God and small things

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“You are making your way in a dark tunnel, a modest group of people, not sure where the road leads to. There is utter darkness but you have hope in your heart as you believe in Him. And in that darkness sounds a refrain like a ray of light, like an oasis in an arid desert, a floating bubble of hope in a sea of calamity….

Khwaja Ji…….Khwaja….”

Munna Shaukat Ali, faculty at KM conservatory, renowned Qawwali singer, composer and poet had said while teaching us his most treasured composition. 

I was a part of the Qawwali ensemble in KM and we had practised for around a week for one of the performances. I joked with my friends after that,

“Maine itne baar bhagwan ka naam poori zindagi me nahi liya hoga jitna is ek hafte me….khuda, maula, khwaja, Ali….!”

(I have never called upon God so many times in my entire life as I did in the past one week). 

Classical music is intimately related to God as almost all the songs taught to us were hymns written in God’s praise. I was introduced to western concepts of harmony in the choir. Here the songs were mostly chorales praising the Lord.  In Hindustani classical music, the bandish (composition) through which various ragas were taught to us and bhajans are about God (shaam or Lord Krishna being the favourite one). Being an atheist, it’s quite a paradox that most of my music learning is through praising God. 

Shayad ye bhi uski ek leela hai. (Maybe this is also one of God’s tricks). 

But this kind of role playing is an integral part of an artist’s life. From that context, the devotion and submission expressed in religious songs is quite beautiful, and its naiveté attracts me.

Because of this, I need to look no further when it comes to religious tolerance. I find beauty and peace in the devotional music of all three major religions around me.  That being said, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit uneasy when I visited Hazrat Nizamuddin mosque recently to witness the Qawali performance which takes place every Thursday. It was my paranoia, I suppose, or fear borne out of unfamiliarity. I was gently chided a couple of times – once when my friend and I were sitting with our backs towards the sanctum sanctorum, and the second time during the performance itself, when I was sitting with my legs folded and toes pointing upwards / outwards, the latter being the problem.

Adab ka mamla hai”  told the dholak player sitting nearby. (It’s a matter of reverence). 

The concept of pseudo secularism is being thrown around a lot nowadays which is not totally unjustified. Secularism is  but indifference to or rejection of religion and religious consideration by the State and it should apply uniformly to all citizens. But I would like to skip this controversial term and rather talk about ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhaav’ i.e. religious equality (which is what Indian Secularism is based on). I think for a diverse and pluralistic society like ours, it’s really important to understand the perspectives of people of different religions, observe their customs and practices without any bias or reservations, consider them with the same affection and understanding as people of your own community / religion. Religious equality can be achieved only when there isn’t a feeling of we and the other / us and them in the deepest recesses of our mind. I would say it isn’t easy to achieve that. 

      Let me narrate an interesting experience in context of my idea of God. I am translating / paraphrasing the following for convenience:

“Today, I met God,” I announced dramatically to my Mother-in-law.

“You did, indeed?” she asked perplexed, knowing well about my leaning towards atheism. 

“Not met as much as I saw Him. He left before I could strike a conversation.”

My parents-in-law are devout Hindu (Punjabi) Shaivites, and they follow their customs and traditions to the T. They have pujas and havans, and an in-house Panditji from a nearby temple. My father-in-law watches mythological serials based on Lord Shiva, Durga, Kali. Lord Rama etc. He can watch the same series again and again. So when I am around, I ask him a lot of questions about the various Gods and Goddesses. I am impressed to find out that he is well versed with the legends and mythologies of all the Hindu deities. 

During that particular visit in October, there were unseasonal heavy showers one day. We had to go out shopping or something. So once the rains subsided, all four of us – me, my wife and in-laws – ventured out in the car. By then, there had been significant water logging in Jalandhar. My father-in-law was driving, suffice to say, he drives like a champion. At a particular junction, in an effort to overtake some vehicle, he went a bit too much to the left side of the road. He was not aware of some recent construction work being done along that road. The rear tyre of his car got stuck in a pit which he couldn’t appreciate due to submergence under water. The car won’t move ahead and it caused a mini jam with vehicles honking behind us. Now, I don’t fit into the typical Punjabi male stereotype, however, with father-in-law at the steering wheel, the responsibility of pushing the car fell on me. 

                Without much faith in my abilities to push a car, I got down and went to the rear end of the car. My wife and mother in law got out of the car and walked a few meters ahead to reduce the load on the car. I started pushing with all force I could muster but the car didn’t move. After a few seconds (which seemed like minutes), suddenly the car moved an inch. I turned to my right with surprise and saw that a frail looking man with unkempt hair and beard, in tattered clothes, had come to my help. It seemed unlikely that he would be affected by the jam in any way. He didn’t look like someone who would own a vehicle, nor was he dressed like a driver. Now, I would not have believed for a second that this man could push a car on his own. But either he was much stronger than he looked or I was underestimating my own strength because soon enough, the car was out of the pit. I gestured to my wife and mother-in-law to get into the car. I felt I ought to give the man something or at least thank him for helping.  But as I turned around, the man was nowhere to be seen ! 

I finished narrating the whole incident to my Mother-in-law and concluded,

“That must have been God! Nobody saw where He came from or where He went. He was so frail that His pushing the car out of the pit seemed no less than a miracle. No one had asked Him for help and He didn’t even ask for any money. He fits the bill perfectly. And you were looking for Him all over ! ”

Of course, no one bought my theory.

           Coming to my views of God, although the notion of a compassionate almighty God looking over all of us seems quite enticing, I would say it’s just too good to be true. Like world peace, equality and such other idealistic values, God is for dreamers. Although an atheist, if I were to choose a God, I would rather believe in His omnipresence, a God that exists in all the majestic, and magnificent elements of nature – the Sun, oceans, mountains, earth; phenomena like gravity, light, photosynthesis, rainbow; and natural processes – earthquakes, cyclones, precipitation etc. I would find God in the harmony of music, gracefulness of dance, elegance of evolution and all intelligent designs including the best computer (human brain), best camera (the eye) and best filters (the kidney and liver). God would also exist in unconditional love, compassion and mercy, a child’s innocence and enthusiasm, acts of good samaritans and of course, world peace !

There is no God, but only humans who sometimes act like God.

Unfinished Cadence V – Starting Troubles

         It was minutes before the first student concert began. (Student concerts were held every two months and was an opportunity for the students to showcase their talents and get a feel of live performances). Dhruv was sitting on the wooden bench near the entrance. He would be accompanying on the tabla as part of one of the performances. He seemed quite nonchalant about it.  It was not a very challenging performance for a musician of his caliber. There was a flurry of activity around him with some senior students doing last minute stage arrangements, students hurrying to get to their seats in the concert hall (The performances would take place in a hall on the top floor), and those in group performances making sure all their team members had made it in time. Amidst this chaos, Dhruv was quite calm. Having occupied the entire wooden bench, he had kept his tabla on one side neatly in its case and was drumming away with his fingers on other side of the bench, practising his rhythm. He sensed that few senior students had started rushing around frantically, but he ignored them. Just then someone asked him,

“Is this seat taken?”

            As Dhruv looked up with an irritated look on his face wondering who was disturbing him, his eyes popped out of their sockets. Although the gentleman in front of him was pleasantly smiling, Dhruv had turned pale, as if he was seeing a ghost. After all, how often would you look up and find AR Rahman smiling at you ? The maestro had decided to make an appearance at the first student concert of the year.

Dhruv stood up, but was at a loss for words.

“Chill, bro. Carry on”, said AR (or so Dhruv claims).

Just then one of the senior students, Padma came with a bouquet and walked him to his office. Now Dhruv started feeling nervous. He realised AR Rahman would be witnessing his performance !

