Santur master Nandkishor Muley interprets Vedic compositions from India that are steeped in thousands of years of tradition. This lush music is performed on an unaccompanied acoustic santur, the exquisite hammer dulcimer of South Asia that evokes the delicate tranquility of water.
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Spa Song Santur Essay by Derek Beres
A simple sound resonates against the temple walls. Dense warmth hangs in the air, but rather than seek shelter the spectator engages fully, meeting the heat face-to-face. By now, there is only surrender; the stone columns and hardened sand beneath their feet, a mist of silent breath from a cloudless sky, and the echo of melodic strings vibrate. Eyes closed, separation between being and sound exists no longer. Heart and mind swirl simultaneously, and between the two a gentle quiet emerges: the soundless sound, conducted by the beauty of an ancient instrument.
Outside is Baroda, a composite cultural city of banyan trees, arches, domes and colorful gardens located on an ancient settlement on the banks of the river Vishwamitri. In India the game of life is exactly that - Lila, meaning "play." The principal deity, Krishna, as well as the endless counterparts (most notably Siva's destructive/regenerative dance) move through the world in a state of detached focus. This "play" is the divine gift humans are endowed, a place beyond good and evil, right and wrong. While the native practices yoga and meditation, there is a perpetual soundtrack in the background elevating and destroying all at once.
This beauty has a name: the Santur, an 87- to 100-stringed hammered dulcimer, plays all three requirements of India's classical tradition: drone, rhythm and melody. What seems so complex - music so lush, vibrant, as to mimic an orchestra by a single player - is simplicity in disguise. Simple yoga poses reveal movement in stillness; even at rest, the world is in constant motion. Yet there exists a place where one can be tranquil amidst the chaos. Indian tradition, whether yogic, musical, or otherwise, does not judge the exterior. Rather it accepts everything as it is, and develops the internal power within us. It says "no" to nothing, and readily agrees with what life offers. When one stretches into a posture, there is pain before release; so it goes in music: sound before silence.
An ancestor of the Mesopotamian Psantir, the Santur came to India via trade routes. It has since evolved into numerous forms (the Chinese Yang qin, the Hungarian Cimbalom), a fitting quality for an instrument whose name in Sanskrit means "a Veena with 100 strings." Unlike the plucked, lute-like Veena, the Santur is struck with two wooden mallets, much like a drummer would keep rhythm. The trapezoid-boxed-shape Santur, sits on the player's lap, strings emitting luxuriously high - and, at times, desperately low - tones. The strings are grouped in threes, pitched to the same note, fixed on wooden bridges and tuned on metal pegs. Through the course of a temple journey, a pantheon of emotion is possible, the sonic mimicking of existence itself.
This is the very basis of Indian music; music is not something one does, but rather what one is. The classical sound is based on Ragas, prescribed selections of melody with room for improvisation. Ragas are characterized by particular patterns and notes, but depend on each individual player's interpretation, just as there are certain fundamental truths of existence - such as gravity and solar rotation - but life depends on how you live it. Indian theory marks the human voice as the highest of all music, and each musician is trained to make their instrument "sing." When the first Ragas were written thousands of years ago, the players searched for a human sound to play along what was going on around them. Just as one loses separation between mind and body while listening, the player loses distinction between player and instrument. The many become one.
Nirvana, what the Buddha "found" under the bhodi tree in Benares, was knowledge beyond the duality of opposites. This is the core function of music in India, creating a cyclical relationship between musician and note, sacred and profane. The Santur is both a sound of meditation and meditation itself. Each Raga is based on an emotion, to be played at specific times of day. The entire system was developed in accordance with the cycles of nature, and there are Ragas of morning and night just as those of sadness and joy. The musician is given a template of notes and hours for playing the Raga, and within that they liberate themselves.
Classical innovators such as Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha and Vilayat Khan have brought their respective instruments to the forefront of global music through intensely personal, sonically universal, and mindful interpretations of India's Ragas. One listen to this album by Nandkishor Muley proves mastery of both himself and the music he makes, included among the country's elite. When Pandit (learned person; master) Muley strikes the chords of each Raga, you hear a song historically defined by melodic guidelines, and at the same moment, something entirely his own.
Born in the Western Indian town of Baroda, Nandishkor Muley comes from a long lineage of musicians educated in the style of kathakar. His grandfather sang the mythological tales of ancient texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana in temple, while his father plucked the Veena. Educated early in vocals and tabla (the two-drum set used in classical music), Nandkishor was the first in his family to study both music and dance. Proficient in the movements of Kathak, Nandkishor would receive numerous degrees in musical study before hearing the Santur playing of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who is in a large part responsible for bringing the instrument into Indian classical music.
Studying for years under Pandit Sharma, who innovated the Santur by altering the number of strings one plays, Pandit Muley has also modified his instrument. His handmade Santur has a tonal range extending over three octaves; the 100 strings play 34 notes, the three bottom notes with two strings each and one bridge holding four as the drone. With Nandkishor's playing, melodic ornamentation and rhythmic nuance have been further developed. Only within the past few decades has this concert instrument been created from a forgotten folk instrument, and today Nandkishor continues to be it's top ambassador.
Played in temple and during ceremony, both traditionally and by the religious sects of Sufis and Sadhus, the Santur has gained immense popularity through Nandkishor's efforts. He has toured internationally and been decorated with accolades from universities and fans alike. Just as the divine pantheon India created to mimic the world around it, Nandkishor has joined the modern elite as sonic ambassador and passionate artist. Scholarly and emotional, personal and global, Pandit Muley is a master of many worlds through his one true love.