Indian music is a Universe a part. As an occidental man with a great curiosity about foreign culture, I costantly try to find new things and new styles. One of these days I met Debasish Parashar an indian poet, a professor and, last but not the least, a singer and musician. He introduced me to the fascinating world of Borgeet and after a long chat about music and local traditions I discovered that he worked along with two visual artists: Mysti S Milwee from US and Tori Michelle Carter from Canada. Here you can read what emerged from this cultural encounter.
First of all we need to know better about the style you used Debasish, so tell us more about Borgeet and where it comes from
In Medieval India, there was a Bhakti movement. Bhakti means devotion. The Bhakti movement was a counter hegemonic, reformist movement against the ritualistic Brahminical structures of Hinduism in medieval India.
The movement started from South India and extended to different parts of India.
In 15th and 16th century the movement gained high momentum in Eastern India,with one of the epicenters in Assam, under the leadership of Shrimanta Shankardeva.
High ritualism and hierarchical social institutions like the caste system divided the society along vertical lines and made religion expensive for the poor. The Bhakti movement tried to look into the core values of Indian society by giving primacy to aesthetics over rituals. The Bhakti movement in general emphasised upon songs, dances, theatre, poetry, community singing etc. to unite the society and make faith democratically accessible for all.
Among all the Indian Bhakti saints, the most multi-dimensional personality was that of Shankardeva. Shankardeva can be seen as a true Renaissance figure and an organic intellectual. He was a musician, poet, lyricist, creator of musical instruments, writer, preacher, social reformer, founder of social institutions like Satras and Naamghars. He is often considered as the father of the Sattriya dance, which is one of the most beautiful classical dances in India.
Borgeet (Bor-Big, Geet-Song) is a term, reverentially used to refer to the Bhakti songs that Shankardeva composed to promote faith democratically in the North-eastern India.
Your Borgeet is not a traditional one. How did people react to your choice?
Borgeets, originally composed as songs, works of art, gradually started occupying a very sacred and reverential place in the collective conscious of the Assamese society.
Deification of these songs, otherwise beautiful artistic masterpieces, happened over centuries followed by the usual trap of ritualism related to dos and donts and Codes of Decorum, the very ritualism that Shankardeva and his Bhakti tried to challenge. Today, people look upto Borgeets with devotion and awe, rather than appreciating them purely as works of art.
My song, Pamaru Mana is a Borgeet among many other Borgeets composed by Shankardeva. I try to question the conservatism and cultural hegemony of the so-called cultural elites apparently protecting and patronizing Borgeet. Traditionally Borgeets are sung with Khol (percussion) and Taal. But I have done it with western orchestration and harmonies, which often break the constraints of the Classical Raaga this Borgeet is based on. Infact, I have changed the Laya (meter and rhythm) of the Borgeet as was handed down to me. While doing this song, I always tried not to compromise on its essence, which is its spiritually and meditative harmony.
The moment, a work of art is deified, the purpose of art fails, and the artistic work stops evolving. I have been criticized by certain cultural elites of our society for my ‘imperfect’ presentation of Borgeet (for not using traditional percussion instruments, deviating from the Raaga at times, etc.). First of all, I have never claimed that my presentation is perfect. In fact, at the very outset of the audio upload on youtube I have myself mentioned that this is not how a Borgeet is traditionally done. Secondly, who decides what is perfect or imperfect for a composition which is available in the public domain for hundreds of years? Thirdly, there are already multiple schools of performance in Sattriya culture itself. What is wrong if I add one more alternative ? Fourthly, it is written nowhere that a common man or a musician cannot sing Borgeet just because s/he loves Borgeet as a work of art. And every individual has a right to be imperfect.
I think it is worth mentioning how I developed my interest in this beautiful musical form. My maternal grandfather, Shri Drona Kanta Bhagawati, from Garamur Satra is an award-winning proponent of Sattriya culture, who has fought over many years for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the largest riverine inhabited island in the world, Majuli. Majuli is the most significant site of Sattriya culture. Even my maternal uncle late Tulsi Narayan Sharma was one of the leading Sattriya activists and Percussionists who promoted Sattriya Dance and culture across Assam. Decades back, they were the first cultural activists to take performative Sattriya art forms outside Assam to places like New Delhi. A musical form like Borgeet needs to break the shackles of cultural conservatism and moral paternalism.
Culture changes with changing times. As Nietzsche said once: “tradition should be the maintaining of the flame, not the cult of the ashes”
You’re a musician, a singer and a poet, and you generally use both Indian language and English one. How do you feel when you use another language from your mother tongue?