                                     Unfinished Cadence V – Starting Troubles

The link to the previous part can be found here:



        By the end of first month of Foundation, I had found a part time job in a scan centre at Vadapalani in the evening (where I had been employed previously). It was hardly a 5-10 minute ride on bike. It wasn’t a high paying job, but at least, I would be earning something and would be in touch with my speciality. However, soon it got really busy at college. We had at least 4 hours lectures everyday interspersed with one on one class, master class, studio class, theory seminar etc.

        In college life, everyone wants to find a niche, a group with whom one is most comfortable. I had became good friends with Shivam and Swati – the three of us, besides studying together, would also hang out, go for movie or to the beach. Swati was from Jodhpur – a simple and sweet girl with an even sweeter voice. I remember the first time we met – it was over a song from the Bollywood movie ‘Swades’ which she had sung in her auditions. Since  ‘Pal pal hai bhari’, is also one of my personal favourites, I requested her to recite a few lines. And there on the platform outside the KM entrance, she sang the entire song and I joined in when the male parts came.

        There were four main subjects for us – Academic skills, Composition, Western Music History & theory and Performance. Swati was having difficulty with music theory, Shivam had become quite busy since the time he got selected as Class Representative. He realised it was fast becoming a liability eating into his practice time. I was unperturbed about theory, but between the lectures, seminars and my part time job, I wasn’t practising my vocals enough. So I decided to chalk a strategy utilising the time we used to get between lectures.


I was telling Swati, “Apne ko din me kya kya practise karna padega? Iska list banate hai.” (Let’s make a list of all that we have to practise daily).

“In Vocals, we have to practise Hindustani and Western, piano for Shivam, keyboard skills for us. Besides this, in music theory if we do the assignments given in theory seminar, that will be enough.”

“But theory is so complicated and John confuses us so much.”

“You do it with us. Actually, theory isn’t all that difficult.”

“Till now, it isn’t,” interjected Shivam, “Once ‘harmonising four part chorale’ and ‘counter melody’ starts then it will get difficult.”

“Okay, we will see when we get to that. Besides that, we have to practise musicianship, sight singing, audio engineering, rhythm clapping, read music history….”

Arey Doctor, yede ho gaye kya tum?” said Shubham in his typical Nagpuri Hindi, “ Ye history bhi koi roz padhne ki cheez hai kya? Exam ke ek din pehle jitna hoga utna karunga. Idhar aake bhi yahi sab padhaai karwaoge tum…. mere Bapu ki tarah?”

(Doctor, have you gone crazy? Is history something that we will study everyday? I will read whatever I can one day before exam. Even in a music school, you will make me study…. like my Dad?)

“I want to practise piano as much as I can. Rest all is secondary,” he said conclusively.

         One would imagine a music school having a relaxed and merry atmosphere. But the faculty made sure they got rid of any such illusions. In fact the course at KM was a very well structured one, unlike any other course I had been in (of course, a lot changes in 10 years). We were divided into 7 groups and were given a weekly time table for the first term. All communications were in the form of emails from Prof Smith. This was how the timetable looked:


We also had a handbook which was supposed to be referred for any course related queries, before going to any faculty. No one knew if this was true because, quite predictably, no one ever read the handbook. Lydia had come back from her maternity leave and had taken the last lecture in pre Foundation which was on academic skills. The first thing which she taught in academic skills was referencing styles. And she also stressed on one of the most important topic in that lecture (according to her) which was plagiarism. Now, I had completed a thesis during my MD from a renowned Government medical college. The only time I came to know about referencing was in the last few months before submission. And as far as plagiarism is concerned, quite often, one would hear some postgrad student remark,

“ Thesis? Arey maine to apne senior ka chaap diya tha aakhri 6 mahine me.” ( I copied from a senior’s thesis in the last 6 months).

I was surprised to see that they took things like plagiarism so seriously.

                   Back at the apartment, things had taken a turn for the worse. B5 (our flat number) had rapidly become the headquarters for the Foundation batch. From the coolest to the queerest, all my batchmates had partied at the apartment at least once. Several of the popular seniors used to hangout there. Kavya, Yuvan, Nidhi (one of our batchmates who was dating Yuvan), Luv, Shivam, Vijaya, Donna, Lavanya were some of the regulars, besides my other flatmates.  Many of the seniors, including even some notorious KM alumni and dropouts, would hang out in B5. Our apartment was witness to several birthday celebrations. But the thing which brought most people to KM was an endless supply of weed. You could walk in the apartment any time of the day or night, you would find someone rolling a joint right there in the hall at the dining table. They would have laid down the (dried leaves + tobacco) mix on a newspaper / a notebook/ even the music sheets and would be rolling a joint with utmost diligence. Once even few of the faculty visited (weed was well hidden during their visit).

              Since besides having a busy day at college, I had to go for a job in the evening, I was quite fussy about my sleep. These guys spent the entire night partying, watching movies or Game of Thrones (the owner had installed a LED television in the hall), feasting on whatever they could lay hands on in the kitchen. This continued usually till dawn after which the house went quiet but was a blithering mess. Few of them missed the morning classes regularly. The noise made it difficult for me to sleep although my room would be spared to some extent. The unhygienic conditions had a toll on me. I had at least one episode of cold and pharyngitis every month.

                   As I have already mentioned before, each student had a major- either vocals, piano, guitar or percussion. It was especially difficult for vocalists because most of us were trained in Indian music either Hindustani or Carnatic classical tradition. But Western vocals was a completely different ball game. It was methodical and technique based singing. There were two main aspects to it – one was sight singing and other was the technique of singing. We were given music sheets for our piece and needed to get fluent in the Western notations.

                   Sight singing involves a unique coordination between eyes, brain and vocal cords. The eyes have to gauze the vertical distance between any two given notes to recognise them, then convert that into musical distance (e.g. There will be a distance of one whole note between Do and Mi {i.e. Sa and Ga in Indian notation} which is represented as one space on the staves in a music sheet). Once the brain identifies the difference, the vocal cords sing them out. All this process had to happen for each note that we sang. Of course gradually, it all becomes a subconscious process. Before the conscious part of brain understands what’s going on, the eyes gauze the difference, and vocal cords sing them out like a short circuit.\

There’s also an element of rhythm that we have to be aware of. All this together with remembering the lyrics of the song can be quite challenging. There are also dynamics and punctuation marks, let me spare you the details of that, for now. 

Let’s see, for example, a line from the score of one English song I learnt – ‘Edelweiss’ from Sound of Music in the key of Bb.


               As far as the singing technique is concerned, it started with breathing – first we were taught to take one long deep breath and exhale it in short bursts.

“Inhale in 1 count, exhale in 2 counts….inhale in 1 count, exhale in 4 counts.”

This we had to do till we managed to exhale in 16 counts. This is done to increase duration of exhalation. After all, singing is a process of controlled exhalation using the abdominal and thoracic muscles, coupled with pitch modulation using the vocal cords.

Let me give a glimpse of what would go on in any ‘one on one’ class :

Viktoriya would be seated at the piano. She was trained in a Russian conservatory where it was imperative for vocalists to gain fairly high level of competence in playing the piano.  I learned later that she was the only vocals teacher in the school whose piano skills were good enough to accompany a singer. (This capability was used quite well by KM during our exam recitals). She would be giving me instructions:

“Take deep breath from your stomach. Remember, stomach eez your support.”

“Stand straight, your chest should be out (chest and sinuses are the resonators, she would say).”

“Open your mouth, seeng vertically. ‘Eee’ should sound like ‘ai’, ‘Ai, like ‘aaah,

and ‘aaah’ like ‘Ooh’.”

