The Transcendence of Music, Mural in Varanasi, India

       "The receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he or she feels as if the work were their own and not someone else's - as if what it expresses were just what he or she had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys the separation between receiver and artist, between all minds who receive this work of art. The great attractive force of art is this emotional infectiousness and spiritual union, which compels us to be the best versions of ourselves."
       -Leo Tolstoy

      Namaste good folks! Here is my latest mural, in the ancient and holy city of Varanasi. This is my biggest mural yet, and it has been a special experience. The musician I've depicted is the one I saw perform on New Year's, videos of which I've recently posted. His name is Anshuman Maharaj, and he comes from a long line of Varanasi musicians. This painting is essentially a conveyance of the emotional impact music has had on me here in Varanasi, and the quote above (which I altered slightly) captures the transcendent feeling induced by peak musical performances, as well as what I aspire my art to achieve.

    The colors are invented. Folds and flames and foreheads of orange and red are what I see when I close my eyes and think of Varanasi. The cremation fires, the robes of the sadhus and babas, the thickly painted deities, the marigold flowers, the ceremonial clothes and candles, even the ubiquitous chewing tobacco that spouts from and stains the mouths of nearly all the men here is a reddish-orange. The geometry circumscribing him is known within Hinduism as the Square of Lakshmi and Vishnu. "the square, with its sharp edges, is the most artificial of shapes. When inscribed within the circle of the universe, it best represents culture. Different cultures have different values, hence the sqaure of culture can be oriented in various ways, but always anchored to the rim of the circle at its corners. All cultures, however different, depend on nature for their survival." This is a very broad and loose notion, and I simply wanted to add a touch of symbolism and garnish to the image. It also hints at the dynamism of the music, which can be a jaw-dropping flurry of fingers and notes.


     Almost as much as the mesmerizing sounds themselves, the relationship between the tabla (drums) player and sarod player (or sitar, santoor, etc), and their abilities to improvise together so tightly is what fascinates me. It is a dizzying dialogue back and forth that is driven by powerful emotions. Both musicians I've asked following a performance have said "it comes from a deep joy." Listening to an interview with Eric Weinstein has made me consider how one's relationship with their instrument and the possibilities of their music may differ across the globe. 

“In America we take music lessons and we learn to read music - but lots of people are bad at reading music and lots of people are bad at following instructions. In other areas of the world where notation is not a big part of musical education, people very casually pick up an instrument and start playing. And I think it’s because the systems - the math behind the music, if you will - is so powerful that it allows you to improvise and compose, and understand that there are canonical songs.” 


     What has made this special is the community aspect: I'm now friends with Anshuman, and with help from my other musician friends, was able to organize a small performance with Anshuman in front of my mural. It has been a meaningful way to connect with everyone in the local area. Incidentally, Anshuman is literally one of two sarod players remaining in Varanasi. The instrument is a dying breed. Perhaps this painting can elicit intrigue into the largely unrecognized instrument.

Anshuman, whose paternal lineage was comprised exclusively of tabla players, abruptly discontinued learning tablas at the age of seven when is grandfather, who was teaching him, died. It was this incident that drove him to try the sarod. This reminds me of Alain de Botton and John Armstrong's ideas in Art as Therapy, where they write, "one of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us is teach us how to suffer more successfully...We can see a great deal of artistic achievement as sublimated sorrow on the part of the artist, and in turn, in its reception, on the part of the audience. In chemistry, sublimation is the process in which a solid is directly transformed into a gas, without first becoming liquid. In art, sublimation refers to the psychological processes of transformation, in which base and unimpressive experiences are converted into something noble and fine -- exactly what may happen when sorrow meets art." Maria Popova adds, "Art can help us be mor whole not only be expanding ou rcapacity for positive emotions but also by helping us to fully inhabit and metabolize the negative -- and by doing so with dignity and by reminding us 'of the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life."


Share this post

Leave a comment

1 comment

  • Namaste Jonny! I saw that with my own eyes, and it’s a realy great work. What’s the name of this ghat?

    • Vlada