when shiva danced
It is hard to be the child of genius.
Even when I was very small, not yet three
years old, I was aware that my father dwelled
in some other sphere as if he had struck a bargain with God that took him outside human
No one stopped me when I lay on the floor
outside his music room because I never made
a sound as his fingers moved across the frets
of his vina forming shapes in the air, a whole
architecture of sound that I could walk through
and around, so substantial when I listened that
I believed it would last for a thousand years.
I always wondered as a child, where did
such beauty go? Which audience of spirits sat
waiting for the sounds to rearrange themselves
into arches, vaults, balconies, spires, domes that
they could inhabit? But I could not ask my father. He was surrounded by musicians, their
silent applause flowing around him as impassable as deep water as they listened to his genius
taking him toward some unknown dimension
on the ladder of music that he was constructing
so painstakingly with his vina.
Whenever I tried to approach my father,
that sea of adulation closed like water over my
head before I was able to reach the smiling figure glancing at me with indifferent interest as
if I were a pye-dog puppy who had wandered
into his music room. I don’t think it could be
said of my father that he was sensitive to the
presence of other human beings unless they intruded on his music, so he never noticed me.
But he noticed my despair.
You see, despair is an emotion, and the emotions were like shoals of brilliant fish swimming
through his melodies. Or colored gases floating
through the ether in which his music dwelled.
To the entire household’s astonishment,
when I was six years old my father, who had
never accepted a student from all the great
musicians who had begged to sit at his feet,
stretched out his hand, making a bridge for me
to cross the gulf of praise that separated us, and
offered to teach me music.
My first music lesson extended for several
months. In all that time I was not permitted to
touch an instrument. I was not even permitted
to sing the seven notes of the scale: the sa, re, ga,
ma, pa, dha, ni that are the do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti
of Western music.
Instead my father made me sit next to him
in the evenings as the birds were alighting on
“Listen,” he said in a voice so hushed it was
as if he was praying. “Listen to the birds sing-
ing. Do you hear the half notes and microtones
pouring from their throats? If I practiced for
ten lifetimes, I could not reproduce that careless
waterfall of sound and sshh…listen closely.”
I tried to imitate him, bending forward in
my chair. “Hear? How that song ended on a
single note when the bird settled into the tree?
The greatest ragas must end like that, leaving
just one note’s vibrations on the air.”
I nodded in enthusiasm, hoping to please
him, but he did not see me. “Do you know why
birds sing at dawn and at sunset? Because of
the changing light. Their songs are a spontane-
ous response to the beauty of the world. That is
Then he told me that he would die happy
if he were able to create such music five or ten
times in a whole lifetime.
“Men are fools,” my father said as we
walked in the jungles behind our house. “They
think only humans respond to beauty. But a
feeding deer will drop its food to listen to mu-
sic, and a king cobra sway its hood in pleasure.
Listen. Do you hear that peacock’s cry? It is the
first note of the scale. Sa.”
Standing under the trees, we waited to hear
the peacocks cry again, and when they did my
father’s voice echoed them and the peacocks fell
All the daughters of music shall be brought low.
—Ecclesiastes, c. 400 BC