“Your hard palate should be high, sing with a slight smile.”

“Don’t hold the note on your cheen. You should sing from the yawning place.”


She would keep giving instructions one after the other. Once I implemented an instruction, she would give another until it all became jumbled. It was a very tasking process indeed. I would start yawning, she would encourage,

“Yawning eez gooth. That means you are doing eet right.”

              After about 10 minutes, I would develop nausea and retch a little. I would get frustrated. If this is my situation in the practice session, how would I ever sing on the stage? But Viktoriya never lost hope and worked with the positives. I was sincere, I would follow the instructions, study the piece and come. My sense of music was good, I was picking up sight singing well and my understanding of theory was remarkable.

But still it was going to be an uphill journey!



About a week after shifting into the apartment in Chennai, my friend Gopinath got my keyboard and harmonium transported from Pondicherry on the weekend. So, that Sunday evening, with great enthusiasm, I set up the keyboard in my room. I played the first song which came to my mind.

“Kahin to” from Jaane tu ya jane na

A few nimble notes to begin with followed by a short intro piece.

Kahin to….
Kahin to hogi vo

Duniya jahan

tu mere paas hai’

A high pitch delicate but sonorous tenor voice came from the hall becoming progressively louder as Arul entered.  That was the first time I heard him sing. We exchanged a smile and then I continued working on the chords of the song. Soon Aseem joined us with his favourite instrument – ‘melodica’. It was a small 2 octave keyboard with a coiled plastic tubing through which one blows air to produce sound. The keyboard is to be played by one’s hand to change the pitch.


After a while, Adith joined us with the guitar. We were pleasantly surprised by this talent of his, besides the piano. As we continued to make progress and got some coordination going, Dhruv entered with his tabla. Of course, there is no tabla in the original song. But he played so well that it added a touch of fusion to the song.

This was a language very difficult to explain to outsiders or those who are not musically oriented. But to us, it came naturally without even speaking a word. This was a place where the musicality within me was understood with no questions asked. It was one of the sublime moments during my music course. Right now, all we were lacking in the song was a female lead. But these were early days. There was plenty of talent to come.

Unfinished Cadence IV – The Pre-foundation

The link to the previous part can be found here:


                       Time is said to be a great leveller. There are times when you feel lousy and depressed, fail to see any hope, but at other times, you feel elated and find that life has so much to offer. People emerge from personal tragedies and with time, eventually, start leading a normal life. Unfortunately, the corollary to this is also true. Time takes the best of times, most precious possessions, most charming relationships and makes them ordinary. The good in everything is taken for granted, and the bad magnifies itself. Merits fade away and, faults take centre stage. Everything that is special, eventually becomes mundane. And that is why I sort of dread a beautiful moment or experience even while enjoying it. It gives such a high that there is bound to be an abyss beyond it.

The course in KM was 1 year of Foundation course followed by 2 years of Diploma in Western Classical Music. The 3rd year – BA Hons can be done thereafter in UK in the Middlesex university. Two toppers from 2nd year diploma are eligible for a scholarship for the sameAlthough the actual Foundation course was due to begin in August, we had been asked to join in July. This was sort of pre-foundation to give us an idea about what the course would entail.

“Doctor, I must clear the exam for direct entry into Dip 1. It will be a huge advantage- 6 lakhs less. I can’t afford the fees for 3 years, I might be able to manage two.”

It was raining heavily. Me and Shivam had taken shelter under the roof of a paan shop. Students selected for Foundation with a background in Western music could get entry into Diploma 1. They had to give an exam to prove their eligibility.

“ But what do you need to study for this exam?” I asked curiously.

“Music theory, history and sight reading / singing mainly. Smith was optimistic about my chances.”

“What do you need to know in theory? And how difficult is this history thing?”

“In theory, you need to know chords, tonal functions, cadences. In history, mostly they will ask us to listen to a piece and guess about the composer, whether it’s romantic period or Baroque etc. There are four main periods in Western music – Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic.”

“ But these Western notations are quite difficult.”

“Not really, he quipped. Here, let me make a quaver for you.” He took a deep drag from the cigarette and smoked roughly the shape of a musical note.”

“Shivam, are you aware that this is your third cigarette?”

“ Doctor, not now. I want to quit smoking. But right now the pressure is too much. I have to clear this exam and get into dip 1. If my mind is not relaxed, I cannot function. This helps me relax and also revise.” This time he smoked a bass clef symbol.

The following day Mrs Viktoriya- a tall, slim fair, pretty woman with an oblong face and delicate features entered the class. She was wearing a stunning red ankle length one-piece dress. Her movements had the grace of a ballet dancer. Before saying anything she started writing on the board.

“ Goooth morning class. Today vee learn about tonal functions.” Pointing to the board, she said further,

“ Do, Rre, Mee, Fa, Soul, La, Tee, Do. Thees izz in Solfège. Let us learn the functions of each of thees in major scale. ‘Do’ izz tonik, ‘Soul’ izz dominant.” She stopped all of a sudden. “Do you all know thees ?”

There was no response from the class. Some students didn’t understand what was being taught, many didn’t understand her Russian accent while few others were dazed by her beauty. Most didn’t know that she was almost forty years old and mother of two children.

I thought our reaction was slightly embarrassing. So I ventured,

“Do, re, mi, fa is in Solfège which you call tonic, dominant etc in your music system, l mean, the Russian system? I offered.

Viktoriya looked at me with wide (Russian doll like) eyes. I felt as if I had made a terrible mistake. Is she going to throw a tantrum now?

“Noo!” She exclaimed. “ Let me clear thees. I am not teaching you anything from my country. Thees izz Western Classical Music from your syllabus – same in all countries – Amerika, France or Russia.”

After explaining that topic in brief, Viktoriya got us to do some sight singing for a while. She had written some weird notations on the board and was asking us to sing in any syllable, she preferred ‘Ta’. Initially we were only learning the rhythm and were to sing using the same note or pitch. It would sound like gibberish to anyone without a musical background and some of us also found it funny to sing phrases like –

‘Taa taa ta-ta taa’ (duration of each ‘ta’ depending on the time signature, notation used and it’s value).


One evening I was sitting in the apartment with Adith and Dhruv. I asked if either of them were planning for direct diploma entry. Adith had already finished 4 grades of Trinity and had more theory knowledge and sight singing skills than Shivam. They said they were not interested.

“Doctor, this is my college education. I don’t want any short-cuts. I want to learn everything and enjoy this phase.” Adith said. Dhruv seemed to agree with that.

They were not wrong. But needless to say, their parents were quite affluent and were willing to pay the fees for such an expensive course.

         There were lectures on various topics and we were being rapidly bombarded with lot of new concepts and information. We were also being prepared for group performances on the Inauguration day. We were divided in two groups and our group was under Erwin. Besides this there was a group song in which we all sang as a 4 part choir – Bass, tenor, alto and soprano. It was a popular song -’sky full of stars’ by Coldplay.

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As the prefoundation was coming to an end, in its last week, Aditya, a new student joined. He was a short Tamil chap with dark complexion, curly hair and keen eyes. He seemed quiet, unassuming but when it came to music, he was enthusiastic and focused. He picked up his part quickly in Erwin’s choir and the group song. One of the piano students in Foundation was given the part in our group song. A couple of days later, however, Aditya seemed to have been allotted the piano part of ‘sky full of stars.”

