By Gaayatri Kandinya
GururBrahma GururVishnu GururDevo Maheshwaraha |
Guru Saakshaat ParaBrahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namaha ||
Dhyaana mulam guror murtih, pujaa mulam guroh padam |
Mantra mulam guror vaakyam, moksha mulam guroh krpaa ||
“Whatever you do, once you learn properly you will always think in my language.” –
I still think of these words, but today, with a new meaning. As I reflect on my musical
journey, every win thus far in my life is owed to his teachings and the gift he left me to
think instinctually in his language.
My earliest memories of my childhood begin dancing to Baba’s album “Journey” as a
two year old girl. My Grandfather loved music, and would play many albums at home
to which I would sing along. But this was my absolute favorite album. Something about
this album was different, and captivated me. And later that year, I told my parents that I
would go to Khansahib’s school and learn music from him. At the time, my family lived
in Louisville, Colorado, and Baba’s school is in San Rafael, California. Most parents
would shrug it off and laugh if their child said they wanted to learn music from a
Maestro like Khansahib. But mine didn’t. Seeing my interest in music, my parents
starting scoping out the areas to live in California, and when I was 4 years old, my Dad
got a job there so that I could attend the AACM. Mind you – we had never met
Khansahib, and he didn’t really teach students as young as me.
In July of 1996, my Grandfather led the way with his love of music and lifetime of
experience as a fine arts connoisseur. He asked to meet a little before Baba’s regular
class time. My Mother and Grandmother had made laddus and prepared a small token
Guru Dakshina for him, and dressed in my Indian best, I gave this to him on what
would be my first day of class. I remember him taking my hand and walking with me
across the signature green carpeted classroom, and then asked me to sit next to him
on his stage. Even then, I could feel such a powerful energy radiating from that stage
and felt my place was not to be seated on it but rather before it. When I shyly said no I
don’t want to sit on the stage retreating towards my Mother, he said, “Ok then sit here
right in front so that I can see you.” He was still unsure of whether or not I could attend
his class, as I was only 4 years old while most students were adults in their 40s or
older. He then asked me to sing “Sa” and I did. He then smiled and said, “Keep her
here, I will take care of her.” From that day forward, my seat was to be at the foot of the
master. From that day up until I was 18 years old, every week I would take his classes
and live and breathe the lessons he taught me.
The strength of his teachings came from Shakti energy, pure creation power. He was a
devout worshipper of Maihar Sharada Maa, the Maihar form of the Goddess of learning
and creation. From this energy, he derived a source code to living life integrated with
divinity. His teachings provide first principles to living an integrated life, and axioms for
developing any creative thought grounded by logic structures.
Today, I’d like to share some of these core principles.
Principle: Everything is Divine.
The first core principle of his teachings was to recognize the divine in all things, and
treat everything as an extension of this divine self with an open heart. This was
something he practiced from the very core of his being. Every time someone touched
his feet, he always folded his hands in Namaste to him acknowledging their divinity
right back to them without fail. This was also something he embodied in the way he
approached his role as a Guru. To him, accepting a student wasn’t an ordinary
decision. It truly meant to invest his energy into you, looking out for your growth just as
you would your own child as an extension of yourself.
I experienced his open-hearted care as a child in my own relatable way every year on
my birthday when without fail, he would always remember to give me a birthday gift. I
remember upon my 6th birthday, I ran up to him as he was walking from the stage after
class and told him, “Khansahib, today is my birthday!” He said “ohh, that’s very nice,
happy birthday!” and proceeded to give me a $10 bill he pulled out of his pocket as my
He would always take time out of his busy schedule to make sure he acknowledged
and appreciated anything anyone did for him, no matter how seemingly small. Once, I
drew pictures after class to give to Baba as a gift. My parents, thinking that I forgot
these drawings and would cry later if I didn’t have them not knowing I made them for
Baba, took them from his table and put them in our car. As we were about halfway
home, I noticed them in the backseat of the car and said “what are these doing here? I
made these for Khansahib, these are for him! We need to go back and give them to
him!” My parents, though tired from the long day, turned the car around and drove all the way back so that I could leave the drawings for him. Noticing how much this meant to me, a few weeks later, Khansahib took time out of his day to send me a letter on his
official letterhead saying how much he appreciated the drawings. He instilled this principle in me at a young age to always wholeheartedly care for those around you with profound empathy as your own. This value is practiced at the AACM to this day, and the legacy of this value is ever remembered by the wall of names of members of the AACM family spanning decades of students, teachers, and rasikas. He brought all of the souls that met him together as a part of one single whole through his open heart.
