by Sajan Sankaran
A few months back, I had undertaken what is called the “Chilla”, which involves a forty-day commitment under specific contexts and circumstance. It was one of the most momentous experiences for both, my musical journey, and the larger journey of life in general. I've been wanting to pen down my experiences of and around this, but it was very challenging to find words to describe such an experience. But after postponing it for two months, I'm now writing down whatever I can to share the essence of the 40-day journey. The written language is just too limited to do justice to the entire experience, but we try to make the best of what we
A brief introduction to the idea of “Chilla” - It is an esoteric concept to say the least, and most of the people I've spoken to hadn't even heard of such a concept. The fundamental idea is for the practitioner to take 40 days away from all interactions with society, and immerse himself/herself into a chosen practice with all their physical, mental and spiritual energy through a disciplined framework. It is difficult to say where this concept came from, but some believe that it originated in the Sufi spiritual tradition, where the saints would spend this time in deep meditation and contemplation, whilst abstaining from all human interaction. The idea captured the imagination of some serious practitioners of Indian Classical Music too, and I was introduced to the concept after reading of a senior musician who had undertaken this endeavour. The choice of duration to be 40 days makes physiological sense, as there are studies that indicate that neural patterns take that long to form, and constant focussed mental association for this duration enables very effective internal development. The idea of isolating oneself from all societal interactions makes sense, as it facilitates deeper levels of focus free from communication & societal responsibilities, enables at least a transient awareness of the futility of individual identity, and in turn, a complete involvement in the chosen practice.
The idea of not even making eye contact with another person for 40 days, let alone remaining in total silence, was daunting to say the least. But I had been wanting to take this up for quite some time. On the more pragmatic end, my motivation to take this up was to engage in an intense practice routine and challenge myself to maintain self-discipline without any external motivation/ incentives. Maintaining discipline is easier within a community, as there is peer based motivation as well as awareness through training. Living in a Gurukul, where I have a class with my respected Gurus almost everyday and my fellow students are practicing regularly and intensely, it is not too difficult to push myself to be disciplined in my own practice. The motivation to be disciplined isn't too hard to find. However, being in an active community setup also brings a lot of distractions through non-practice related responsibilities, contrasting communication models and various logistical constraints. Life in the Gurukul is extremely rewarding and highly conducive to growth, not just Musical; and one cannot progress by living in isolation or running away from the “distractions” throughout. Taking up such an endeavour on occassion however, can potentially add great value to the individual, and also enable him/ her to better engage with regular life and maximise value-adding exchanges.
I was also strongly motivated to take up this endeavour for certain intangible, and rather inexprissible intents. Dhrupad Music, especially the framework in which my Gurus are training us, is an extensively spiritual pursuit. The brilliance of my Gurus' music shines forth through the state of mind, and the almost yogic coordination between their varoius internal and external faculties that they access. The training for this lies not in the activities themselves that one performs, but in the awareness & experiential knowledge that one develops, as one moves ahead in life. I wanted to take this opportunity to remain only with myself and my Riyazthroughout this period, and without getting ambitious, engage with myself in as undistracted and honest a setting as possible.
The experience was quite challenging. The intense mental involvement led to a lot of body heat, resulting in acidity, ulcers, incomplete sleep and joint pains. There were a couple of times when my voice just stopped functioning and I was very scared of having caused permanent damage to my vocal cords. Thankfully, on both occassions, I recovered in a day or two. I was constantly tempted, more so when I had lost my voice, to skip certain practice sessions and just relax/ sleep.
It was quite interesting to see the various logical arguments my mind would generate to convince me to relax the discipline. Given that there was absolutely no kind of monitoring, I had no external reason to continue waking up at 4.30 AM everyday and practicing till the night. It was an important lesson to me on the nature of the ego and its role in maintaining discipline. The ego generally becomes relevant only in the context of external interactions. I realized it is possible to manifest even internally, and the ego is probably the strongest accessible motivator for humans. This internal manifestation of ego was quite fascinating, as it then gave an insight into the self, independent of human identity – which the ego provides. It certainly cannot be categorized as exemplary spiritual realization. However, for me, it was a very deep insight into the inner human mechanisms, and its application in frameworks of discipline, love, compassion, creativity, anger, joy, depression, gratitude, fear and all the other emotional experiences we go through. In between alterations from heavy internal dialogue to deep silence, I'm happy I was not swayed and managed to maintain full discipline throughout. Even on those occasions when I lost my voice, I sat through every practice session as per schedule, running the practice mentally and humming along where possible. I most certainly reaped strong benefits from this, a lot of which I can probably still not even perceive. I cannot claim to have made exceptional musical progress, or to have understood “Bhairav”, my chosen Raga for this practice. I can however say with certainity that I managed to overcome major mental blocks/ barriers that were blocking my direct technical growth as well as creative growth. I am sure as time passes, I will continue to see more and more of what I actually did gain through these 40 days.
A musician is made by an incredibly large amount of factors, not all of which are under his/ her own control. I got to see this clearly in the Chilla itself. So many people contributed immensely in making this possible. My parents who have always encouraged and supported me in whatever I have wanted to do, even if they couldn't relate to it themselves, and still doing all they could to help me. My Gurus for their extremely patient, yet dynamic and particularly skillful training, that they impart with such precision – encompassing the best Dhrupad training, both musically and otherwise. My incredibly kind hosts who took care of all my needs through these 40 days, and managed to devise a set up where everything could be managed without needing to meet or communicate with anyone throughout. My friends and well wishers for all their assistance and moral support, encouragement which helped in no small measure to push spirits high when needed. Technically good music comes through the rigours of disciplined practice. But the artistic brilliance that separates the geniuses from the merely "technically brilliant", comes from all other aspects of how the individual chooses to live his/her life.
I am immensely fortunate to be training under respected Gundecha Brothers. In an age of fragmented families with siblings at each others' throats, fighting over mundane issues, here are 3 brothers all living together with their families and parents under the same roof in complete harmony. One can see what it means to “live” Dhrupad in their day to day lives. Through the Chilla, I got a deeper understanding of various things Gurujis have spoken on different occassions, in class or out. Everything seemed to make deeper sense in the context of the music practice; and interestingly, also in a broader sense of life itself. I am quite new to music, having had absolutely no association with any kind of music until 3 years ago. For me, every aspect of Dhrupad, be it the philosophy of Naad, Sur, Raga, Laya or anything else, relates to a philosophy of life itself. And I realized how rare it is to be with Gurus who impart the finest of musical training, and at the same time, facilitate realization of more subtle aspects of music & life.
This Chilla was definitely a major landmark along my artistic journey, and I look forward with all eagerness to go further along this path.
Sajan Sankaran is an engineer-from-IIT-Bombay-turned-musician. He has been learning Dhrupad from Padmashri Gundecha Brothers at their Gurukul since 2013. He also dabbles in writing occasionally, and maintains a blog @ http://www.ssajan.blogspot.com/