          Soon it was time for the examinations. We were supposed to write a theory exam on whatever we had been taught in one month. My roommates seemed terrified about writing an exam and were discussing the seating arrangements, so that they could copy from Adith. It turned out to be an awfully easy exam and reminded me of primary school since the question paper itself was also the answer sheet. A bunch of students, around 12, were however, exempt from the examination. They were appearing for a direct diploma entry. It was a tense time for them as a lot was at stake. The result was out by night but I had left for Pondicherry since it was a weekend. I tried Shivam’s phone to find out if he had made it, but it was unavailable. I called Adith out of curiosity. Four students had made it to Dip1 and unfortunately, Shivam was not one of them. Yuvan, Kavya and her friend Amrita (whom I didn’t know too well) had made it. But the fourth person was a wild card entry whom no one had known too well or expected to make it. It was none other than Aditya. Later, we came to know that he had some experience working in the Tamil music industry with a famous music director and knew Western notations well.

It was a case of ‘He came, he saw and he conquered.’

To be continued…….

A week full of life


For most working professionals, life is lived in the unit of weeks. As Sunday progresses from evening to night, there comes an all too familiar trepidation of Monday. Monday signifies the start of a work week. Not unlike everyone, I don’t actually hate my job. But it’s the monotony of work that is difficult to handle. For a doctor in India, it’s at least a 6 and a half day work week (unless you work in a medical college). We think in terms of weekdays and Sundays. Weekends don’t have much meaning since we usually have to work a full day and, in fact, there’s a surge of patients on Saturday. Most of my colleagues work at least alternate Sunday. Those engaged in private practice take only the evening session off on a Sunday and literally work all week. And after a relatively relaxed Sunday, the whole week repeats itself. This monotony goes on, and weeks turn to month, months turn to a year and years pass by quite unremarkably. That is if you don’t get beaten, or sued or suffer some other tragedy.

After a hectic couple of weeks in November when I had to work on two consecutive Sundays, I decided to take the next two Sundays off. So the last week of November sandwiched between two Sundays turned out to be quite remarkable as it unfolded. I clocked my 8 and a half hours every single day, but the evenings were quite eventful and refreshing. The previous week ended with me and my friend Sudipto leaving to Mumbai from Pune on Saturday evening to meet our beloved third musketeer Mahesh who would be getting married in December. The weekend was spent in a hue of colourful melodies and resonant harmonies to accompany the smoking delicious food and wine. We spent the Sunday evening in Colaba where I ended up purchasing an acoustic guitar on a whim. After that we had a sumptuous meal at a restaurant- Churchill – and returned home late at night.

I was already dreading Monday since it was a full working day and in the evening I had agreed to accompany my singing teacher for his concert somewhere in Paudh. It was a long drive and I was anxious to get a decent sleep. The next day after my work I headed straight to the decided spot to pick up Saurabh Sir and his friend. The venue of the concert turned out to be a Hindustani classical music school called ‘Chinmay Naad Bindu Gurukul’. Its a college and university founded by Swami Chinmayananda which has BA courses in Arts, Hindustani classical music and dance. Meditation and spiritual activities also take place there. Nestled in a quaint village of Kolwan at foot hills of the Sahyadri, it seems to be a serene place away from the busy hustle of the city.



(Photos from their website. As we reached there at night, we didn’t get a good view)

It’s almost 40 km from the centre of Pune city. The roads towards the end were quite harrowing but I managed the drive. They had spacious practice rooms and several sets of tabla, harmonium, tanpura and other musical instruments. There were posters and quotes of several classical singers and muscians like Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amkonkar, Hariprasad Chaurasiya, Kumar Gandharva and so on. The concert took place in a small auditorium with a modest crowd comprising mostly of students and their parents from nearby villages, around 100 people I suppose. This was the first time I was hearing my teacher sing at a concert. And Saurabh Sir turned out to be a terrific artist. He sang Raag Kedar, started with Bada Khyaal and later picked up the tempo in Chota khyaal. He rendered several long taanas and alaaps at a mesmerising pace with amazing control. Later he sang an Abhang, a Natyageet and ended with a Bhairavi. People were greatly impressed and showered praise on him. Thereafter we were served a homely vegetarian dinner and we left in a hurry. By the time I reached home, it was midnight. Here’s a link to a short clip from his performance for connoisseurs of classical music.


Tuesday was a routine day and when I came back in the evening, I slept for about an hour and a half to compensate for the previous couple of days. Later I went to the gym as we have a Bollywood dance session in the gym on Tuesdays. It was quite an exciting session. The guys and girls were paired up and the song which we did was ‘Sweety tera drama’ from Bareilly ki Barfi, one of my favourite numbers. My dance was not much graceful or co-ordinated but I made sure I didn’t let my partner down. In the end, the teacher – Rohit Nayyar did it with one of the better students and it was a treat to watch it done perfectly.

On Wednesday, after work I followed my usual routine. I had my singing class followed by gym. I was planning to go for a movie on Thursday evening. But Saurabh Sir instructed me to go to a musical event the following day evening at Gandharva Sangeet Vidyalaya.

As the event was at 6 pm on Thursday, I didn’t have time to go to the gym. Therefore I did some jogging in our society which has a half km inner perimeter. After that I got ready and went to Gandharva Sangeet Vidyalaya. Although a prestigious institute in Pune, it was in a fairly congested area in Sadashiv Peth in a dilapidated building. The event took place on the terrace and most of the people were senior citizens and a bunch of students and some middle aged couples. It was an interview with Pandit Vijay Koparkar who had learned from the legends of Marathi Natyasangeet – Dr Vasantrao Deshpande and Pandit Jitendra Abhisheki. It was a very informative session on student etiquette, GuruShishya relationship, practising techniques and theoretical aspects of various Raagas. He also sang from time to time to demonstrate important differences between similar Raagas, mixed Raagas like Raag Nanda-Kedar and some good bandish compositions. Here’s an audio link where he sings and demonstrates how nuanced some of the compositions (Natyageete) from the Marathi sangeet natak- ‘Katyar kaljaat ghusli‘ are.


On Friday, I decided to go for the movie which I was going to see on Thursday. So after work I headed straight to Phoenix market city in Pune and reached just in time to watch the evening show of ‘Crimes of Grindelwald.’ It was a 2D movie with 4D effects, my first 4D experience. It was a bit distracting but something interesting. However, I didn’t find the movie as good as Harry Potter series.

On Saturday evening my brother visited with his family. We ordered some starters and delicious food prepared by my mother. I tried my hand at a cocktail – cognac with pomogranate and lemon juice.

Sunday was going to be a day full of activities. I had asked my friend Sudipto, an amateur photographer among other things to take me with him on one of his photography expedition. The spot which he chose was not particularly far, about 15 km from the city – Pashan lake. He wanted to catch the sunrise, so we were to leave home by 5:30 in the morning. But unfortunately we got late and just missed the sunrise. Pashan lake, however, turned out to be a beautiful place. We were the first ones to arrive there. There were dense shrubs and trees on both sides with intermittent areas of clearing leading to a magnificent lake view. We also spotted a few kingfisher birds and cranes. It was, however, the incredibly delightful smell of the soil and trees which made our morning.



After I came home, I had a sumptuous breakfast of dosas and went to sleep. I had booked ticket for an afternoon movie. I got up just in time and rode my bike like a maniac to reach Phoenix market city just in time for ‘Ralph breaks the internet’ 3D with 4D effects. Now this movie was simply brilliant. It was an animation film where a couple of video game characters go rogue and end up threatening their own game. They then have to find a part for their video game online and the world of internet is represented in animation. It was a very creative script. When it comes to animation, Hollywood is quite unparalleled. In the evening I attended another musical concert where Pandit Anand Bhate, Raghunandan Panshikar and Mugdha Vaishyampan performed. My parents especially my mother was very keen on attending it and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

It was quite an eventful and lively week and by the end I was almost fatigued by entertainment, if that is even possible. Well, at least I got a great profile pic to flaunt.


