Pause & have a quiet moment

The Himalayas that lie in our Heads!

This is a superb vantage point. I stand here and look around. All I can see is several cragged peaks, of huge snowy mountains, lined one after the other. A placid lake lies at their feet. Clouds move in and out, sometimes just hanging around half way through to their height, in suspended animation. Snow smattered across the gradient of adjoining mountains melts, then solidifies again to form saucer like silvery platforms of ice between them. Had this been a larger mountain system, this would have been a glacier. There’s little I can hear, no animals, no birds at this height. I open my eyes. I stand facing the Mumbai skyline. The blaring horns of vehicles and massive drum beats of a festival celebration regain focus. All this while, I have been here, closing my eyes, trying to recede into a picture of the Himalayas that I’ve witnessed so often. I run away from Mumbai almost once every year to these mountains. Only recently did I realise that they aren’t just a place high in the northern altitudes where I seek to hide. They’re somewhere around, high and north yes, but closer, in my head. I seek refuge in them each time I want to run away. In a still moment of time, I’m there, glaring at their height, their magnificence, thinking nothing but recalling a memory of another still moment when I witnessed them, right there, in Kashmir, in Ladakh, in Nepal, in Himachal. And only yesterday, when I realised about this ‘recession’ of my head, did I wonder if travel is more than just a visit to a place one wanted to tick off the bucket list.

Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir

Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir

Has it ever happened to you that a good time spent at an awesome location kept coming back to mind long after you returned? The lost feeling of running around in the alleys of a European town, a drink with friends at a tucked away cafe, a serendipitous discovery of a lake in the mountains while you mistakenly went astray, the sounds of street-side music that you enjoyed only because you sat down to listen to it since you had all the time in the world, the clap-claps of horses walking on mountain soil or cobbled-stone streets, the wafts of kebab or olive oil or the simple mixture of sugar with butter reminiscent of a sweet you had where you travelled, the terrible songs of the nineties with Sonu Nigam singing for T-Series reminding you of a country side local bus you took in India, or the music of a Rajasthani instrument heard in a movie reminding you of the time in desert,  the taste of a paratha dripping in ghee reminding you of a detour in the Parathe wali gali of Delhi, and the list goes on.

A carefree musical performance in Berlin

A carefree musical performance in Berlin

 

Does the smell of a food remind you of a place you visited?

Do the sights and smells of food remind you of some place you visited?

I live in Mumbai and as awesome as its history is, the city has turned ugly at the hands of people like me and another 20 million who live here. It’s ugly to the extent that we rarely realise that the same cobbled stone streets that line several of those lovely European towns also line Mumbai’s streets. But each time I hear the sound of a trolley being pulled over these streets, I am reminded of Prague. It was In Prague’s charming old town square that a friend and I dragged our trolley bags several times from one hostel to another for lack of prior bookings. And as tiresome as it was then, it’s just become a wonderful memory now, reminding me of all the enjoyable times we had in Prague. As horrible as these Mumbai streets are, now I usually don’t mind dragging my trolley bags around here once in a while.

The alleys of a Bohemian town

The alleys of a Bohemian town

And so, I come back to the point that travel isn’t merely a tick mark on the bucket list. It’s an intense thought, a powerful one. Like those very few but profound childhood memories that seem to come back to us in flashbacks; like those instances from our past when we won over our own troubles, or the echo of a hearty laughter with friends or family several years back. Each of them has, upto an extent, the power of influencing our actions or shaping our lives. Travel is just that. Merely, a thought. As simple as that and as complex as that.

At this point, I quote a few lines of a Sufi song

                                                   Main ta koi khayal,                                                                   (I am just a thought,

                                        Main deedar, deedar main wich,                                               I am the vision, the vision is in me,

                                                 hun milisaan naal,                                                                     Now I can be met through

                                                       Khayal de,                                                                                 Only a thought

                                              Main taan, koi khayal.                                                                    I am just a ‘thought’)

Pause & have a quiet moment

What reminds you of travel?

What reminds you of your travels? Sights? Sounds? Memories? Church-bells? Perfume smells? Share them in the comments here :)

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Listening to Rajasthan

A barren land stretches to eternity on both sides of this empty road. Pale and lifeless, like the sands we just left behind, to the extent that the only semblance of life seem to be the tufts of the dead grass, rendered a golden hue by the Sun which refuses to relent even in the winter months. Remorseless. And as we have crossed Jaisalmer on our way to Jodhpur, the horizon is marked not by sand dunes but by several windmills, in all directions. My friend from Mumbai has taken a liking to the cool morning breeze and is off to sleep. And so I’m left with little more than these windmills and the music of 90s Bollywood movies to give me company. From the foothills of the Himalayas to the desert in Rajasthan, 90s Bollywood music is the all- time favourite of bus drivers in the Indian countryside. And I must concede here that it’s not always soothing. For instance, the driver in this bus is playing, ‘Teri yaad satati hai.. milne ko bulati hai’. My friend’s lucky he’s off to sleep.

