An Interview with Sri Karunamayee

I first met Sri Karunamayee at a music workshop held in Rishikesh last winter, where she was teaching Indian classical music, alongside other students of the great Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, and other members of the Kirana gharana, India’s foremost school of classical singing.  Aside from her beautiful voice, Sri Karunamayee’s classes were impressive in the way they stressed the fundamentals of singing and sound. The roots of her ability to articulate a philosophy of sound and it’s Divine nature can be found in her life story.  

Sri Karunamayee was born into a family in Delhi that was devoted to spiritual music. She pursued parallel careers as a singer and an educator, achieving the status of a class ‘A’ broadcasting artist for All India Radio, while at the same time obtaining a Masters in Philosophy from Delhi University, and acting as head of the music department at V.M. College of Ghaziabad of Agra University. Throughout her life, she has been committed to music as a spiritual practice, seeking out the highest teachers like Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, Vediji.  She was one of the first students of Pandit Pran Nath, who in 1970 brought the Indian Classical vocal tradition to America, and numbered amongst his students, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley and Jon Hassell.  Sri Karunamayee pays regular visits to North America, at the invitation of the Bay Area’s Sur-Laya-Sangam (, to teach Hindustani vocal music.

One day in 1966 while traveling by bus in Delhi, she felt the urge to go visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in the outskirts of the city. There, she Encountered the Ashram’s founder, an old family friend and holy man named Sri Surendra Nath Jauhar Fakir.  Strangely, she heard an ‘inner call’, and offered to sing a song for him.  After much persuasion, he gave in, and she sang, reducing the room to tears. Mindful of the time, she made her excuses to leave, but was refused.  She remains at the Ashram to this day, teaching and engaged in her Sadhana.

I visited Sri Karunamayee at Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi on a beautiful morning in May. The sound of cuckoos in the garden vied with the sound of auto-rickshaws, airplanes and the delightful urban chaos of Delhi. We spoke for several hours, with a large photo portrait of The Mother beaming down on us. The conversation was so exhilarating that even the Delhi public bus that I took back into the city center afterwards, a notorious source of discomfort, felt infinitely spacious and full of joy.

MB: In what way can we understand making music as a form of spiritual practice?

K: Music, and especially Pandit Pran Nath’s approach to music, is very close to silence, the Sunyatta, from which everything comes and to which everything returns. That music is so close to silence, that to attain it, one has to learn to go within, make the inward journey. It is not so easy. First one should have the aspiration to do so. One should know that there is something worthwhile in going to the depths, where there is not so much sensation, activity, turmoil and drama as on the surface. The very depths are so still and impenetrable.  In our own selves there are such levels.  If one wants to be fully dynamic and effective in the true sense we must contact and master this level of perfect silence and equilibrium. Playing with a top in full motion it appears static, fixed, and gray, but just a touch and lo, it assumes quite a turmoil, hectic movement and a riot of so many colors!  This is what life is like.  When you have achieved that balance, only then will you try to make this venture.  You were asking about pop music earlier.  If you want the surface, all the variety, thrills, change and change and change, then pop music is very good.  But if you want to know what is the ultimate reason why all this has been created, and not just be tossed by the rising and falling of the waves, if you want to know where the power of the waves comes from, you have to go to the tides. And what controls the tides?  

MB: How do you stop yourself from getting lost in those depths?

K: Indian music—the very blessing of the Divine as Shiva—has given us the gift of the tambura, the four stringed Veena or Drone, which gives you a feeling of groundedness, so you do not get lost as in Western music. The tambura will support you always.  It is said that even Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning and music, when she enters the Nada Brahman, the ocean of sound, feels that it is so impenetrable, so profound, that she is concerned less she, the goddess of music, may be lost, inundated by it. So she places two gourds around her, in the form of Veena, and then she is guided by them into it. 

MB: Such an ocean!

K: Yes.  And that ocean of sound is the sound of silence.  The depth of which is expressed in the sounds of the tambura.  

MB: The sound is the reflection of the silence?

K: Yes.  Silence: it is like the depth of depths.  It is the eternal game of hide and seek.  You may create any number of sophisticated games in the world, but the one game with universal appeal, which nobody is ever tired of, is the game of hide and seek.  From the child to the oldest person.  Everyone loves it.  Sound: from where does it manifest?  From where has it come? Where does it go?  It merges into the ether, the Sunyatta, and then it re-emerges.  Whether we are in the sound, or the sound is in us, it is always a mystery.  Even when we are not striking up any sound, does the unstruck sound not emanate through us, in spite of us?  The ocean of sound is composed of that struck and unstruck sound, all rolled into One.  And we are a part of that.  The drop is in the ocean.  But the drop in the ocean can say, yes I am ocean.

