By Atreyee Majumder
I took up the violin, as part of an aging crisis. In September 2016 I was writing a book, as part of my postdoctoral fellowship in Toronto. I knew everything about my book. I had read the books I was citing a number of times. I just had to hunt up the right passages and check the page numbers. I had read my fieldnotes again and again. I began to worry that I would never be able to learn anything from scratch ever again. I was getting old, and would revel in the success of regurgitating what I had already known for years in a sophisticated, overconfident manner and everyone would applause. I wanted to feel the raw difficulty and humility of learning again. Like being back in school and learning algebra for the first time. Like trying to ride a bicycle for the first time.
I was listening to a lot of Kathick Iyer those days. And something led me to google a website that would hook you up with music teachers. I found mine. She was a Colombia woman who lived in the Portuguese neighborhood of Toronto. She gave me instructions on how to buy a violin. I walked along Bloor Street to Long and Mcquade Musical Instruments with a friend and spent three hundred Canadian dollars and bought a ¼ violin (made for kids) out of sheer ignorance! I went to my teacher who pointed out that I needed a 4/4 violin meant for adults. That day, she made me use her violin and play the open strings E, A, D, G. I had had two years of piano in my middle school when I hated it, and was very bad at it. But I remembered how to read sheet music or at least, the basics of it. We spent a lot of time on adjusting my fingers around the grip of the bow. The bow felt strong and yet so delicate. The next day I went and got the violin exchanged. This was a big instrument. And yet when I balanced it between my chin and shoulder, using the shoulder-rest, it felt light. So light. And just four strings. How could it make so much complex music out of just four strings?!
This was September 2016. I was finishing my book, not finding a tenure-track job in the US-Canada scene. And getting increasingly anxious. Music, I learnt, over the next year, at least, the learning of it, was not relaxing. It came at you with all kinds of insults. Music, as a hobby, does not soothe your mind from the rest of your troubles. E, A, D, G turned into majors and minors and slurs and arpeggios and double octaves. Often, much too often, a jarring, most humiliating noise came out of my playing. My intellectual work in music was, more often than not, accurate. I was hitting the right places at the right strings. But then why was I not letting out the right music? My shoulder was not erect enough. My little finger was not strong enough. My arm was not changing alignments quickly enough along with changing of strings and the fingering of notes. My upper arm was moving too much. I realized after about six months that the violin was a physical thing. My body had to dance with the violin. Embrace the violin. My intellectual prowess was not very helpful in this journey. The only thing I was good at was that I would remember the sequence of notes very easily and accurately, so I often would not have to look at the sheet music.
But I would not give up. I was not a talented musician, I knew that. But I wanted to conquer the violin. You see it was like a bookish nerd falling in love with an athlete. I had to leave my intellectual self behind, and get physical with the instrument. And I had no clue about ways of learning that were not intellectual. I got better over the next year; I played Grade 2 and 3 pieces, correctly but not beautifully. People sent me links to beautiful violin performances, sometimes by small kids, and all I felt was sheer jealousy. I could never ever play like them. The violin didn’t care for my pain.
In 2018, all kinds of pain summed up into an episode of major psychological illness. I was in Bangalore while I finished the book. I had vivid, beautiful, scary delusions. The violin was in Toronto, in a friend’s basement. I didn’t see it for a whole year. Then I went back to Canada in May 2019, and picked it up. I felt guilty. The poor thing had been sitting quietly at a corner of a dark, cold basement. I feared it would have been damaged. I carried it back in the plane. It was stored in the coat closet by the side of the business class toilets. I told the stewardesses it was fragile. As if they had never had a passenger travel with a musical instrument ever before.
In Delhi, I needed a teacher. But first, I had to take the violin to a music store in Hauz Khas market to check if everything was in order. And they said, it was in perfect shape. In Delhi, I inaugurated my second stint with the violin. I found an eccentric Punjabi man as my teacher. In the perfectly Punjabi Kalkaji neighborhood, my classes began again. I was scared the yearlong gap would require me to start from scratch. But E, A, D, G – there they were again! My friends E, A, D, G that were adept at emitting the most soulful sounds – just the four of them. My teacher is a self-taught man. He doesn’t believe in sequence or syllabi. So he made me jump ladders and avoid snakes. He pulled out ‘The Swan’ one day. It has famously been played by Yo-Yo Ma. I was dumbstruck. There was no way I could play this. I had just learnt to play notes in the third position, and the second half of this music was entirely in the third position. How would I manage that?! It took three months, but I played it. Accurately but not beautifully.
Music is not like writing, music doesn’t need you dig into your feelings, music doesn’t need you to be yourself. Music needs to be the boss in the equation between musician and music. It took me three years to learn this. It is its own wonder. And you follow its magic! You have to be a humble slave to the instrument. You have to listen to its quiet demands. You have to pay homage to its absolute, undisputed greatness. And only then it yields to you. I am playing Ravel’s Bolero these days. I have learnt half of it, and the second half has a very abstruse musicality. I get the notes, but I don’t get the music. Music taught me to revel in my insignificance. The music is much bigger, more beautiful, more important than me. I am but a hapless soul desperately trying to invite it into my mind and body.
Atreyee Majumder is a poet, writer and anthropologist. She teaches at the O P Jindal Global University. She is currently researching the contemporary life of Krishna bhakti in Vrindavan. Her first book on the time and space related to late stage capitalism – Time, Space, and Capital in India – is published with Routledge (2018).
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.