launch in, with a voice best, and thus perhaps predictably, described as ancient. It probably helps that I don’t speak Hindi. If I did, I suspect that her voice, and the words it’s intoning, might seem more of this world, more connected to history, easier to pin down in time and space. As it is, it’s as though it exists outside either. Unfortunately, we’re about to be reminded, in the most abrupt way imaginable, that the twenty-first century is indeed underway.

Which is to say that the sound cuts out. Jayashri’s voice, which has been filling the amphitheatre, loses its omnipresent quality, and its human, all too human, source is reduced to more humble dimensions on stage. Jayashri keeps going, glancing only once out of the corner of her eye to ensure that none of her musicians are wavering. She closes her eyes again and sings.

One of the technical staff jiggles the cord around: her voice is now booming, now quiet again, leaping up and down in volume, and round and about in space, each time. The technical staff are running about the stage whispering loudly to one another. One of them is carrying a brick. Not being electronic in nature, it fails to fix the problem. He throws it away and picks up a stone. A photographer, wanting more illumination, shines a light directly into Jayashri’s face. She shakes her head, even voices her displeasure—at a moment, mercifully, when the sound is out—but he keeps the light on her, blinding her, anyway. He checks the camera and seems happy with his picture.

Someone has gotten the sound working again, but now there’s a problem with the digital projector. Jayashri wants us to sing with her, but the projector’s projecting the blue screen of death.

Luckily, the words are simple, repetitive, the sort of thing we don’t need to read to recite. The auditorium begins vibrating with voices, murmurs becoming more confident with each run through, emerging, like the music before them, from the silence that preceded them. Before long, they take on a singular quality, become a single voice. There is thunder.

There is thunder, and as the first fat drops of rain land around us the staff are thrown into the ultimate frenzy. The sound system must be saved, and the digital projector, and the lights are casting wild shadows about us as they are carried away without being unplugged. A few people make to leave, but Jayashri sits still, leading the chant, and most of us sit with her. The thunder rolls, but so do we, from one word or incantation to the next, giving back to the darkness as good as we’re getting. But when Jayashri stops, her voice dissipating to nothing, we are returned not into silence but pandemonium. The musicians start hastily covering their instruments, saving their sitars, tabling their tablas. An official is yelling something about unforeseen circumstances. Even those of us who were hypnotised a moment ago, caught up in the experience of being simultaneously one and many, are beginning to worry about our shoes. Where had we put them before entering the amphitheatre? Are they filling with water? The staff are tangling themselves in power cords.

Jayashri is the only person not losing it.

Her eyes still closed, she remains on stage, the very image of stillness, waiting for the vibrations to end, convinced, perhaps, that the whole thing is an illusion.

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