“Faith is the key to live happily!”

‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
This Sunday we feature the 73-year-old Ghatam maestro, Padma Bhushan and Grammy winner, Vikku Vinayakram!
Photo by Vaani Anand
Vikku Vinayakram’s home in Triplicane in Chennai houses his study-cum-meditation room on the second floor. The room is sparse for most parts. Huge portraits of the seer of Kanchi, the Paramacharya or Maha Periyava, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahaswami (1894 ~ 1994), in different styles, adorn the walls – from posters to paintings to stained glass works.
In the middle of the room, on a colorful rug, a jamakaalam, sits a Ghatam. It is a souvenir that a ghatam-maker gave Vikku. It has Vikku’s face carved out in the clay. He doesn’t prefer talking about that Ghatam though – “The person who made this was over-enthusiastic. Out of affection for him, I have retained this in my study. I had him make another one with Maha Periyava’s image; that one’s in my Poojaroom.”
The Grammy Winning Planet Drum Team
Photo by Vaani Anand
The shelves and cupboard tops, and even some cartons, are full of awards that Vikku has received in his over 60 years as a performing artist. He wants to show Vaani and me his Grammy memento – which he had won in 1991 for playing for American percussionist Mickey Hart’s (who once was part of the band Grateful Dead) Album, Planet Drum; the Award was for the Best World Music Album that year. But Vikku can’t find his Grammy memento among all his other awards. He manages to locate a plaque that all artists who played for Planet Drum have signed on the occasion of winning the Grammy. What Vikku says when his search for the Grammy memento yields no result is deeply spiritual and awakening: Parava illai! It’s okay! It’s here somewhere. For sure. What is important is that I enjoyed myself playing for Mickey Hart and with the other artists. The process of playing the Ghatam, to me, overrides any recognition that I have got.”
Photo Courtesy: Internet
Now, the man who’s saying this is the world’s best Ghatam player. In fact, he’s credited with putting the humble Ghatam on the world music scene. He’s always played with all-time greats in Carnatic music – Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, M.Balamuralikrishna, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Santhanam and M.S.Subbalakshmi (not a complete or exhaustive list). And he’s played with many Hindustani music stalwarts too – Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Shivkumar Sharma and Amjad Ali Khan (not a complete or exhaustive list). More important, he’s among those first artists from India who were bold enough to experiment playing world fusion music despite a very strong, conservative, classical orientation. In the 1970s, Vikku played with English guitarist John McLaughlin’s Shakti alongside Zakir Hussain (Tabla), L.Shankar (Violin) and Ramnad Raghavan (Mridangam).  And then, of course, came Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum – and the Grammy.
But Vikku is untouched by all this glory. As he sips filter coffee from a davara-tumbler, he nods his head furiously when I suggest to him that he must be very, very content with himself – what with a “lifetime in music and an era in greatness behind him”? “No saar. Your question needs review. The Ghatam has been around from the time of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is the only instrument that is made from the earth – one of the five elements, one of the pancha bhoothas. Who am I to take credit for making the Ghatam famous or for all this glory that has come on account it? I am most content playing good music with good people for good people to enjoy and energize themselves. I consider myself to be a postman, a messenger, a mere instrument for music to reach people. How can any instrument take credit for the music?” he asks.
Photo Courtesy: Internet
To understand and celebrate Vikku’s humility better, his story must be told in some detail. Born along with his sister, Seethamani, as a fraternal twin, Vikku’s original name was Ramamani. His father, Harihara Sarma, a Mridangam artist and teacher, was advised by soothsayers that only one of the two children would survive; if both had to survive, one of them had to be given away in adoption. Sarma chose to give Ramamani in adoption to his favorite deity – Lord Vinayaka. And so the name Vinayakram came about! Although Sarma lost one of his fingers in an accident, he taught young Vinayakram to play the Ghatam by giving him beat-based instructions orally. Sarma’s only vision was that Vinayakram play the Ghatam so well that the instrument becomes famous across the world. “My grounding comes from my father’s vision. He did not urge me to play well for money or fame. He always taught me that music and the Ghatam are much bigger than me,” reminisces Vikku.
The big break came when a 22-year-old Vinayakram was “accepted” by M.S.Subbalakshmi’s husband T.Sadasivam to accompany them on a US tour in 1964. Owing to the Indo-Pak war that intervened, the trip was postponed; but it eventually happened in 1966. That was the first time any lead artist was willing to allow the Ghatam as an accompaniment on the world stage. That tour gave Vinayakram a feel of what it means to play music to a global audience. It also gave him his nickname, Vikku, which has since stuck on. “My father’s advice that music is divine, that it does not have boundaries and is not limited by styles and languages, resonated with me so much on that trip. Just the experience of performing with MS Amma was so transformational. Ghatam owes its gratitude to MS Amma for giving it global stature,” he says.
Vikku has been very faithful to his father’s advice. He has always chosen music over anything else in Life. In the mid-70s, when he received an invitation from John McLaughlin to perform with Shakti, he was on the verge of accepting a “permanent” job as an All India Radio (AIR) artist. Choosing the AIR job meant a steady income and job security. Going with Shakti meant short-term financial gains but infinite joy! Vikku chose joy! “I learnt the value of inner peace and joy from MS Amma and ‘Veena’ Balachander. Both of them told me, like my father always did, ‘do only what gives you joy’. I simply followed their advice. Today, when I look back, I am glad I did what I did. I would have never been happy with anything but playing my music, my way,” he explains.
Photo Courtesy: The Hindu/Internet
Isn’t Life as a musician, despite all the highs it offers, pretty unpredictable in a practical sense? The income is not consistent. And then there is age – and the question of staying relevant in an ever-changing world. How does Vikku deal with these factors? His one-word answer is ‘faith’. He says you have to have faith that a higher energy will take care of you. To Vikku, that higher energy has always been the Kanchi Maha Periyava. “His grace is immense. It has guided me thus far and I have implicit faith that it will stay with me forever,” he says. He shares an anecdote to amplify this point. Vikku was recently diagnosed with an eye condition that required a neuro-surgery that would necessitate that he cannot play the Ghatam for at least 18 months. Vikku says he just “could not accept the medical advice that I must not play the Ghatam.” “I went into my Pooja room and prayed to Maha Periyava. I left it to him. Then I went for my final, pre-surgery, tests. And the tests came good! I would not need a surgery, the doctor told me. Now, how do you explain this? Everyone is searching for God. I have seen God in human form – and that is Maha Periyava,” he says.
As we get ready to leave, he adds this simple – yet so profound – perspective: “Nambikai – faith – is key to live happily. With faith comes nimmadhi – inner peace. With inner peace comes anandam – happiness. I have always had total nambikai. So even when worry arises or sadness comes, I invoke my faith. SaarAmma…desires ruin happiness. You can keep on desiring this and that and achieving this and that. As long as you are on this vicious cycle you will always be unhappy. Take Life as it comes, with whatever it brings! Drop your desires and all you will be left with is anandambrahmanandam. Happiness – total bliss!”

