The following offerings are from the hearts of those who love and remember Sri Karunamayee. The offerings have been left mostly in the order that they were received, as an inspired stream of gratitude and remembrance – a reflection of her extraordinary life of Divine service through Music.
Sri Karunamayee blessed me with the rudiments of, Gaiye Ganapati Jag Vandan [hymn to Sri Ganesha], and allowed me to make her first digital recording. When she heard it on good headphones she said, “I did not know I was this good!” It was always fun to serve and learn from her. Later, she told a Sufi sister that I was a ‘world soul’. The Sufi sister told me in amazement, since she herself did not see me that way, nor did I see myself like that. It moved me to honor my own Being and pay more attention to what might serve the Whole.
Richard G. Page
I have several trinkets, gathered into a pretty box. These are tokens of friendship and whimsy handed out after nearly each lesson by our Didi. And she might have had a collection of offerings by me – but she would give them away. I once gave her a sari, which she wore in splendor to a concert she gave at Diggi Palace on one of the India visits by Guru Ji Pandit Pran Nath’s students. She said to me in the sweetest voice after the concert, “You know, Linda, I don’t keep such things.” I think back to the time I first met Didi. I certainly wasn’t looking for the perfect quintessential vocal sound but there it was, lifting off the dais at a San Leandro ashram, straight to my heart. I marvel at her good fortune to have a mother who structured the family in such as way that her child, Karuna, could evolve as a bright spirit totally without restraint. We are all rewarded by the compassionate vision of Didi’s mom.
To study vocal artistry with Sri Karunamayee meant that you become the vessel for the sound of the stars and the sun and the moon, the moods of existence, springtime and all the phenomena included in any and all ragas. There was no question about it. And, if you didn’t get it the first time, there would be a next time, probably on into infinity. But Didi had faith in us. It was a given. I miss her incredibly. Knowing that I love jazz, Didi pointed out to me the difference in vocal jazz sound and the art of sung Indian music. She started me on a melody with words from a Kabir message – a humorous tune and she told me just how to sing the words for maximum effect! I will sing it for you, sometime! This was Didi’s jazz tune gift to me!
I’m left with the memory of a wonderful friend – a friend like no other. Didi has blessed us all with her presence in our lives. I have my music to work on and explore and I have my vivid memories of someone truly present and conscious and radiant. And she found these qualities in each of us and helped us to embrace them simply through the practice of being at her side. She was the polished mirror for us of our own inner beauty.
Sri Karunamayee was so full of musical talent as well as love!! It was a privilege and a real treat to spend an hour with her, as she was so full of love to share with us. It was such a joy to hear her sing and I always encouraged her to do so as I would rather hear her voice than my own. It was such a privilege also to hear her demonstrate how beautiful the music could be. I will always remember her.
Nur’un’Nisa Von Goertz
When Didi would teach me, she would often pick a mantra from the Tibetan tradition to use as her base and then create a beautiful, slow, ornate, loving melody. I loved to sing these mantras with her, but what I never told her is that Tibetan mantra chanting is a numbers game. You’re most often trying to get to 100,000 repetitions just to get your practice locked in, and Tibetans develop super fast patterns – no time for a long, legato, wonderful Didi mantra while chasing 100,000! So I developed a practice of starting with one long Didi mantra and then stepping on the gas and motoring through my 108 of the day. But when Didi passed, I spent a week doing her style of mantra and that was a lovely way for me to honor her deep practice.
Didi’s style slowed me down in a very nice way. I wrote a song that was inspired (at least lyrically) by the song that Didi showed me, about the singer who sees Lord Krishna everywhere – in the goat shed, etc. The intention of the song, and the words, were about being present while singing, and the gift that she had of inspiring us to be there.
The immediate memory of Karunamayee was in 2011 in India, after she sang at her daily offering for all at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram afternoon meditation.
Someone asked her about how she could have such a strong and pure voice at her age. She answered with the twinkling smile: “The voice only gets better with age.”
And then, she suddenly turned her head toward me saying, “Is it not so, Lee?”
I looked up, somewhat startled at being directly addressed and I found her eyes. Her smile was strong with a gaze meant to penetrate my consciousness with her answer. Age had been on my mind and troubling me. She answered my unasked worry, telling my consciousness playfully, forcefully, that age should not be feared for the voice’s survival, but can be welcomed. What a relief this engraved memory has given me since then as each day passes, and I do not give up the raga.
Dearest Sri Karunamayee,
Thank you for touching my soul with your presence, sound and divinity. You lived your life totally surrendered to the Greater Reality for all our benefit.
Ya Salaam Dearest Heart.
Peace, my friend.
Meeting Karuna Didi – February 1993
At the ashram I heard Karuna Didi sing for a spiritual gathering. In a dim-lit hall, she sat on a pillow, her gray-streaked hair cascading around a smile that radiated pure love. She began a raga, the slow opening theme into the quicker, more complex, then into her improvisations. There were young children in the room, who stopped their romping and planted themselves next to their father. A slight women wrapped in a shawl faced a wall meditating. I sat on the floor with others, eyes closed, following her voice moving like the incense that sweetened the room, taking us into that still place that I had no name for.
Memories of Didi
One of my fondest memories of Didi was during a time when I was taking music classes with her. I had not sung raga for along time but had a fairly good memory from my study of Indian Classical Music with Guru Ji, Pandit Pran Nath, at Mills College. I came into the music room at Joan and Steve’s home and after a heartfelt embrace she began to sing a familiar raga that she expected me to follow. I did as best as I could but as the raga progressed and her singing movements between and through the notes became more complex, I began to sing whatever came into my voice. I can honestly say, I don’t believe I was singing the same notes she was singing at all. This call and response type of teaching lasted for a while and finally came to a close. I was not exactly sure where I stood in the realm of a good raga student because truthfully I could not repeat her exacting vocal instructions. I simply went off in the direction that inspiration took me. She said to my surprise at the end of our musical session, “You are so vocally creative.”
With deep appreciation I remember her visit to our Sufi Sanctuary many years ago.
When I was building our Sufi Sanctuary, we were in a remedial phase in construction and had it loaded with building materials and boxes of spiritual books and furniture that would eventually go into the finished building. Didi came and cleared a space with Joan and Steve accompanying her and she began to sing blessing ragas that filled every board of the building. Undaunted by the unfinished construction, she wanted to give her blessings to the future work of the Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan that would be taught. Classes at the Sufi Sanctuary have been going on for many years now with great success and I can still feel Didi’s blessings in every corner of the building and in every prayer we do together in our Sufi community gatherings.
Her love and guardianship of pilgrims…
When I arranged with two other Sufi members to go on a pilgrimage to India, Didi invited us to stay at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in New Delhi. Her generosity was unbounded and she made every effort to make sure that all 28 of us were comfortable and safe. She accompanied us to the holy Dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan for meditation practices and she travelled with us when we visited H.H. The Dalai Lama in Dharamsala for Tibetan teachings and also to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa at the Kalighat for the disposed.
Even though we were all dedicatedly working in service, Didi made an extra effort to take us to a special musical instrument house to buy our harmoniums that we all cherished. She did this extra trip with joy and devotion. She negotiated a great price that was affordable with our travel budget and she played every instrument to make sure it was the finest.
Many years ago, several Sufi members and myself had the opportunity to purchase a very large piece of property in Southern California. With the help of a wealthy funder who supported our effort to start a Sufi Village, we collectively worked to secure the land.
We were given permission by the present owners to invite several teachers to begin a series of seminars in the hope of bringing blessings to the property before finalizing the purchase. Didi was one of the first who willingly volunteered to support our effort and be one of the three teachers of our first seminar. The event was very well attended and it was indeed a joyful time together sharing sacred music, meditation and Dharma study.
One early morning before breakfast, Didi and I took a walk out on the land. We walked on the winding road that circled through the property. After walking a distance, we rested and sat on a log. As we listened to the pristine silence Didi mentioned that she heard something strange and unexpected. She kept listening and said the sounds were very sad and she alerted me to be watchful.
After the seminar many things transpired that changed the course of our effort to procure the property. Our wealthy funder lost their money in off-shore investments and the present owner committed suicide. After doing legal research on the history of the property, we learned that many workers had been killed on the land and there were toxic areas that required serious attention.
Didi’s alert was indeed timely as we were about to enter our final negotiations that would have proved to be extremely difficult for all members involved. To this day, I am endlessly grateful for her keen intuitive nature and her sacred manner of listening.
During my final visit with Didi, she said, “Our hearts will always be one, dearest Rabia,” and I know that to be the truth. May blessings and peace surround her perfect being. I can still hear her voice singing blessings to all of us. She is deeply loved and always will be.
Murshida Rabia Ana Perez-Chisti, Ph.D
President-Sufi Universal Fraternal Institute
Didi would come to our Inayati meditation class twice a year. For me it was a magical two hours every time; each precious encounter, a poignant musical experience, a story, her animated face like the face of a saucy angel. I always felt encompassed by her love, charged with the spirit of Hazrat Inayat Khan, and merged with Pandit Pran Nath.
Her loving laughter and wit, keen intelligence and devotion came through her being, every atom charged with life. She could make me laugh out loud with a glance; and tears to my eyes with her voice. She loved the baklava I would make, even though Joan didn’t want her to eat too much of it. When I sat with her I just felt absorbed into her presence. There was nothing more to do or say. Just be.
Didi, you are with me forever. You are Love.
Mary Risala Laird
How do I put into a few words what seems like a lifetime of learning and transformation through the teachings and time I was privileged to have with Sri Karunamayee?
I remember meeting Sri Karunamayee in India for the first time at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in New Delhi in the year 1999. I was on a trip with Pir Shabda Kahn of the Ruhaniat branch of the Sufi Order to learn North Indian music, and I had arrived at the Ashram a little early. Sri Karunamayee took me under her wing the day I arrived and I began my lessons that day.
Sri Karunamayee was a wonderful mix of joviality and kindness. At the same time, she was a strict teacher, not just of music but also of the soul. I remember at one time asking her why I, as a Western American white woman, was studying Indian music, and whatever was I going to do with it? She answered that it wasn’t about what I was going to do with the music, but what the music was going to do with me. It truly has been about what the music was going to do with me, and is still doing. When I met Sri Karunamayee I had been dealing with a debilitating disease called Crohn’s Disease. I do believe that music has been the chief source of healing for me. Often when I played the tambura and chanted the music Karuna Ji had given me, I would cry. I didn’t even know what the tears were about. Karuna Ji encouraged me to sing through the tears. I realized after doing this for many months that it was as if my cells felt hugged by the warm embrace of the music, and were allowed to let go of their sadness. Often I didn’t know what the sadness was, or what the Sanskrit words were that I chanted. I do know that the results were significant. I believe her next answer explained that. When I had asked Karuna Ji, another time, why I was singing Indian music, she had said that the music would raise my vibrations therefore freeing me of past patterning so that my real voice might be heard. That was beginning to happen.
Indian music has helped bring me to a new understanding of the God I had left years before. Karuna Ji would say it was about the intimacy of knowing the notes. Instead of the male God of the outside, I began to feel and sense the vibration of the Divine source within, the nurturing Divine essence of vibration that was my true Self. I remember one night, very late, when Karuna Ji’s sister Shuchi Didi and husband were driving me back to where I was staying after a family gathering. Shuchi Didi, who spoke very little English turned to me from the front seat of the car and commanded, “Sing”. I did sing for her one of the chants that Karuna Didi, had taught me. I realized, after her broad smile when the song was finished, that I had been accepted by her. I felt she then could know me (probably better than I knew myself) through my soul. It was my soul that was expressed through the Indian music that I was learning.
There is so much that I learned from Didi. One (if you have noticed) is the intimacy I began to feel towards her as indicated by the names I called her through time. I continued to study with her for the next three to four years, either going to India to study or to Joan Allekotte and Steve’s house when Didi came to California twice a year. I happened to be taking a course of study for a Doctorate in Ministry during the same two-week period both in the Fall and Spring that Didi came to Joan’s. The school where I reported to class was 10-15 minutes from where Did was staying. I would return to Didi at the end of the day at Joan’s, and she would ask me what I had studied that day. It was as if the two worlds I was living came together in a perfect synchronicity. I would be studying Kabir or Tagore at school, and Didi would then give me a song from each. The last course I took at the school I, by mistake I thought, took my tambura to class. I usually went to class and then took my tambura out when I got to Joan’s for a lesson. I thought I was just tired, and was about to return my little tambura to the car. There happened to be a teacher from India teaching the class. She recognized the tambura and asked that I do an invocation for the class. I dutifully sang the only chant I had learned at that time. She then suggested I do this again at another class. I went back to tell Didi what had happened, and reported that this one time was it for me. That was when she told me that, of course, I could sing them another song the next week, and I could learn it in the few days I had. I retorted, “No way. That’s not possible!” She then responded to me that the Divine wouldn’t have gotten me to class with the tambura in the first place if it was not for me to play again if asked. That was when she gave me a Kabir song to sing, ‘Mana Masta Huwa Tab Kyoon Bole’. It translates to, “When your heart is full, there is no need for words.” That was Didi. Her heart was full.
As I learned from Didi, there is no beginning and no end to notes in Indian music. It is like life. We may not know where the notes come from or where they go, but we know they are made up of infinite vibrations. While twenty-two notes are audible to the physical ear in Indian music the intervals between these notes are microtonal. Didi would refer to her teacher entering worlds in these minute intervals, or vast states of consciousness, psychological and emotional. I remember when Didi had said to me that the day would come that she would no longer be living amongst us, but I was to remember she would always be in the music. That’s where I can find her to this day, in the music.
I had the pleasure and great honor of taking private lessons with Sri Karunamayee on two of her visits to California so gracefully arranged by Joan Allekotte. Because my teacher, Michael Stirling, had been the last to take formal discipleship with Pandit Pran Nath, and Karuna Didi had been the first, I felt a special quality of connection in that symmetry.
During one of these lessons, I expressed to Karuna Didi my sadness and sense of deprivation at having never met Pandit Pran Nath, nor heard him sing in person. Her response had stayed with me ever since, as a teaching that continues to give me insight.
She said, “Yearning is already a relationship.”
Jan 26th, 2018
Dear Rangamma ji and all friends and family of Karuna Di,
It is indeed a time of profound remembrance of an equally profound and great soul. From the moment I met her, 15 years ago at the Dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan, she made a home in my heart. There are very few people in the world today of her magnitude in terms of selfless love, giving, generosity and tenderness. I miss her immensely. Even though we remained separated geographically by man-made rather ignorance-generated boundaries of division, we were united in the realm of heart and spirit, and will remain so until we meet again in the supernal and everlasting bliss of eternal life.
With love always,
I lived at the Lodi-Ashram for four months, when I first saw Sri Karunamayee. It was during the June retreat. Everyone was waiting for this, an unusual guest, with joy, and I wanted to see her too. She appeared in the doorway with her smile, radiating the warmth of her enchanting presence. Then the concert began and she really filled my heart and soul with the charming sounds of spiritual singing. After the concert, we read Savitri. I was inspired and asked her if I could have my picture taken with her. “Of course,” she answered with a smile. I called my friends (the guests of the Ashram from Russia) and Dakshina. Sri Karunamayee connected our hands for a moment on her breast, uniting us into One stream of new consciousness: India-Russia-USA. Now I realize how symbolic that was as the Mother wrote that if these three countries could unite, the evolution on the Earth would be accelerated.
Nika Namednina (from Uzbekistan, and now living in the USA)
I am so filled with joy to think of Sri Karunamayee and all my memories of her. I met her initially at a Sufi Gatha class where she had been invited to be present and sing. Her deep love of music radiated the infinite Love of the Divine in a way that felt palpable and was transformative for me. I attended some of her concerts at the Cultural Integration Fellowship here in San Francisco, and had the blessed opportunity to take a private lesson with her.
I will always remember her patient, kind nature as I transitioned from being self-conscious about my musical abilities to knowing that there was indeed a way within my own being to express my own natural notes in song. She was one of the people in my life who totally accepted the humble shortcomings of my humanity, transforming my past beliefs into the beauty, harmony, and happiness of pure Love. Over the years I began to sing not only to myself (in utmost bliss), but also to sometimes sing a little for friends at poetry gatherings.
I was and am and will forever be grateful to have met this wonderful, wise being whose music was a source of such inspiration for me, and who taught me so much with few words and by her powerful example of Divine Compassion. I keep her memory close to my heart and some of the words of St. John Chrysostom, which convey that those we have loved, though no longer where they were before, are now wherever we are.
We are blessed beyond measure to have known Sri Karunamayee, and to have experienced the healing light of her soul.
Always in deep appreciation,
I saw the mirror of my own eyes
Shining with the warm light of love and devotion
The inevitable shining of soul/heart overflowing
Even my most humble fumblings, auditory slowness,
Praise, love, devotion, the great Grace that flows through us
Are just present and One.
Didi your presence is living on so vibrantly in all your children in music.
With all my love,
A Meeting that Changed My Life
When I worked at the Asian Art Museum we had a major exhibition titled, The Art of the Sikh Kingdoms. I had to present a program of music that would best represent the art and ethos of the exhibition. I had no luck in finding that “special” musician I was looking for. One evening I attended a concert at the Julia Morgan Theater, in Berkeley. I was totally captivated by the singer and her group accompanying her. Her lilting voice, strong spiritual aura and stage presence was amazing. I had found my performer!!
After the program I went backstage to meet her and asked her if she would be interested in performing for the exhibition at the Asian Art Museum. She was surprised and delighted and her humility was touching. In the months following, I was not prepared for the research she put into composing and performing original music based on the Sikh scriptures for the concert. Needless to say, the concert was a resounding success. More importantly for me our meeting was the beginning of a beautiful and enduring friendship. With the pressures of work, sometimes I would go to Joan Allekotte’s home to visit “Didi” as we affectionately called her. I would be greeted by her all enveloping sweetness, her beatific smile, and she would draw me into the healing quality of her singing. She attributed her gifts to the “Divine” and consistently paid homage. I loved to hear her bubbling laughter. It was hard to tear myself away from the deep spiritual connection one felt with her. It was also really touching to see the special bond Didi and Joan shared.
After moving to New York I missed my visits but talked to Didi on the phone, both when she was in California and in India. She left an indelible memory in my mind and heart, and will be dearly missed. All her awards and recognition did not change her simplicity, spontaneity and the capacity to reach out to everyone. She leaves behind a legacy that will continue to enrich the lives of all who knew her and loved her. As Joan so aptly said, “Her music continues to be a bridge to interfaith understanding and world peace”.
My first and most special memory of Sri Karunamayee was in February, 1980. Pir Vilayat had taken a group of us Sufis on a pilgrimage to India. After arriving in Rishikesh late one evening, Pir had us up way before dawn to hear Karuna Didi practice singing. We stumbled in the dark and chill over the big boulders strewn at that time around Rishikesh and stood beneath a second story window of another ashram. Ethereally beautiful singing floated over us in the dark. It was so magical. It was so deep.
Tajaali Catherine de Neergaard
My most treasured memory of Karuna Didi dates to sometime in the 90’s when we had a Sufi Order (Inayati) Center in San Francisco. Several times she came to be with us and to share her music and some conversation. I actually am not quite sure of the time frame, but I think that it was during the first years of her visits to America. One evening she shared that for a long time she was afraid to leave the Ashram in India to travel. What was the reason? Karuna Didi had begun to hear what the Sufi people call Saut e Sarmad – the music of the spheres which comes to the adept on the inner planes and is a constant or heavenly sound. Karuna Didi thought, “This is part of my life in the Ashram, and if I leave, the sound will not be with me.” However, she said, she finally decided to take the step to travel, and found that no; the sound was not dependent on her residing in the Ashram. It was with her everywhere.
Ah, Sri Karunamayee!
A magnet of shining energy.
A glowing power within harmony and beauty.
A home to radiant peacefulness.
A singer of ecstatic and passionate song.
One of deepest love.
Always a vibrating inspiration for me.
With great gratitude,
Roger Raja P
An Interview with Sri Karunamayee
By Marcus Boon
I visited Sri Karunamayee at Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi on a beautiful morning in May, 2002. 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 so close to the silence, the Shunyata from which everything comes and to which everything returns. From there everything emerges and merges back. 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 aspiration for that. One should know that there is something worthwhile in going to the depths because there is not so much sensation, activity, turmoil and drama as on the surface. But the power of raising the waves incessantly, and even cyclones does not rest on the surface. It is there in the very depths which 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, a power, not to be attracted or impressed only by the surface, then only you will 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 made 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, and 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. That helps her, so that she can be conscious also, otherwise she’ll get lost.
MB: Such an ocean!
K: Yes. And that ocean of sound is the sound of silence. The depth of which is expressed in the form of the support of 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 Shunyata, 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? There is another meaning of sound also. Sound – solid. 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?
MB: How did you become 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 some place where nobody makes any sound. Where two doors meet 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?” and then Karuna would appear. We were many brothers and sisters. We were a big family. I had to find my own corner of silence, which was essential for my existence. When I started going to school, the bell went for recess, and the children felt very happy and they ran out of their classrooms. At that time also, I would experience silence. And suddenly, the bells, the children leaping up from their chairs: from where did that sound come? And after half an hour it would happen again, and I would stand in a corner and feel that silence. All that sound was engulfed in silence.
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 was enjoying the silence, even when everyone was talking, I was feeling 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. Until then I had not seen any ocean, but I could imagine that some rope is tied to a vessel, and the rope sinks, and it is indeed deep. 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 – you have not lost ground, even when the sound is not heard. I would go up the scales until it becomes audible. It is like going into deep water, step by step. 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 12, 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 should be ever so grateful in my being.
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 Guru Ji’s life. His master, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan had just died and my Guru Ji was like a person who was very disturbed, uprooted. When Guru Ji started singing, my teacher Dada Ji said to me, “listen carefully, this is the music for singing for which you have taken birth on earth.” So Guru Ji was singing “Miyan Ki Mulhar” at that time. That is a raga of rain. At certain moments, when Guru Ji sang, it seemed that he collected the breath of all, which I felt happening in me also, as if he collected them from different levels, and held them 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 Nath Ji 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!” They say, “what’s he talking about?” You go to a fish market and you put your finger over your nose. The other guy says “what a fussy man!” 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 how everyone’s breath could be held in one man’s hand – and unless he decides to let go, we can’t release our breath. 5,000 people sitting there. So this can be done. But what is happening in between the breaths – that I became aware of when I started learning from him.
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, all completely consecrated for the perfection of it, completely surrendered, and for that, no compromise: no compromise in quality. Truth consciousness: I adore him for this! To keep the pristine purity of the ragas, of the shades of the notes, the colors – for every color there is a wide range of shades, from the lightest to the darkest – so many shades. 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 also.
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. Every note and the next one, they are not just blocks: one Marcus was born as a baby, and it is the same person growing, passing through different phases in life, the continuity is that.
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 which go unnoticed because of the fast life, for that you have to slow down your own inner speed. Look at pop music, how fast and loud it is. They don’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. But to hold control over that is not a simple thing. Things get out of hand!
MB: How did Pandit Pran Nath teach you nuance, subtlety?
K: Through the breath, the volume, the modulation of the tone. Vowels are the swaras. The word for tone is swara. They are the grounds on which consonants can manifest. Consonants have no feet to stand on. You can’t even pronounce them. Like points, they have extension but no magnitude. It is only swara that makes consonants heard, and through consonants, you can say whether it is sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni … otherwise you will only say ah, eh, oh … or with consonants s_, r_ : you can’t make music with this! But put them together [sings a beautiful alap, full of nuance] and you find so many shades in between! Unbroken-ness: that can be done through vowels. Vowel is swara, and swara means pitch. And that makes music.
MB: I heard Pandit Pran Nath say that raga means living souls. What did he mean by that?
K: There is a spirit in every tree. All these individual manifestations, all these individual trees that you see, that is the world of phenomena. But there is also the spirit world, the world of noumena, and these spirits are like Gods. The singer invokes the spirit of a particular raga, his spirit gets attuned to a pitch of that noumena, that ruling spirit that is a raga, and with that, tunes it accordingly to match the spirit of the raga, and through those sounds, says 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. We may be calculating this note here and this note here, but no: to invoke the spirit and allow yourself to become just a replica of that. This is the message.
Pandit Pran Nath Ji 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.
MB: Can such a spiritual practice of Indian music really take root in a place like America?
K: 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 free soul in me respects the free soul in you. Everyone! And shakes hands with that. This can be. When you can shake hands, and respect freedom. We have to straighten ourselves. If we have perfected one quality, then all the other things will be taken care of. But 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.
These are my memories of Sri Karunamayee Ji, my Anna Masi. Masi in Indian language means “like a mother”, and she was that to me.
I remember her since I was a baby. She was part of all my birthdays, all functions, all degrees and achievements and one of my biggest cheerleaders. She always told me that there was nothing I couldn’t do. She was so proud of me but there was never a time when something more was not expected from me. Like when I became a physician everyone was thrilled but then she said, “I am so proud of you and that’s good but now you should become a research scholar.” I can never forget that.
She wanted me to learn classical music and once when she was visiting me she stayed up for days and wrote books of notations of different ragas for me, which I still cherish.
After I came to USA I lost regular communications with her but every letter I would get from my mom there would be a mention of Anna Masi blessing me. There was never a birthday when Anna Masi didn’t call me and we would have detailed discussions on spirituality, Indian and US politics, and she of course would update me about Joan and Steve and Isaiah, the family who hosted her over the years in the USA.
I still remember when Anna Masi came with Joan for a concert in St. Petersburg.
People still remember that her singing took everyone to a different plane. My biggest regret is that I didn’t spend more time with her learning her music.
Whenever she came to me I remember her suitcases of all her books and within an hour of her coming there would be books all over the bed with little notations on the edges. I loved tremendously discussing the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and The Divine Mother. She used to feel so happy that I had been blessed by The Mother and that I had touched her feet.
She used to call me Annie Basant and said the way I talked reminded her of Ms. Besant.
She tried so hard to teach me Savitri but I used to ask her, “Anna Masi please give me cliff notes for Savitri,” and she would then spend hours making me understand.
We also used to talk about the law of attraction and how we create our own reality.
She and my mom were best friends and I am heartbroken to have lost both of them within months of each other but also feel so lucky that I saw her about a week before and got to spend time with her.
My mom used to call Anna Masi her beacon of light and Anna Masi always believed that there was no one on the world better than my mom, Santosh Ji. Every night after we were all done with dinner etc., my mom would start calling Anna Masi whether she was in India or in USA and they would sing together and discuss lyrics and ghazals and politics. Both of them were fierce patriots and believed in the great future of India.
Anna Masi told me so many stories about the Indian independence with such great detail. Mom always said Anna Masi had a photographic memory and both mom and I would listen to her with great attention and every conversation was new and interesting and fun. She remembered names of people, exact details of events, the timings, the conversations. There was never a dull moment and I used to tell her, “Anna Masi, I wish I had memory like you.”
Anna Masi was so much fun. I miss her exuberant laughter, warm hugs and a complete unconditional love I felt when I was with her. I could do no wrong and neither could my mom. I was perfect in her eyes and was a proof that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder…
I know both my mom and Anna Masi are having a ball on the other side, singing, laughing and being young and biking together.
Love u Anna Masi.
Miss you but also know that when I make my transition you will be there to receive me with mom.
(Meenakshi Jain, niece)
Anna Masi was one of a kind, even in a family of originals and trailblazers, and stood out for her incredible abilities as a singer. But that was when we were kids, and had a simpler view of life. Upon growing up, we came to learn a new appreciation for all her qualities, her music, her connection with everyone, her love and dedication for the divine, and general amazement at how focused and effortless it was for her. She was a natural, and it shows through in her life journey, in the stories about her youth and travels and finally, in her own right, as a beacon of inspiration for us all.
My dad respected her and loved her, and often took my mom to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram to spend time with Anna Masi. Although he never got the chance to share why, I suspect it had to do with her caring, loving nature, and unique perspective on life as someone who dedicated her life to the eternal light, which she was able to share with me during her later years. I cherish her gifts, and hope that all who got to spend time with her and bask in her amazing light, are able to remember and recall the lessons she imparted until her last days.
Without writing a whole novel, I’d just like to finish by saying that Anna Masi was an amazing person, both as a loving, caring, gentle soul, and as a singer. And I hope her impact is remembered as long as there is music on this earth.
Mudit ‘Bobby’ Bhatt, (grand-nephew)
Sri Karunamayee was a spiritual mentor, deep friend, and someone that shaped my inner life for more than half my life. From the first moment we met in 1990 in New Delhi at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, there was a deep familial connection. We were inseparable as we traveled to Calcutta enroute to the USA. While in Calcutta we shopped for musical instruments, wandered the pathways immersed in conversation and prayer at Dakshineshwar under a magical starlit sky as the jasmine blossoms shower upon us. Together we served at Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta in the orphanage and home for crippled children.
Decades ago Karuna Didi was invited to the Abode of the Message to offer a music workshop. She invited me to accompany her to play the tambura. One evening when we returned to our lodgings, it was apparent that Masi Ji (as she invited me to call her) was experiencing back pain. I asked her if it could rub her back, and she allowed me to do so. I did not realize that this would lead to a great teaching! It seemed that I touched her back precisely where she was experiencing pain. Masi Ji asked me, “How did you know where my back hurt?” My reply was, “Because that is where my back hurts.” Masi Ji lit up, pointed her finger in the air and exclaimed, “Ah! Now you understand the reason for your own suffering – so that you will know how to relieve the suffering of others.” This led me to a much deeper understanding of suffering.
One last gem from amongst so many others is that one day Masi Ji called me on the telephone. She was very excited. She had been inspired to compose a special chant to the Divine Mother, and she wanted to sing the song to me. Masi Ji then went on to say how important it is that women bring this Divine Feminine into actuality through our lives. She further explained how important it was for those who are holding this concentration to ‘link up like light towers around the world’. The depth of that moment was a special privilege and blessing.
Masi Ji, Beloved Sri Karunamayee, thank you for your life, love, the joyous laughter, and your shining example. I feel you with me in the always and everywhere.
Jai Sri Ma!
Stephanie Nuria Sabato
I first met Didi Ji in 1970 on my first trip to Delhi to study Raga with Pandit Pran Nath. Pran Nath Ji kindly invited me to stay at L-19 Kailash Colony with he and his family for the first 3 months. Besides the wonderful and intense lessons I was receiving, we would often spend the days visiting his various Indian Chelas, all of these Guru Behens I was meeting for the first time. Most often we would visit Sheila Dhar, Lalita Gupta and Sri Karunamayee who was then known as Karuna Abrol. On one of these outings we visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and as luck would have it Didi was entertaining her mother and father that day. The love between Didi Ji and her parents was abundant and flowing freely. The conversation would sometimes be interrupted by Guru Ji, who would suddenly be reminded of a powerful raga passage and sing totally absorbed in his inspiration. I loved this, for at the time I had almost no knowledge of Hindi or Urdu and the music instantly connected me to the gathering in a meaningful way.
On the way back in the taxi Guru Ji said to me, “You know, Karuna Ji knows her past lives. When she was a small child she was walking with them in Old Delhi and suddenly stopped them in front of a building and said that she wanted to enter as she had a doll in one of the apartments. Her parents were astonished as they had never lived in this building. She, however insisted, and the three of them mounted the stairs and knocked on the door that Karuna Ji, insisted used to be her home. An old couple came to the door and asked what they wanted. Karuna Ji said that she had left a doll in the top of a closet in her past life and was sure it was still there. The old couple opened the closet door and there was Karuna Ji’s doll on an upper shelf which they had never noticed.”
She was an extremely generous and encouraging Guru Sister who embodied so many highly evolved attributes. She was a great scholar and intellect yet she possessed a genuine humility that softened the hearts of all she came in contact with. She was a Love Beacon. She was a Central Star in the caravan of souls that traveled in the orbit of Pandit Pran Nath’s greatness and she carried with her a unique and original ray of light that illumined the hungry souls that flocked to her side. Being in her presence was a powerful teaching.
With love and gratitude,
I knew Karuna Didi for 30 years and spent time with her in the San Francisco Bay area, Europe, Madison and India. She was a wonderful teacher and friend, but what I remember most about her was the way in which she was transformed by the music that moved through her. A particular memory comes to mind, from our meeting in Paris where we visited her and assisted her in getting to and preparing for a concert in or around 1992. Karuna Didi was always loving and good-humored, but at that time she was having problems with her breathing, coughing a lot and sleeping poorly. She seemed to be in decline physically even then, and as we loaded her up and went to the hall I wondered how she would be able to sing at all much less perform. I remember her sitting down and slowly begin to tune her tambura. I sat in the audience and was amazed as she began to weave her voice in with the instrument, and before long she was singing full-throatedly and full-heartedly, with a strength and spirit that rose up as she offered herself to it. It was a powerful and beautiful performance she gave that night and continued to do for another 25 years. I’m so grateful to have known her in my life, and to see how her music strengthened and sustained her as well as all who heard it.
I still recall my first visit to meet Karuna Didi at the Delhi Sri Aurobindo Ashram in February 1994. We were on a two-week vocal group class with Pandit Pran Nath, Ustad Hafizullah Khan, Karuna Didi, Terry Riley, Shabda Kahn and Pandit Jagdish Mohan. There was a beautiful set up for all of us on the front lawn. Karuna Didi sang with the harmonium and encouraged us to join her, while many treats and chai were served. Karuna Didi was always so generous with gifts, sharing her musical knowledge and her high vibrating spirit.
I also recall many very beautiful concerts with Karuna Didi in the old hall. Karuna Didi’s meditative music would take us all deep inside the heart with a full, all encompassing sound. I also performed there at times with Karuna Didi and then later with Ustad Hafizullah Khan, Samiullah Khan and Rik Masterson.
For eight years in a row we all joined beautiful raga singing classes each day with concerts every other day. My Guru Ji Pran Nath’s classes were at 8:30am and 5pm, Karuna Didi’s vocal classes were at 11am and I also took sarangi lessons with my Guru Ji Ustad Hafizullah Khan at three p.m., plus lessons with Pandit Jagdish Mohan on tabla and vocal. Our group met in Delhi and then traveled either to Jaipur and Rishikesh to continue the raga and tala classes.
I was also able to see Karuna Didi a few times in the San Francisco area and take some raga group and private classes.
My final time with Karuna Didi was during my last trip to India in February 2013. The following is from my trip diary:
Today is Sweet Mother’s 135th birthday and we will get to celebrate it at the Delhi Branch of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. We are so lucky to be able to go full-circle by starting at the Pondicherry Sri Aurobindo Ashram and ending at the Delhi Sri Aurobindo Ashram!
I recognized the area when we came upon the Sri Aurobindo Ashram but it turned out that it was completely re-done with a different entrance and many new buildings. We arrived around 4pm and with just a little walking around I was able to find Rangamma Didi who is Karuna Didi’s assistant. Karuna Didi who is in her eighties is the head of music at the Ashram, and has been so since Mother gave her the title in the early sixties. I also studied music with her on many of my trips to Delhi. It was so great to see and to find Karuna Didi as today is a very big holiday and celebration for the Ashram, being the Mother’s birthday!
I brought Rangamma Didi to our group and she began to show us around the Ashram. First she took us to the music school where we heard and saw a South Indian (Carnatic) vocal music class with a group of children and right across the hall a North Indian (Hindustani) vocal music class. There were many pictures and photos in the room of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother plus I saw Guru Ji Pandit Pran Nath and Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan his teacher as well as many others including Lord Shiva. It was really fun to sit and listen in each music class for a while. In the North Indian room the teacher was singing and playing tabla at the same time while a talented young student was singing raga Yaman and playing the harmonium. Rangamma Didi also showed us her office, which had some amazing pictures of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother plus a plaque that stated when Karuna Didi was made head of the music department for the Ashram, which was begun in Delhi in 1956.
Our next stop was the performance hall where we saw the end of a classical Indian dance solo and then some teenagers did some very creative and clever gymnastic group dances. In the first one was where the group would make human triangles and other shapes by standing on top of each other. I noticed how orderly, calm and aware of themselves all of the children were.
The hall was decorated with many beautiful long garlands of marigolds and vases of gorgeous flowers next to a very large photo of The Mother. Sri Aurobindo and Mother were also in pictures on the side with a colorful cart display.
The next item was all about the Indian flag with green, white and the saffron orange painted children including their skin! It was actually quite cute and they would get in a formation just like the tricolor Indian flag and move as if the flag was waving. It was very clever. Someone would be in the middle holding the Ashok Chakra or the white circle pattern of the flag. The Ashok Chakra is a twenty-four-spoke wheel that represents the Laws of Dharma and the eternal wheel of law and righteousness. Of the three-color stripes of the flag, the saffron color represents courage and sacrifice, white represents truth, peace and purity and the green stands for prosperity. This flag was adopted in July of 1947 after India Independence from the British. Mahatma Gandhi first proposed a flag to the Indian National Congress in 1921. The original flag shown to Gandhi included two colors, red for the Hindus and green for the Muslims. In the center was the traditional spinning wheel symbolized Gandhi’s goal of making Indians self-reliant by fabricating their own clothing. Later the design was modified to include a white stripe in the center for other religious communities.
We were also treated to a beautiful flowing Odissi classical dance solo. After the program many of us visited the incredible bookstore and wandered around the Ashram. The meditation hall was exceptional and when I entered it was filled with the most exquisite peace! Later many of us waited in line to receive a blessing from the Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s wonderful energy from the relics and large photos filled with vases of beautiful flowers.
We all enjoyed a nice, healthy and tasty dinner at the ashram café. After the concert in the evening when it became dark the school children all were dressed in light blue with each one walking in formation, carrying a candle. It looked so beautiful to see the lights and children as Karuna Didi sang a nice chant or Bhajan. Later in the evening a disciple of Karuna Didi came to get me so that I could visit with Karuna Didi. Then at the sitar and tabla concert in the meditation hall and I got to sit with Karuna Didi and spend some wonderful loving time with her. I felt so grateful to be able to see her while in Delhi. When the sitar concert was finished, someone read a long but magnificent chapter of Sri Aurobindo’s poem masterpiece, Savitri. After the whole program was finished we all sat around near the dorms of the school talking and watching the pretty candlelight set around a stone lotus with steps. The Delhi branch of Sri Aurobindo Ashram is such a beautiful ashram.
Sri Karunamayee by Rose Okada
When I think of our beloved Karuna Ji
All thoughts are thought happily
Especially of love and meditation you see
She will make sure you have treats and tea
Making music together with all in glee
While you feel such peace flying free
Taking you to deepest inner heart to be
Her contribution was musical oneness
Plus musical meditation it was the best
Guiding with generosity of the heart
To find our own light and to start
Our own innermost journey
Showing new dimensions to feel to see
All of love light and unity
Karuna Ji brightly shined God’s light
To help us lift from our plight
She did it with celestial music and might
Taking us to the top seventh floor flight
Up to the highest spiritual height
I remember one of my first stayings with Sri Karunamayee in Delhi, when she sung at the Dargah of Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan during the celebration of the Urs. Until that moment, my ears had been mostly used to western classical music, so this music was still a little strange for my ears. But how surprised I was, when I realized afterwards, that my heart and soul and my whole being had been immersed into music! This was just “pure music”! Music of the soul, music of pure life itself. And when I looked around me, I found all listeners with this bright glance shining in their eyes… The music did fill all of us with light and joy.
From that very moment on, I wanted to learn more about this pure essence of music… During my lessons with her I learned, how she took every note with so much awareness, with so much love and care! Every note was full of life, telling a whole story of being and becoming. While singing, I felt just like diving deep into the whole universe of sound and music. And at the end, when the last tone was sung, just silence remained. And in the deep silence the vibration of the music was still floating here and there!
During one lesson she said: “To be born in this music is like a new birth.”
Yes, for me singing with her and being with her opened up a new universe…
My heart is filled with gratitude having met her and having been able to learn from her and do at least some music with her. I miss her loving and wise soul and her pure music on earth. May her spirit will ever dwell in divine MUSIC !
Fereshta Heidelind Bechtloff
I heard Sri Karunamayee sing at our local ashram, Cultural Integration Fellowship (CIF), in San Francisco [founded by Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri and sustained for many years after his passing by Mrs. Bina Chadhuri] on many occaisions. Hearing her heartfelt divine music I remembered the first time I heard the nightingale. We were in Amsterdam and staying close to a lovely park. I awoke to celestial music never heard before – the nightingale. The beautiful song lifted me to another sphere. I felt immersed in beauty. And so it was when I first heard Sri Karunamayee sing.
Sri Karunamayee came twice yearly from India to the Berkeley area of California to teach her students at Sur Laya Sangam Study Center for Indian Devotional Music. Fortunately for us in San Francisco, Sri Karunamayee came to give concerts twice yearly at our CIF ashram. My husband, Raj, and I always attended these concerts over many, many years. We were blessed by hearing Sri Karunamayee sing at Bina Chaudhuri’s home shortly before Bina Ji passed away. And we were so honored to have Sri Karunamayee and Sur Laya Sangam come to our home for a concert three times over the years. Interestingly, Sri Karunamayee’s Guru Ji, Pandit Pran Nath, also sang in our home many years before.
Sri Karunamayee shared so generously her spiritual insights and gifts. She gave me some treasured mementos from The Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Recently, she, Joan and Steve Allekotte of Sur Laya Sangam visited Consul General/Ambassador Ashok to plan to offer a concert at the Gadar Memorial Hall in San Francisco, but it wasn’t to be.
“Music is the Divine Power”, wrote Sri Karunamayee. She lives in our hearts. When now I think of her or listen to her recordings, I can feel the Beauty, Truth, Love and Light she transmitted.
Your seasons come dancing and pass away,
Your centuries follow one another in the
perfection of a small flower.
Be still my heart, these great trees are prayers.
The joy of life that is everywhere burns as an
incense in my heart,
And the breath of all things plays on my body
as on a flute of reeds.
You have made me endless.
Sri Karunamayee (Didi) was the sweetest person, so humble, so dear, loving, and generous! Her vocal ‘offerings’ as she termed them, inspired all of us who had the privilege of attending her programs once or twice a year at the Cultural Integration Fellowship (CIF) in San Francisco, California.
Joined by the talented and devoted group of Sur Laya Sangam singers and musicians, Didi sang annually for CIF’s yearly tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his birthday, and more recently, for CIF’s programs honoring its founders, Dr. Haridas and Mrs. Bina Chaudhuri. Bina treasured her friendship with Karunamayee and very much appreciated Didi’s spiritually-inspired vocal offerings at CIF and in her own home, or at the home of Helen and Raj Desai in San Francisco.
It is difficult to say good-bye to Karunamayee Didi! We are saddened by her absence, yet her presence in our community remains strong and heartfelt. When Didi visited us at CIF, she always brought gifts: incense, rose oil, mementos of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and her final gift, a small key-chain that lights up with the symbols of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. How perfect a reminder of Didi!
Sri Karunamayee’s spirit remains forever present with us as an inspirational singer, a loving soul sister, teacher and exemplar of dedicating one’s heart and life in service to the Divine. Didi stayed ‘on purpose’ her whole life – what a great gift and inspiration she leaves us with! We are deeply grateful for the time Didi spent with us at CIF. May she rest in peace!
From the Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco, CA.
I first met Sri Karunamayee in early 1990. I was in New Delhi accompanying my teacher, Pandit Pran Nath (Guru Ji), with whom I had been studying North Indian vocal music for the last thirteen years. I was with a group of students, and every morning for the five weeks we were there Guru Ji sang with us and instructed us in Raga. Very often Karuna Didi would join us and sing with us. One morning Guru Ji wasn’t feeling very well, and he asked Karuna Didi to take over for him and instruct us in Rag Bhairav. She impressed me not only in the mastery of her musical knowledge, but in the loving and considerate way she treated each of us as we sang. This was particularly apparent in the case of one troublesome student, who approached her in the confrontational way that American students sometimes do. Her patience and loving response to him revealed a depth of spirit that I never forgot.
I had just completed my Ph.D. in music composition at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1989. One of the most important things that I learned from Guru Ji and Karuna Didi was the spiritual aspect of music. This was all but lost in my Western musical education. We learned technique, analysis, harmony and counterpoint in a very systematic and rigorous way, but there was no mention of anything having to do with the spirit or anything vaguely resembling religious feeling. When I returned from India in 1990 I was fortunate enough to take a series of classes that Karuna Didi offered in San Francisco in the fall of that year. In searching for this spiritual aspect of music I was richly rewarded by Karuna Didi’s classes. Rather than trying to describe it, I will let her words speak for themselves as I recorded them in my notebook during her classes.
“The body is the God-created Vina–the belly is the lower gourd, the head is the upper gourd, and in between are the frets. Imagine the body as a lamp with the flame in the belly up to the head, with the point of flame at the very center of the top of the skull. The flame is the sound that you make. Try to find your own sound. We start with the sound you first make as a baby (Aum). ‘Aum’ is the signature of God. There is an Urdu saying– ‘you live your whole life with someone but don’t recognize them.’ Learn to recognize your own sound. There is a single point within you, which is your own sound, and this is the mirror by which you know every other sound, and with it the divine nature and your soul. Going to the source is very important. Your greatest guide in this journey is your own sound, with your own breath.”
She quoted St. Augustine: “Singing is praying twice.”
She taught us “Sound is like a searchlight by which we can see anywhere, but it’s most important to first go within. For a balanced pursuit of meaning in life there are two things we need: a spiritual attitude, and music. For self-realization music is a great help. Music’s role is to lift the consciousness to spiritual heights, to the aspect of beauty in the divine consciousness. The artist goes into deep contemplation to gain inspiration. To create something of beauty s/he must see it within. This is an aspect of yoga, to go into inner communion with inner worlds. Music is the birthright of every child. It is not just a performing art, it’s a sustaining art. The family that prays together through music, chanting the name of God, will stay together. If a child breathes it will always stay within its own aura, and be protected. There is no voice that is unmusical.”
These were the kind of teachings I felt compelled to record along side the scales, patterns, and compositions of Indian raga that she taught us. It was richly rewarding and filled in the gaps I felt in my Western musical education. Karunamayee Didi was a great artist, a great teacher, a great spiritual fountain for anyone who had the gift of meeting her. She was a rare treasure.
It was a blessing, privilege, and joy to spend time with Sri Karunamayee. Vast worlds opened whether the time was spent in music, conversation or in silence.
My explorations with Sri Karunamayee periodically included opening to any spot in the Savritri by Sri Aurobindo, reading several lines out loud. One day two lines jumped out. They were profound poetic observation of illuminating light and sound. I said, “ You are so light.” She looked directly into my eyes and responded, “I am a heavy weight light.” We laughed heartily deeply knowing the truth of her words.
I am eternally grateful to Sri Karunamayee.
I only met Sri Karunamayee once. It was a memorable event that warmed my heart and sparked an extraordinary adventure. This tale attempts to chart my circuitous path into the web of Sri Karunamayee’s grace and through the mysterious journey such grace sent me upon.
It was the spring of 2013 and I had a lengthy travel schedule touring with the kirtan ensemble Shantala. I’d been studying classical Hindustani vocal music with Portland’s own Kirana treasure, Michael Stirling, for nearly four years at this point. When Michael heard I’d have a day off in the San Francisco Bay Area on my upcoming tour he strongly advised me to find a way to sit with Sri Karunamayee—or Didi—who he knew was still visiting from India and teaching. I jumped right on the opportunity.
On my one day off in San Francisco I borrowed a bicycle and made my way to Joan Allekotte’s house in Albany. I would be the last lesson of Didi’s final day of teaching on this particular trip to the States. I had to stop along the way in order to make some prints of the album artwork for my hand- pressed three-string guitar CD “Grit and Grace.” Thus replenishing my stock for the rest of the tour, I made some color copies at a local print shop and finished my trek.
Singing with Didi was a joy. My cheeks began to hurt from smiling so much! We sang Bhairavi and she taught me the sthayee of an exquisite composition: an ode to Saraswati, the Goddess of the vast creative realms. Didi had a unique way of accompanying on the harmonium. She would play the perfect reference tones to aid my ear in locking in the intonation, but would often omit the tone I was singing. I was charmed and filled with gratitude to be in her gentle, loving presence.
As the lesson came to a close and I was gathering my possessions, Didi noticed the artwork I’d just printed. She grew curious about it and I told her of my three-string guitar recording. “Three-string guitar? What does that sound like?” she asked with some excited interest. Searching for some sort of analog she might best be able to understand, I referenced a comment that Indian music educator Dr. Peter Row had once made about the sound of this ‘home-made’ instrument: “I’ve been told it sounds a bit like a South Indian vina.”
Her eyes grew larger. “Ah, vina! You should play the rudra vina! A dear member of our community who once played rudra vina [Peter Weismiller] has recently passed. You must inquire about his instrument which now needs to find a new home!”
It felt like a commandment! How could she have known that out of all the Indian classical instruments, rudra vina had been the one I’d most been inspired to play? I’d tried sitar for a few months, but I found it was too demanding on my classical-guitar-playing fingers. Peter Row had done a few concerts with rudra vina while I was studying at New England Conservatory, and I had fallen completely love with the sound. In fact, it was more the deep growling lows of the rudra vina that had inspired my 3 string guitar experiments than the South Indian vina, which I’d heard on some recordings during my brief time in Peter’s Indian Music Ensemble. I was intrigued by the sound of this instrument but I never thought I’d ever see a rudra vina for sale in the States.
With this history of interest I was determined to follow through on Didi’s “commandment.” But there was a catch: the only window of time I might have a chance of procuring Peter Weismiller’s beloved rudra vina was in the 72 hours in between two legs of my touring. It would be a nine hour road trip just to visit an instrument I might not even want (or be able to afford)!
I called Peter’s brother, Chris, and asked about what else was for sale in Peter’s collection. A tamboura was also available! I’d been wanting a tamboura ever since I starting studying Hindustani vocal music in 2003 with Boston’s beloved Khyal master, Warren Senders. I used the possibility of acquiring this long-desired instrument as my final rationalization the long day of driving.
I also called my friend Johnny Dwork, a known connoisseur of rare instruments, for moral (and, perhaps, financial) support should I need it in a pinch. He backed my plan to check out the rudra vina. I landed from the first leg of my touring, threw some laundry in the washer, got in the car and headed north.
When I arrived, the bereaved Charles Weismiller was very kind and generous with me. I tried his brother’s gorgeous looking rudra vina, but after 10 seconds of playing my shoulder cramped painfully! My broad shoulders were a terrible fit for this particular instrument. It was an instant ‘no’.
“Ok,” I thought, “Plan B. Perhaps Sri Karunamayee really sent me here to get this tamboura and rededicate myself to my singing.” Nope! The tamboura was a smaller, higher-pitched ‘female’ instrument (and a mediocre one at that).
Deflated, I headed back towards Portland, put my earbuds in, and called Johnny to process the news of my seeming failure. Johnny was unaware of the Plan B to get a tamboura. He when heard of this he got excited, “I didn’t know you were looking for a tamboura! My friend Jeff—the monk who lives in a Tibetan Buddhist hermitage at the top of a remote mountain in Maui—is trying to sell one right now! I’ll put you two in touch.”
What!?? Where was I headed in less than 24 hours? Maui!
I got busy getting to the Maui retreat and then busier working the retreat for the following week. It was in the final days of my Hawaii trip that I even first had a chance to reach out to Jeff. When I did, it appeared Jeff was equally busy. The only time during my remaining 72 hours on Maui that Jeff could meet up with me was shortly after dawn on the day before my flight back to the mainland.
A mutual friend of Jeff’s, multi-instrumentalist Andrea Walls, was excited to accompany me for an early morning hiking adventure that involved driving as far as we could on dirt trails before having to continue on foot after the road got too rough. Andrea picked me up in her small Honda in the pre- dawn dark and we arrived on foot at Jeff’s Prayer Rock hermitage compound shortly after daybreak.
It was an experience that was something from an exotic scene in a Rob Fricke/Mark Magidson film (ie. Baraka or Samsara): meeting the humble sage at the top of a mountain, in an ornate temple, at dawn. We were greeted with tea and the early morning’s stillness.
When Jeff opened the door to the room containing the tamboura, I gasped at the sight. Having not even heard it, I knew I’d arrived at my destiny. Five strings floated over a flowery fractal design and a deeply maroon, Dragon’s Blood Red finish. By the looks, it was in impeccable, like-new condition. The only foible noticeable was a subtle imprint of bubble wrap packaging materials dried into the finish. (“Did the makers rush the tamboura off before the finish had time to fully dry?”, I briefly mused…)
Then, breaking the sweet silence of this mountaintop paradise, I sent the strings into motion. The sonic prism filled my ears, opening my heart and sending shivers down my spine. This was a once-in-a-lifetime find, a true musical soul mate. I accepted Jeff’s price on the spot.
I also accepted a ride back in Jeff’s giant truck! With the tamboura supported on all sides by heavy quilts and a laundry basket around the gourd, we bouldered our way down the mountain.
Upon returning into town I headed straight for the best shipping place I could find nearest to the Maui airport. I paid a sizable amount of money to make a custom box to ship the tamboura back on the plane with me. On the way to the airport the next morning, I picked up the package and proceeded to pepper every inch of it with hand-written pleas: “VERY Fragile Musical Instrument!”. With the tender mix of confidence and concern of a parent dropping off their pre-schooler for the first day of school, I said “goodbye” to my new, beloved tamboura until our reunion on the mainland.
When we reunited, I didn’t think to check it out at the airport as the package showed no outer signs of damage. But something felt wrong. TSA had opened my box! They’d left their own TSA-labeled packing tape upon the resealed seams of the box. Still, I hoped all would be ok. I was excited to get home and unwrap my new musical love like a giant Christmas present.
Tragedy struck. The entire back of the gourd was shattered into many dozens of pieces! As the pieces all burst out of the end of the box, I actually burst into tears at the sight! How could such a long and incredible journey end so horribly? My spirits were crushed, temporarily.
When I told Michael Stirling of the tale, he had a strong intuition all would end well. “It’s going to work out, perhaps for the better! Sri Karunamayee’s grace will prevail, just wait.” Remembering Didi’s special grin, I somehow found it easy to believe him. My spirits were lifted.
Of course, it did work out for the better. Luthier and miracle-worker-in-all- things-wood Peter Tsiorba got to work on the repair. I toiled away with the labyrinthine claims processes with both Hawaiian Airlines and TSA, demanding compensation for the damage. Peter’s fix actually IMPROVED the sound of the instrument and you’d be hard pressed to see that there was ever such an injury. Both the airline and TSA paid claims! I was able to pay Peter in full for his heroic repair job and actually had leftovers to help pay Jeff for the tamboura itself. Tamboura and I live happily ever after.
Looking back on this story, I’ve often wondered if it somehow was Sri Karunamayee’s grace that saw me through the final ordeal and to such an auspicious conclusion. As we were perched atop the mountain at the Prayer Rock hermitage in the early morning Hawaiian sun, I asked Jeff about the history of this instrument. Jeff relayed an interesting tale of his own, a tale that might speak to my wondering:
He’d ordered and pre-paid for a very simple, affordable male tamboura from some trusted makers in Puttaparthi, India. After months of delay he had a friend in India prod the makers about their stall. Apparently, a great saint of Puttaparthi had passed and the town was inundated with many thousands of pilgrims for months after the passing. Though it was an understandable delay, the makers felt responsible. They decided to give Jeff a free upgrade to their fanciest model and ship it out as soon as they could.
I was satisfied to learn this history and was grateful to gain a better understanding of the great deal I was receiving on such a sumptuously made instrument. But I wanted to know more about Jeff’s motives, “What inspired you to order this tamboura in the first place? Were you studying? With whom?”
He replied, “I had a lesson in San Francisco with Sri Karunamayee. She commanded me to get one!”
With great love to Sri Karunamayee,
One of my memories of Didi was when she was in the hospital and I flew up to Delhi to visit her. When I got to her room she wasn’t lying-in bed as I had imagined, but was sitting up on the bed, singing and playing tambura. She had the entire hospital staff under her spell. She invited the nurses to come in and sing too.
And of course there was the memory of taking her across the street from the Ashram to my favorite restaurant. It was a new South Indian place that had opened up that served cashew and cheese masala dosa. Didi was very impressed with this place, Govandram, and always reminded me to come visit her again so we could eat there. I had eaten there many times alone (as it was usually empty). The wait staff was always very attentive but also probably perplexed as to what I was doing eating there by myself. When I walked in with Didi one day they were totally surprised and also impressed at her presence there.
She was always so supportive of my yoga teaching and always found ways to make the music meaningful for my work and for my students. She picked compositions and bhajans that she thought would deepen my practice and they did. I am so grateful to have known her and to have studied with her for all those years. What a gift she had and was.
Miss you Didi.
Didi, thank you for all of your love! For seeing my heart – for pushing me to learn. All my students love singing your ‘Diwali’ song and I have shared it with many other teachers.
I vividly remember the evening where Pandit Pran Nath Ji took me along to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi. I met my soul sister. It was 1966. Karuna Didi sang beautifully and stole my heart. She said that in a state of ecstasy during her singing she had recall of her past life when I was her brother, a spiritual brother. Since that time until she migrated to Dev Loka we saw each other once or even twice a year.
In 1980’s I sponsored her trip to the USA. She sang in famous Ethical Society hall among other places. In Ethical Society she was introduced by Swami Satchitananda of Integral yoga. As usual she sang beautifully. Sometimes I played tambura as she sang and my eyes responded to her love of divinity and to the pathos in her voice.
From New York, she went to the Sufi center up state and then on to California where her devoted student looked after her and arranged concerts that pleaded and enchanted thousands of spiritual seekers.
I have many memories of her learning from Pran Nath ji and also from Bhoot ji another great singer. She was so modest she always wanted to learn and give back to others.
Many years I would steal her for a few weeks from the Ashram when I brought a group of my students to a Journey to the source in India. A memorable concert one was in Bheemtal where Pandit Jagdish Mohan, a true representative of Kirana style, also a disciple of Pandit Pran Nath ji sang together with Karuna Didi and Bhoot ji from 4:30 in the morning to 7 am. Everybody was mesmerized.
I could go on and on talking about Didi because of our satsang of half a century.
After singing for earthly beings, now she is enlightening Devas with her honey dipped voice that produced Aakasha of unmatched beauty.
Whenever I was in India, I would make arrangements to go and visit Didi at the Ashram. One evening, while I was there – all of us sitting on THE bed, a friend dropped by. He was a tabla player and they proceeded to jam for more than an hour. It was most wonderful, with just myself and Rangamma Didi as an audience. I was glowing for days.
The first time I really got to know her was the first time she stayed at my home. I had been trying to get financing for a new roof – hoping it would be completed before she arrived. As luck would have it, work started the day she started teaching. Roofing is noisy, hammering, lots of Spanish conversation, etc., etc. She took it right in stride and we continued to laugh about it for years.
Although I was not a music student of hers I always felt honored as her friend. Her hugs were energizing and wonderful. I am going to India soon and it will be very different and a little sad not to see her at Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
Karuna Didi was a special kind of friend, always, without fail, regarding me with love, with joy, and reflecting my inner nature, no matter what state I was in. While my visits with her over the years were not for singing lessons, a kind of soul tuning always occurred. Every exchange, story, surprising insight, or saying from the Mother, each quip or peal of laughter, carried the unique lilt and timbre of her voice, and the music of her being. She ranged from the serious to the playful so fluidly, always saying the right thing at the right time, gracious, attentive, responsive, yet completely spontaneous. And of course, her wellspring of compositions, and her singing, along with her choir of angels, has carried me from tears of love to the depths of the oceanic space that I believe she inhabited continuously. Beloved Karunamayee Didi, thank you.
Homage to Karuna Didi – Sound Wisdom Master
Beloved Karuna Didi,
What a great blessing to have known you and to have had the opportunity to sing with you this life-time. I was blessed to meet you in Albany at Joan’s family home back in the early 2000’s. My most vivid memory was our first encounter, and your telling me of your relationship with my root spiritual teacher Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982). Not only had you received Ma’s darshan directly, but you told me how she would throw a garland over your head, and call out to you to sing and chant for Her.
Thank you for sharing your innermost experience of meditation through the yoga of Inner Sound. As a spiritual teacher of sacred sound, you managed to combine your serious vocal inspiration from the Sufi-Hindu lineage through the transmission of Pandit Pran Nath; whilst simultaneously telling me outright that I wasn’t a “normal singer”. Nor did you think that my path was intended for a traditional singing path with Classical India raga. Whilst this was initially challenging to hear, at a deeper level I really appreciated your capacity to ‘hear’ and to patiently accept my sincere yet somewhat unorthodox relationship with vocal sound. You were very compassionate. After listening to me for awhile, you decided that my naked voice was more suited to Persian ghazal style, a form of ancient poetic song originating from Arabic poetry. This was not only affirming, but it set me off on a new contemporary direction with spoken and sung voice as a vehicle for non-dual awareness and expression. I am so grateful for your broadminded and all-encompassing teaching approach that embraced a wider field of sound awareness than a more rigid or traditional approach would have allowed. Such was the nature of your ‘sisterly’ unconditional loving presence and soul friendship. You demonstrated the deepest and most generous listening gently encouraging me to move away from the formalised requirements of classical Indian raga, into a freer expression through devotional love song and wild prayer, that was more resonant with the ‘no mind ‘ encounter I had experienced in India with Anandamayi Ma.
It was also always a blessing to meet and to chant with you – call and refrain – whenever we were both in California. These treasured meetings, took place over a few unforgettable years.
In 2004, I was blessed to study the nursery slopes of Indian raga with you when I came to study with you in Delhi, at Sri Aurobindo’s ashram, on my way to sing at the Jaipur music festival. It was there that I also met the exquisite improviser and classical violinist, Michael Braudy from New York City, who, following your inspiration, subsequently accompanied me to Jaipur to collaborate in a performance there together.
Karuna Didi, my deepest impression of you was your simple, profound Being. Your utter ‘ordinariness’ in response to everyday life, gave rise to the deepest humility along with a delightful, light-heartedness and humour; and it was these remarkable qualities that enabled you to share and to transmit your sacred vocal lineage and life-experience with immense patience and grace.
I was honoured to introduce you to Rumi poet Coleman Barks, on one of his visits to San Francisco, in 2001, shortly after 9/11. Coleman and I were performing in the Bay area, and we were able to spend a few hours with you, exploring your devotional sound and ecstatic love song, alongside Coleman’s versions of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi’s poetry.
An unforgettable moment in our transatlantic friendship, was when I called you on the phone from the UK. You were in Delhi at the ashram, and I was missing India. I was concerned that my Western existence was too hollow, and not allowing me enough time for my own vocal practice and meditation. You penetrated my dilemma with the greatest of ease, challenging my intention, and priorities etc. Then you suddenly stopped, and told me just to “Listen”. There was a pause at the other end of the telephone. Karuna Didi, you were obviously close to the chanting hall in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where the community were all assembled. You must have placed the telephone as close as possible to the Hall as I could suddenly hear everyone there chanting with great force. As this exquisite devotional sound increased in volume, I tuned in more deeply to hear the many voices resounding together – One Voice, One Self. I was at once silenced and transported. Karuna Didi, I could hear you laughing quietly at the other end of the phone.
Self inside Self, you are nothing without me
Self inside Self, I am only You
What we are together will never die.
Beloved Karuna Didi, soul friend, now you are ‘Home’ again, in the One Self, following a lifetime’s devotional service in the primordial sound. Your physical presence is deeply missed, but I pray that you are at peace now; and I celebrate your ‘wedding with eternity’, knowing that you have fulfilled your highest aspirations on Earth through the grace of your unique voice and sound of Spirit.
Deepest gratitude to you
Om Anandamayi Om
When I arrived at the Delhi Ashram Guesthouse for the first time in January 2004, Rangamma Didi brought Chloe Goodchild over to introduce us, and Chloe told me she had come to study raga with Sri Karunamayee. We then walked to the cottage where Karuna Didi was then living, and I fondly recall my first meeting with her.
Karuna Didi always appeared as full-bodied and deep throated, and I loved her voice, spoken and sung. Although I only studied ragas intensively with her on this first visit, she had a lasting impression on me. We did vocals and violin, and she was insistent on the correct pronunciation of Sanskrit, in order for the vibration of the notes to resonate in the body. I recall her instructing me to pronounce Brahma so that it resonated in my head.
After hearing me play violin with Chloe’s singing, Karuna Didi urged Chloe to take me to Jaipur to perform with her in the international festival, and she did. I owe my lifelong friendship with Chloe to her.
Karuna Didi first worked with me on raag Brindabani Sarang, which I already loved from having learned it from my Guruji V.G. Jog in Kolkata. She described it as a raga of the “midday sun” – and she herself shone like a sun. She began raag Des on a SA below the range of my voice, and I was happy to discover later in the session that I was able to sing it.
On subsequent visits to the Ashram Guest House, I often accompanied Karuna Didi in the meditation hall, a great treat for me. In a particularly memorable session, I realized we were both moved, as we looked at each other wordlessly in the silence that followed.
Karuna Didi was a jewel, spiritually, creatively and personally, and I was always impressed with her modesty, and her reverence for the Mother, whose photo she approached after each meditation.
Karuna Didi, may you transcend into the highest union with the Divine and the One Sound, which you led us to realize with you on this Earthly plane.
With love and affection,
An avalanche of memories, stories,poems,sights,places,people,teachings, inspirations,
cascades of connections.
Sheet after sheet of exquisite script, as she wrote out scales and songs and rhythms
translating from Indian voices, languages, dialects.
All the while with us, her students, friends, volunteers in the joint service to music.
The work of making living music happen.
Encouraging us to raise the voice breath wings to dare and fly.
We moved through hours of illuminated poetry and praise with her sure and patient guidance, her immense will power and heart. To be with her was a constant living celebration and the labours involved.
She embodies the profound blessings of a living culture, sarasvati-ganga-yamuna,
bathing us in peals of laughter, in streams of joy.
You nurtured us in gardens of bliss.
And now, with you, the spring has gone,
our beloved koyaliya,
bereft in this desert, songs of longing call in us.
Often, looking around at the vivid tapestry of our many lives together, you would recite,
sadaa na gul mein bulbul bole,
sadaa na baag bahari,
sadaa na din khushiyon de honde,
sadaa na mehfil yaari.
(not always is the bulbul call in springtime,
the garden is not always in flower,
joyful days are not always with us,
not always the rendezvous of friends gathering.)
Yevres-de-la Chapel, France,1993-94
Limping to the old stone barn
with fresh wooden floors under construction
you lie down, knees up, arms flung wide, fast asleep.
A heavy, exhausted form in shiny brown clothing.
Beside you, two tuned tanpuras are poised
in long hollowed curves of unadorned wood.
I see how you fly with hands raised
in an effortless sky that rings resonant,
Stirring into breath in gleaming responses.
Realms of harmonic structure
elicited by an attention rock sure and fierce,
Multiple ripples of rhythms.
In tones drenched with mountain stillness, waters and caves, soil and grain,
Earth calls to her children.
My first trip to India was in 1975, guided by a Nad yogi named Sri Shyam Bhatnagar and his friend Harish Johari. We were a very small group of 4 others coming from Germany, Holland and the US.
This was a trip that introduced me to my abiding love for Indian classical music. From Rishikesh to Benares to private house concerts in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi I was brought into the fascinating world of Indian music. Most of the musicians were unknown to westerners at the time, except for Pandit Pran Nath, the Guru Ji of Terry Riley.
And of course, he was also the Guru Ji of Sri Karunamayee, whom this remembrance is about.
From the start when Shyam Ji brought me to the Sri Aurobindo ashram where Karuna Didi led the evening meditations preceded by devotional singing, I felt such a soul affinity with this great being who sang for God alone. Although I did not have many singing lessons with her, she was the inspiration behind my seeking regular classes in North Indian classical music at Trivantri school of music in Amsterdam.
We often spoke together about music, and the one thing that always stayed with me was her saying: “Saki Ji, one cannot really sing until all of the chakras are opened!”
One year after having met her, Shyam Ji and I brought Karuna Didi for the first time to Amsterdam where she was warmly received by people who were already quite familiar with Indian classical music. Shyam Ji was like her guardian, and wanted to protect her from what was happening to many Indian musicians being ‘discovered’ in the west: the ego’s need for fame and recognition that tainted the original spirituality of this music.
But Shyam Ji never had to worry about this. Just to be in Karuna Didi’s meditative presence while she was absorbed in the divine as she sang was in itself a catapult for my soul to journey with her into these sublime and ecstatic spheres.
Somehow, I always had a kind of healing relationship with her, and she would share with me her vulnerabilities of having a body that was like a cage holding her soul captive. But when she sang, those earthly limitations dissolved and her spirit soared to heights of celestial glory.
I am so grateful for having known her all these years, and in the music which she has left behind and in the inspiration kindled within the many students she has inspired world-wide, her legacy will continue to bless our world for generations to follow.
Dhanyavadah Adi Shakti!
At a concert years ago at the Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco, Didi’s favorite tabla player had come up from Los Angeles to join her mid-concert. With his addition, her music suddenly seemed more inspired. She sang with increased emphasis – eyes glowing, head snapped to one side with a sudden flash of a smile on return – appearing to my western perspective as if she were acting coyly.
Afterwards responding to what I had just experienced, I came up to her and said respectfully “Didi, you are such a ‘flirt!’ (I do not know where I got the sudden nerve.)
Without breaking stride, she smiled, looked at me knowingly, and said, “Well, I do not know what ‘flirt’ is, but I can tell you that music is the only pleasure without vice”.
Well, she may not have known what ‘flirt’ was but she indicated to me that she certainly had a pretty good idea.
Some of my memories of our beloved Didi…
Your infectious smile and laugh.
Riding a Tuk Tuk in Delhi, and how you were always able to fit one more in until we were falling off the sides and laughing our heads off!
Witnessing you at Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi leading hundreds of spellbound children, singing Raga and Bhajans.
Having you stay in our home and the fun we had.
Your devotion to our Guru Ji, Faquir Pandit Pran Nath
Singing with you and feeling the depth of your being, and mine.
Your always-inspirational words.
Even though you’ve been gone a year, you are still very here, and always will be, and I’ll always love you!
The first time I met Sri Karunamayee was when Joan brought her to a concert I was playing at Dominican College. Joan’s son Isaiah was studying harp with me at that time. At the end of the concert Didi came up to me and held my hands and beamed at me and told me she knew where I was playing from. I felt such a mixture of things: amazement, humbleness, a deep sense of relief that someone understood but also, because at that time I still had so much self doubt and lack of self worth, disbelief that I deserved her praise. So I was not able to fully receive the whole magnificent, gift of her Love and joy in the music but what I could let in penetrated me and it was the start of a beautiful friendship.
Didi often tried to encourage me to try to design a harp that could play shrutis. I tried to explain to her that harps, with each individual string plucked, can do that as a special effect but not as an essential technique. But she was sure such an instrument could be made. That was Didi! She knew that what can be imagined in the Mind can be made manifest by the Divine!
Didi had a very special relationship with my horse Fazon. Fazon has a very loving heart but he can be very feisty and independent. So Didi had an equine kindred spirit! The way she said his name was very beautiful and mellifluous and Fazon loved it.
I was truly blessed to know Sri Karunamayee. Her relationship with Music was strong, constant and pure. Her presence radiated a clear channel to the Divine. She gave me positive energy and deep encouragement, which helped me with my up and down feelings about being a musician. She is still very much alive in my imagination and she is singing with beauty, intelligence, and magnificence in the Eternal Now.
Cheryl Ann Fulton
Sri Karunamayee was truly a saint who dedicated her life to selfless service and the enlightenment of others through Nada Yoga. Although I know her understanding of Raga was deeper than I could even perceive much less comprehend, no student was too young or too inexperienced to receive the blessings of her teaching. She welcomed all equally with genuine delight, guiding us gently yet profoundly into a deeper connection with the Divine.
Her musical offerings were never performances. She did not concern herself with showmanship. Rather, her focus was clearly to share, through music, a meditative journey. In her humility, I don’t think she was ever concerned with other people’s perceptions of her skill or talents. When praised or thanked, she would only acknowledge blessings from the Divine.
Didi saw deeply into my heart and psyche. When my cup was too full with the burdens of the world to receive a raga lesson, she lovingly held me with her certainty of the Divine’s will for my life, guiding me out of my fleeting despair to release all to God. This was actually the core of my lessons with her, anyway.
I am beyond words with gratitude to our beloved Didi. I am also ever so grateful to the Allekotte family, especially to Joan and Steve, whose selfless service in hosting Didi and converting their home into a musical ashram twice a year for so many years allowed us to receive the blessings of Didi without having to travel to India. I am also grateful to Sri Aurobindo Ashram for providing a sanctuary for Didi in India, and to Rangamma Didi, whose loving and attentive care for our Didi on a daily basis allowed her to spend so much of her life in a meditative state, fluidly moving between the earthly and heavenly planes to bring to us a deepening of our own experience of the Divine through music.
Dear Karuna Didi,
Love and blessings to you. I miss you. I’m so grateful that we had time together, over about twenty years. You showed me what happiness is possible as you coaxed sound from me that was lying dormant. Together we made a lot of sound as my Yog (not “Yoga” as you insisted) of sound progressed. The times of holding, caressing, having long showers of sound with your encouragement and presence are treasured memories. The Yog of sound and music was a “complete” Yog, you insisted, and the sounds certainly vibrated through and delighted my whole being. Early on you gave me “Aum Namo Bhagavate” and so much I enjoyed its vibrations as I used it to relax and let it slowly sink lower and lower into my being.
Music will be a very great friend you told me. And so it has proved to be. And I have delighted in its development in me. You had superhuman patience with me as I stumbled forward unmusically. Slowly my stumbling became more musical, or, at least, I improved and was and am grateful for that. I can tell you (though I suspect you are watching and don’t need me to tell you) that I am still at it and with the encouragement and coaching of Joan ji I am still, slowly, progressing. I look forward to going back and furthering my relationship to some of the fine songs we did together.
I had fun learning the mantra to Sri Ganesh (memo: need to sing that more) and recall learning Kabir Ji’s ‘Ghooghat Ke Pata Khol Re’ with you (you said I should sing it all the time…memo: sing it more often) and I still have ‘Raghubar Tumko Mere Laaj’ in my mind after at least fifteen years. I think you and the music you served me I have digested and are now in my bloodstream. Thank you and much love. For me you have been the embodiment of the Divine Mother.
Jai Sri Ma
It is hard to describe Karuna Didi’s music because it is an experience. One has to experience it. Didi channeled the energies through her music, she channeled the embodiment of her music- her spiritual integration. It was a transmission that we all felt in her singing and then in the silence after her singing. It was always a profound experience of healing and deep peace. She will stay in our hearts forever. I feel grateful that I found her in my life and her music will be singing through me forever as well.
Ah! You are so missed. I find it so difficult to write anything about you because my grief becomes so unbearably intense. It has been almost 10 months since your passing and it still feels quite impossible. Spring came and went without your presence; without the sounds of your laughter; and without your loving embrace. Your presence brought so many people together over the years of your coming and going. Now we remember you in music.
I listen more carefully now. I hear your voice and instructions and marvel at your clarity. Much that was incomprehensible is slowly revealing itself. I sing to you. The sweetness of you; the charm of you; the grace of you; and the beauty of you appears and then disappears. A treasure trove of recorded classes, workshops, retreats, photos, and visceral memories comes as a flood of light. It seems that when you were here we were surrounded with light and love and now that you have passed that light and love penetrates each and every cell of my body, but it is so painful to look outside and not see your beaming face that transformed to a child’s glance in song. I remember your deep appreciation and ability to treat each and everyone of us with such loving attention.
So many lessons given, and yet so much remains to be learned. The past is becoming enshrouded in the mists of time and the remembrance gives birth to your presence in the practice of sound. This ocean of music that you have left behind is here for us to unlock and re-sound. We imagine you happy as we struggle like children to come up with something that now might touch your soul and call you back. There are moments when your presence remains tangible; the silence after song; those profound moments of inner peace followed by talking story, cooking and eating with great enthusiasm.
When you arrived each time I called you ‘the rascal’ and ‘the trouble-maker’. The work of a musician is never done and it surely involves a lot of lugging of instruments, and the sound system with all its foibles. When you were in town it required an entourage; a caravan; the whole satsang needed to arise early, pack and load cars, then unload them and then set up the stage and do the sound check. It became an all day affair followed by the re-packing and unloading and finally rest and a shared meal. Being around you transformed the mundane into the sacred and like bees and their honey we all swarmed, moved our hive, and treasured our Queen. Of course we never talked like that because the largess of humility permeated the atmosphere. You held the room together with sound, gave the tabla player a workout and then cackled with laughter. Sometimes it did not exactly go well. The fallibility of the material objects could always interfere. But you would work tirelessly and in spite of physical ailments appeared to have boundless energy when bathing in music. You soared the heights and navigated the depths. You showed us how faith solves all of life’s problems. Even when someone entered madness it was as if you could reach inside the hurricane and find the eye of peace.
Oh, how I miss you.
“A Sacred Exchange”: In Memory of Sri Karunamayee
In the mid-1990s, I was an Episopal medical chaplain (and an unemployed musicologist!) who had been swept up in the establishment of the American hospice movement. I often sang or chanted for the hundreds of people I visited, and I had recorded one CD of Gregorian and Sanskrit chants for my patients. It had received some good feedback, especially from people with inter-faith or cross-cultural backgrounds. So, when I went to study with Sri Karunamayee first in Madison and then in Albany, CA, it was with the hope of learning more chants from India that would help me continue to bring a sense of peace to patients in hospice.
I remember feeling an immediate, and almost electro-magnetic attraction to Sri Karunamayee when we met, along with the odd sensation that we had somehow met before, or known each other form another time. I know we both felt it. But, I knew no Hindi at all, and Sri Karunamayee’s English, though good, wasn’t always clear. So we found ourselves at a bit of a loss as to what to say, relying on a translator to help us communicate with or explain things to one another, until she remembered that she had been told that I knew a little Sanskrit. She seemed fascinated, even a little amused, by this possibility, and she asked me to chant the Sanskrit alphabet!
I began, of course, with the vowels, and then stumbled through the consonants. When I finished, her eyes were lit up with glee, as if some small miracle had just taken place. She was smiling widely and appeared to be very happy, so I began to relax a bit and (despite her continual insistence on correcting my mouth positions!), we were suddenly laughing. Teasing each other with the sounds of Sanskrit, wrapping the long and languid vowels around each other, or trading the K-tick, K-tack of the consonants back and forth. Lost in the fun of the sacred sounds, we forgot the translator!
Shortly before that, a family member had given me two small books on Prayer by Mahatma Gandhi which had just been re-issued.
Interestingly, the first two chants Sri Karunamayee taught at that first workshop were Krishna Tvadiya and Sadho, Yah Tana That Tambureka. The first chant were the words of someone calling to Krishna to come and be present at the time of his/her dying. The second chant held an ancient bhavana-image of the physical body being in tune with corresponding attunements of the higher, subtler kind. So, I was very pleased that these two pieces were both possibilities of what I was looking for, but, when I learned that those two pieces were from the Prayer books of Gandhi-ji that I had fallen in love with, I was stunned and excited.
I received permission to change my dissertation topic from considerations of the goddess Vak and the goddess Sarasvati as they figured in the Rig Veda to the much later topic of how Mahatma Gandhi used sung-prayer, chant, and ritual to shape the Satyaagraha Freedom Movement in India during the 1920s to 1940s. It was a difficult choice to make, but I could not ignore the serendipity that had surrounded my meeting with Sri Karunamayee, and I decided to try and continue to study with her.
My memories of working with Sri Karunamayee are many. Time was given to learning the music, time was given to learning some of the history behind the chants, as well as to hearing the awe-inspiring, dangerous actions of her family who were so involved in Gandhi-ji’s Freedom Movement. It was in some ways a close collaboration, as I would bring research to her that I had found, and she would react and maybe provide further information, which would in turn send me back to the archives again, etc., etc.
The most valued memories I have involve the long hours we spent together not focused on the music. As noted above, in the beginning of our work, our ability to clearly find the most exact meaning of a word in a chant was somewhat hampered by our inability to speak the same language. We spent hours in a day finding an exact translation. (Even some of Gandhi-ji’s translations of the same material had been criticized for being too archaic and too English in flavour and content.) I would read and translate the Sanskrit text into English for her, and she would translate from the accompanying Hindi text into English for me. We wanted to find just the right tone, the deeper vibrant feel, the essence or truth of what each of these words in these ancient texts had to say to us today.
I know that the word-studies were tiring, and I’m pretty sure those hours were not Sri Karunamayee’s favorites because of how draining that time could be. But, I am forever in her debt for that time, because MY favorite time would come at the
end of a lesson, when we’d done all the hard work of word-study, all the visualizing of the right words with just the right undertones or overtones for every situation. We would, then, chant back through all of the just-captured nuance and blend it with the sounds of the harmonium and the melodies of the song. And as we sang, we seemed to be creating the truths that we had found.
When the chant was finished, we would simply bow in namaskara and sit in silence — for awhile — listening, feeling, back to the awareness of music, back to the meanings, back to the sounds, and back to the source, back to the silence — where you could sense the presence of Vak creating, or catch Sarasvati’s perfume. I was left reflecting on the miraculous transcendence of sound and meaning such as the famous passage that opens KalidAsa’s Raghuvamsa (chanted in connection with the study of literature or the practicing of music):
So that I might attain a deep understanding of the
sounds and the meanings of the words,
I worship the Parents of the Universe, Parvati and Paramesvara (Siva),
who, inseparable, create the world through their
perfect joining of meaning and sound.
In other words, regardless of the Rig Veda, there were times I felt as though I were studying with Vak Herself, or with Sarasvati in person! I had come to find soothing chants for the those in pain, and I was not disappointed. I had come to
learn more from Sri Karunamayee about her family’s involvement in India’s fight for freedom from Great Britain,
and I was able to write a dissertation that included a whole chapter on Sri Karunamayee, with stories and accounts of her family, as well as personal accounts of contact with Mahatma Gandhi (The Sound Sources of Satyaagraha: Gandhi’s Use of Sung-Prayer and Ritual in India’s Fight for Independence). And, in taking this path of study, I had also came to understand a great deal more about the performative power of mantra, and the creative possibilities of sound to touch the physical, mental, and subtle bodies to enable healing. