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The Tanpura

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By Lopa Banerjee

The summer I turned ten, I knew a thing or two about music and melodies. The jarring strings of the old tanpura in our house, a vintage ancestral belonging, the fertile bellowing of the harmonium, when my father and aunt practiced their duet Rabindra sangeet to be performed at the local cultural association, let me drown in a soft, nebulous world where each line they sang, each note they made  appeared amazing.

Often tempted to sing along those love songs of pining and togetherness, of the tangible and the numinous in quite a borderline-infantile simplicity, the songs reached the unknown depths of my mind evoking fragrance. The fragrance permeated the familiar air of the hot, humid summer evenings. In my dreams, I tried to imitate the high and the low notes of the songs and the inscrutable distance between them. When one day, I got hold of the torn, brittle pages of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitan, the treasure trove that housed tons and tons of those melodic verses,  it was as if I wandered into a garden with my soul raining, each verse a flower in full bloom. Love, longing, and joy came alive through the fragrance and melody of the verses.

“Asheem kaal-e je hillol-e/jowaar bhata-y, bhuban dole/ Nari-te mor roktodhara-y legechhe tar taan/ Bishyoy-e tai jage, jage amar gaan” (The universe sways with the ebb and flow of the infinite. My pulses, my veins, my bloodstream race with that tidal push and pull that awaken my soul. I sing the song that emerges from joy, awe, and admiration of the infinite).

My fingers touched the strings of the tanpura in a dream of roses, violets, doves, and rainbows. I absorbed these words as the verses gradually wove into a rolling, shimmering symphony. The flow of the words in those verses appeared to laugh and dance in gentle, unrelenting curves, as I discovered the eternal in those symphonies of love, life, and humanity.

I experienced the same eternal in the sudden rehearsals and chaos of the water-colored room of my childhood, where human voices and the musical instruments merged in a mechanically imperfect symphony. In a room where the clattering of teacups, evening snacks, and the tinkering sound of my mother’s bangles became one with the musical notes, I felt the music of love stronger than the notes played on the harmonium. In the silence of the dark, empty nights of our suburban home, where power cuts at night were an everyday affair, where the air reeked of cooked food, human sweat, and burnt out kerosene lamps, I felt the sound of water whispering amidst the rocks, as if echoing the waves of this elusive world of human symphonies. The choir mellowed down from the brightest yellow to the softest white, and I wandered between the high and low musical notes, floating, waxing, and waning within them.

“Momo chitte niti nritye ke je nache/ta ta thoi thoi ta ta thoi thoi ta ta thoi thoi/Tar-I shonge ki mridonge sada baje ta ta thoi thoi ta ta thoi thoi ta ta thoi thoi” (Who is it that dances inside of me? I listen to the rhythmic beauty of his footsteps; I listen to the music and rhythm of the mridangam that accompanies the footsteps like a lover in ecstasy).

In my childlike mind, which smelled and tasted the delight of these songs in a transient pleasure, I watched the bodies arching, the heads swaying from side to side, the necks stiffening with the sounds and repetitive rhythms. With each verse, I saw the sporadic movement of a butterfly, waiting to burst free, till it fluttered away, leaving me exasperated and ordinary, beneath its cherished freedom. I could see the amber flame in its wings and feel it with a pinch and a tickle, as I remained embedded and entwined in its rapture and flight.

The summer I turned ten, I knew my mother, too, craved to sing these songs and wanted to teach me, so I could sing in the choir. Her voice ached to traverse the vast terrain of sounds between the high and low notes of the harmonium. I could not see then the atoms of the dozens of glittering particles inside her neck that toiled to spell the musical notes. Years back, she had been to the same music school with my father and her sister, my aunt. The empty songs left behind the locked gates of the school taught her to fall in love with the secret, dreamy world of these melodies. When her larynx was damaged by recurrent illness, she held a fallen hummingbird in her throat as she repeated the lines of the verses that became her silent, private world of melodies. I had not known then what solemn beauty and pain lived beneath the supposedly perfect, inspiring role that music had played in our family.

“Ma,” I would say, as I held on tight to the bellows of the harmonium. “Who gave you the tanpura?”