As we stepped on to the street to find transport to take us home, Chennai was getting flooded by a torrential downpour. I wasn’t worried that we were not going to find a way to get back – Chennai’s notorious for public transport failing when it rains heavily! I was thinking of what kind of an evolved man he must be who doesn’t really agonize that he can’t find his Grammy Award memento! To be sure, Vikku lives the philosophy of a desire-less state that he spoke about. And that’s why he’s so simple, grounded, happy and at peace with himself. Undoubtedly, he’s a rockstar in his own right, but one who’s obsessed only with his music, and never with the trappings that rockstardom brings along with it – the Grammy included! 

Bliss is celebrating and loving Life’s design!

In Life, everything is predetermined. And yet everything is up to you!

No, I am not contradicting myself. On the other hand I am merely summing up what Life really is. It is, essentially, what you experience between two ends of this paradox __ where you are born without your asking for it, you are given a lifetime without your inability to control anything that happens to you and at the same time, you have the opportunity, the choice, to live your Life fully, in bliss!

So, is there a destiny? A friend raised this question after the ghastly manner in which a 20-year-old girl died in an accident on Sunday. The news made headlines in the papers and left all of us shocked. The girl, with a gaggle of friends, was at a place which is more that 25 km from the accident spot. For no earthly reason, these girls, seem to have ventured out for a drive in the wee hours of Sunday morning and were on a highway on the outskirts of Chennai when the accident happened. All other occupants of the car survived the crash, except this one girl. So, someone who knew her and was shocked therefore beyond description said, ‘She literally walked into her death trap. It was destined.” That prompted my friend to ping me for a perspective.

Destiny is a subject that I too have often tried to understand. I don’t claim I have the answer that you may relate to. But I will share what I have learned through my Life and experiences__and what I find acceptable to me as an intelligent perspective!

Hard as it may appear to instantly believe, given our scientific grooming and our temperament for logical inquiry, our entire Life is in the hands of a Universal energy that is at the same time inscrutable and marvelous. At once compassionate and cruel. Totally understandable and yet completely incomprehensible. This is the energy that powers us all __ the breath that we take, and so does every living organism. From birth to death, of this lifetime in human form, we live to a pre-ordinance which we are completely unaware of. To that extent, it is all pre-determined. Even so, we do have the opportunity, the free will, to respond to Life as it happens to us.

