Music is Literature, Music is Philosophy PARVINDER MEHTA
Continued from yesterday ...
Parvinder: Do you see any other challenges? Yes, you are trying to revive this understanding of the Gurus’ music tradition. Similarly, Prof. Surinder Singh of Raj Academy is also trying to do the same in England, trying to revive the way to authentic
gurmat sangeet. So you are basically intuned with this trend.
Francesca: Yes, we have different positons but definitely first of all, I am a scholar. I do research. My role is to research these rules and I teach according to the outcomes of my research. As a performer, I do perform kirtan in the dhrupad angad, because I think that especially dhrupad was particularly fit historically, aesthetically, with gurbani more than khayaal, for several reasons. I am going to present a paper on this matter at the University of California in a confererence organized by Prof Pashaura Singh in May 2015 and I will talk about the contribution of dhrupad and khayaal in the Gurbani tradition.
Parvinder: My next question is more about your role as a teacher. How do you relate to your students? Do they enjoy ...
Francesca: Some of them will be coming to attend my paper tomorrow which is part of a new course on Sikh musicology we started last year in September, and since last year, I have had about 30-35 students. So each course was about 10-12 students. I accept a maximum number of 15 students in my class. The students in my last classes are joining very often. We practice the pakhawaj, tanpura. You can see here a picture with my students. This is also on my website.
And that is the traditional taleem, the traditional way of teaching. We also organized some workshops and we invited scholars from abroad. The first scholar we invited was Prof Gurnam Singh Rathour. He is the Chair of Sikh Musicology at Punjabi University, Patiala. He was here for about a month and he gave regular classes for my students, public lectures for the community, and we also organized a concert on November 13, 2011. All these events are also on our website. So we try to provide students with not only my perspectives, I think it is important for students to attend a conference like this so they have a wider understanding of the field of study.
Parvinder: What vision do you see working within the parameters of Hofstra University, that this chairship will accomplish in hopefully the next broader time span of 5 years or so and what to you aspire in terms of engaging with the Sikh community?
Francesca: Well, the Chair in Sikh Musicology is unique. It is the first such chair in Wstern academia. So we are pioneers (laughing). And for these courses at Hofstra University, I designed a special methodolgy based on traditional Indian pedagogy, taleem, and at the same time we provide students with an approach, a methodology borrowed from western disciplines like ethno-musicology, anthropology of music, without forgetting about tradition and traditional terms from gurbani. At the same time, we are teaching in western academia, so we have to provide students with tools for understanding the diverse foreign traditions. Just like when we approach foreign languages, we provide the grammar, an understanding of the grammar of music,
syntax, how we create a phrase, an understanding of a rhythm and this is a practical approach.
So how can we enter in the field of Gurbani tradition? How can I give access to my students to listen to gurbani without a superficial understanding? I have to train them in the practical language. (At this point, Francesca speaks something in Italian
and she sees the confusion on my face) I said, suppose that I am talking in Italian, you won’t understand Italian if you are not trained in the grammar. My talk has a meaning but it does not have any meaning for you because you do not have the tools to
So I refer very much to linguistics generally when I teach. I think that music is a language and in order for us to understand we should train students in understanding the grammar of that language.
Parvinder: Related to that, do you see barriers of language as challenges for students more than the barriers of culture (western/ non-western), Gurmukhi, gurbani and so forth? From students’ point of view, what do you think they try to grasp … barrier of language of barrier of different music?
Francesca: This is a music department. So most of my students are musicians. They will catch upon first of all the structure of the melody, rhythm and then of course, I teach them guru-shabad, so the text which is very important in gurbani tradition. So I start by generally training them with raag, taal, I teach them compositions as prescribed in the music tradition. So if I am teaching a shabad composed by Guru Arjan Dev ji in raag Asa, I start with teaching raag Asa followed by the importance of Guru Arjan Dev ji, and the importance of this text. Slowly, slowly, my students enter this wide ocean. How can you feel the ocean till you put your feet in it?
Parvinder: I can feel from our conversation that you must love your job! I feel your passion! Is there any moment in your music career which was a true learning moment for you as a student of music?
