'My Indian Journey' - article written for the New Delhi journal 'Hindol', July 2013
From early November in 2006 to July 2007 I lived in New Delhi, India. For six months I practiced the Ragas and the singing technique, and learned about the ancient roots of the Hindustani classical music tradition. After my studies, when the summer season came, I went up north to the mountains and spent a few weeks as a traveller, before leaving for Norway. I stayed in the country for eight months altogether, but in my mind the Indian journey seems to have lasted for many years.
The journey started back in 1998, when I was a graduate student at high school in Norway. One day, our music teacher brought along a recording from a Norwegian radio broadcast. It was a presentation of the Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I had never heard a voice charged with such passion, performing with such virtuosity and voice control. It was one of those rare listening experiences; a new discovery that started a growing fascination for this music.
I was working with rock and jazz music at the time, and went on to study jazz vocals and composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. In 2005 we had a guest from New Delhi. Mrs. Madhumita Ray came to Norway to perform concerts, and to give a workshop for the jazz students. We sat down and listened to her teaching and singing, and once again I came in touch with that same curiosity and fascination that I had experienced years before. It was something of a mystery to me, the beautiful sound that her voice was able to produce, and how gracefully she spoke about the art. I was intrigued to learn more about this.
I stayed in touch with Mrs. Ray, and a few months later I had arranged to travel to New Delhi and study under her guidance. She responded to my request by opening her home; not only sharing her musical knowledge through our daily singing lessons, but also giving me the chance to experience an Indian household from within. This gave me an insight that a western student-teacher-relationship would never be able to offer. My teacher and her family's hospitality made a strong impression on me, and I am deeply grateful for this unique experience.
We used to have our music lessons every morning, at home in C.R.Park. After that I would go to the Sangeet Natak Academy to read, or to the Vageeshwari Foundation Centre in Kailash Colony, where I would continue practicing and playing music. Madhumita Ji's father, the artist Mr. C.R.Pakrashi, would often invite me upstairs to his home for tea. I enjoyed his company, and I feel privileged, having had the chance to spend hours talking to him, hearing stories about music, politics and history, and about his life as a painter and stamp designer. These tea-visits in Kailash Colony are warm memories that have become an important part of my Indian journey.
Parallelly with the music training I took lessons in Hindi, and I attended yoga classes at the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Kailash Colony. I had no experience with yoga before coming to Delhi, but it felt natural to take the opportunity to learn this while living in the country of its origin. It was a benefitial addition to my music training, with its breathing exercises, meditation, and the stretching of the spine. My back was very happy for the exercise - it had been suffering during those first couple of months, simply because I wasn't used to sitting in the cross-legged position in our music classes. Yoga provided a different presentation of Indian philosophy; although the ancient disciplines have different targets and a different focus, they seemed to complement eachother in aiming to increase the flexibility - of the voice and of the spine.
Before travelling to India, I had spent four years in a student environment where the emphasis and mantra was to "find your own voice", through experimenting with different music styles. The years at the Academy in Oslo gave me a lot of freedom and the ability to collaborate with many different musicians, but there was something missing in this way of studying music. I was eager to have a more classical, disciplined voice training, focusing on the sound quality of the voice, and developing its flexibility. Madhumita Ji told me that when she first started her own voice training, she was allowed to sing one note only, for a very long time. "It's like preparing the ground for planting a seed. If you put enough effort in the preparation, anything you plant will grow up to be beautiful. But if you don't prepare the ground properly, whatever you plant will fade and be destroyed". It felt liberating for me to narrow down the possibilities, and focus only on that one note. It was of course difficult, and at times frustrating, because my voice needed to build up strength and get used to this new way of singing. When we sat down for our daily music lesson, Madhumita Ji would correct me when my singing was out of pitch, and demonstrate how it should sound. As the weeks passed, I was amazed and inspired by how my voice responded to the training.