Since none of us has seen God, in the manner in which each of our religions insist he or she exists, I would like to conclude that God, Fate, Destiny are excuses that mankind has invented to take the easy way out of remaining accountable in Life! We abdicate our responsibility towards our lives by dumping the blame on a God, an unknown Fate and an inscrutable Destiny. Osho, the Master, explains this well, in his trademark, in-the-face style: “There is no fate, no destiny. You are just trying to dump your responsibility on something that does not exist.  And because it does not exist, it cannot resist you; it cannot say, “Please don’t dump your responsibility on me!” God is silent, you can dump anything on him __ no resistance, because there is nobody to resist. Fate is again the same. You fail in love, you fail in other matters. It hurts that you have failed. You need some kind of ointment for your wounded heart. “Fate” is a beautiful ointment and freely available. You don’t have to pay for it. You can say, “What can I do?  Everything is decided by fate.” Success or failure, richness or poverty,  sickness or health, Life or death,  everything is in the hands of an unknown power called fate “I am doing my best,  still I go on failing. I am following all the moral principles preached to me, still I am poor. And I see all kinds of immoral people becoming richer,  getting ahead, becoming famous. It is all fate.” It gives you solace.  It gives you solace that you are not reaching your goals. It also gives you solace that if others have achieved success, there is nothing much in it, it is just decided by fate. So, on the one hand, you are saved from feeling inferior; on the other hand, your jealousy enjoys the idea that the successful person is successful only because fate has determined it that way: “It has nothing to do with him; he’s not superior to me.” God,  fate, destiny–they are all in the same category: throwing your responsibility onto something that does not exist.

My understanding is an extension of Osho’s point of view: If there is birth, there will be death. So, what’s so intelligent about calling someone’s death, a well-known, inevitable reality, his or her destiny? What’s the point in sulking and blaming your fate__when things go wrong, when we know for sure that things WILL go wrong? What is the point in calling a God, who you fear, unkind? Isn’t it obvious that you will fear something only when it does not meet your expectations in some manner __ being unkind being one of them!? I would, for the same reason, want to find someone who loves__not fears__God, call God unkind!

So, the moot point is Life will keep happening to you, the way it wants. You can accept it and be happy and content or you can resist it and sulk. This act of responding to your Life is what is free will all about. And that free will is within your control, even if your own Life is not!

Let’s take two examples of two exemplary women to understand how deployment of free will really impacts the quality of one’s Life:

Chitra Singh
Chitra Singh, the ghazal singer and maestro Jagjit Singh’s wife, came out of her self-imposed exile to pay tribute to her husband. She has been interviewed in the latest issue of People magazine. 22 years ago she had lost her son Vivek in a car crash, then her daughter Monica committed suicide in 2010 and Jagjit himself passed away in 2011. She admits to Dhaval Roy that she made repeated attempts at finding her voice again, but failed each time: “Life has been so kind and unkind to me at the same time that singing doesn’t come to me anymore. One’s voice is a very delicate mechanism. I just choked up and stopped singing. So, I did not leave music, it left me.” So, that is her response, employing her free will, her way, to living, to a predetermined Life design.

Shagufta Rafique
In the same issue of People, I encountered the amazing story of Shagufta Rafique, who once was a dancer in bars in Dubai and a prostitute, who has not become a screenwriter, dishing out hits like Raaz 3 and Murder 2, in Hindi cinema. She tells Divya Unny: ‘My stories are cheap and melodramatic like me. I am not a trained writer. A course cannot teach you how to tell stories. You need to have a flame burning within you which translates into something relatable. Life has taught me that. I have been a whore too long to erase that part of my Life. I have always dreamt of telling my story. And my own film will be the biggest test of my strength.” And, that, dear friends, is her response, employing her free will, her way, to living to a predetermined Life design.

Bliss is what happens when you choose, through your free will, to accept, celebrate and love, your Life’s design, or destiny. When you rue your design, blaming your fate, you will suffer. When you live your Life lovingly, you will meet God __ your God! And that God is bliss!

Whatever happens, let your music play…..

Whatever happens, know that Life will go on. And you too must flow with it, ‘letting your music play’!

There are times in Life when you wish you could do something about what you are faced with. But you will be unable to. So, instead of hating what you have been served, just start loving it and live in the moment.

I watched ‘Titanic’, James Cameroon’s classic movie, one more time during the weekend. And learned one more time from the amazing musicians on how to ‘let the music play’ till the very end.

Wikipedia says: “After the Titanichit an iceberg and began to sink, Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster and violinist, and his fellow band members started playing music to help keep the passengers calm as the crew loaded the lifeboats. Many of the survivors said that he and the band continued to play until the very end. None of the band members survived the sinking and the story of them playing to the end became a popular legend. One survivor who clambered aboard ‘Collapsible A’ claimed to have seen Hartley and his band standing just behind the first funnel, by the Grand Staircase. He went on to say that he saw three of them washed off while the other five held on to the railing on top the Grand Staircase’s deckhouse, only to be dragged down with the bow, just before Hartley exclaimed, “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell!” A newspaper at the time reported “the part played by the orchestra on board the Titanic in her last dreadful moments will rank among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea.””

