By Peggy Imig
Ensconced within the comforting oasis of The Sri Aurobindo Ashram and The Mother’s International School in middle class New Dehli, I met up with several travelers who, like myself, sought spiritual sustenance behind its white washed walls. It was there that I met John Munsey, a tall blonde, blue eyed and very affable Texan vocalist who had located himself in Amsterdam where he performed Western Classical Music and Opera as well as studied various forms of Hindustani Classical Music, which was our shared interest.
Seated on the floor of my room before a harmonium which I played, I sang: “Sa, sa, SA re, sa re ga ma, sa re, ga, ma, Pa, sa. The five notes of the Indian pentatonic scale accompanied by erratic tones from the squeeze box . I loved the Sanskrit tumbling from my tongue. Suddenly, John appeared at the door, his eyes twinkling in merriment. “Would you like to meet Philip Glass?”
Mouth opened in to a large well formed, “Of course.” John knew me well enough to know that I knew who he was although in 1983 Philip Glass was a very esoteric figure in American music. In disbelief I asked, “When?”
John replied, “Right now. He has asked to meet with the Dagar Brothers and they would like to have us there.” Hurriedly I dressed and we made off by bus into the center of New Delhi which is a lovely place in spite of heavy air pollution; there are parts of it that are lightly trafficked and filled with green space. We entered a nondescript international bhavan where the Dagar Brothers, Ustad Nasir Zahiruddin and Ustad Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar had already arrived. We passed the time making small talk even though both brothers had little command of English.
Soon Philip arrived alone wearing a simple brown suit jacket with matching brown pants and white shirt open at the collar. Even though his appearance was that of an American, his manner and tone was low key, gentle and respectful. He said hello and went with the brothers into a separate side room leaving John and I to muse on the content of their discussion. Was it a film project, or did he wish to record them as part of his multi-layered compositions? We figured a translator must have entered from a door hidden from us, because unless Philip could converse fluently in Hindi, it was quite impossible for them to have a meaningful conversation. After about an hour they emerged and Fiyaz who was more fluent in English introduced us.
I remember shaking hands while Philip’s large, languid brown eyes spoke softly to mine, then he shook John’s hand and asked us to settle back to watch a film he had with him. It was a private screening, just for us, of: Koyaanisqatsi, which is the Hopi word for “crazy life, life out of balance, a way of life that calls for another way of being” for which he had composed the soundtrack. It was a frantic melange of images both moving and provoking. At the time I did not understand that it was the first of a trilogy. The third work was not completed until 2002 with “Naqoyqatsi, or a life of killing each other” The second piece is titled “Powaqqatsi, or a way of life that consumes the life of other beings in order to further its own way of life.” All titles based on the Hopi language comprised of verbs. How much more prophetic these titles seem in 2013 than when the films were produced!
After we exchanged pleasantries, John and I walked into a dark winter night in New Dehli musing on the power of the film we had just seen and Philip Glass’ musical oeuvre as well as his first sound for the film Chappaqua featuring the music of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rahka, one of India’s most renowned vocalists, and the two most well known in America largely due to that film appearance. Based on the film we had just seen Koyaanisqatsi, we figured Philip was going to use a different tradition of Hindustani Classical musical rhythm as the basis for another film. However, as far as I know no project with The Dagar Brothers ever materialized.
A note on The Dagar Brothers mentioned here, Zahiri and Faiyaz were the last practitioners of a Northern Indian gharana, or school of musical tradition. Their family had sung drupad in an unbroken tradition from one generation to the next for the previous 19 generations. Drupad is the oldest form of Hindustani Classical Music which is derived completely from Vedic hymns and mantras. In it’s purest form it is the yoga of sound, and in its most developed form employs microtones, which of course, would be of great interest to Philip Glass. Also, it uses the larger South Indian barrel drum called the pakhawaj instead of tablas and is noted for extended alaps.
Until I began fact checking for this article, I did not realize how much of Indian worship and Sanskrit mythology Mr. Glass has incorporated into his completed works since 1983. The one that I’ve discovered and one of the most recent is The Passion of Ramakrishna which manifests another connection with my life. I spent four years attending a small temple in San Leandro, California where I was introduced to St. Ramakrishna, his life and beliefs.
My own association with The Dagar Brothers was not casual since John was studying with them, and I often went with him, or met him there, as well as having the honor to attend some of the house concerts they gave from time to time, so for one magical three months I was part of their inner circle.
In fact I was most graciously invited to attend a Muslim wedding in Jaipur where one of their family members was being married. It was an unforgettable occasion. Once we were within the family compound, the brothers disappeared. John and I had no idea what would become of us, but as it is everywhere in India, we were not forgotten and following a few anxious hours food arrived and after a few more hours I was shown to a room where there were about 20 ladies asleep side by side and end to end! There was just barely room for me to squeeze my body onto the rug covered had dirt floor, no problem. Soon I was fast asleep.
This was a Muslim wedding, and as such there was not the loud speaker music, dancing and ballyhoo that attends Hindu Indian weddings. We entered a large, plush very ornate theater where a drupad concert was sung. The audience was separated into male and female all wearing their beautiful multicolored finery and vows exchanged. If there were preceding days of ceremonies, or a parade beforehand, John and I were not privy to that experience. We knew the affair would go on for days, but we went out and explored Jaipur.
A big topic of conversation at the wedding, I’m sure, was who was going to carry on the gharana and jugalbandhi or singing duo. Back in Delhi that was one of the biggest topics between The Dagar Brothers, John, and me. There were young men coming and going all the time, their sons and cousins. The Brothers characterized their sons as what we would call slackers and layabouts. They lamented the fact that they did not think any had an interest in learning the art. which then would as a result die with them.
However, much to my surprise, a few years ago I learned that the oldest, then 17 had taken up drupad along with another of them who I am unable to place in memory, and are now professionally engaged in the gharana having given concerts in India, Japan, and Europe. Many recordings are available.
A footnote about Philip Glass: When I attended graduate school, the class was required to attend a special performance of musical theatre piece by Philip Glass, “1,000 Airplanes On The Roof, a science fiction music drama”, as described by Mr. Glass. A complex multimedia event with head spinning visuals featuring vocals by Linda Ronstadt, and others; and text by David Henry Hwang.
Philip himself stepped out to introduce the work which was quite a different undertaking than his previous projects in that the subject was extra terrestrial life and it was projected onto a stage. The class and I found it to be a thrilling experience although seated far from stage in a huge theater. Had I been alone and closer to the stage, I would have rushed back stage and reminded Philip of our meeting! Even though what I had just seen was as far from the Indian content I had contemplated as could be, or was it?