Francesca: I have been trained according to the guru-shishya parampara system, sharing the daily life with my teachers. It was a constant process of learning, every moment with my teachears was a chance to understand and absorb the tradition. But actually in Gurbani, true learning moments happen every time we read the bani, we sing it and meditate on it. It's a continuous process of spiritual learning, and that's perfectly reflected in the meaning of the word 'Sikh': disciple.
Parvinder: I know you have also trained in Rabindra Sangeet. As a student of music, which was more challenging for you? … when you started your initial training as a scholar of Indian music.
Francesca: Well, I started with dhrupad, that provided me with the basics. Could you get that picture, please?... [We hold a picture that Francesca talks about]. This here is a picture with Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Khan Dagar. He trained me for 16 years in dhrupad. I have been trained by Dagar Sahib in the guru-shishya tradition. I also studied with Prof. Ritwik Sanyal at Banares Hindu University. So my foundation, the musical practice, is based on dhrupad. Dhrupad is also foundational music for khayals, and it should also be for gurbani singers, because it is the oldest genre of classical Indian tradition. And I also wrote a book about dhrupad and produced CDs of authentic dhrupad tradition in gurbani. So that is my foundation.
Then, dhrupad has many branches. I discovered that Rabindra Nath Tagore, for instance, was actually very fascinated by dhrupad and by gurbani. Tagore composed many lyrics in dhrupad and I do perform Rabindra Sangeet in dhrupad style. And then I found out that Tagore was fascinated by Gurbani Kirtan. He attended kirtans when he was 15 years old. And after that he started to compose Rabindra sangeet which is very similar to gurbani. There are elements that we find in both Rabindra Sangeet and gurbani. And I believe Tagore reiterated the elements of gurbani and borrowed them in his Rabindra sangeet. Tagore was referring much more to dhrupad than to khayaal. He saw that khayaal will destroy the beauty of the text ...
... Well, we are pioneers. I want to emphasize that I am not imposing any categories in the understanding of Indian tradition. Rather, I merge myself in the tradition of Indian music to have a better perception. I feel accepted. I merge into gurbani embracing the Sikh community in New York and especially in India. I have been accepted with no difference. I think that this message of Guru Nanak, the message of equality is very important. It doesn’t matter whether you are born in another country, woman, man … I think in this conference we are talking a lot about diversity.
Rather, we should remember the message about equality that gurbani gives, and I am glad that my students in western tradition, in western universities, sing gurbani. And through music, by means of music, they will have an understanding of approach, an experience of another musical tradition.
Parvinder: Do you think that the discipline of music is more inclusive than other disciplines such as philosophy, literature, religious studies, and so forth.
Francesca: Music is literature. Music is philosophy. Especially if you think about oral tradition. When you think about someone
like Kabir who was illiterate. He did not write any book. That is why I think that the sonic dimension of the shabad is so important. The fact that people sing, through music; their mind is imbibed into their body. It is literature, this oral literature and it fits in the Adi Granth, and in the Dasam Granth.
Parvinder: It has indeed been wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much, Dr. Cassio.
Francesca: You are welcome.
* * * * *
As we finished our conversation with glimmer in our eyes and hope in our hearts, I knew what passion artists and teachers of art feel when they are immersed in understanding human response to something larger than us, something so visceral like music, painting or even poetry that it immediately draws us in and enraptures with the beauty of life.
We took some pictures and then walked out together to resume attending the conference after the lunch break. Having talked to Dr. Francesca Cassio, I felt just like a student who gets inspired by the passion of her teacher when she guides them and enables a clearer perception of artistic meanings.
Although earlier my interest in gurbani sangeet had generally been that of a listener wondering about its spiritual unraveling and the poetic meanings endowed by rhthyms, melodies and sheer lyricism, I could now appreciate the dedicated work that ethno-musicologists offer through their research and passion for exploring nuances in any music tradition.
We need more ethno-musicology scholars who can introduce such nuances of gurbani sangeet to us as well as to the western world. The support of Dr. Hakam Singh, who established the Sardarni Harbans Kaur Chair in Sikh Musicology, is a worthy step in the right direction. I hope that many more such endowments will come up to shape the academic discipline of Sikh Musicology, highlighting the contribution of our Gurus to the rich music tradition of the subcontinent and its culture, in other universities as well.
October 29, 2012