“Didi, it is too late for these kinds of errors,” the Pakhawaj player complained.
“It seems like she hasn’t slept in days,” the Tanpura player murmured. “Imagine the Neelambari sung by an insomniac.”
The concert is only a month away and Shuchi, who is to perform the Neelambari, hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in the past fortnight.
Her teacher, however, recognized Shuchi’s predicament. “It is your choice whether you want to resign yourself to the whims of a brute or simply walk away and pick up the threads of your life once again,” she cautioned. “But as far as the concert goes, please use whatever means necessary to ensure a good performance.”
Wasn’t that a bit of an exaggeration? To call Rahul a brute? His outward appearance and ways are those of a gentleman. And he is trained in the arts, like Shuchi. He is loving and caring, at least was, in the initial days of their marriage. So how could he be a brute? Spiteful, maybe.
But the Tanpura player’s offhand remark had planted an idea in Shuchi’s head.
It is common knowledge among musicians and listeners alike that Dhrupad music is not merely practiced as a form of meditation, devotion or entertainment but also deemed, for lack of a better word, a panacea. A consummate Dhrupad musician could, for example, cause a rainfall with Megh Malhar, cure an ailment with raag Bhairav, court a lover with Madhuvanti or, in Shuchi’s case, calm a ‘brute’ of a husband. And Neelambari was ideally suited for this very purpose.
The hallmark of the Neelambari raag is its soporific quality. The presence of back-to-back chromatic notes starting from Re, to Komal Ga to Shuddh Ga and up to Ma means that the singer could explore a wide span of microtones, painting illusions of notes in the listener’s mind, making the raag a veritable sedative.
Shuchi decided to begin her little experiment that very evening. She would counter Rahul’s Gandhari with her Neelambari.
Although an accomplished singer in the Dhrupad tradition, Shuchi never practiced or performed the Gandhari raag. Nor did she ever listen to anyone playing it. If someone played it in her presence, she simply walked out of the performance.
She couldn’t help it.
She was extremely sensitive to this particular raag. A simple mistake in its rendition which escaped the notice of a regular listener – a minute deviation from Shuddh Rishabh while ascending or from the Komal Rishabh while descending, for example – would cause genuine physical harm to her body. A trivial error inflicted a scratch, a modest misstep caused a migraine, while a grave blunder meant a painful and deep laceration that cut through her skin, bled, and left a scar on her body.
Shuchi’s music teacher had theorized that her lineage probably traced back to the deity Gandhari herself. According to her, every raag is associated with a deity. The demi-god or goddess suffers physical pain when the associated raag is sung inaccurately. Perhaps it was genetic; a recessive gene running in the lineage could have become dominant in her. Maybe it was psychosomatic. Whatever the reason, her physical vulnerability to an inept performance of this particular raag was real.
This characteristic of hers, however, did not affect her musical talent. In fact, hardly anyone apart from her immediate family members knew about her condition. She was a regular performer at the major Hindustani music festivals across the country and around the world. Her performances always sold out and usually ended with the audience standing up and clapping for several minutes as she smiled and bowed to them with folded hands.
On the night of her marriage, when Shuchi shared her little secret with her husband Rahul, he was amused by this peculiar trait.
“Is it like an allergy that people have to certain foods?”
“More like the migraine some people have, when exposed to certain light patterns and intensities. I have a similar effect when exposed to this pattern of sounds,” she explained.
“Interesting,” he said and thought for a moment. “Everyone has their idiosyncrasies. No big deal,” he smiled and put the matter to rest.
Rahul was a singer too. During the day, he worked as a professor at the Music and Fine Arts department at a local university where he taught and conducted research in Hindustani music. Like Shuchi, he too performed at all the important music festivals. With a broad supply of musical skills under his belt that could only be gained by tens of thousands of hours of practice, he was well respected in his field.
Yet when it came to singing the Gandhari raag, and especially when his wife was seated in the audience, he seemed to commit more errors than expected from a musician of his caliber. These lapses, barely conspicuous to an average listener, caused Shuchi to squirm in pain as wounds appeared and grew on her skin. But she was compelled to sit through the performance and give the appearance of a supportive partner.
During the initial years of their marriage, the thought that this could be deliberate crossed her mind on several occasions. Why else would he choose to sing this and only this raag whenever she was seated in the audience? She also suspected that his gaze invariably intersected with hers, precisely at the beats when he committed those subtle slip-ups. Almost as if to tell her that he has a firm hold over her.
When confronted about this, he would say, “My dear, you know I do not prepare for a concert. I choose the raag based on my mood and what inspires me on that particular day. Besides, which performance goes flawlessly every time?”
Or he would stray from the discussion, “I am famished. Let’s discuss this over dinner when we get home.”