Principle: The Divine is Love.
This brings me to the next principle – love is divinity itself. He shed light on love as a first principle from which to build everything in life. Baba was a deeply devout person not to one God or religion, but to divinity in all forms. He would perform Puja every
Friday to all of the Gods in his temple, with symbols and idols from all religions. But to Baba, God was nothing more than pure love. Every form was just another representation of this love. He once penned a composition half in Hindi and half in English with the lyrics “Prem Hari Ko Roop Hai, Love is God, God is Love.” He lived this ideal daily, integrated with the divine energy he felt and channeled in all aspects of
his life. He once remarked, “You know, people say ok where can I find God? And then they go here and go there, they read this book, read that book, see this religion, see that religion, believe in this, believe in that, Arey! God is there!” And proceeded to point one finger up in the air indicating the present space around us, laughing. “When someone is sitting right on top of our head, we can’t see?” He embodied this love in every aspect of being.
Music was his way of bringing his internal feeling of this divine love to the physical world. When you merged into his music, it was to experience what it was like to live integrated with divinity truly alive. It elevated everyone that it touched. People would come to class many just to listen and heal feeling this love, and would return back to their lives with a sense of bliss and contentment, more full of life.
The next principle was to surrender to your purpose, have faith in it, and trust. He used to remark “give yourself to the music completely – and music will give you more than everything you need and want in this world.” Taking his words to heart, I have tried my level best to honor this principle throughout my life. Every time I have done so, I experience the extraordinary. As a direct result of following this principle, I have been blessed with a rare life and career in music so far. I have gotten to meet and work with my idols, study with my favorite master artists, and grow in the presence of the greatest musical minds ever to live. At every turn of my life, if I ever I experience doubt, I am reminded of Baba’s words and carry them with me to give me the strength and courage to continue to surrender with faith to my inner purpose.
Principle: Devotion to Resolve.
The next principle was to be devoted to your resolve, and carry it out with utmost sincerity. His devotion to his Father’s legacy was something that reminded me of the story of Bheeshma from the great Hindu Epic Mahabharata. Bheeshma was a Prince who sacrificed his right to his throne for his Father’s happiness, and swore an oath to be a protector of the Kingdom, and promised only to die once he fulfilled the promise
of keeping his nation secure. He was given the boon of wishful time of death, so when the great war broke out, though lying wounded on a bed of arrows, for days he willfully remained alive until the end of the war to fulfill his promise of dying only when the nation was safe and secure. Baba was like this character in real life. Having promised his Father that he would spread the legacy of this music, he once proclaimed, “Until my last breath I will teach!” And that’s exactly what he did.
He honored his resolve with deep discipline, commitment and punctuality. Just as he would never miss a beat, he would never miss a single class and he would always show up on time. In his final year of life, though his health declined, his body always seemed to know when it was time for class anyway. The last week of his life, at 630pm on the dot on Monday, he went straight into teaching mode, feeling he had so much
more to still give. He poured over a single line in Purya Dhaneshri: “NrGMP-GPPMGSPPMG“ unsatisfied that it wasn’t fitting into Teental, trying to craft the composition the way he wanted it to go.
His greatest gift was the way he truly embodied his role as a Guru in its entirety. The word “Guru” in Sanskrit means one that takes you from darkness (Gu) to light (ru). I was fortunate to have a true Guru-Shishya relationship with him during the formative years of my life. There can be many Gurus one has in life, but to me, Baba was what some would call a Param Guru, or a soul that channels the power of the absolute
dispeller of darkness. He was an external representation of the divine internal guidance system which exists within all of us. His energy taught me what the energy of an inner divine compass feels like, and I have never felt lost whenever I tune in to this frequency. This manifested in the way he would sense your energy and pull you into the light in ways you wouldn’t even know you needed, before you ever had to ask for it. He seemed to just know what you needed to know before you could even express your question out loud.
I remember as a child feeling a deep sense of responsibility to use the time I had with my Guru to the fullest extent possible. I had one deep prayer and wished with all of my heart that he wouldn’t leave without saying good-bye to me personally somehow when it was time for him to ultimately pass on. I would reassure myself that he won’t leave without me – somehow someone will come and pull me out of school if I’m in school, or someone will call and bring me to him, and he will say good-bye. I had never told this to anyone, not even my own parents.
