By Srivani Jade
My family often tell me that the one thing they invariably hear from the music room as I teach is laughter! I was somewhat taken aback to hear this. I know that I am happiest singing, and that it lifts my spirits unlike any other experience. But I had not realized that we--student and teacher--actually laugh together in class. Certainly, Indian classical music is no laughing matter. The teaching or learning of such a hoary tradition is no joke either. There is great emphasis on diligent learning and disciplined practice—talim and riyaz. Our musicians present themselves with grace and gravitas on stage, and don't seek to entertain the audience. And no Ustad has gone down in the history of Indian classical music for being a barrel of laughs. So, why then, were we laughing in class?
We apply ourselves fairly seriously to the pursuit of Khayal . And contrary as it may seem, it is imperative to the seriousness of this pursuit that we call out our mistakes, laugh at them, and say ' phir se ' (one more time) and try again. Mostly, students struggle with elegantly closing out a line of melody within the rhythm cycle—coming to the sum , as we call it in Khayal . Missing the sum is one of the cardinal sins of Khayal , something to be avoided at all costs. Despite valiant efforts, initial attempts at this usually go awry. I usually run interference for the student if they are close to missing the sum , and say 'This is your rescue mission. Service with a smile.' Recently, a student made the leap of 'getting this' after months of trying, and very pleased with herself, said to me, 'Thanks, but now you can stop running sorties over to my sum .' It was most gratifying.
I observed this some more during my recent stint teaching Khayal at the University of Washington. The students, twelve in all, some undergraduate and some graduate students, came suitably intimidated by the words ' khayal ' and ' raga .' On the first day of class, they filed in quietly as I tuned the tanpuras. Some sat in lotus position, and some tucked their feet in and waited in respectful silence.
I asked all the students to sit in a circle 'pre-school style' and introduce themselves--not by what their musical specialty was or how much music meant to them, but by describing their funniest or most interesting musical experience. And when each person was done, I greeted them and said something like 'Peter of the dropped-my-water-bottle-all-over-me-during-recital-in-front-of-200-people fame, welcome to Musicians Anonymous!' or 'Rachel of the foot-fell-asleep-and-I-made-a-not-so-graceful-exit-after-concert fame, you are in good company. Welcome!' Having the class laugh together was an easy way of instantly coming together as a group.
At the end of class, we had acquainted ourselves with sa-re-ga-ma-pa , Bilawal thaat, composition and improvisation inKhayal , and how raga is distinct from scale. Alongside, we had also developed our own humour code around 'pa-pa' and 'ma-ma'. Over the course of the quarter, the students learned five different compositions in various ragas and three different talas. They also organically developed a collection of 'knee-knee' jokes (a la knock knock) around their difficulty with keeping the two 'ni's apart in Raga Khamaj . At the end of the quarter, when they performed before an audience, they not only impressed the faculty with the extent of their newly acquired repertoire, but also brought the house down with the sheer joyfulness of their music.
I have come to believe that a little humour can go a long way in creating a great atmosphere for learning. Why is that? I asked my twelve-year-old this question the other day, and he said, '...because humour opens up everyone, and makes it easier for new ideas to go in.' Humour creates a positive attitude towards the essential process of learning--trying, falling, picking yourself up, trying a new approach, maybe falling again (perhaps a little less harder this time), thinking creatively, bringing some more new ideas into what might work better... trying, trying, and enjoying the trying. I find that people who don't laugh at their mistakes have a harder time growing and ultimately, being successful. They tend to see mistakes as errors or even failures, rather than as a challenge to overcome, or as a growth area and hence an opportunity to improve.
Humour can also be cathartic. There is usually some giggling around the saas-nanad lyrics in some of our traditional compositions. The 'plaintive yearnings' of a lonesome maiden calling out to her man at night while the mother-in-law and sisters-in-law keep an eye on her, is a source of much mirth. Sometimes however, this sort of thing brings up highly personal conversation too, and amidst the laughter, there is a little tearing up; marriages and in-laws and bad bosses and co-workers all come up in class like some badly written black comedy. Then I say, "Okay, for homework, compose a sthayi (first section of a composition) about mother-in-law and antara (second section) about bad boss. The music should transition easily and naturally from sthayi to antara , just as you move from dealing with one difficult person to the other in the course of your day.' We laugh. And having learned to laugh about our personal crises, we find that we're usually in a better place to deal with them.
Humour allows us to engage our creativity more readily. We are happier when we find ourselves fun to hang out with. And when we are happy, we tend to let loose, and allow our creative spirit to dance and sway and say silly things, profound things, and many many things in between that take us by surprise. In fact, I find the element of surprise the most significant side-effect of the creative process. 'Did I really sing that? I mean, I didn't even know I had that in me!' The creative process is self-nourishing, and creates a positive feedback loop, making us feel happy and wanting to engage in it more and more. And when we let our creativity take hold of us, and flow through us, we experience a great joy that colors everything and everyone around us in its hue.
So, go on, laugh a little, be irreverent, make light of some things, and get creative with some others. A little laughter can go a long way!