Ragic Repose

Photo Credit: Nikhil Dhingra

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the exchange between energy and exhaustion. What drains us. What sustains us. Sometimes, I don’t know how different these sensations are.

Last week, I took a $41 nap — including the box office processing fee for the tickets. I hadn’t planned to do this. The South Asian parent inside me would have thrown me a few harsh words on account of my wastefulness. Not to mention my disrespect to my North Indian culture.

You see, I’d opted to attend “Jazz and Raga,” an evening of music at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, eagerly anticipating the unique blend of Western and South Asian music that composer and pianist Richard Bennett and sitarist Indro Roy-Chowdhury promised.

Not fifteen minutes into the duo’s lilting back and forth, however, I felt myself lulled into a realm of half-sleep.

The chairs provided within Rubin’s open-style seating weren’t comfortable. Of course the hall was dark. And I’d just finished a long day banal tasks at work, a day I washed down with a glass of Malbec at a nearby French bistro.

I suppose I’m biased when I say Bennett held less of my attention. According to the show notes, he’s been composing and playing scores influenced by Hindustani music for ten years. I should tell you I don’t get Western music. Does it follow standard melodies in the way that ragas, as architecture, orient listeners’ minds and guide the direction of a composition, while still leaving room for improvisation, particularity, and nuance?

This evening, the jazz piano often followed ragas on the sitar, echoing strings of notes, running the scale that the stringed instrument threw to it. Bennett and Roy-Chowdhury danced in delicate tension with one another. Audiences were treated to a dialogue between East and West, a wordless conversation that displayed continuous negotiation, showmanship, and humility.

But my bias for the sitar’s tenderness, which Roy-Chowdhury masterfully executed, overtook my attention. My mind had room enough only for the stringed instrument that entered the Mughal court sometime in the 16th century.

Roy-Chowdhury, returning from a cavalcade of concerts across India, guided the audience across a range of emotions — what classical Sanskrit theory typified as rasas (literally, “juices”). In aesthetic terms, a work of art would inspire these a rasa, or a particular affective state, in audiences and onlookers. I noted in Roy-Chowdhury’s performance periods of tender softness, as well as moments of intemperate fervor, but I couldn’t point to just one flavor.

There’s no way the duo’s intention was to make my eyelids so heavy I couldn’t lift them. Repose, after all, isn’t one of the theoretical responses to a work of art, according to Sanskrit scholars.

I regret falling asleep years ago during a Broadway production of Wicked that my partner bought us tickets to. At the time, I was working long days in public relations without the luxury of a few minutes for lunch. The combination of hypoglycemia and tedium — why were they flying through the air!? — put me into a soporific state. I was bored. My patience had been tried. I hadn’t even paid for the tickets and yet I was spent.

But as I dozed off to the tunes of my people, to the meditative mood created be(for)e me, the phenomenological experience that passed over me weighed me down, draining my body, at the same time that it lifted my spirit and set it alight.

Martin Heidegger argues that, out of his three types of boredom, the third form is existential. It’s not known or remembered like the first two, but rather, lived. Each of us has found our way into what he calls a “silent fog of indifference.” Ragas themselves, some 24 unique scales or so, are designed to be played during different hours of the day, thereby attuning our minds to a particular mood or orientation.

Boredom may not necessarily be, then, the absence of thought — which brings about sleep or vapid iPhone-gazing.

Boredom inheres the possibility to transform our emotions and to awaken our minds. If we can capture the rasa that is boredom, perhaps then we can comport ourselves to new attunements, new ways of being.

When, though, is boredom meditative, inspiring deeper thought, and when is it destructive or depressive? After all, boredom is the effect of both overstimulation and lack of it. It’s the product of desires fulfilled as well as those gone unsatisfied.

Piano and sitar, that evening at the Rubin, created a confluence of sounds and moods, and although my head became heavy, my mind reached higher. “Attention” is quite simply — or not so simply — that. Stretching one’s mind toward someone or something. Attention paid sometimes yields a harmony in return.