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A Rajasthani Flautist

As the bus stops at a ‘phatak’ – a railway crossing, (and there is no stopping the painful music), my thoughts wander back to the other music that I’ve heard in Rajasthan, far more mellifluous. Coming from a boy in Mandore, the ancient fortress, where he played a sonorous rendition of ‘Ud ja kale kawa’ on an instrument he called ‘Ravanhattha’. Divide this word into two and you’ll have a legend of music dating back not hundreds but thousands of years. To the times when once the legendary Ravan lost his veena & cut his own forearm (hattha), to turn his fingers into tuners, his veins into strings and his elbow into a resonator!  Ah! The sacrifice for that one strain of music that today resounds through every street and gully of Rajasthan, from Jaipur & Jaisalmer to Udaipur, at the entrance to every fort and in the courtyard of every palace. Yes! The land of palaces has more than its share of native musical instruments than you’d have thought.

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The ubiquituous Ravanhattha of Rajasthan

Meanwhile, the bus stops at a village where local women board, bangles all over their hands, and veils all over their faces. Behind them, a group of army-men enters. Yes, the border with Pakistan and the historical town of Pokharan are both close by. The bus restarts and with it, another rendition of excruciating songs – ‘Tumse o hasina kabhi mohabbat na humko karni thi’. And with this I switch again to the ‘other’ music.

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A description of the folk music in the Jaisalmer fort

This time the music in my mind takes me back to a concert in the Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur, where classical and folk came together one melodious evening.  A team of talented musicians with Nawab Khan on Santoor joined another equally talented one, of the Langas, with their Sarangis and Khartals. And what began with a devotional recital in Arabic, gradually turned into an immaculate performance by Nawab Khan on the Santoor. But the greatest symphonies were to be created when the Langas would join in. The Langas, with their vocals, brought about a geniality that only the rusticity of folk music could, their Khartals at one instant, rattling their way to find an expression above the percussions of the dhol, and at the very next, losing themselves in the pulsating voices of the singers, akin to the applause of the enraptured audience. A Sindhi Sarangi played behind, lending serenity to the ensemble and the falling evening, much like its player, the other Khan sahib, probably the eldest in the group. The Sarangi, as he later told us, was his grandfather’s. Music survives way beyond us mortals do.

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Nawab Khan, his band & the Langas at Mehrangarh Fort

And, as I remember those songs, with a mix of Urdu and Rajasthani thrown in, I see the land outside my window turning greener, the grass being replaced by shrubs, the dunes with the first sights of leveled lands. And soon, the bus halts at Pokharan. The army-men alight and we follow, to be greeted by signs of the ‘Famous Cham-Cham of Pokharan’ at eateries all around us. Excited by the prospect of another culinary discovery, we try it, and it turns out disappointing, its taste embittered further by the lame ‘radio-active cham-cham‘ joke from my friend. He is clearly better off sleeping.

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The years old Sarangi of Khan Sahab

We now board the bus for the last leg of the journey to Jodhpur(& hopefully of the painful music). I remember the narrow approach with which I had come here, for attending the World Sufi Music Festival. The only musicians I intended to listen to were those from outside India. And so I had skipped the Manganiyar concert. Only now, after listening to the Langas and reading about both communities in Jaisalmer, I rue my earlier decision. The Maganiyars are musicians from villages around Jaisalmer & Barmer and embody a tradition of music centuries old, where they, Sunni Muslims, would sing for their Hindu patrons. They still continue to sing in several parts of Rajasthan. It’s still not difficult to spot an old Manganiyar with an even older Kamaycha in his hands singing ‘Moomal’ somewhere around the mud houses of the desert.

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A Kamaycha preserved in a haveli in Jaisalmer

Meanwhile, the view from the window turns more vivid as I now spot a few cranes flying outside. The area is close to Khichan, which witnesses annual migration of Demoiselle cranes during this time. The music in the bus has stopped. Soon I’d be reaching Jodhpur & it’d be time to leave. But I will go back with more fertile ears than ever before. I take with me the music of the deserts, at once plangent, at once buoyant, of longing and belonging alike. I hope that the next time you come here, you don’t just stare at these palaces, but listen to them too. Don’t merely hear the legends of the royals, but also hear the echo of those who sang for them. Don’t just pass by the next Ravanhatta player beside you, but sit with him & ask him to play your favourite song, or may be join along, a ‘moomal’ or a ‘ghorband’ perhaps ( & it doesn’t matter if your singing is hit only in the bathroom). This is music that has lasted centuries, may be millennia, not the Bollywood music that you’d run way from in a few years!

