Calcutta – Madras – Colombo

My introduction to the sitar

Luckily, I’ve got the means to appease him

I arrived at the Betthia train station in the early hours of the morning. Hundreds of “travellers” are sleeping in lobby. In India a train station is as good a place as any for the homeless to spend the night.

After a while the train arrived at the station. I soon discover that it’s impossible to open any of the doors since the train is packed to capacity. I desperately run the length of the platform trying to find space in the train. It doesn’t look like I’m going to make it. I find a conductor and explain my predicament to him.

– Atcha*! Do you have a ticket, Sir?

– Yes, here it is.

He examines it for a moment and then knocks on the first door:

– Tickets, please!

Unruffled, the passengers obviously understand what is going on and exit the train one by one; no one has a ticket. And I wind up making the trip in an empty compartment. Well, almost empty, anyway. There is one other paying passenger. He’s French, and his name is Patrick Moutal. Born into a wealthy family in Lyon, he’s a guitarist who has come to India to learn the sitar. He’s going to join his “ustad,” his instructor, at the University of Benares, where he has been living for the past several years. He lives in a room located on the banks of the Ganges and sleeps on the floor. He’s joyful and full of life.

However, he declines to take a sip from my flask, even though it contains a more enticing beverage than it did back in Nepal.

– I love whisky, but studying music demands certain sacrifices, you know.

– But no one will know!

– Atcha! But my life is centered around study and complete immersion in my work. When I get my degree 5 or 6 years from now, I’ll be free to live my life and play my music as I please. In the meantime I’ve got everything I need. Why get drunk when I’m completely happy to begin with?

– OK, no whisky. But, since you’re from Lyons, surely you wouldn’t refuse a glass of Pommard?

– Atcha. Well, he smiled, my ustad is a tolerant and understanding man when it comes to extreme cases like this.

– Tell me something, is playing the sitar similar to playing the guitar, in terms of technique?

– Here, technique isn’t the most important objective. Style takes a backseat to substance, whereas in the west we tend to focus on trivial things rather than on what matters most. In Europe we teach children the imperfect subjunctive tense but we fail to imbue them with any real sense of generosity. Here, it’s all about emotions. We dissect them, analyze them, explore them. Listen, this is a raga…

My companion unpacks his sitar from its case and sits on the ground, in the lotus position.

– This is a morning raga. I want to emphasize every note on the pentatonic scale. I begin with the first note and play around it, like a hypnotist who slowly waves his fingers before his victim. Can you hear the notes improvised around the original note? Now, listen to these five notes; they fill you with sound. I’m going to play the entire scale now. And I’ll add the shrutis

– The what?

– I don’t know how to explain it to you. They’re short intervals used to sustain the original note. The trick is to duplicate the subtleties of vocal music, which is a model for all music in India. For instance, this is a…

– …No, don’t stop!

– Atcha! The music has already gotten hold of you. Good! Now let’s focus on the theme. Have you picked up on it?

– Atcha!

– Now we’ve got to add rhythm. This would normally be the part where a tabla player would join in, highlighting the twelve-tone structure. This is the essence of the music—complex yet controlled. The rhythm picks up and the music reaches a kind of paroxysm. Once you’re caught up in it, you feel intoxicated, elated. Can you feel it? Can you? Slowly, slowly you come back down to earth. In the end the music, now fulfilled, falls silent.

– I get it. But how are you supposed to learn all that at once?

– That is what makes studying art so elusive. Few people receive adequate training, even here, and those who are able to appreciate the true beauty of music are few and far between. They can still get excited about it and appreciate it on some level: its virtuosity, its tone, or, for the Americans, its exoticism. Look, a train station! I’m hungry, let’s stop here!

We buy a couple of chappati sandwiches. A woman approaches us and begs. I offer her half of my sandwich. She looks at me with disdain and refuses. What she wants is money. However, an enormous buzzard, who had been watching our exchange with keen interest, swooped down, grabed the sandwich in its talons, and made off with my lunch.

When we got back to the platform, the train was again packed with people. We finished the last segment of our journey on the roof.

– I’ll be leaving you at the next station, Monghyr, where I’ll board another train bound for Benares. Who knows how long I’ll stay there? After all, I’ve got so much to learn!

– But how can a Westerner ever hope to equal these artists you so admire and who have inspired you to make so many sacrifices?

– Here, artists are dedicated to their art, unlike the West, where people put their signature on cathedrals. As a result European art lacks continuity. The artists who have succeeded the great masters would rather go their own way. They’re more interested in revolution than evolution. You can even make out distinct cycles. You start from a primitive form. So-called cultivated individuals immediately reject this whether its jazz, rock, disco, whatever. This is gradually worked over and refined until it too is classicized. At this point the next generation shows up. Unable to make any significant contribution to an existing genre, they start a new one. And the cycle begins again.

– In other words it’s the old against the young?

– Look, things are constantly changing, but here there’s a real sense of continuity that we don’t have in the West. Tradition is never challenged. Even a great artist doesn’t discourage succeeding generations. We simply reconcile ourselves to the idea that no one will be able to do better for another century or two.

– But I saw some people playing the guitar…

– Atcha! They were young people looking for a low-budget introduction to Western culture. The problem is geographical, not historical.

Two years later, I would give the first guitar concert ever performed in Benares. Patrick, as lively as ever, had by then attained such fame that he wound up giving concerts throughout India—which is fairly remarkable for a kid from Lyons. A number of years after that, I ran into him again in Paris. He was teaching Indian music at the Paris Conservatory. Atcha!


Arriving in Calcutta is an impressive experience, not so much because of the sweltering expanse that signals your arrival in the Bengali metropolis but the teeming masses of humanity. Calcutta is a mosaic of different races and ethnic groups, divided into casts and sub-casts. The mingling of people and customs, so profoundly intertwined, creates a kind of human puzzle on a gigantic scale. The shock is greater to the unaccustomed visitor since it is so shamelessly displayed for all to see.

After a brief recital at the Alliance Française, I have enough money for a second-class ticket to Madras, Ramanathapuram, and, after passing through the Strait of Palk, the capital of what was then known as Ceylon, Colombo. I toured the lush, fertile island in a small local train. The ambiance was festive, the air filled with vivid colors and music.

The country is poor and, in spite of good attendance (including lots of jazz lovers), the proceeds of my recital are fairly meager. Fortunately, the Messageries Maritimes line had a solution for people on a budget, like myself. I can get a cheap berth on board the cruise ship “Laos.” Which means I have enough to get to Singapore, my next destination.


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