MB: Are we sound?

K: We are sound.  Aren’t we? When we are in control of sound, then we are sound.  And that sound is just like when you hold a set of scales, on one side you keep the weight, on the other you keep the goods.  So sound is balanced with silence.  You cannot be fully aware of the beauty of this sound unless you have tasted silence.

MB: Are we silence then too?

K: Yes. 

MB: How did you became involved in music?

K: Oh!  My involvement in music?  Surely it started before I was born.  Because “sound-crazy” as I am, how could I not be born in a family which was already resounding with the music of masters like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Fayyaz Khan and Pandit Bhatkande?  Through my grandfather’s hummings, my father’s singing, my elder brother and sister’s practice, and through their teachers.  But as a small child I liked to go to where nobody made any sound.  Where two doors met in our house there was such a place, and I would just go and hide myself there.  For hours I would stand there and feel the silence.  Silence going into sound, and sound turning into silence.  That was my favorite time.  Sometimes my mother would look at the brood and say “uh oh, where is Karuna?” We were a big family. I had to find my own corner of silence, which was essential for my existence. 

MB: Did you have a formal music instructor?

K: At the age of six, good teachers were coming and teaching my brother and sister.  But I was very small and it was not considered necessary for me.  But I had a gift.  Whenever I heard some music it just became ingrained in me.  My consciousness of silence kept my slate very clean.  Most of the time I enjoyed the silence, even when everyone was talking, I felt a kind of echo of the silence, as if I was in a tunnel, untouched by any of it.   Whatever I heard was imprinted, and I found myself singing in that way.  Nobody cared.  I would just put my head down and start going sa-re-ga-ma.  Sometimes I would hear my sound very clearly.  I would think: it may be that my sound is not heard, but I can think of music!  And holding that thread, not of the sound that I’m making, but of the concept of sound, with that I would go up the scales for many octaves.  And then I would say, alright, let me come down, keeping the thread, and I would find my voice becoming audible, very clear, and then deep, and then less clear, more unheard, but I could go deep also.  This was my favorite exercise.  I would go higher and higher like the birds at noontime in the sky.  Then I would imagine that somebody is taking water out of a well. You can go as deep as you want.  There is no limit on either side, up or down.  So I experienced infinity in height and depth through sound and silence. It gives you control over your mind. A thread of sound. 

But you asked about formal instruction.  In answer to my deepest aspiration for music as the path for my self-realization, at the age of twelve I was blessed by the teaching of Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya of Gwalior Gharana, a second generation disciple of the savant of Indian music, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who initiated me into the depths and lofty heights of Indian music with crystal clear understanding and with a due sense of devotion and commitment for which I am so grateful.

MB: When did you first meet Pandit Pran Nath?

K: I met him in 1953 at a music festival in Delhi.  This was a difficult time in Guruji’s life.  His master, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan had just died and Guruji was like a person who was very disturbed, uprooted.  When Guruji started singing, my teacher Dadaji said to me, “Listen carefully, this is the music for singing for which you have taken birth on earth.” Guruji sang “Miyan Ki Mulhar.” That is a raga of rain.  At certain moments, when Guruji sang, it seemed that he collected the breath of all of us, and held it for some time, and then gave it release.  About five thousand people were sitting in that hall.  So he held the breath of us all, collected our breath through his own breath, held it at one pitch and then let go.  When he let go, we also let go.  And that opened our eyes.  I could never imagine that someone could hold the breath of other people.  It was a shock to me.  All this can be done with music!  And when he ended there was torrential rain!  And suddenly Pran Nathji got up, he was very sad and frustrated and angry, and he said, “I’m not a musician, I’m only a teacher.”  And he left the stage.  We were very shocked. 

MB: The first time I heard a recording of him, I thought it sounded wrong.  I couldn’t understand what he was doing.  I’d never heard someone consciously trying to do what he was doing.  It educated my ears.

