By Chris Corcoran
“I hear you’re musicians.” I peered around Peter to join the conversation. It was a Saturday night in March and we were listening to a drum circle backing a guy on guitar doing a pretty good Neil Young. Except for the sound of Hindi and the sweet aroma of curried daal, we could have been at any café in the western world. The jam was heating up and it was obvious the players knew each other. Manas had raved about it and insisted we meet up after we got back to the city.
Getting there had been tricky. The rickshaw driver had avoided pedestrians, cows and families with toddlers on citified motorcycles, all vying for space on the mucky, crowded streets. With only vague directions (“just over the bridge turn left and go along the lakeshore road”), he dropped us off and pointed down a poorly lit lane. The address led us to the Movindia Centre. A sign in the window read ‘Language School.’ Huh? The front door was locked so we followed a path around to the back and were astonished to find a landscaped lawn with flowers and walkways and stairs that led to a newly renovated open-air café overlooking Swaroop Sagar Lake. The Anarki Café was Udaipur’s newest cool ‘hot spot.’
Manas greeted us with a broad smile and much enthusiasm. We found bench seats near the circle and settled in. Next to an open window was a small keyboard with a young woman sitting cross-legged picking at the keys. A guy with a cast on one foot perched on the ledge beside her. Before you could say “Sarasvati” Peter and I were improvising a raga along with a first-rate drummer and a boy of about ten playing a mean tabla. People smiled and moved to the rhythm. Oh yeah.
“I play guitar and Chris is a pianist,” Peter was saying. “I come to Udaipur to study classical Indian music. My guru, Suresh, teaches and performs sitar—and flute and tabla.”
David’s pale western face stood out in the crowd when he’d walked in a few minutes earlier. With his gray, shoulder-length hair and pointed beard girdling the wrinkles on his 50-plus, smiling face, you could tell he was hip.
“Hi Chris,” he said, reaching a hand across Peter. “Sorry I missed you guys. I heard you were pretty good. I was telling Peter that I put on a little music festival every Sunday. Would you two like to join in tomorrow? We’re always looking for new people. There’s a big stage and an excellent sound system.”
“Tomorrow? Wow, that’s trusting!” I answered. “Will there be a keyboard I could use? I’ve looked all over the city for one to rent, and . . . nada. The only piano in Udaipur is behind glass in the City Palace museum!” I paused and nodded toward the circle. “There is one over there, but it’s not great, especially for the piece I have in mind. Doesn’t anybody play the piano in India?”
“Yeah, no problem, we’ll make sure there’s a keyboard for you.”
Peter and I stared at each other expectantly. I could feel his excitement at the prospect of being on stage again after his first-ever public performance the week before. He and Dena, a young sitar student from Israel, had subbed for Suresh in the lobby of the palatial Sheraton. I was pretty rusty, but I’d played Reverie a million times and felt I could do a decent job. Little did I know . . .
After a quick whispered discussion, Peter turned to David. “Okay, we’re happy to do a short set. We’ll do two numbers. Chris will start with a Debussy piece, and then we’ll play a raga together. A tabla player would make it even better. It would take about 15 minutes, maybe a little more.”
“Sounds great. Oh, and we’ll need short bios for the intro. Email it to me. Here’s my card.”
“Where is it, David?” I asked. “And how can you possibly put on a festival every week? We’ve organized festivals and know how much work it is.”
“There are lots of people involved. It’s not just music, it’s an ‘eco festival’ with organic food, environmental films, yoga, drum circles, that sort of thing. We call it ‘Shakti Sundays.’ We’re also showcasing singers competing in ‘Udaipur’s Got Talent!’—the lead-up to ‘Indian Idol.’ Every country’s doing it now and there’s some good talent right here in Udaipur. It’s at the Dudh Talai on the lake near the palace. Come early to see the show. You’ll go on around 6:00, but make sure you’re there for the sound check at 5:30.”
♥ ♥ ♥
Situated along the edge of Lake Pichola south of the City Palace, the Dudh Talai proffers an expansive, tree-lined esplanade and a small inland pond with swan-shaped pedal boats and a musical fountain. Sunsets are magical with the ever-shifting light dancing on the lake’s surface holding you captive long into the evening. Open-air boats on the lake offer spectacular backlit views of the Shiv Niwas Palace and the fortress-like Lake Palace Hotel, with palm trees that seem rooted in lake water.