This is a very interesting question. By profession, I am an Assistant Professor of English literature under University of Delhi and use mostly English for professional communication. I stay in Delhi, so my day-to-day conversations happen mostly in Hindi and English. As a poet, I write primarily in English. I write in languages such as Hindi and Assamese as well. By birth, I speak Assamese. Till now I have composed songs in Hindi and Assamese.
But this song in particular, I mean this Borgeet, is in a language called Brajabuli, a language of mixed origin (with influences of languages of Western Uttar Pradesh, Maithili, Sanskrit, etc.) which is created and used by Shankardeva in his literary creations. Brajabuli is neither my mother tongue, nor the language of my day-to-day use. Ofcourse there is a distance I feel from this language. That is very natural. Somehow I felt while recording ‘Pamaru Mana’, that, the soothing musicality of this song transcends the baggage of this linguistic gap. Music transcends barriers. May be that is one of the reasons, this song has been loved well by my friends even from the Western countries. Visual artists like Mysti Milwee, Tori Carter and Janine Prickett are responding to the meditative harmony of this Borgeet with their paintings. Not in this interview, but we will surely learn about Janine’s responses in the coming days. I am very happy that wonderful journals/blogs like Ramingo and Moonchild (USA) have appreciated my efforts.
Hello Mysti, your webpages describe you as a Synesthesia Artist. What is and how does a Synesthesia Artist work?
Synesthesia Art is a term I use for a rare creative condition in which two or more senses entwine. It is a condition when numbers, letters, sensations and emotions, days and months, imagery and feeling of emotions (hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes in music) infuse with one another.This condition is also involuntary, consistent, and memorable. Therefore, in my mind, as a Synesthesia artist when I interpret music (seeing, hearing, and feeling emotion in art form)I look for a visual interpretation of music and expressing the visions received and expressively creating the visions onto the canvas. In reference to music, I can hear a certain timbre or musical note and see a color and a visual image and remember it in my memory in color association, and symbolism. I can taste the richness and depth of the music and express the emotion with color. It is often vivid imagery, visceral and sometimes inexplicably unsettling. It is a rare gift, and not all synesthesia artists reveal their secret of who they are.
Hello Tori, your website mentions that you specialize in custom art. Please let us know more about custom art, your style, and medium of painting.
My specialty is custom paintings and portraits to suit any style and budget. My style, medium, and format are forever changing and evolving to suit my client’s needs. I am a multi-talented artist with experience in many mediums. Some include painting, drawing, face & body painting, events, murals, windows, glassware, and clothing. I paint whatever people ask for.
This is a question to you both, Mysti and Tori. What were the main difficulties in interpreting Pamaru Mana as a painting?
Mysti In the interpretation of Pamaru Mana, Some of the main difficulties were: It took me a little longer in developing a deeper understanding of the musical form Borgeet. I listened and analyzed the music over and over, researched on the musical form Borgeet and meditated upon understanding, which gave me a sense of knowing how to interpret Pamaru Mana as a painting. In my mind I received visions like never before, drawing my mind closer to key areas, which in return gave myself goosebumps on how vivid my visions had synchronized so well with the song Pamaru Mana and the Culture as a whole. In a “sixth and seventh sense”, I felt the religious sentiment of celestial harmony and repetitive strains using my synesthesia method of hearing, seeing and feeling emotions for interpretation of the painting. In my mind some areas were unexplainable to begin with. It was a gift of knowing, and the feeling of understanding the unique vision in my mind that came together so well without knowing a deep understanding of the culture beforehand, and how a certain area of the painting represented the culture so well. It left me mesmerized, and in a trance of being and seeing something that I didn’t know how to explain into words to begin with, but in my mind I knew how to visually interpret and express Pamaru Mana in a visual form.
Tori I don’t foresee any difficulties. The vibe I am going for is tranquility and peace along with our connection to nature. I am creating an acrylic landscape painting on wood with a very relaxing feel to it while listening to ‘Paramu Mana’ for inspiration.
When did you decide to get closer to Indian Culture? What are the main aspects you like about it?
Mysti : I decided to get closer to Indian Culture from the past several months. Through my native American Cherokee Indian roots have given me visions to see things differently and it has also inspired me to be more open in my mind creatively in art, poetry, and music. In my mind I was “soul searching creatively” in every aspect relating to life, beauty, truth and unity. Being a curious, energetic, and enthusiastic artist I was driven to Indian Culture even more in the past several months during a previous collaboration with a poetry friend that yielded publication in India, and a poetry interview with a poetry e-zine there as well. Therefore, it sparked beautiful friendships with some of the people in India. Seeing photos and doing some research, I was fascinated by the beauty of the colors in the dress material and gems worn during Shankardeva’s dramatic performances and Sattriya Dance. I was drawn to know more about it and I felt a richness in my color palette as an artist. I felt a sense of beauty here and in my soul it felt so good. It has been one of the best life-changing, engaging, and most intriguing experiences in my life, getting to know such “beautiful souls” (the people). Another main aspect I was attracted to was the music. Some of my Indian friends had shared some music and it fascinated my mind, which drew me closer to Indian music in general and my heart seemed to be envisioning something beautiful and it made me feel excited to learn more about these cultural forms.
