Sunday, July 31, 2016

Tansen's Teacher

Once the ruler Akbar called Tansen before him to sing. Akbar listened and was, as usual, amazed at the talent of this singer. He praised Tansen. But Tansen said to Akbar, “My singing is little compared to that of my teacher.” “Then I must meet your teacher,” said Akbar. But Tansen explained that his teacher agreed to meet few people. There was no guarantee that he would meet Akbar. However, if Akbar were to travel on foot wearing only ordinary clothing there was a possibility that Tansen’s teacher might agree to meet him. Akbar did as Tansen suggested and they set out on the journey together. They approached the mountain range where Tansen’s teacher lived. The teacher saw that Akbar approached on foot and wearing ordinary clothes. He welcomed them and Akbar and Tansen sat before the teacher. Tansen’s teacher began to sing. The music made the plants and the trees vibrate. All creatures paused and listened. Akbar and Tansen went into a trance and were transported beyond the world they knew. Akbar did not know how long he was in that trance but when he came out of it Tansen’s teacher was nowhere to be seen. Tansen explained that once his teacher sang for someone it was unlikely that they would ever see him again. Akbar was satisfied and returned to his palace. Some weeks later he called Tansen before him and asked him to sing the raga that his teacher had sung for them. Tansen obliged and sang. When the song was over Akbar looked long at Tansen and said, “It is true that that is the raga your teacher sang. But it is different. How is that?” “Ah,” sighed Tansen. “You see, while I stand here and sing before you, the emperor, my teacher sings before God.”

One thing i love about storytelling is the searching for stories. I love pouring through books, reading websites, browsing libraries and bookstores, observing the world around me. And, of course, listening, always listening. The 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling is one of the greatest places to listen in the world. It was in a Barnes and Noble somewhere north of San Francisco that i found a copy of Hazrat Inayat Khan's Tales (Omega Publications, 1980). A book with that title will always catch my attention. And, indeed, opening it to see it filled with short tales clinched it. The book is a collection of Sufi "teaching tales" and anecdotes of Khan's experience. Hazrat Inayat Khan was, amongst other things, a musician and the founder of the International Sufi Movement now known as the Sufi Order Inayati. Sufi stories are amongst my favourite in the world. Often enigmatic riddles, they move around one's consciousness like beautiful birds catching one's attention one minute and flitting away the next. I think i've come to understand that one of the essential characteristics of a "teaching story" is that they continue to teach long after they have been first encountered. For these stories, unlike a riddles, don't have just "one answer" but countless answers. Every context in which i recall a story changes the meaning of that story, adding to it, refracting it, making it new again.

ImageAkbar and Tansen visit Swami Haridas in Vrindavan. Swami Haridas is to the right, playing the lute; Akbar is to the left, dressed as a common man; Tansen is in the middle, listening to Haridas. Jaipur-Kishangarh mixed style, ca. 1750

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