My personal ‘journey into sound’ started at the age of 7, with my flute teacher in Bavaria, Germany, Frau Schumann (the name itself was auspicious). Frau Schumann was a very spiritual, elderly woman, who not only introduced me to the music of Mozart, Chopin and Bach, but also to vegetarian food. We would spend half of our afternoons talking about God and many years later during my 8 year pilgrimage in India, I realized that she had planted the seed for sacred music and the spiritual quest in me at that tender age. When I was 10, my family moved to the USA and my interest shifted from classical music to learning the latest dance crazes and listening to the Beatles etc..

From the age of 10 to 28 my musical inclination lay dormant until life tricked me into going to India instead of South America in 1977, and my first guru came to find me and my friends at the Tourist Bungalow in Pushkar, Rajastan, which was a converted palace. Suddenly, at sunset, Bengali Baba appeared on the top of the roof and asked us, if we wanted a mantra…I had heard his name before from Westerners, but didn’t realize until I had lived with him in the Hanuman temple for a while, that he never left his temple…Anyway, here in Pushkar, where according to Hindu mythology the world was created by Brahma, I was exposed to kirtan (devotional chanting) for the first time. And it was very ecstatic chanting with the villagers sitting around the dhuni (fire pit) half of the night, accompaning the chanting with chimtas (fire tongs), cymbals and clapping. Kirtan was to become my only way of musical expression during the following years on pilgrimage as a Shiva devotee until I met my gurubhai (guru brother) again in Dharamsala, the exile residence of the Dalai Lama, 3 years later. Ashok was studying tablas (North Indian drums) at the time with a well-known tabla player of the region by the name of Chuni Lal Mishra, and I went to listen to a class purely out of curiosity. I got hooked that same afternoon and became so obsessed with the tabla bols (rhythmic patterns) within 2 or 3 weeks - only thinking in tabla bols - that I thought I was going insane. Little did I know, that this was the beginning of my ‘journey into the realm of sound,’ that was to become my life. I got my first exposure to the very best Indian and Pakistani musicians in the midst of my ‘tabla crisis’ at the Durga mela (festival) in Jullundar which lasted 9 days and nights. There I fell in love with Budhaditya Mukerjee’s sitar playing. At that time I was also studying Tibetan Buddhism, which lead me to Bodhgaya to take a Vipassana course – so I thought. On my way to Bodhgaya, I stopped in Benares to visit an Indio friend from Cuzco, Peru, who had been studying sitar for several years. Without me uttering a word about it, he intuitively picked up on my fervor to learn sitar, placed his sitar in my hands and gave me my first lesson. That evening I ended up renting a room in his guruji’s house, and that was the beginning of my 4 year stay in Benares. Besides giving me sitar lessons guruji, Ramakant Mishra, gave me vocal lessons every morning at 6 am after my morning bath and hatha yoga practice. His reasoning was, that a musician needs to be able to sing the pure sound in order to reproduce it on an instrument. After our morning class, guruji and I would walk to the Vishvanath temple at Benares Hindu University, where guruji sang every morning in memory of his guru who had been a great Dhrupad singer and had built the temple. During our half hour walk, guruji would read and recite Sanskrit slokas. But just before our walk, the whole house would be bathed in the divine singing of his daughter Mangala Tiwari. Those were happy days, that I spent playing tablas, sitar, singing, studying hatha yoga and Sanskrit until I realized that I needed to focus on one subject, if I wanted to get to a deeper level. The decision was very tough: I was a professional linguist so Sanskrit seemed to be the right choice…I loved the sitar with all my heart and actually wept and spontaneously cried out "amore della mia vita" ("love of my life" in Italian), when I handed it over to the Italian who was buying it from me, but my heart went for the voice training. Why did I decide on the voice? First of all, I had gotten the sense that the body is the ultimate instrument and that this was the greatest source of healing for myself on all levels and my way to get into a deep contemplative state, as just plain sitting meditation didn’t work for me. I had been meditating for years and my thoughts always seemed to be in the way, but music felt like my vehicle. I also remembered what a great solace music was for me as a girl, how connected I had felt. And once again, I was working with the breath like with the flute, but now my body was the flute, something I was only to fully grasp many years later. And lastly, I had had an epiphany months earlier listening to two male singers, the elder master and his senior disciple, singing in jugalbandi (duet)at the Dhrupad mela in Benares during Shivaratri. That very special March new moon night, the first time I heard the most ancient style of North Indian classical music, Dhrupad, in this lifetime, my whole being lit up and I knew I had found the music my soul had been looking for my entire life and that those two singers were my gurus! I also knew that I had to start learning with the younger of the two, Ritwik Sanyal, because his voice was incredibly pure and he could sing in my pitch. I was in heaven, when I found out that same night, that Ritwik Sanyal was living and teaching in Benares. But what a disappointment when his French student, Monica, informed me that he would not take me on, if I did not commit to studying at least five years… How was I to get a five-year-visa and the funds?… Obviously, life needed to test my commitment and had me wait anther nine months (!) until I was allowed to open that door, that was to become the most important door in my life… I used my waiting time well though, studying with Bholenath Mishra, who was very well-known for his ecstatic, devotional singing and who become very dear to me due to his big heart, compassion, sense of humor and wildness.

To be continued...

Shanti at the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, 1982

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