Last week, when I was in Sydney…

If you are wondering about the weird title, it’s based on a quirk of one of my friends. Since I wouldn’t want to reveal his identity, I will call him G. So G is this incredibly talented guy who hasn’t studied in an English medium school, and therefore doesn’t have great English. Whenever we talk about some American sitcom, he doesn’t have a clue. If suddenly the medium of conversation changes to English, he gets uncomfortable and prefers to continue in Hindi or just agrees in an imitated accent saying ‘Ya, ya’.

G told me about this frivolous trick which his friend P has developed. It goes thus: when P is with a friend in a mall or a pub or any other public place where some pretty girls are around, they pretend to be chatting. P narrates some fictitious experiences during the conversation starting with,

“You know, last week, when I was in New York….”  (in an apparently American accent). P claims he has tried it and it has helped him hook up with random girls. But I don’t really believe him. Neither does G, but it has expanded his English vocabulary a little. And he drops the remark from time to time. It’s kind of cute and we keep pulling his leg. But the sporting guy that he is, he doesn’t mind and joins in instead.

                Talking about accents though, in India, we are generally way too serious about our English. Having good English is looked upon as an asset and such a person is considered smart. If the accent is good, that’s even more impressive. So what if he is a phony? At least he is saying it in polished accented English. No European country bothers that much about accent as we do. This is probably due to the inferiority complex borne out of a colonial past.

So, where was I ? Six years back, when I was in Sydney….

Enough with that! I feel conveying the information or content precisely without any pretence or hypocrisy is important irrespective of how bad the accent is or mediocre the vocabulary is.

I, myself, have a fairly vernacular accent and had never gone abroad before 2012. So my experiences will echo the ‘desi’ in me.  The trip to Australia was actually our delayed honeymoon. It was also my first ever trip out of India. My wife had gone to Singapore with her parents as a kid. So I had a lot of concerns and spent weeks planning it.

Those days I was working as a registrar in the Radiology department of Apollo Heart Centre in Chennai. Apollo hospital was quite miserly in giving leaves as are most other corporate hospitals. But those working in radiology had this exceptional privilege called ‘Radiation leave’. After one year of service, any of the radiology staff is eligible for 1 month paid leave. But since staff can’t be spared for a month, they had capped the leave to 15 days of paid leave + 15 days extra pay. Sounds too good to be true, isn’t it ?
We chose Australia because my brother was staying in Sydney around that time. The tour was for around 10 days. We had planned to spend two days in Cairns to enjoy the marine life, scuba diving / snorkelling etc and two days in Gold Coast near Brisbane famous for its themed parks. We had taken a travel package for Cairns and Gold Coast. The remaining time we had planned to spend in Sydney staying with my brother. I will be narrating this travel memoir through some peculiar experiences and interactions with the local people that I had.

                      The worst thing about international travel is the sleep loss. Most of the flights are at night and that means no sleep. In our enthusiasm, we booked a flight taking two nights to reach Australia. The first morning we reached Hong Kong and got to spend an entire day there. That night we boarded our flight from Hong Kong to Australia which reached Cairns the following day afternoon. By the time we reached our hotel it was 2 in the afternoon. We were terribly hungry and sleepy. But it was an easy choice. Since it was already past lunch time and much before dinner time, the restaurant had no food to offer. So we went to sleep and dozed off for around 4 hours. We got up at a time which could qualify as dinner time in Australia. We went for a walk and found a place serving pizza. Now, usually the two of us would get totally stuffed sharing a 12 inch pizza. But if you discount the paltry breakfast meal in the flight, we had almost fasted the entire day. So that day we devoured a large pizza each – the size of a 12 inch pizza back home – and set a new record for ourselves in the process.

Cairns was a quaint little city with almost a deserted look. I could hardly see any people around.

A picturesque road in Cairns

          However, mornings in Cairns didn’t suit me at all. Both mornings started with an unpleasant incident at breakfast. Now back home, we aren’t the most punctual people. But nor are we the most tardy ones. In fact by Indian standards, the two of us are fairly respectable. So when our itinerary said that the morning transfer car will arrive at 8 am, we were in the restaurant at 8 am sharp and started our breakfast. According to me, we had made good time. I made myself an omelette sandwich (’cause that was the main course for breakfast there  – choice of eggs and bacon) and was about to take a bite when the restaurant  manager came up to me.

“Sir, your driver is here for the transfer.”

“Ok. Can you tell him we are having breakfast and will be with him in 10-15 mins?”

It was a perfectly natural response. I have been in hotels in India and have been picked up for tours in the morning. But the manager said,

“He is outside. Could you tell him yourself?”

Slightly perplexed I went outside to find a driver in uniform. He was a bearded Caucasian of average height and built and didn’t give a particularly friendly vibe.

I requested, “Hi, listen. We have just started with our breakfast. We will finish and come out in 10-15 minutes.”

“So, you won’t be travelling with me today? ‘Cause I am supposed to pick you up at 8 am.”

I was stunned for a moment by this combination of punctuality, arrogance and sarcasm, that too from a driver.

“I will be back in a minute”, I managed. I went inside told Mittali that we have to leave immediately. Within a matter of seconds I gobbled up the omelette sandwich. My wife, however, had to go without breakfast.

We were supposed to go for Kuranda scenic sky rail according to the itinerary, which had sounded quite fancy to me at the time. The driver picked another couple along with us and took us to the nearby railway station. We took our seats in this tourist train and after 15 minutes of waiting, the train left the platform. I fretted to Mittali,

Dus minute ruk hi sakta tha vo hamare nashte ke liye.” (He could have waited 10 minutes for our breakfast).

As the train left the station and ensued on the journey, it eventually dawned upon me that this journey through the mountains was what Kuranda scenic sky rail meant. Apparently that rail track was laid years ago between 1885 to 1891. I was kind of adjusting to the new time zone and started to doze off.

“What are you doing? You have come all the way here to sleep?” nagged Mittali.

Arey ye toy train dekha nahi kya kabhi…Matheran, Lonavla, Ooty sab jagah hota hai. What a waste of my time!” (Haven’t you seen this toy train stuff? It’s there in India everywhere…Matheran, Lonavla, Ooty).

This has aroused my curiosity regarding the first train route in India. It seems the first train in India was started by the British more than 50 years earlier around 1837 in Chennai (Red Hills to Chintadripet).

In the scenic sky rail…so sleepy !!

The following day, we didn’t have much to do and were going to be transferred to the airport in the afternoon. I resolved to have a sumptuous breakfast compensating for the previous day. As I filled my plate with various items and took a seat at the table, I realised there were no spoons on my side of the table. The adjacent table was well equipped with cutlery. There was a handbag kept on the table, however, there was no apparent occupant. So I took a spoon from the table and as I turned towards mine, a Caucasian lady appeared out of nowhere. She scowled at me,

“How can you just take something from my table? Where are your manners?”

Ek chamach hi to liya hai. Itna kya akadti hai?” would have been my normal response back in India. (I have only taken a spoon. What are you being so uptight about ?).

I was out of India for the first time and wasn’t much fluent in English back then. Also it was a totally unexpected response. I didn’t know how to react. I merely offered to keep the spoon back.

“Don’t put it back now,” she screamed further.

                        A female waiter nearby sheepishly replaced the spoon. I was fairly embarrassed and returned to my table. We ate our breakfast quietly and left the restaurant. We had planned to go for a walk in a park nearby. But the incident sparked an argument between me and my wife, who was upset over my behaviour. This led to a fight between us and further marred the day. My brother called in the afternoon and I narrated the incident to him.

“You have to be very careful about these things. They are very particular about mannerisms here especially from us. There is a bit of racial prejudice involved. You were lucky you didn’t get hit.”