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(This post was earlier published with Yahoo India Lifestyle Travel blog)

Have you been to Rajasthan? What was your experience like? Has the music of a place ever left an impression on you?

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Us & Them  : Rajasthan

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Travel with the Music of the Sufis

Us & Them : Rajasthan

I was in the movies you made, don’t you remember? Pretty much a character myself, like the actors who danced on my soil, like those bangle adorned women whose songs echoed in my deserts, like the Rudali who wept through my sands. I was in your music when Aerosmith played the sarangi in ‘Taste of India’. I was in your food, each time you added a dash of spice. Yet, to the undiscerning, I was & I am, dead as a desert. No wonder you never realised I had a soul too. That somewhere, in the middle of the very same desert, buried under those sands, lay my spirit, my soul. I know, I know, you couldn’t see it. How could you? You were the tourist. You came all the way from the west and saw only snake charmers. But you never listened to the music that charmed its way through my alleys. You saw the palaces, the havelis and the repertoire of huge vessels in their kitchens but you never saw the oodles of affection that the mothers and grandmothers of the havelis poured in those vessels. Heck, you even ate the ‘ker-sangri’ and you never figured out the one ingredient that made those bitter ‘ker’ edible. My soul. You only saw what you wanted to see.

Yet, every now and then, a few crazy souls roam around in these sands, those who’ve probably lost themselves but end up discovering me. I know it in their eyes. I know it when they see me..

..in the vibrant hues of the turbans that adorn me…

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Or in the smiles that run as wide as the pride in my glorious moustaches..

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Or in the valiant chapters of history that my eyes behold..

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In the music that wades through my streets and alleys..

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Or even in the poverty that snakes its way into the hands of my children..

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In the graceful walk of my women..

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Or in the not-so-grand humdrum of my grand palaces..

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In the countless tales of men & women crossing the border to meet their kin..

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And of the camels that accompanied..

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In the innocence of my kids..

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And in the solitude that this innocence meets..

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In the endeavour to find your own God in the middle of my desert..

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 ..perhaps you may just find yourself here, as you explore my people and my land.

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I was & I am the spirit of ‘Rajasthan’!

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This is the second in my series – ‘Us & Them’ – capturing the people I’ve met along my travels

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Us & Them – Kids in Ladakh

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Photostream – Rajasthan

Travel with the Music of the Sufis

Somewhere in the land of Persia, a man sits in the bleak light of a setting sun, and in the khumar of the Beloved, he writes verses of remembrance. Another one, centuries later, sits under a tree in Afghanistan and perhaps, driven by the same remembrance, plucks his Rubab to a deep, expressive music. Close by, two girls bind the same verses into a melodic song & somewhere, in the far off land of the Ottomans, a hand stretches out, towards the sky, as if soaking in all the energy from the vast expanse through its spread open palm.  And the other hand reaches out to give to the earth what the first one asks from the skies. Slowly, as a Ney weaves out a soulful tune behind him, the man with these hands suspended mid-air and his head inclined on one side, turns & twirls. And his white gown whirls in space, like his longing soul that sways somewhere between two worlds. As the poem in Persia grows, from love to pain to nashey, and the fingers on the Rubab pluck even faster than before, the singing grows graver and the feet in the Ottoman land spin swiftly and more swiftly until there arrives a moment when all of these feel that they have united with the One.

What seems to bind all these together, is the world of Sufi music. A world that spans far beyond what we usually imagine. From the whirling dervishes & Sufi music of Turkey to the quatrains of Omar Khayyam & quotes of Rumi, the poems of Bulleh Shah in Punjab, and the compositions of the Grammy winning A.R. Rahman in India, it transcends beyond states and their borders. Singers over generations have weaved these lyrics into profound yet beautiful songs in a multitude of languages from Turkish & Persian to Punjabi and Hindustani. Instruments from various musical schools such as the Ney(a kind of flute), Rubab ( a lute like instrument), Tabla, Iranian Bagpipe, have all tuned their way into this music. Songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, A R Rahman (such as Kun Faya from the movie Rockstar, Haji Ali from Fiza & Khwaja from Jodha Akbar) or the famous Lal Meri Pat (performed by several singers & bands such as Junoon) have been adored by listeners for decades, each of these compositions somewhere retaining their Sufi influence. As intense as it may sound, this is music that has struck a chord with deeply varying peoples, cultures, languages, and traditions. It is, what one would call, “Music that travels”, that finds reverberance across continents.

Join me as I travel to the far off desert of Thar in India to the World Sufi Spirit Festival to unravel a bit more of this wonderful form of music!

Until then, if you may want to, try closing your eyes & listen to ‘Paimona Bideh‘ by Zeb & Haniya or ‘Kun Faya’ by Mohit Chauhan/A.R. Rahman or ‘Lal Meri Pat‘ by Junoon or may be just ‘Bulla‘ by Rabbi Shergill to build up the mood. :)