The eve of his passing, myself and my fellow shishyas came to visit him one last time. He was going through delirium from kidney failure and being off of dialysis treatment, did not really have much sensation to the world around him. But late that evening, he asked for someone to bring the harmonium. While no one was being let upstairs unless they were visiting from afar that day to limit visitors in his space, Mary and Alam called me upstairs to play harmonium because I usually played in vocal classes. At this moment, I felt as though he heard me many years ago, and always knew how I felt, and was calling me upstairs that evening to acknowledge my prayer and say his good-bye before passing on.
When I went up and started playing Sa, his eyes instantly sparked back into focus, purpose sparked on his face once again as he asked me, “What was your last week’s lesson?” He went straight into vocal class mode upon seeing me, his vocal shishya in front of him. I remember being stunned, and then quickly recounting the last lesson. He then proceeded to ask, “what time is it?” Alam responded with “10 o’clock, Baba.” He asked, “in the morning?” And Alam responded, “No no, in the evening.” And with that, he proceeded to start teaching Raag Durga. I had been feeling sad that week knowing his passing was imminent, feeling I would never be able to ask him the rest of the questions I had, among which was, what was the right time to sing or play Raag Durga. As if sensing this, he asked to specify the correct time and then proceeded to teach this very same Raag, answering my question once again before ever having to express it to a single soul – as if to say, I will always be here for you.
To this day, years after his passing, I find his energy guiding me throughout my life. He has never left me for a single second. Whenever I want to learn something new, he always finds a way to send me the answers I’m looking for in unambiguous terms. Most recently, for my wedding Sangeet performance, I wanted to know what the correct Arohan-Avarohan was for Raag Nand Kauns for our Gharana. While feeling sad I wouldn’t be able to ask him, and that he would be missing a big moment of my life with my upcoming wedding, I mindlessly went on google search to see if there was anything I could find. The first Google search result I clicked on was an old google group of some AACM students discussing Baba’s notes on of the Arohan-Avarohan of Nand Kauns from one of his classes. As if hearing me all along, I could feel him saying to me “what are you talking about I’m right here!” with that signature twinkle in his eyes. It felt like his blessing to me for my upcoming marriage day, reassuring me that he was still right there with me.
With these principles set as the foundations of integrating divinity into your being, then come the axioms for building creative thought.
His first axiom is Sraddha, complete presence and focus, and attention to detail. He would often remark, “in music, every second is important! If you lose one second, see how many things are gone – the sruti is gone, sur is gone, beat is gone, taal is gone, feeling is gone, so what is left?” I remember one instrumental class where there were almost 40 people in the class playing exercises in Bilawal thaat, equivalent to a major scale in western terms. He had the students repeat each note 4 times, one note per beat in a slow-medium meter. He kept telling the students that their notes were not right. To anyone’s ear, objectively the students were playing everything in tune and in rhythm in unison with a 40 piece ensemble sound. They were confused as to what Baba was still unsatisfied with. After about 15 minutes, Baba picked up his Sarod saying, “No, look here,” and with one single Sa brought so much presence into the room that the note rang over all of the 40 voices playing alongside of him and immediately brought everyone’s attention into focus on that moment. His ability to captivate you into the now rings through his many concerts and albums – it was this very aspect of his music that drew me as a 2 year old child so deeply making me dance to the feeling of it in my body, knowing I had to learn this magic from him.
The next axiom is play. He would often tell us with a twinkle in his eyes stories of his childhood with all the ways he would cause mischief. One such story was of how while learning music with his sister, after his father would teach 50 compositions, he would instruct them to notate them all in his notebooks. And while his sister would seriously write everything she remembered, he would sit drawing pictures of donkeys and monkeys. One day, his sister laughed seeing one of his drawings, and his father barked, “what is it?” And they both quickly hid their faces saying “nothing, nothing.” Then his father asked to see their books. His sister’s notes were nearly perfect with only one or two corrections here and there. When his father opened his book, he took one look down, one look at his son, and then gave him a nice thappad. He then told his son he was going to the market, and to write everything properly by the time he was back. In that time, Baba noticed where his father kept his books – and then found the original notations of the compositions, copied them down, leaving his father satisfied.
With a twinkle in his eye he remarked, “from then on, every time my father go to market, I would copy his book. So sometime my sister would make mistake – but not me because I have the original!” His mischievous sense of play was his superpower in his innovative creativity. He would often break rules or push them to their limits – taking you to the edges of Raagas in his playing, a hallmark that set his music apart from others. He knew that a fundamental aspect of living was having fun. When integrated with the divine, creation is nothing more than divine play.