K: You need to develop a special faculty.  Then you can hear.  Supposing someone is born with no faculty to smell.  You say, “Oh a rose smells so beautiful!”  He says, “What are you talking about?”   Sri Aurobindo said people live in a three dimensional world.  But in fact we live in a four dimensional world. What is the fourth dimension?  The Divine.  To live with or without the Divine: it is like living with or without a dimension.  So living with or without music is living with or without a dimension.  Music is a dimension of our existence.  I first realized this when I heard everyone’s breath held in one man’s hand— and unless he decided to let go, we couldn’t release our breath.  Five thousand people sitting there.  So this can be done.  But what is happening in between the breaths? I became aware of that when I started learning from Pran Nathji.  

MB: What was Pandit Pran Nath like as a teacher?

K: He was a great teacher.  He would expect the best from you and could bring out the best.  Every step: the way of looking at notes, at rhythm, everything was Divine approach.  With him I felt there was no difference between Divine experience and musical experience.  Life was music, life was Divine.  It was one experience.  He said: music is just like waves, it is continuity, sometimes one aspect is shown more, another time, another aspect.  It should be a total experience.  I always used to look at notes from different angles, but he taught me to look at a note in its totality all at the same time.  All at the same time: you see how it is rising, and at the same time, how it is balancing to fall down.

MB: So it could go in any direction?

K: Yes.  The real music is between the notes, that is Pandit Pran Nath’s special contribution.  Notes are landmarks but in-between much happens.  When a child is growing from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, there are so many stages of maturity.  One Marcus was born as a baby, and it is the same person growing, passing through different phases in life. That is continuity.

MB: The note is always passing through time?

K: Yes, music with its notes, its sound and silence, is something continuous.  For our own limited understanding, we put limits on this continuity.  A mother who is with a child all the time cannot see how her child is growing, but any person who only sees the child every few weeks will say, “Oh, the baby has grown.”  The Western musical notation system cannot do justice to sound, it can just point.  That’s all.  Notation misses how one thing changes into another.   

MB: The great Balinese Gamelan master Wayan Lotring once said “In my time, all music was nothing but nuances…” 

K: Those subtle things in between go unnoticed because of the fast life, to notice them you have to slow down your own inner speed.  Look at pop music, how fast and loud it is.  It doesn’t give you the opportunity to think of the finest nuances, and observe how one thing changes into another.  It is so imperceptible.  But even it is made perceptible, if you can bring your consciousness to focus on that sacred phenomenon of one thing becoming another, to hold control over that is not a simple thing.  Things get out of hand!  

MB: I heard Pandit Pran Nath say that raga means living souls.  What did he mean by that?

K:  Pandit Pran Nathji was a Siddha-Nada-Yogi of the highest realization.  With his natural gift, and his sadhana of the purity of sound, he was able to offer a living experience of Ragas as divine entities coming and manifesting in their celestial true forms.  Every note and nuance had the power and potency to bless the singer and the listener alike with felicity and Ananda.  When the singer invokes the spirit of a particular raga, his own spirit gets attuned to a pitch of the raga, and through those sounds, he says to the spirits please come down and manifest.  He offers himself completely.  When he is singing a raga he is not thinking of anything else, every drop of him is taken possession of, there is no individuality left.  Unless that surrender is there, we have not invoked the spirit of the raga. 

MB: Can such a spiritual practice of Indian music really take root in a place like North America?

K: Music is a great barrier breaker.  Pandit Pran Nathji’s music was spontaneously appreciated and adopted by the spiritual seekers, practitioners following the Sufi path like Pir Vilayat Khan and his followers, and master musicians like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, John Hassell and others.  They open-heartedly welcomed this absolutely different tradition of Indian music—and even that of the Kirana Gharana—taking a head long plunge into the Nada Brahma in Yogic spirit.  This resulted in a sea-change in their approach, and the emergence of a new musical form which has been called minimalism. 

Just as India is dedicated to divinity, America’s ruling spirit is liberty.  They really respect freedom – but from that, misunderstandings also come, and you have to pay a price for this.  India has paid a price for divinity.  All kinds of sadhana are prevalent here, but in the name of sadhana, there is much negativity also.  In the same way, in America, there is a ruling spirit of freedom, but it is not fully applied.  It will be applied only when just as I say, “The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you and bows down before it,” in the same way,  the should say, “The free soul in me respects the free soul in you.”  Everyone! If we have perfected one quality, then all the other things will be taken care of.  When we have really mastered the idea of liberty, there is no difference between liberty and divinity!  And music is doing this work: music is that which will open all hearts, it is the fountain of grace which will pour down over all creation. 

Originally published in Ascent, 2002.