                      After that incident, I have never taken stuff from someone else’s table in a restaurant. I was led to believe that I had erred. Now when I reflect on this incident, however, I feel if I was ill-mannered, she was also rude and vindictive. After all, the best of people are those in whom, power and privilege bring out compassion and empathy.

But I definitely wouldn’t want to judge all Australians on the basis of these unpleasant incidents. We also had some nice experiences with the local people in course of our tour.

One rainy evening, the two of us were hanging around in a relatively deserted area at the Manly beach near Sydney. We thought it was a scenic location and were trying to take a few selfies. An old lady holding an umbrella and carrying 2-3 shopping bags, was passing by. She kept her shopping bags aside and approached us.

“Let me take a photo for the lovely couple.” We were enamoured by her gesture and ended up taking a photo with her.


On a ferry from Sydney, I met this old man who struck a conversation with us telling us about his experiences in Australia. So it’s not like we didn’t meet friendly people in Australia. In fact, everyone from the driver to the teller at the supermarket would be quite friendly to us. When I went to a local vegetable dealer, she would say,

“Good morning! How are you doing today?”

Unaccustomed to such behaviour, I would be stunned and would somehow manage

“I am fine.”

                After Cairns, our next destination was Gold Coast near Brisbane which was much more tourist friendly. Since the time we had left India, we hadn’t had any Indian food. Almost all meals comprised of some form of bread which didn’t suit my wife who also happened to be a vegetarian. She got to eat some Chinese food with rice once in Cairns and was very happy about it. But to our surprise, in Gold Coast we found a Punjabi Dhaba called ‘Sher -e- Punjab’ which served us tandoori rotis and Alu Gobi. Punjabi food had never tasted more delicious !

                       We had a much larger room in Gold Coast with a splendid window view. The place also boasted of great night life but since I was with my wife, I couldn’t explore that bit satisfactorily. The themed parks on our itinerary were ‘Sea world’ and ‘Movie world’. All the marine animals were kept in their proper habitat and the place was impeccably maintained. One of the highlights was a skit – Seal Detectives – in which actual seals were trained to act on cue. Movie World had a lot of rides and short shows like Wild Wild West, Batman, Stunt Driver etc.  

The Seal Detective


                In Sydney my brother was our host, guide and cook. Living alone in Sydney had brought to fore his cooking skills. He cooked Chicken Biryani and Pizza for us. We also went for a beach barbecue at Bondi beach. We did a Bronte to Bondi coastal walk on the way there. We also covered the usual attractions in Sydney like the Opera House, Royal Botanical garden, Darling harbour, Sydney harbour bridge, Museum of Sydney etc. We also went for a movie at the IMAX. In the Museum of Sydney, I learnt about the genocide of Aborigines at the hands of the British colonisers. There were several pieces of arts from paintings to inscriptions depicting violent crimes against the Aborigines. This had resulted in a rapid decline in their population. I hadn’t known that this developed and ‘civilised’ country had such a dark underbelly.

View from the Bondi Beach
Barbecue at Bondi beach
The Opera House

                            The place which impressed me the most, however, was the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. It is spread over an area of 69 acres and houses around 4000 animals of 350 different species. They gave us a map at the entry without which we would have been totally lost. The animals and their habitats were exquisitely maintained. There were zoo keepers at each enclosure who engaged us in various activities. Some of the notable ones were giraffe feeding, tiger trek, farm feed, keeper talks and a bird show. The bird show was quite entertaining and their incredible abilities of flight and hunting were displayed by the keeper.

Feeding the giraffe
View of the Harbour bridge from Taronga zoo
The Free Flight Bird show

I must say at the time we were thoroughly impressed by the lifestyle in Australia. The living conditions here appeared dismal in comparison with lot of competition and overcrowding. I wonder how can our country ever match these lofty standards set by the Western countries. Nowadays pessimism is rampant in India. By nowadays I mean ever since I can remember (from my childhood till now) people discussing about the socio-political and economic conditions in India comparing it with the west. But coincidentally none of these people have ever been involved in any kind of transformational activity or have affected a social change. Lot of them have even ceased to vote saying nothing ever changes and nothing will. Well, I don’t really think good governance and development fell from the sky and landed in the west. They built their country and we will have to build ours. After all, a country is but the people that constitute it.

Unfinished Cadence – Back to College


I was outside Mrs Shantalakshmi’s office in KM. She was responsible for admissions, fees and related queries.

“Hello, what is the name of the student ?”

“Uh, Vaibhav Sabnis.” I hesitated a little.

“ Ok, let me check the list. You are the father ?”

“No, I am the student.” If I did feel any embarrassment, I didn’t show it.

What can I say ? With great humiliation, comes great courage. Having been a poor starter with deficient social skills, I had always been an easy target during my college days. I wasn’t particularly brilliant at studies either to be at least respected as the nerd. Add to that giving medical viva! And what really takes embarrassment to another level and makes you completely immune is medical residency in India. One has to develop a certain level of callousness and impudence to get through this phase.

Later on when Mrs. Shantalakshmi came to know I was a doctor, she was quite impressed. It seemed her son was preparing for medical entrance exam and she had some questions to ask about a career in medicine. I suppose she must have been puzzled at my life choices. But let’s not dwell on that…

( ‘Unfinished cadence’ is a memoir about the fascinating experience, I had, as an Arts student. From July 2016 to May 2017, I did a Foundation course in Western Music at KMMC, also called KM college of Music & Technology. It was founded in Chennai by Oscar winning Indian composer and music maestro, A.R. Rahman.

Link to the first two parts of this blog can be found here:


https://bohemianretreat.wordpress.com/2018/07/19/unfinished-cadence-yet-another-entrance-exam/ )

Part – II Back to College

At 33, I was a free bird pursuing a course in music, leaving a well paying job, while my other colleagues were busy establishing their practice, working hard to pay mortgage for their houses, tending to their babies and putting their older kids to school. Some of them had additional liabilities like loans for their own clinics, hospitals and diagnostic centres and so on. Me ? I would be living in a couple of suitcases with maybe, a musical instrument or two. Little did I know, I would have to shoulder some unexpected responsibilities!

I was told there were plenty of apartments around KM which I could rent. Mrs. Shantalakshmi had told me to come few days before college started, so that I could share apartments with other students. The idea of staying with other students appealed to me. I could learn things from them, we could do assignments together, jam with each other, and party occasionally (I was to discover some obvious and some not so obvious flaws in the plan later). I was told about a particular gated community called ‘Triumph apartments’ which had plush furnished 3 BHKs and was within walking distance from KM.

So I came on a Friday – three days prior to the stipulated first day – to look for flatmates. I was welcomed by a bunch of starry eyed adolescent kids and their hyper anxious, over caring, and overbearing parents. It was no wonder then, that when these parents found out that a doctor, almost double their kids’ age is willing to live with them, I became a valued asset. I, of course, enjoyed the attention I was getting.

Each student had to choose their major, i.e. the main instrument they were going to learn. For the singers, it was voice, while others chose piano, guitar and percussion (tabla/drums). These were the four main categories in our batch. Besides this, there was one violinist. After the enquiry with Mrs. Shantalakshmi in the office, I came out. First of all, I struck conversation with Adith’s father who was working as a Government officer in Maharashtra. Adith was a 19 year old prodigal kid with an innocent face and curly hair. His major was piano. Dhruv was an 18 year old tabla player from Ahmedabad who looked more like 16. Both of them seemed to get along well and were planning to become roommates. Then, there was Mrunal, a Delhi boy, whose major was guitar. His parents, particularly his mother, appeared quite strict. He was joined by an unusually quiet, fair and plump Kannada boy Umesh, who was a drummer. I joined this heterogeneous group and was looking to share a flat in Triumph apartment like many other students, who had formed similar liaisons. It seemed the apartment was quite in demand among KM parents and therefore the rents were inflated. Our group seemed to prefer the number 6, two to share each of the room in the 3BHK. I thought 6 would be too crowded.