But the discussion would never materialize.
A few years into the marriage, Shuchi no longer doubted her husband’s intentions. The realization dawned on her very gradually. He clearly enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching her struggle and exerting control over her life. Eventually, the gamut of his abuse – there was no longer any doubt about that – expanded into other territories, and she relinquished control of her life bit by bit.
Her finances were now managed by him. She was rarely allowed to perform anymore. Her musical performances were now restricted mainly to her home, where she was permitted to teach music to girls and women of all ages but boys of exclusively pre-pubescent age. Poorly played compositions of the raag were now a staple in her home. His practice ran into the middle of the night as she tried her best to endure the migraines it caused her. Sometimes the injuries were caused through music and occasionally also by hand.
Rahul’s behavior towards her followed a rhythmic, cyclical pattern that repeated approximately every fortnight: a few days of gradual build-up of tension during which he became increasingly agitated, followed by a crescendo of a violent outburst that ended with a few days of denouement during which everything returned to normal. Then, a couple of days later, this taal, this musical meter of abuse resumed once again.
Notwithstanding the ill-treatment, Shuchi never left Rahul to start her own life and career independently, mainly because her parents were against this possibility and also because the prospect of starting a life on her own at her age seemed daunting.
“Rahul seems very gentlemanly. It is difficult to believe he would do something like this,” her father said.
“Yes, why do you want to get into this mess? Your father’s diabetes goes out of control when he is stressed. He has to take care of your younger sister also, no? Get her married, too,” her mother chimed in.
“Look, Beta, I will fully support you and take up the case if you choose to. But is it worth it to run around the courts?” her uncle, who was an advocate, tried to explain. “Besides, how will we explain to the judge about her obscure condition?” He looked at his wife for support. “The law does not recognize abuse through Hindustani music. Rock or metal may still be considered plausible tools of abuse but Hindustani music, now that’s difficult to convince the courts. The judge might deem the entire case silly and quash the case on the grounds of wasting the valuable time of the court.”
“What if we take her to a nice doctor and treat her condition? Then everything will be alright and Rahul will accept her,” the aunt suggested.
Shuchi disagreed with their arguments but complied with their suggestions.
One evening, Shuchi’s teacher visited her at her home. Sipping her tea, she quietly stared at Shuchi from behind her cup for quite some time, comparing the image of her from memory to her present form: sunken cheeks, prominent jawline, pronounced collarbone, bony hands.
“You have become thin.”
She put the cup down and took out a booklet from her bag. She handed it over to Shuchi and picked up her cup of tea again. It was a brochure for an upcoming music festival which was scheduled for the end of June. That’s two months away. Shuchi recognized the pictures of her peers who were going to perform at the festival. She hadn’t spoken to them in a very long time. As she perused it further, she was surprised to find her own name and picture on one of the pages.
“It is a sample brochure we have made for this year’s festival,” the teacher said. “This time, it is happening here in Bangalore. I have not seen your name in the festival circuits for a long time and took the liberty to nominate you. Four of my students are performing, and you will be the fifth.”
“I don’t think I will be able to perform,” Shuchi said instinctively. “Rahul and I have planned a trip this month,” she added, in the form of a pretext.
“A trip over a concert! I am not asking you to tour with me like before. It is just one concert and right here in Bangalore,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“I have not been practicing much lately.”
Just then, Rahul came home from work.
“Rahul, I was telling Shuchi that she would be performing at a concert next month.”
“Performance? But Shuchi hasn’t been on stage in years,” he said.
“Right. I wonder why,” the teacher said.
Rahul noticed the tinge of sarcasm in her voice. He joined them at the sofa and took the brochure from Shuchi.
“I think you both need to postpone your trip so that she can perform at this concert.”
“Our trip?” Rahul exchanged glances with Shuchi. “Oh, the trip. Yes, of course, a trip can always be postponed but not the concert.”
He started reading the brochure.
“Oh! Shuchi has a solo performance,” he smiled without looking up at them.
“Yes, her performance will be the last, in the evening. Neelambari raag will be apt. Please make sure she has the time to practice every day.”
“Yes, ma’am, that is my responsibility. I will make sure that her performance goes… smoothly.”
“Great! The concert is two months away. That’s plenty of time. I am sure you will catch up,” she put her cup down. “We are meeting twice a week, Wednesdays and Thursdays, for practice. I need you at my studio on those days.”
As she exited the front door, she pulled Shuchi close to her. “You descend from the Gandhari lineage, that doesn’t mean you blind yourself to the reality of your situation,” she said, glancing at Rahul who was still going through the brochure.
