I spent last night trying to locate a beat. Something I could tap my foot or bob my head to. Every time I thought I had managed to find a repeating rhythm it would suddenly change and I’d be moving to a song that existed only in my head. I was at an intimate performance by classical Indian musician, K. Sridhar, at Duffy’s Barn Chapel Hill. Classical Indian ragas are not familiar to western ears. We are used to catchy hooks and repeating riffs. Any other sort of music seems like something else entirely. Though I had seen Sridhar play before and listened to his CD’s countless times, my body still fruitlessly searched for something audibly familiar in the meditative vibrations of his sarod performance. I grew restless.
Thanks to my lovely friend Katherine, I had the wonderful opportunity to have dinner with Sridhar (and his student Michael) last week. He’s an interesting fellow, to say the least. I have no idea how old he is but given all he’s done in his lifetime he should be like 150 or so. I know for a fact that he comes from a long line of classical musicians – 15 generations is what he told me. Also, he practiced yoga for more than 35 years before his teachers told him that he was ready to teach others – a far cry from most yoga teacher trainings in the US that let one teach after a mere 200-hour certification. I asked Sridhar how his teachers knew he was ready. He said they could ‘feel’ it.
Sridhar also is THE person who was asked by Ravi Shankar to help teach George Harrison how to play the sitar. I asked Sridhar what sort of student George was and he said, “The best, my best ever.” As he said this I looked to his current student, Michael, for any signs of resentment but he was too busy enjoying his south Indian thali to be distracted. Fact is that Sridhar insists that all of his students live their lives as servants to their craft. Not a moment goes by during which they aren’t training somehow. Sridhar said that 16-hours per day of practice is normal, the rest of the day being for prepping to practice and for some sleep too. Michael has stuck with him for longer than most and is an amazing musician. Like Sridhar, Michael agrees that Indian classical music isn’t for entertainment, it’s for healing.
At our dinner I finally confirmed that Sridhar did, in fact, live in a cave for 20 years. And yes, it was an actual cave in the middle of nowhere. For 3-4 months at a time he would sequester himself to meditate and practice his sitar and sarod. His guru would show up once and a while to check in with him and guide him. But ultimately he was there for a few months without human contact. After these long stints he’d go home for a week or so then quickly return to the cave to continue his practice. I asked him what he remembers most about this time of his life and he said the 5-hour walks to the nearest town to buy some milk – and also how good he became at starting small fires to keep his hands warm. Sridhar told me that he struggled a lot in solitude. Yet he continues to look back on this time as vital. “It was hard, but it was very good.”
I thought of these things as I sat and listened to him play. It took a few tries, but eventually I managed to consciously eliminate my need for something to make musical sense. I purged my quest for a beat. When I finally let go, I fully took in the sounds of his sarod and the accompanying tabla drums, getting lost in the waves while noticing thoughts and feelings that began flowing. Acceptance. Love. A connection to all things. Maybe this is part of healing.
George Harrison with his Sitar