As we were walking along on our way to Triumph, I was slightly ahead of everyone and Mrunal caught up with me. His mother was behind us but just within earshot. He asked me,

“ Doctor, you don’t smoke by any chance?”

I thought it was a weird question and decided toplaying along to see where he goes with this.

“Well I don’t mind a smoke occasionally. What about you?”

“Look here, doctor,” he said in a firm tone, “Let me make it clear since it seems we might share an apartment. I am here to concentrate on my career and wouldn’t want any smoking and drinking in the apartment.”

I gave him a thumbs up.

I had to be at work the following day in Pondicherry. So I departed in the evening, leaving the responsibility of finalising the apartment to Adith and Dhruv’s parents and therefore, didn’t get much of a say. After a lot of chopping and changing, they got two more guys besides Umesh – Aseem and Arul – both vocalists, and finalised an apartment in Triumph for six.

It so happened eventually that Mrunal joined another group and took an apartment in Koyembedu, further away from KM. And on the second day of the course, as I was heading towards my apartment, I saw Mrunal in a nearby shop. No marks for guessing ! He had a Classic Milds burning in his fingers and a twinkling smile emanating from a puff of smoke. I gave him a bemused look and shrugged.

On what was supposed to be the first day of my college, I got late and had to catch one of the overcrowded non AC buses, standing all the way from Pondicherry to Chennai. I reached the college late, and the orientation had already begun in Lecture Hall -1 (LH-1).

LH-1 had a transparent glass door, and before I entered, I got a glimpse of a tall slender guy with shoulder length locks of blonde hair. He had a stern tone and an impeccable British accent. He made a lot of gestures while talking. His actions had a flourish and yet, were quite emphatic. Dr Smith was Professor and academic head at KM and supervised the Foundation and Diploma courses. When he saw me standing across the door, he gave me a forced smile baring his dirty yellow teeth. He asked me to come in with a short swift gesture without discontinuing his address. As I entered and made my way to one of the back seats, I felt (or maybe imagined) the gaze of the entire class.

“For those unaware of our policies, let me make it clear this once. Latecomers are not adored here. If you are late for a lecture beyond 10 minutes, your entry will be at the concerned faculty’s discretion. And if you are found to be repeatedly late, disciplinary action will be taken against you.”

“Don’t think that the concept of IST will be tolerated here”, quipped a stern voice in an equally crisp British accent.

The voice, however, belonged to a tall dark guy with curls on Smith’s left, who looked very much of an Indian origin. The perennially poker-faced Arnab Dey, a violinist, was the faculty for Music History. They sounded menacing enough to everyone in the class and I groaned to myself. What a start!

“So, continuing from where I Ieft. There are certain unmistakable signs in music which set the mood for a piece instantly. Romantic songs are mellow and with a relaxed tempo usually……”

I cast a look around. At least 6 of the faculty were present in the class, only one of whom was a female. John, a fair and bald American, who was quipping in with some jokes from time to time. Then there was a tall, bald Swiss guy with a booming voice and an accent – Erwin. Besides this, another Bengali – Dev was sitting in the back row, who – I learned later – would be teaching us EMP (electronic music production). The only female was Sarah, a Brit, who was the faculty for brass instruments.

After the orientation lecture, the students hung around in the college getting to know each other. I hadn’t had my breakfast and was terribly hungry. So I left alone for a nearby restaurant which I was familiar with from my previous visits and had a sumptuous lunch. After returning, I learnt there was going to be a performance class where our batch students could perform voluntarily. I hadn’t gotten any time to prepare anything. But I looked forward thought to listening to this enormously talented bunch of artists.

A second year Diploma student Sejal – a Gujarati – performed a piece from an opera accompanied by Shabbir, a pianist and junior faculty. Sejal, a soprano, could hit a lot of high notes quite easily and had a great vibrato too. It simply seemed unreal to me that an Indian could sing in this fashion.

After her marvellous performance, I was wondering who would take the stage from our batch. How could anyone match that !! But there were at least 10 performances from our batch and I had the same thought after each of those.

First performance was by a vocalist Deepak – a chirpy outspoken lad from Lucknow. He sang a composition based on Hindustani classical music. I don’t remember the title, but the original singer was Ustaad Amanat Ali – father of popular singer Shafqat Amanat Ali (a present day exponent of classical music in his own right). Adith was the only one of my roommates who performed. He sang a few Bollywood numbers while playing the piano, which was his actual major. Then two girls who had already became friends sang a pop song as duet. Shivam Bhatt played a piano piece originally composed by Yanni. There were many other performances.

The most noteworthy one was by a girl named Kavya from Mumbai, accompanied by Rishi, a piano major. Kavya Iyer was a slightly heavy girl and had an equally powerful voice. Rishi, a fair Mongoloid guy from Nepal, looked supremely confident in his piano skills. The song which they played was a Jazz number – ‘ Spain (I can recall)’ by Al Jarreau. It starts in a slow tempo and picks up somewhere in between to a pace so fast, that it’s difficult even to enunciate the words. But the duo performed quite effortlessly like seasoned performers. She improvised a lot too (which I didn’t understand then as I was hearing the song for the first time).

I ended up being in awe of my supremely talented batchmates and thought I stood nowhere. But then so was half of the class, who hadn’t performed. Most of them didn’t have that much stage practice and confidence. There was no doubt, however, that much excitement lay ahead of us.

Youtube link to a live performance of Spain (I can recall) by Al Jarreau. The piano solo starting at 3:56 and drums solo at 6:05 are quite spectacular.

Unfinished Cadence – Yet Another Entrance exam!

‘Unfinished cadence’ is a memoir about the fascinating experience, I had, as an Arts student. From July 2016 to May 2017, I did a Foundation course in Western Music at KMMC, also called KM college of Music & Technology. It was founded in Chennai by Oscar winning Indian composer and music maestro, A.R. Rahman.

Link to the Introductory part of this blog can be found here:


Part I – Yet Another Entrance Exam!

“What is music, according to you? Anyone?”

We were sitting in Hindustani Classical Music Theory Class. Bageshri Mam, the faculty was taking an introductory class. She was a simple and sweet Maharashtrian lady who reminded me of some of my school teachers. She had asked a question, a simple rather basic one, on the face of it, which one might even call cliche.

Now, back in school and even medical college, I was never a confident student. I always shied away from answering any questions, asking any doubt and preferred to remain inconspicuous. But, for some reason, I felt emboldened, maybe because I was the oldest among all of them or because I had nothing to lose. I was in one of the last rows. I raised my hand and stood up, when prompted by the teacher.

“Mam, I think, at a beginner level, music is nothing but mathematics. It’s about understanding the relation between individual notes as they form a melody. But as one progresses, at some point this mathematics transcends into an art.”

“That’s a good answer!” said Bageshri Mam.

Few of the students lauded me saying ‘doctor’. That is what I was generally referred to by fellow students. A smart looking guy with curly hair and goatee turned to me from a couple of rows ahead giving a thumbs up.

“That’s perfectly described. doctor.”

Shivam was probably the second oldest guy in our class. He was 24 and an Engineer, who had left his job and was doing music full time. He was an exceptionally talented pianist. As far as Bollywood was concerned, he was easily good enough to be a recording artist or a keyboardist in an orchestra. He, however, aimed for something much bigger. Me and Shivam were to form a useful alliance during the course of that one year. But, more about that later….