I wouldn’t say it is heroism. It is simply intelligent living. Because you can only control what’s within your control. All your worries and anxieties, fears and insecurities, come from what you can’t control. Now, instead of worrying, fearing and suffering, if you can just look at the situation and say, “Well, well, well….if this is what it is, let me see how I can find peace within this situation.” This really is the only way to live a Life which we didn’t ask for and whose game-plan we have no idea of either!

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
Let us remember that there is the opportunity, always available to us, to change our most dreadful moments into ones full of grace! All we need to do is to be open to the opportunity. When we are grieving, mourning, sorrowful, we are closed. We are not open to the Universe’s energy __ its compassion, its warmth, its grace. As Ramakrishna Paramahamsa has said, “The winds of grace are always blowing. You must open and hoist your sails to catch it.

So, unfurl and open your sails, open up your soul. If you are in a difficult time, accept it. Don’t resist it. This may not take the pain away. But it will help you immensely by ridding you of all your suffering! This then is the only way to ‘let your music play’….

Stay anchored to your bliss, stay focused, stay humble.

To live Life fully, just choose a path to follow, the one that gives you inner joy. And just keep walking, following your bliss! Remember you must keep plowing on regardless of what you have to face or what other people think of you. You will then eventually be successful. And that’s when you must remember to also stay humble.
As I write this, two important learnings come to mind.
One is from the south Indian Superstar Rajnikant, whose birthday it is today.
Rajni: Stays anchored and humble
Owing to his immense popularity and his hysterical following in Tamil Nadu, it has been widely believed, over a period of time, that Rajni will enter politics. In fact each election season, his legions of fans in Tamil Nadu eagerly await his announcement of entering politics with bated breath. Several election seasons have gone by and that elusive announcement has not come. It never well may come either. Dr.Gayathri Srikanth, Rajini’s first biographer, writes in her book, ‘The Name Is Rajnikant’, that Rajni is very clear that his bliss lies in continuing to be, in spirit, the down-to-earth coolie and bus conductor he once was, while also continuing to earn a ‘livelihood’ from acting. Straying beyond these two dimensions of his personal or professional Life, Srikanth explains, summarizing her understanding of Rajni’s thinking, will disturb the man’s inner core. She recounts in detail in her book how Rajni stayed awake all night, about a decade ago, after receiving a call from the then Indian Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao who invited Rajni to join hands with the Congress party and in return offered him Tamil Nadu’s Chief Ministership. Rajni thought through the offer and declined it politely the next morning. I remember from Dr.Srikanth’s book, him being quoted as saying, “It was important to overcome that temptation to succumb to what people wanted me to do. What is important was that I knew I didn’t want to do it. Besides, without anything remarkable about me, I was still enjoying so much adulation by the people. I don’t think I deserved anymore and I did not want to let them down playing a role I knew I was not cut out for.”  Writing today in Chennai Chronicle, Rajni’s wife, Lata, says similarly, “I am often asked about his political move. And I always reply that we must respect his decision for what he wants to do with his Life.”
Important perspective there for us to reflect upon:
  •    How often do we succumb to distractions that take us away from our inner core?  
  •    And how often do we work for our bliss than play to the galleries doing what other                people want us to do?
    Panditji: In India, they thought I was mad!
    Pandit Ravi Shankar, the Sitar maestro, who passed away a few hours ago, at 92, has led the way for us similarly too. He was often accused by Indian music ‘purists’ as someone who sacrificed Indian art on the altar of western stardom. Talking to Laura Barnett of The Guardian for an interview in June 2011, Panditji had this to say: “(I am proud of) helping Western audiences to have a better understanding of Indian classical music. In the UK, classical music is composed by individuals, and written down. Indian music is based on certain sequences, called ragas. When I perform live, 95% of the music is improvised: it never sounds the same twice…Well, I’m 91 now, so if I haven’t learnt to live with it (the global acclaim and stardom), I never will. But some periods have been more difficult than others. When I started working with George Harrison [in 1966], I became like a pop star myself: everywhere I went, I was recognized. I didn’t like that at all. I don’t think I have sacrificed anything. But I do think that my Indian classical audiences thought I was sacrificing them through working with George. I became known as the “fifth Beatle”. In India, they thought I was mad.” 
    Such a brilliant, enlightening point of view. No wonder then that he has been so successful doing what he believed in and what gave him joy! And his humility? Legendary. When Barnett, in the course of the same interview, asked the maestro if he wanted to give any advice for young, aspiring musicians, he said, “I wouldn’t give them advice. I would learn from them.”
    That’s really how you may want to consider living your Life: Always doing what you love, what gives you joy, learning and celebrating how miraculous and beautiful Life really is!