We set out in mid-afternoon excited about how this unexpected turn of events might play out. Online research had fetched a sketchy impression of David’s organization and the festival, but we were psyched.
The size of the crowd surprised us—and so did the stage with its blazing lights and powerful speakers. Spicy curries, recycling options, and stone carvings of Kali, Shiva and other Hindu gods and goddesses populated colourful booths. At the edge of the boardwalk young men moved casually with their arms around each others’ shoulders, laughing and competing like peacocks vying for the attention of reticent peahens.
Udaipur’s Got Talent! was just getting started. It was clear the show was running behind, but I wasn’t surprised. Schedules in India are scant suggestions, and perfectionists who strive to be free spirits (like me) have to constantly chip away at our pillars of expectation. So what if it was late? What did it really matter?
Going with the flow, we relaxed and sat down to enjoy the entertainment. Peter was delighted at the Bollywood-style hip hop acts that dominated the competition. We’d just held an energetic two-day music workshop at Hunar Ghar, a school in the desert where we were volunteers and had met Manas, a dedicated humanitarian and all-around good guy. We’d danced hip hop with the kids; it was our new pop music darling.
Looking around, I saw David in the front row peering intently through a video camera perched on a tripod and seeming unapproachable. A panel of judges was seated at a nearby table and I went over to get a program and tell them Peter and I were there. Premilla, David’s sister-in-law and one of the coordinators, introduced herself. She was overjoyed we had shown up. I asked her when the sound check would be since things were behind. And where was the keyboard? And was there a music stand anywhere? And a sustain pedal? She waved David over, and he assured us all was well and the sound check would now be at 6:00 or 6:30. He told me they were using the same keyboard that had been at the Anarki and he didn’t know about a pedal, but we could look in the case. There was no music stand.
I thanked him and took several deep breaths. My set-up was sounding dubious. I knew the keyboard didn’t have 88 keys and the sound was rinky-dink—but most of all, with no sustain pedal, there was no way I could do Debussy justice. His music is all about soundscape and dreamy impressions. Plus, I didn’t have it memorized and needed to use my sheet music. What was I going to do? Peter was okay without a bunch of musical detritus—all he needed was his guitar and an amp.
Leaning against a tree next to the judge’s table, I stared at the crowd feeling self-conscious and worried. Should I back out? I wanted to play for these people, many of whom I suspected had never been exposed to French impressionist music—or maybe had never even heard a piano before. Graduating from playing musical games with kids to performing for an adult audience seemed a natural progression, right? I had to figure this out—and fast.
Seconds later I was surprised to see a man carrying a very large wooden easel approaching carefully through the crowd. “I hear you need a music stand,” he smiled, gesturing toward Premilla.
I looked at the easel, which he had nicked from one of the vendors, and stifled a laugh. “You’re right. Wow. Do you think this could work? I need to attach several sheets of music. And the height has to be right for sitting at a keyboard. Any ideas?”
After a comedic but failed attempt to attach the music using duct tape—and no doubt providing fuel for discreet giggles among the well-behaved crowd—the helpful man reappeared with the vendor’s cork board. I had never been so grateful for push pins in my life.
I started to suspect the sound check would go the way of the schedule . . . lost in space. Looking around, I spotted some players from last night’s jam, including Anna, the young woman who’d been sitting at the keyboard. Like many young westerners, she was happily wandering through India with no itinerary or angst. Hanging around the music scene at the Anarki was her latest diversion. No pillars of expectation stuck to her!
She waved hello. I grabbed my newfangled stand and nodded and raised my eyebrows, appealing to her for help. Anna grasped the situation immediately and was on it. What a relief to have such willing hands.
We found the keyboard next to the stage underneath a pile of amps and guitars and a rickety-looking metal contraption that looked like a walker in need of a body to keep it upright. I was afraid the keyboard might be damaged from all that careless weight and felt a brief respect for my ordered life. We unpacked the cheap case and found it intact—but without the longed-for pedal. Oh, Debussy.
I smiled at Anna. “This is going to be a challenge. What do you suppose the keyboard is meant to sit on?”
“Oh that’s easy. Arjun’s walker. We used it last night.” She smiled back with a mischievous glint.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I remembered now—and Arjun, the guy with the cast who had told me the story of his accident. At the Anarki the keyboard had been perched on the walker, which was covered by a colourful melange of Indian prints. I thought about going over to David and telling him this wasn’t going to work. There was still time to back out.
