I recently enjoyed the chance to perform alongside the Australian writer and cellist Kevin Gillam, who interweaves his poetry with the magnificent timbres of the instrument. Far from the city which I soften daily with Bach’s suites, I made two discoveries: firstly, the music evoked no Pavlovian responses in me, no memory of that which needs softening. And, these celebrated ouvertures may have been written by the other Bach – his wife.
Gillam spoke of research by the conductor Martin Jarvis that proposed that Anna Magdalena Bach had composed the suites; their pacing and sensibilities differ significantly from Bach’s larger body of work. This stayed with me. The unaccompanied cello suites accompany me everywhere, and now this thought did too. History remembers us as it will. We cannot influence its remembering. Our work is not to contrive the echoes we leave, but to live life’s opus with operatic feeling. It matters not whether we survive in song or in silence, but only that we deliver our clearest cadence.
I had been introduced to the baroque suites by a musicologist I had befriended while travelling in the Thanjavur district. A year later, I returned to that part of the country, and again, what I took back with me resonated for a long time afterward.
Pilgrims to a music festival, we had travelled out to the village of Thirupughazhur for a meal and to see a certain house, an excursion within a longer one, and after an extraordinary banana leaf lunch – the best vegetarian South Indian meal of my life – were on the backyard portico, napping or talking in the somnolence of the first few weeks of real heat since the rains had ended. A temple tank faced us, the view tainted only by the telephone towers in the near distance. Thirupughazhur literally translates to “town of the praise-song”; it is sacred to the legends of the poet-mystics Appar and Sundarar (not all poets are mystics, but I think all mystics are poets, even the ones who do not speak).
Among our party was the Indologist David Shulman, who spoke of the Tantric concept of the vibrating universe. As in string theory, the world is always singing. God, perhaps, is eternally humming. In stages, this supreme vibration becomes audible. From an intensity impossible for us to hear, it devolves into speech, noise, melody. The urmani is the moment of epiphany: the moment when silence turns to sound.
By April, months later, the rains still had not returned. I soften the city with cello suites, I wrote. A few days after I sent it to him, another friend – yet another soul who blesses the orchestra of my life – told me he had set the poem with this line in it to music. I was surprised; much as I have an interest in multidisciplinary art, my writing, like a cello suite, is almost always imagined unaccompanied. I listened to a rough cut of the piece, and in the silence after the song’s ending, I thought of the urmani. I thought of when it might have been when, reading the page, the words became infused with sonority. In my friend’s head, a harmony had formed. In mine, it had happened backwards. The world is always singing. I am always only trying to write down its songs.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.