Her voice has the texture of fabric.
Imagine touching gossamer-fine pashmina, the extraordinary wool, finer, lighter, softer and warmer than cashmere. On days, her vocal texture feels like that.
On others, it has the smooth, slippery, cool feel of satin.
On yet another evening, you could say hearing her is like wearing silk. Soft and sleek that clasps you like a second skin.
Some may even say her voice sounds like velvet. That is, I guess, if velvet had a voice.
Clad in a plain mustard-colored cotton sari, I see she is tall with a posture straight as an arrow. Her long, lustrous, greying, wavy hair, alert eyes, aquiline nose and her translucent skin with a red bindi on her forehead lend her a presence, one that is her very own. While her lips are full, her ears are bare, shorn of the large earrings, her trademark.
Her eyes closed, her body focused on taan (lending voice to an emotion), she is seated cross-legged, meditatively, on the matted floor. I watch her transfixed in silence for a length of time as her maid lets me into her spacious drawing-room. When she opens her eyes, she gestures for me to sit down opposite her as she is about to start her riyaaz (practice).
It is four in the morning in March and the cool of the winter lingers on in New Delhi, the blister of summer a good month away. Her wide, open windows bring in moist breezes through the semi-darkness outside and filter them through her pale fluttering curtains. The whoosh of the surrounding neem trees soothes and their just-about sprouting white flowers let out a sweet, almost a mystical jasmine fragrance.
They set the tone of calm within. A feeling the sight of soft rippling waters will evoke.
On either side of her are two men in immaculate white kurta pyjamas. One with close-cropped hair and a pair of tablas (small drums played with fingers and palms) and the other with a tanpura (a long-necked plucked string instrument that does not play melody but rather supports and sustains the melody of another instrument or singer by providing a continuous harmonic bourdon or drone) wearing his hair long.
We are all at one end of the large room, a space that is kept sparse yet aesthetically pleasing for her practice. I sit cross-legged across her, delighted with my position of advantage, with my private audience with her, where I can see every muscle twitch and every emotion that that flits her face.
I am told she is eccentric, temperamental and never meets anyone.
Then why has she allowed me into her space? I am her daughter's recent friend with a smattering knowledge of Hindustani classical music, a time-worn tradition in the northern Indian states, and have begged to see her. I am certain her indulgence is to her daughter and not so much to me. I am delirious with joy anyway.
"Raag has to reign supreme. It has to come before laya (rhythm) or bol (words)," she begins, as an explanation to how she molds her voice and creates a revolution every time she sings. "It has to enhance a particular mood, or the time of day, or a season or an ambience, their emotional core. The soul of a song lies in the evocation of the spirit it wishes to convey," she adds softly.
Can she explain raag to a western audience? I ask. Or an audience other than Indian.
"There is no single word in English that can convey the full meaning of the word raag. It is not a musical scale. Or note. Or tune. But all of it with the addition of emotion. The idea is to aim more at the heart rather than the brain with technical finesse. There are 500 known raags, with varying rules and notes and a specific time for each; you can sing that raag only in its appointed time frame."
Her renditions of the morning Raag Todi are spectacular. An extraordinary life experience.
The music comes out of her like sunlight, both slowly spreading their glow. The promise of several suns dance in my mind even as her mustard-sari spreads a turmeric luminescence. Her vocal sweep has me dreaming with open eyes as texture, timbre, technique, harmony and rhythm come together under her command.
Her music grammar crosses the distance between the ephemeral and the eternal and takes me with her into a whirling cosmos. I sidle from frolic to ecstasy, from pathos to bathos to melancholy and then to bliss as she refracts every conceivable human emotion and sings them into being through the multi-tonal Todi prism.
It can only come with hour upon hour, day upon day, month upon month and year upon year of riyaaz (practice). I am convinced. The two men who have been with her for a lifetime are as mesmerized as I am.
"To bounce Todi in the portals of the mind and soul is to be in the moment, to know and experience the many delights of life," she explains, her face flushed with happiness.
Is that why I remain agog at her youthfulness at sixty? I could be forgiven for believing she will never grow old or suffer the thousand natural shocks that human flesh is prone to.
Even as she leaves me bereft of words, I am curious to understand what removes her music-making, her voice, her rendition galactically from other singers. Why hearing her magic tone always liberates me.
I know it is not just her being born into a family rooted in music. Or her using of tradition as her compass even while searching for her own direction in music. Or even keeping this fully-embodied journey alive, one that is now necessary travel for her. The real reason is far more than all these put together, far more elusive.
I push for answers. Or rather, for that one answer. The specific force of her genius.
"It is not for a singer to sing the raag. It is the raag that must sing. For this to happen, the singer must drown the 'I' of their personality, be willing to walk into the unknown with the raag, savor the higher state of consciousness it leads them into and then infuse the impossible notes of this inner experience with the body as much as with the soul. It is really this space, this exalted place where the song and the singer are one, which all singers must aspire to."
"I get there a few times, to this expanded, ecstatic space, this sonic consciousness, when the bottoms of my feet grow ears, where deep listening of the flow of energy becomes all important. It transcends lowly excitement and even joy," she says.
Her afterthought, "I sing to get here, for myself, and I don't care if people think me selfish."
She understates her case yet when she speaks, thus, I see where the differentiating edge between a great performer and truly exceptional one lies. I see how a legend comes into being.
I realize how voice, its technical mastery, cadence and breath control, rhythm and melody may have an aura, true, but like perfume, they stretch for only a length of distance. It is her riding the soul-journey that actually takes her song to the level of the cosmic.
I know now for sure that it is her directing of attention to what she hears within, gathering their meaning, interpreting and deciding on how to render these soul-strengthening energies into song that makes her who she is.
And that it is in her singing through pain and confusion of life into the glory of being, in her making life whole once more for her listeners and in her restoring of their soul-power to them that she brings healing.
Whether she knows it or not, she bids us her listeners to dance and dream. Whether she accepts it or not, this is her legacy. And will be forever.
As her practice reaches its finish line, she sings a song in Raag Basant Kedar and some notes in Raag Nat Kamod, especially for me. "They are not two raags stitched together as people believe. One raag flows so effortlessly into the other that the listener will never know when one has ended and the other has taken over."
Little does she know that only she can achieve this magic. A lesser vocalist would have not have managed this with the seamlessness that it calls for.