“And what do you suppose I’m meant to sit on?” I asked Anna. I was too caught up in the moment to stop now. “Wait, I know. I’ll go get one of the folding chairs from the audience.” By that time, despite deep breathing and lots of praying, my voice and blood pressure were rising and I’m sure my cheeks matched my salwar kameez in pink embarrassment.
There was a break in the action on stage and it was time to set up. We managed to position the gear at angles that didn’t cast shadows or put my back to the crowd. The chair was too low, so I helped myself to a drummer’s stool, hoping the owner wouldn’t mind.
I kept telling myself there was still time to cancel. But too late. At that moment Premilla introduced Peter and me over the loudspeakers. She highlighted our musical backgrounds and accomplishments and made us sound like rock stars on tour. Good grief.
Peter ambled over with his guitar. “Relax, Chris, it’s all going to work out.” I could have heard that as patronizing, but smiled instead and hoped he was right.
It was time for the sound check. But there was no sound check. The colossal music stand was laughable enough, but the walker proved to be the ultimate absurdity. As rickety as an Indian head wobble, there was no way that instrument was going to sit there unmoving while I played it. The slightest touch and it was a goner. Talk about improvising! But brilliant ideas come when the need is great. I repositioned the discarded chair beside my stool and looked at Anna hopefully.
“Will you sit here and hold the keyboard steady for me while I play? And toss some encouraging thoughts my way?”
“Oh, yeah. This is going to be fun. Just relax, you’ll do great.”
♥ ♥ ♥
The stage was ready and I was first. Peter stood at the opposite side holding his guitar, serene in his waiting pose. With his bright orange shirt and thick, silver curly hair, and my pink and blonde get-up, we looked like a western version of peacock and peahen…with possibility. His quiet presence and encouraging look calmed me once again. Taking another deep breath, I faced the audience, smiled and bowed slightly and settled on the stool. Sending a prayer to the piano gods, and an apology to Debussy, I checked in with Anna and began to play.
Reverie is a piece that lulls, entices, invites the soul into peaceful surrender. The single-note melody floats above softly rolling arpeggios, seducing listeners into an altered state. But not this time. The sound I was creating was harsh, too loud, and edgy. The melody sounded like a lost goose, honking for her misplaced mate. And as hard as I tried to play the accompanying notes in a smooth, legato fashion— without a sustain pedal but smiling all the while—they sounded like stiletto heels marching down a glossy runway at an Yves St. Laurent fashion show.
“Damn it!” I thought. “How am I ever going to get through this? This is terrible. I am so embarrassed!” Anna had to work at holding the keyboard steady, but she was doing a great job. I wasn’t doing a great job and started to sense some unease in the audience. What to do?
After a quiet, melodic beginning, the music moves toward expansive chords that build tension, volume and momentum before resolving back to the tranquil, dream-like theme. As I approached the middle section, I knew I couldn’t pull it off and frantically searched ahead in the music. I had to end this disaster, and the quicker the better!
When it was over, I stood and smiled at the audience and bowed a tentative thank you to a smattering of unenthusiastic applause. It was hard to maintain my dignity but there was no time for regrets. I had to get ready for the raga.
I moved the ridiculous music stand to the back of the stage. I would stand for this one. The drummer reclaimed his stool. It was the same guy from the night before—an spirited player who would add pizzazz to the raga. A tabla player was setting up beside him. It was Manas! He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Peter turned to the band, nodded, and we were off. Our rendition of ‘Rag Yaman’ was eccentric to say the least. The crowd loved it. They burst into thunderous applause at the final chord. It was music they could relate to. I was thrilled for Peter.
Hugging and thanking Anna, my guardian angel, I considered confronting David about the setup. I had trusted him instead of listening to my inner voice of caution. Instead, Peter and I headed for the vendors. We were famished.
Five minutes later we were in line for tikka masala. An Indian man approached us offering his hand and warm congratulations. He had enjoyed my playing very much. Dumbfounded, I smiled and thanked him politely. We chatted for a few minutes and I started to relax. After he’d disappeared into the crowd I looked at Peter and burst out laughing, realizing how much I had overreacted. I still bless that stranger.
Four years later I finally found a good keyboard. It was in the sanctuary of a beautiful Catholic Church in Agonda, a small village in Goa. Our host Godwin introduced me to the priest who invited me to come anytime. I played my Debussy favourites, including Reverie. It was heavenly.