Let’s continue from where we had left previously ….

Nestled in one of the busiest area in the city of Chennai, KM conservatory is like a hidden treasure for musicians. As one passes along the busy 100 Feet Road in Arumbakkam, it would be difficult to imagine that one of the perpendicular small nondescript lanes leads to AR Rahman’s music school. Just a little further on the main 100 feet road comes the dreaded junction known as MMDA signal. At most times of the day, it’s a civilised person’s nightmare to navigate this area. As we follow one of the narrow lanes inside, we reach a junction. There are small tea and snacks shops (which also serve meals for the students), a xerox shop and few individual houses and small apartments in and around that area. Thus it has a minimalistic ambience. (We will also be coming across minimalism in a musical context later).

The school itself has large metal double doored gate and a high compound. There are trees flanking the complex from inside. A beautiful lawn welcomes you and a small paved road leads to the main building. On the left side, is a small rectangular white cafe with a glass front called ‘Zuka’ which serves overpriced coffee, sandwiches and chocolates. Most of the frugal students prefer the small tea shops in the vicinity to this lavish cafe. The main building itself is a rectangular building with a metallic gray white facade. On its right side, is a large stone platform where students hang around with their guitars and are either singing or chatting and rarely reading and discussing (near about exam time).

A guard sits at the entrance with an attendance register. As we push the metallic doors and enter, on the left side is a wooden bench, a few chairs and a sofa are kept in a semicircular arc beyond it. On the right side, is a squarish room with a grand piano. As we move further, there comes a central circular room. This is the Qawali room – almost a place of worship for AR. A carpet is laid out in the centre and several harmonium and tabla are kept on one side. Munna Sir, Qawwal (an Urdu poet who composes Qawali), singer, musician and Hindustani faculty practises and teaches here almost everyday. Behind this room is the principal’s office. AR rarely inhabits this office, if at all he comes to the school, it’s at evening or night. Next to this office is the LH1 (lecture hall 1) which houses another grand piano in the front, an amplifier in a corner behind the piano and 4 JBL speakers in 4 corners of the room. Most importantly, the lecture hall has a back exit !

There is also a state of the art recording studio on the ground floor with all necessary equipment- mixers, microphones, stands, sound cards etc.

The first floor has a similar structure with LH2 and also a library with several books on music and around 6 desktops. There is a piano studio with 7-8 digital pianos and a central grand piano. Each digital piano is provided with headphones so that students can practise without disturbing others. There is also an Audio engineering room where several IMac desktops are placed on tables in rows, each loaded with Logic Pro (music making software) and headphones for each desktop. There is also a percussion room, where along with a drum kit, there are other rare western percussion instruments like Xylophone, Timpani, Tambourine etc.

The second floor has a large auditorium where most of the student concerts take place.

All in all it is pretty much a musician’s Hogwarts!!

It was a sweltering April afternoon when I came for the audition. My friend and junior Dr Gopinath had accompanied me and we hadn’t had lunch. I told him I will be back in maybe an hour maximum. However, the audition in KM conservatory was an elaborate one. The main contention was aptitude for a full time academic course in Western Classical Music and English language skills, which was,of course, the medium of instruction. Now, if some of you are wondering, why am I stressing on the word ‘academic’ or how academic can Music be, you are in for a surprise.

For the admission, I was supposed to meet Jyotsna Nair. She was a tall good looking lady elegantly clad in a saree. She was probably in her late forties or early fifties. She asked me to meet Karthik first, who was the peon and the ‘go to guy’ for all logistics. He took me to the Audio engineering room, allotted me a desktop, headphones and a 5-6 page form. I was confused and asked him what I needed the headphones for. He told I was supposed to listen to a musical piece!

I found that really strange. As I went through the form, I realised it was a question-cum-answer paper. Besides asking me personal details and my experience in music, there was a passage from which I had to answer the questions that would follow. I would have expected anything but writing! It was about invention of the printing press and its effect on music, particularly Western Classical Music, music listeners and the society, in general. The next section asked me to listen to the musical piece and answer the questions that followed. They asked questions like the instruments played in the piece etc. But the most interesting question was

‘ What feelings did the piece evoke in you?’

I was like, ‘Seriously?’

Now, I have rarely come across people who talk about music like that. It’s not that this kind of analytical thinking is absent in advanced Indian music courses. But this was very basic, almost an elementary level of music. Ordinarily, in India, majority of the people don’t go beyond knowing the singer of a particular song, composer is a real long shot. I have been fortunate to meet some rare people with such passion about music. Later on in the course, we learnt about a famous Russian musician Alexander Scriabin. It was said that Scriabin explored the concept of synkinesis in music, comparing effects of music with other senses. When I read it, my mind flew several years back, when Sudipto one of my friends and key member of our band had told that he associated songs with different colours. He had never read about Scriabin or Western Classical music but yet he came up with a similar concept on his own.

Describing how a certain piece sounds to me, analytical thinking and expression of that sort was such a refreshing exercise. I was elated and set about the task. The piece seemed to be a symphony and the mood appeared jubilant or victorious to me. I couldn’t identify all the instruments. After finishing the paper, Karthik told me to await my audition outside the vocals room on first floor. By now there was a symphony playing in my stomach evoking feelings of severe hunger. Soon I was ushered into Lydia’s office.

After asking me personal information, she launched into a discourse about structure of the course, it’s future scope, career options and so on. I thought to myself,

Itna counselling to medical admission me bhi nahi karte !”

Then she asked me to sing any piece (they prefer the term ‘piece’ over ‘song’) that I had prepared. I didn’t know how much Lydia would understand about Hindi film music, but I anyway sang the song that I had prepared. She commented,

“I understand a little bit more about Indian music than people would give me credit for considering my appearance. After all, the Ragas are a bit similar to the modes in Western music.” (Or something to that effect. I am paraphrasing a little for the lapses in my memory).

After that Lydia told me to follow the notes or phrases that she sings, either in la la la or ta ra ra or whatever syllables I was comfortable with. With my ear training, I found it quite simple. Then she did the same for rhythm by clapping a few patterns. I followed suit without much trouble. After that she told me she had prepared the result of my audition and would submit it to the office. Now during the course of audition,it so happened that some of the notes she sang hit me like a physical force. Maybe it was the reverb in the room or because I had first time encountered up close a well trained opera singer. Her voice was just mind blowing.

I went back to Jyotsna Mam and she said not to worry and that I will make it easily. Finally around 5:30 pm, I found myself having a late lunch with Gopinath at Forum Mall. I had to leave for home soon after since I had no accommodation in Chennai.

Following this I paid another visit to KM in May. This time I had the fortune of visiting the Qawali room. I had made acquaintance previously with Sudhir Mane, junior faculty for Hindustani vocals, a Maharashtrian. He introduced me to Munna Sir. He and Sir were in the middle of composing a Qawali. Munna Sir was explaining the nuances of his composition, the Raaga which he had composed it in and other fine matters. Sudhir seemed to be listening keenly and his demeanour was of utmost respect and appreciation. Sudhir himself was MA in Hindustani classical music and was a brilliant singer.

Something which I have observed listening to good singers up close is that you may have understood and practised a song and be singing it to your best of ability. You may feel very happy about it. But the moment a trained singer like Sudhir sings the same song it suddenly sounds more beautiful and extra melodious. I was hoping here I would understand why this happened. They also talked about Western Classical terminologies like ‘head voice’ and ‘chest voice’. It seemed there were a lot more technical aspects to singing in Western Classical style than I had learnt in Hindustani Classical. This was what the next one year in my life was gonna be all about !

More about that soon……

Note: Names of the faculty and students have been changed so that their identity is not revealed.