Tori : My family forced me to go to church at a very young age. It was at that point I decided to experience ALL cultures before making a decision on my beliefs. Over time, I noticed the morals of every culture are very similar. They all share the same values of treating others with respect, and guidelines on what not to do are generally along the lines of not hurting others. I hate how religion separates people to spite the fact that every culture states to accept and love one another.
How do you live your way of doing art and do you think there are connections between art and spirituality?
Mysti In my mind my art is my way of living freely to express the freedom of my spirit. I am spirit led in every way. I can pick up on every object, every reflection, everything that I can see is a freedom to express the beauty of what I see through my eyes as an artist. I create in my mind everyday, through different situations of life, and how it resonates in my soul and my heart and envisioning freely to express it through paintings, music, poetry, photography, etc.. With being a synesthesia artist, I am very keen to detail as well for it has evolved and developed more as years go by. Living as a naturally gifted artist since age three has been one of the greatest gifts to be able to express my creative mind so freely. Yes I definitely do think there are connections between art and spirituality. It is my freedom to express my faith in a very creative and expressive way in my visions, which can be very emotional and symbolic, coming from my heart and soul. In my creative mind I am deeply connected to religion especially through music. Intense creative vibrations throws seismic waves of color and a plethora of images that make me dance and sing. I can feel the energy within, the power, the light, peace, calmness, tranquility, and meditatively drawn to create what I feel within when hearing music. Through music and synesthesia I can detect certain rhythms, speed, and certain instruments which help me visually shape the painting into a form of movement and the “spirit within”, which leaves the mind mesmerized.
Tori Art is a way of life. It is a very difficult yet rewarding lifestyle learning to find the balance between self-expression and pleasing others. There is a huge connection between art and spirituality. In order to create something, you must look within yourself and find peace with letting it out freely without fear of judgment from yourself or others. It takes a certain level of self-awareness, and meditation in order to feel the creativity and let it flow naturally. Art is a way of dealing with inner challenges and interpreting the world around you. I find balance and put my soul into every piece I create on a daily basis.
This question is particularly for you Tori. Unlike Mysti, you are still working on this collaborative project with Debasish. What is different about your collaboration with Debasish?
Tori I find it interesting to mix music with art and incorporate the energy of the song into the piece. The painting I am working on is commissioned by someone else, so it is interesting to find the balance between my client’s needs while still incorporating the meaning and feeling behind ‘Pamaru Mana’. Another thing I find interesting is that I do not speak the language although when I heard the song I could feel what it was about through its calming energy.
Coming back to you, Debasish, how different is Pamaru Mana from your last works?
Debasish Very different. Firstly, this song is my debut song, not as a singer, but as a Music Director. I had the concept of doing a Borgeet in this totally unconventional way for quite some time, when I met Manash Jyoti Bora, a veteran musician and music arranger who is based in Jorhat. We sat for days and talked out details of the kind of music we will create for this song. It took almost 4 months. Secondly, my objective was quite clear in my mind. I feel that, Shankardeva, inspite of his multi-dimensional personality, has not attracted ample attention nationally or internationally in literary, academic and intellectual discourse.Thirdly, in doing this Borgeet in the way I have done, I automatically had to unsettle the existing discourse of Borgeet protected by the cultural police. I was ready for all consequences. Fourthly, this song is not at all a commercial song a debut artist opts for. I wanted to be the spark of a cultural renaissance with critical insight, than the fire itself. I know this song is gradually reaching out to its audience. I am not in a hurry.
Tell us more about your future projects.
Debasish Future projects are many and multi-faceted. Apart from my upcoming music projects I also edit Advaitam Speaks Literary, an international journal of poetry and visual arts, that I have founded. We are celebrating 2018 as the year of Indo-Serbian friendship. Besides,I am working together with poets/writers from different parts of the world from Europe to Africa,from Asia to Latin America, who are translating my works to their respective languages. I am going to release online the tracks from my debut EP ,‘Project Advaitam’, one by one. Besides, there are a few upcoming global collaborations. I am very happy that Pamaru Mana is now available for distribution worldwide on cdbaby (https://store.cdbaby.com/Artist/DEVadvaitam ) and will soon be available across all major music streaming platforms like itunes, spotify, saavn, etc.