Merce Cunningham remembered with Mahamrityunjaya
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi

November 1, 2009

This week, at the famous Park Avenue Armory, in New York's hoi polloi Park Avenue, the opening musical offering at the memorial celebration for Merce Cunningham's life and work, was the recitation of the Vedic Mahamrityunjaya Mantra, set to Raga SindhBhairavi, and sung by The Just Alap Raga Ensemble of the iconic American musicologist La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Jung Hee Choi. It was accompanied by the recording of their guru, Pandit Pran Nath’s tamburas.  Just a few weeks ago, they had had a major exposition of their lifetime's work in sonic innovations and Alap singing at the Guggenheim.And now, it was the famous death-defying hymn of Vedic India, the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra, sung in far-away America as a requiem for a fellow artiste!

As I read about the event in La Monte’s mail (since I am his guru behen and old time friend) I thought: What a beautiful, meditative, joyous early winter afternoon it must have been.  In a flash I was back to another winter morning, this time in Delhi, in the 70s, when there was much less pollution and the crisp, morning air would greet you with a gentle smack of energy.  I had just finished all the cumbersome paperwork required for sending my Guru, the late Pandit Pran Nath, off to the US.  He had no idea what lay ahead of him except that his new shishyas, the American musicians, La Monte Young and his visual artist wife, Marian Zazeela, would not take a 'no' as answer and were appreciative of his genius in a way that no one before them, had ever been. 

Delhi’s cultural scene then was going through a deep trough of indifference to intangible cultural heritage and Pran Nath ji, with his iron grey mane and beard, was just too much out of the mould to create a popular niche for himself.  He was a lecturer in the Music Department of Delhi University and barely managed to support his family of three daughters and a son.  Whenever we met, his first complaint would be about his cracked heels, running after DTC buses and walking long distance to get on to one.  He was a genius whose ear drums, despite being beaten regularly, in the early years of his training, by his guru, the one and only Ustad Wahid Khan, were so attuned to the subtlest 'shrutis,' that the American musicians could not believe their own ears.  They had come to India with a battery of sonic equipment, for measuring the sound waves of his music, the micro-intervals between his use of shrutis and the needle-point accuracy of each application.The corroboration offered by their heavy-duty techno logical equipment left them awestruck.
John Cage selected La Monte Young's radical work 2 Sounds (April 1960) to accompany one of Merce Cunningham's most forward looking dances, Winterbranch, with lighting by Robert Rauschenberg.  The Merce Cunningham Dance Company toured extensively with this work and performed it throughout the world from 1964 on.Merce was a member of Young’s MELA Foundation Advisory Board. 
In the Hindustan Times (2003), I had written: "[Young and Zazeela] would create works like the 'Just Alap Raga Ensemble' which would amaze musicians of the caliber of Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj or the Gundecha brothers, were they to hear it.  In fact, I wish they would hear it and savour their own legacy of Indian classical music in two new ways, one, by way of the Youngs’ immense sadhana and two, by way of the fact that today the great art of Hindustani Shastriya sangeet has actually become so much a part of the world of music.Did not the ancients say: Vasudeva Kutumbhakam - the world is a family?  A work like 'Just Alap Raga Ensemble' actually proves it." 
In June 2002, shortly before he died, Khalifa Hafizullah Khan Sahib, Ustad Wahid Khan Sahib’s son and a great sarangi master, conferred on Young the title of Khan Sahib. Pran Nath ji’s senior India students, names like Sheila Dhar and then Publications Division doyen, Mohan Rao, would perhaps feel less bereft and angry with me now for helping Pran Nath Ji to migrate! Like perfume caught in an unbreakable vial, the notes of his sacred music will forever spread the charm of our music to far away shores!

Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.