We wandered deep into Varanasi. I had gotten used to the small streets that were more like alleyways. I rather enjoyed the lack of cars, all the honking that comes from that; it brought the pace of everything down to an almost reasonable level.
My mood improved as we entered the music store. Kevin and I admired the beautiful sitars around the store. A sitar is a stringed instrument with about seventeen strings on a long neck, and a small gourd-like bottom. Although I had a huge tendency to take on more than I could manage with instruments, I was highly tempted, and Kevin was not helping any.
The next day we slept in late and so I rushed to my sitar lesson without breakfast, fighting the heat and hunger as we reached the music center. When we got there, Kumar immediately invited us in.
“Sit down, sit. Teacher be here any moment.”
He then proceeded to show me how to handle the sitar while we waited. He instructed me to sit with my legs cross-legged and then had me lift my left foot up and place it so that its knee was facing the same direction as my right knee. Then the sitar was placed on my lap. The sitar is a big instrument, carved from teak wood with a base made out of different gourds. The night before Kumar said that he made the instruments himself and told he used pumpkin gourds. When I asked how he made the pumpkins brown he said they polished them. I asked if he painted them, and he said, “polish.” Attempts to clear up the matter were not successful.
Following his lead, I brought my left index finger up and down the first string, skipping every two frets to play “do re mi fa so la ti do.” After only a few minutes of this my finger was sore, my right arm tired from holding up the sitar, but I continued on anyway. Soon the teacher showed up and had me continue on with a similar exercise. I had expected Kumar to leave the room, but he stayed, along with another man who had come in with the teacher. I should have known here in India, a music lesson would never be just one man giving a lesson. It took two to give the lesson, and one to watch. That didn’t even include Kevin who had decided to stay and listen while he read the paper.
After about a half an hour, the heat and my hunger was starting to get to me. It was requiring intense focus to take all the new variables of the instrument and follow what the teacher wanted me to do:
“No, wrong. Not second finger. First finger only until do. Then second finger again. No, wrong. Your thumb is moving. Strum up here. Move your hand up here. Good. No, wrong. You strum out, must strum in. Good. No, now do this.” He wasn’t mean, he was actually a pretty gentle man, but very serious about what he was teaching.
Over lunch, I glowed with a new peacefulness. As awkward as it was, I really liked my sitar lesson, just for the fact that it had been so long since I’d played music.
Later that night, the concert began: first, the haunting melodies of the flute and next, a drummer. The drummer’s fingers tapped the drums in an entrancing rhythm. I could see why India would be the land of Kama Sutra. The music was exotic, sensual… seductive.
After the drummer, my teacher took the stage, balancing his sitar upright on the soles of his feet. I watched as, fingers dancing up and down the strings, body swaying, heart opening, my teacher became the instrument he played. And seeing his sheer love for the instrument, the flutist’s concentration and the drummer’s ecstatic spontaneity in playing, I suddenly felt I had found my spiritual connection in India. I thought of all the times I’d picked up my guitar and sung, filled with the pure joy that came from song, and realized that all across the world there were others who were feeling the same joy with their music at those very same moments.
We cheered them on at the end of the concert, asking the flute player to join in with the drummer and sitar teacher.
He paused for a second, “The sitar is a folk instrument of India and the flute is a classical instrument,” he protested.
But he must have decided at some point that those boundaries were too weak, because he too joined in as my sitar teacher joked they would play a hippie song, “Hari Krishna. Hari Hari Hari.”
After the concert it was negotiating time. Kevin, Kumar, and I looked at sitar after sitar. We went from the music store, to the shop, and back to the store again. We threw out the options, narrowed the choices, expressed the doubts, and picked our favorite. Then we argued about price for a while.
Kevin decided to settle. We got a sitar sold to us by the artisan, a carrying case, extra strings, six extra pegs, and in January Kumar was going to take the train up to Delhi to deliver it to us in person, so we could just walk it onto the plane on our way home. The personal delivery was a thousand rupees included in the cost. That’s approximately twenty-one dollars, for Kumar to take the overnight train about seventeen hours from Varanasi to Delhi.
After placing our deposit, Kevin signed my initials on the front of the sitar; it was ours.