“My father gifted it to me after my graduation. It was a pre-requisite for practicing Hindustani classical music in those days. It still is, if you seriously want to pursue music.”

“That must have been a splendid gift and must have made you happy when you saw it for the first time.”

“You bet. I was. I used to see sunlight when I played with its strings with my slippery, playful fingers.”

“But why don’t you touch its strings anymore? What stopped you?”

“I can’t sing anymore. Can’t you see how cracked my voice is nowadays?”

“Maybe you just caught some bad cold. I bet it will be fine after you start practicing,” I forced my face toward her.

“I can’t, dear. I have lost the muscles of my vocal cord that creates music. You are too young to understand this.”

I didn’t hear any strain in her voice when she plainly said she had lost some vital, intrinsic part of her own body, which had once enabled her to sing, to weave magic, to spill hues on broken colors. Music had once brought her close to my father. Music was the sole catalyst that introduced him to her family. The year I was born, music became an exasperating text, a question mark in her life that she answered with negation and stoic rejection.

“Mashi, was Ma’s voice always choked like this?” I had asked my aunt one day.

“Oh no, her pitch was always perfect, and our music teacher was always impressed by her tonal quality, and the way she could memorize the lyrics of the song as if they were born out of her. But she would be down with an inflammation in her vocal chords, periodically.”

“But what exactly made her stop playing the tanpura?” I was impatient.

“Your mother would never touch the tanpura ever in her life. I can vouch for that, as much or as little I know of her,” my aunt said to me once.

“But why did she have to do that?” I asked in shock and dismay. “She could have improved her voice gradually with practicing, couldn’t she?”

“Maybe she could. Maybe she was just starting to do that when she was carrying you. There were inflammation and discomfort from time to time. But it got better, intermittently”.

“But why did she have to stop singing altogether? Was it only her damaged voice?” I couldn’t hold my curiosity.

“She had to carry the burden of responsibilities in her in-law’s house. Your Grandpa adored music, but not the idea of a young woman wedded to his family practicing music to perfect her voice for an audience. It didn’t seem proper to an ailing old man with traditional values. One day, he just ordered her to stop playing the tanpura, and she willfully obeyed.”

In my childlike mind, I could see, as my aunt spoke, how my mother must have touched the long, brown surface of the tanpura to her forehead in a gesture of pranaam, playing her fingers through its melodious strings for one last time before drifting into a sharp void.

Stripped of her voice, robbed of her own sunlight of music, I saw her repeat the lines of her favorite Tagore songs as our small living room roared with a chorus of voices rehearsing.

I could feel then, bit by bit, how the promise of music and melodies became a dying fetus inside the parched lands of her throat, which would never be singing again.

[This is an excerpt from the author’s yet unpublished memoir.]


Lopa Banerjee is a freelance writer, poet, and mother of two beautiful girls. She is also in her final year of studying creative nonfiction writing at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. She has just completed her memoir, a book-length collection of personal essays and stories on her childhood and her internal journey titled, Thwarted Escape: A Journey of Migrant Trails and Returns. Her poetry, essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared and are forthcoming at Prairie Fire, 13th Floor Magazine, Fine Lines, Yahoo Voices, The Mind Creative, Incredible Women of India, and Ampersand Review.

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7 Responses to “The Tanpura”

  1. Joyce Yarrow

    A touching, penetrating portrayal of a child’s first awakening, peppered with hope even as it brings us face to face with painful realities. It is not easy to describe music in words and Lopa Banerjee has done an excellent job of evoking sounds and blending them into a personal symphony of experience.


    Lopa jigar….. You possess a gifted pen…..and a celebrated soul, you made me smile, you made me cry….your memoir is a poetry flowing in prose… it and envy it… I should have written such prose……khushbash.

  3. lekha sengupta

    Incredible Lopa! How easily you have woven together the mundane story of a typical traditional Bengali family , with the warmth of your emotions and the glamorous magic of literature !!!

  4. anirban007nanda

    What a wonderful excerpt of your memoir Lopa di! Your use of words, your impeccable descriptions have taken me to those nostalgic times when I used to watch and enjoy my classmates dancing in songs like Fule Fule Dhole Dhole. I love this one. Waiting to read your memoir.


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