It was not only the pitch accuracy and flexibility of my voice that was developed. I also found that sitting down and repeating the exercises with my Guru's guidance, helped me to focus and concentrate better. It had a very soothing effect on my mind. I learned quite a bit about my own patience and (lack of) discipline. The discipline was something I was craving for, and it felt like a great privilege to have my teacher's full attention, and correction when my voice didn't sound right. I learned that if I only have the patience to last through that one hour of poor-sounding singing in the morning, I would come out "on the other side" with a richer and more flexible voice, that would respond better to what I wanted to express. This is a simple, and yet very valuable insight that I still carry with me, and long for whenever I'm busy and there is too much going on in my life: Through the singing exercises there is a certain state of mind available for me at all times, like a space where the mind can rest. This part of Mrs. Ray's teachings is what I've come to treasure the most. She told me that "When you cultivate your voice, you are also cultivating your mind, and developing as a person". Her words have stayed with me, along with many other lessons from our singing sessions.
This spiritual aspect of the art is something that I believe is present in all art forms and cultures. But somehow, in western music, the awareness of it seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. When I decided to study Indian music, I wanted to find out how the philosophical and historical backdrop would affect my approach to music. One of the things that still fascinates me about the Hindustani music tradition is that it has developed a vocabulary to express the spiritual impact. While western music is more concerned with results and momentary performances, Indian music gives space and value to the cultivation of the mind, as well as the voice.
It was incredible to see how the voice training affected my writing, and opened up my inspiration for new musical and lyrical ideas. I brought home from India a sketchbook full of scribbles and lyrics, and lots of recordings of sounds and sketches. Back in Norway I kept working on these bits and pieces for a long time. In January 2013 the record 'Imperial Splendor' with my solo project 'Mattis & The Grand Trunk Road', was released in London. The nine songs on the album are closely connected to my Indian journey, telling stories inspired by my time in Delhi, and as a traveller along the Grand Trunk Road.
Music can speak directly to people's hearts, and help you overcome great barriers. I was to experience this myself, on one of my last days of staying in India. I had gone to the airport one day before my flight departure, to send some 60 kilos of luggage home to Norway. It was all carefully packed in four boxes - books, records, clothes, and a beautiful harmonium. At the Indira Gandhi airport I met two guides, who had come on a scooter from Delhi just to help me find my way through the complex web of offices and authorities, whose signatures were required if I was to get my luggage safely back home. I was impressed, watching their performance play out before my eyes. "Haan Ji Sir, excuse me Sir" - my guides were vigorously bowing their heads to one authority after the other, playing their submissive, humble roles in a brilliant manner. It was like watching a theatre play. They were artists, knowing exactly when to nod, when to bribe, and when to argue. After repeating this ritual in six different offices, we finally reached our final obstacle, the Head of Customs office. The man behind the desk had a serious look on his face, and my guides asked me for a couple of five hundred rupies notes, in case they needed to soften the man's attitude. Indeed they had to; twice I saw my rupies being discretely slipped into the custom officer's lap. It didn't have much effect. Suddenly he was up on his feet, knife in hand, opening one of my boxes, and starting to look through my luggage. That was when I decided I had to do something. "Maiṁ dillī mēṁ chaha mahīnē rahatā hai. Maiṁ sṭūḍēṇṭa kī saṅgīta hai", I told him. Then I started singing: "A-la Be-la, Sa-dja-na Aaa-jo-re, A-la Be-la, Sa-dja-na Aaa-jo-re, E-ri-se Ki-me-ne, A-ti-so-ka ...". That's how far I got, when I saw the man melt into a big wide smile, his attitude instantly transforming from a strict bureaucrat to that of an old friend. He kept smiling as he signed my papers, sealed the box, and sent my luggage off to Norway.
Since my return from Delhi, I have continued to use the singing techniques as a reherseal tool. It opens up new creative doors to composing music, and it helps me to explore my instrument. The discipline that I had during those six months is difficult to maintain, without my teacher keeping an eye on me - but the Ragas, the sound of the tanboura, the vision of sitting down in the music room in C.R.Park with my teacher, (and the Vegetable Wallahs shouting from the street outside), always brings me to a place where I like to be - where I can calm my mind and find new inspiration.
"Be attached to the ultimate, not to the result", my teacher said, in one of our lessons. The words came back to me, long after I had returned from Delhi. I had been rehearsing well and kept the right focus for some time, and it struck me that those words were summing up what my Indian journey was all about: Learning to detach from all other distractions, simply by sitting down and practice, and enjoying the state of mind that comes along.