Another axiom is to feel. To allow yourself to live authentically, let your feelings guide you, and have conviction. He often remarked, “How do I know what I think if I don’t know what I feel?” Or sometimes “don’t sing like a dead body!” His innate tunefulness to feelings can be experienced in his ability to evoke whatever mood at will with a single phrase he played. There are times that he tells you see if you play this, you will feel surprise. And when he plays it, even though you have been told about the surprise feeling being imminent, you still feel surprised as if you were never expecting it. He was attuned to the subtle effects and feelings of the Raagas knowing the power of these
subtle energy fields created – and enforced his students to never play anything without it being the proper time of day to retain the power of that vibration. He would often remark how Raagas have healing qualities – such as Kedar for mental unrest, Bageshri for an upset stomach, and so on. His deep sensitivity to feelings is what made his playing so emotive.
He had an incredible sense of conviction in every action, living with full authenticity. Some may remember his love of cars – and those who knew him in his earlier years remember his driving. There was one time while on the way to Berkeley where he was driving his car and was about to miss an exit. He was at a merging point on the freeway where he was on the far end almost 6 lanes away from the exit with less than a quarter mile to make it. With an immense sense of conviction, he steered the car full speed ahead with determined resolve and somehow managed to make it completely unscathed into the exit – with this full conviction and knowing that he was going to make it the whole time. I am reminded in his playing how when he improvised his taans, often he would pass sum for one cycle, and then maybe the next, having you
question where he was going with his idea. But then on the third cycle tie in everything he had played up until that point in such an elegant way bringing the conclusion of the line to sum in a way you would never expect – as if to show that no matter who else sees your vision, have conviction in what you see.
The technical foundations he instilled in music go beyond any genre boundaries. Everything from developing a relative perfect pitch ear training, to the ability to pick up a phrase you hear within seconds, aesthetic sensibilities, to compositional logic structures, all are carefully outlined with a syllogistic process for anyone to develop if they study his lessons. He demanded the best of us and the utmost perfection to make sure we truly harnessed the power of these concepts. I remember one comment where he would tell say “use your ears just like you would use your eyes – you need to learn to read [with your ears].” He would develop memory power by teaching 20-30 lines one after the other and then asking us to sing everything back to him in order without a note or beat misplaced. This rigor was what solidified the basic melodic, and rhythmic concepts of music such that no matter what style one ventures into, they have strong bearings to break down what they hear at a microtonal and microrhythmic level.
When it comes to Hindustani music, not only was he one of the greatest torchbearers of the authentic art form, he was a great creator. Unlike many, did not view the subject as a static entity but rather a dynamic one. He knew how to anchor the foundations but then build out the design in a new way every time. It was a living breathing active body of knowledge useful and usable in day to day life. Whether it was rendering the same raag in a new way every concert, or creating a new Raag, he would always push the boundaries still rooting all of the music in its deep traditions. It was a roadmap left behind on how to compose and innovate in music – a lesson that enabled me to pursue
a career as a composer down the line.
Perhaps most remarkably, I find his vocal legacy. While most people in his vocal classes were training to primarily become instrumentalists, and attended vocal classes as a supplement, I was training to be a singer. The repertoire I have been left with by him has set me apart as an artist. He imparted a wonderful legacy of Maihar vocal music with a vast repertoire comprising of hundreds of Raagas and compositions,
which to this day, is my absolute favorite music to perform and sing. The richness drawn in Raaga development from Dhrupad origins, the true Dhrupads from yesteryear, the Dhammars rendered highlighting the transitional history of the roots of Khyaal, and the instrumental style Bala Khyaals set to slow Teental rather than Ektal are hallmarks of this repertoire. Not to mention the Taranas and Sat Sangat styles of performance outlining a grounding in vocal training that makes you equipped to duo with any instrumentalist as a singer in a world where many vocalists have a limited repertoire of rhythmic improvisation in comparison to instrumentalists. Then comes the training of
light classical styles such as Thumris, Ghazals, Dadras, Bhajans, Tappas, Bengali folk, Rajasthani folk, Patiala style songs and even Sufi style Shayirs to name a few. Not only did he teach the essence of these styles, he also contributed new repertoire with the Maihar approach of Raaga development. Heavily influenced by the artists of yesteryear, everything he taught maintained the authenticity of what one would hear from the childhood artists of his time. Yet at the same time, carries an innovative push into the next phase of evolution echoing his playful and creative spirit. His layout template of a complete vocal concert puts elements of the past together with his own special twist.
I am honored to be a part of his musical legacy. I hope to carry this music forward with me to the end of my days and pass it forward to give this gift of divinity to as many as I can in my lifetime.
Jai Om Gurudev Namah 🙏