An India Travelogue, Part 9
by Lawrence Bush
I BROUGHT a guitar on this trip to India, a $250 instrument with a resonator plate, which plays loud, has good action, and sounds excellent for the blues — but it’s a cheap instrument, so if anything happens to it, I will not be grief-stricken. Still, I’m liking the guitar more and more, as, in between watching Susan teach, doing my magazine work, and investigating India baby-step by baby-step, I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing. The one raga concert we attended definitely pulled my improvising loose from jazz chords and blues patterns into single-note runs with lots of bending and repetitive rhythms — little ragas.
Yesterday, I handled a sitar for the first time in my life and got a brief lesson from a great young player. I can’t sit on the floor in full or half-lotus position, but the teacher (a music teacher at one of the schools hosting Susan) allowed me to sit comfortably on a bolster. Assuming you’re a righty: The head of the instrument rests on the floor (the bolster) on the outside of your right thigh; your right thumb rests at the top of the neck and doesn’t move; you wear a wire on your right index finger, which is the only plucking finger (at least, so it seemed). There are only two strings that you actually play, with your left hand running up and down the neck and doing a LOT of downwards bending; there are also a bunch of drone strings that pick up the vibrations of your playing and complement it, resonating all by themselves; and three or four other drone strings that you can pluck. The sitar was tuned to C; you adjust the instrument to different keys and tonalities by turning the nineteen pegs to different arrangements of notes. (Listen, it was a quick lesson, I’m probably not reporting everything accurately, so don’t go out and buy a sitar on my say-so.)
The sitar also reminded me a great deal of a human voice, with all of its bending and chattering. The instrument also reminded me a bit of the dulcimer, which also has a drone string and a pick-out-the-melody-without-chords voice, at least when you’re a beginner.
I tried to pick out the melody to “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram,” the prayer of the Salt March. After working out a little while, I switched to my guitar and my teacher and I played a little jazz in C, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” It was great fun, he was excellent and very generous towards me — as most good musicians usually will be, quickly reading your skill level and accommodating to it. Next I improvised a bit in C-minor to his playing, and so it went . . . Another India experience of anxiety transforming into fascination.
THIS MORNING, in Lodhi Garden, we met with a bunch of non-Indians living in India, from Canada, Britain, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere, mostly the wives of diplomats and businessmen, who gather for an adventure every other week. We toured a few of the Moghul and Lodhi tombs under the supervision of several group members, who take turns leading these events, then walked through the Lodhi Colony (the surrounding neighborhood) and visited wall murals that have been going up in the neighborhood since 2016.
Numbers of them alluded to environmental disaster and other issues. My favorite was sculptural and philosophical, a wall pierced by metal letters that cast shadows of words that came and went with the sunshine.
The person who had invited us to join the tour is a retired educator from Vancouver, married to a diplomat involved in building business relations between Canada and India. She has been here for four years and goes home this May. She can hardly wait.
Many of the women on the tour face the same dilemma: Both partners of a couple are not allowed to work in India. Susan, for instance, got a scholar’s visa; I’m here simply as her dependent, and could not have gotten a work visa if I’d wanted one. So a lot of the women, with servants to run their chores and no professional life to engage them, are eager to find outlets for their energies.
If I were here as long as them, I’d become a master sitar player. And I’d probably be in a mental institution.
JUST CAME UP from a late-afternoon lunch in our B&B in which one of the guests was my first Indian communist — an elderly relative-in-law of our landlady and a writer on political issues. He is a staunch defender of the Indian National Congress and an apologist for Stalin’s “mistakes” (forced by the West’s pressures, he said. Said I: we have to call them “crimes,” not “mistakes,” if socialism is ever to be revived). He was an interesting informant about the history, repression, and strength of Maoist forces in India. Our discussion began with my asking my perennial question: Is there any influence for Gandhism in India today? The question summoned up a sharp attack on Modi’s “fascist” government. I felt right at home.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.