That night, the clanging of the cutlery, tossing of the remote and slamming of the doors were louder than usual. Needless to say, that night and the nights following, Shuchi spent lying sleepless on the bed, her head throbbing in pain as Rahul practiced the Gandhari late into the night. This meant that she had to rest during the day. Several days went by without a single hour of practice for the concert.
Another week went by. Shuchi’s forehead was now a bit swollen, and a few red scars were slightly visible on her forearms. That Wednesday, when she visited her teacher’s studio, she was woefully unprepared. Several times during the practice, her sruti became imprecise and her percussionist, impatient.
“Didi, it is too late for these kinds of errors,” the Pakhawaj player complained.
“It seems like she hasn’t slept in days. Imagine the Neelambari sung by an insomniac,” the Tanpura player murmured and Shuchi finally had a plan.
Their house had four bedrooms. Two of these were repurposed into music rooms in which Rahul and Shuchi practiced separately. That evening after dinner, Rahul went to his music room and closed the door. Shuchi, too, went into her room. She kept her door slightly open, so she could hear the muffled sound of Rahul singing. She sat down cross-legged, tuned her Tanpura, placed it on her lap, and began her riyaz.
She began singing the notes of the Neelambari at a slower tempo, meditating on the phrases and individual notes. She varied the dynamics increasing and decreasing the loudness as she focused on maintaining complete control over the minute shifts in the microtones.
Twenty minutes into the practice, she could still hear Rahul’s voice from behind his door, now a bit louder. As an accomplished singer, Shuchi had a complete grasp of the Neelambari raag, including its ascending and descending notes, characteristic phrases, its ornamentations. Until that day, she had never performed a raag intending to affect actual physiological change in the listener. That required a much higher degree of proficiency, and Shuchi was as yet a novice in this regard.
She increased the pace and continued singing. At precisely the thirty-minute mark, she experienced the phenomenon of beginner’s luck. It happened all of a sudden. As she carefully descended from Ma to Shuddh Ga and then to Komal Ga, the amplitude of Rahul’s voice dropped, and then stopped abruptly. She heard the thud of the Tanpura hitting the floor. She stopped singing, walked up to his room, and with her ear to the door, listened for movement inside. There was none. A couple of minutes passed soundlessly. Then she heard him pick up his Tanpura, and moments later, he resumed his singing once again as if nothing had happened.
Over the next few days, Rahul’s short naps gradually progressed into a few hours of slumber. This gave Shuchi enough time to rest and refresh, and she could focus better during the day. Her migraines, too, were more manageable.
On the evening before the concert, Rahul moved his practice from his music room closer to her, into the living room.
Shuchi secured the door. Tonight, she needed to be quick and effective. A moment lost in achieving her goal was one less moment she slept, and she needed every bit of sleep to perform the next day.
Rahul’s rendition of the Gandhari was unexpectedly potent that night. But Shuchi was determined. She had perfected the Neelambari to such an extent that if a note were a vertical strand of hair, she would be able to slice it in half.
His faulty phrasing and imprecise notes gnawed at her skin, and the wounds on her forearms began to ooze blood, but her voice evoked the ambience of serenity and stillness. Outside, the crickets stopped chirping; the lizard on the wall stopped hunting its prey and fell on the floor in a deep slumber. The lights in her room dimmed. Her head throbbed with pain, matching the beat of his music. The battle of the raags continued late into the night, when Shuchi passed out.
When she woke up the next day, it was almost noon. Her wounds were still sore. Her phone showed that she had missed eighteen calls. She had less than a couple of hours to reach the venue and get ready before her evening performance. She stepped out of her room and saw Rahul fast asleep on the floor of the living room.
As she rushed into the green room at the venue, she was received by the angry but relieved organizers. Within an hour, she was ready to go on stage, her injuries hidden behind a layer of bandages carefully concealed by her cerulean blue Banarasi sari that matched the name of her raag. Her head still ached, but once on stage, the adrenaline kicked in. Her mind abandoned all thought, and she sang the alaap deeply immersed in the rendition of the raag. The bandish, too, went smoothly, and at the end of the performance, Shuchi found herself bowing to an ecstatic audience. Just like before.
She came back home with a smile on her face. Her phone rang continuously. Old friends were happy to witness her performance once again; she spent a long time attending to their constant calls and messages.
Suddenly, she remembered something.
The living room upstairs was dark except for the streetlight coming through the window. She turned on the light. Rahul lay on the floor, unresponsive, exactly as she had seen him in the morning.
At the hospital, Shuchi, her parents, and in-laws huddled outside the ICU, listening attentively as the doctor spoke to them.
“Ma’am, as of this moment we are yet to understand the cause, but your husband has slipped into a deep coma, and it looks like it may take a while before he wakes up.”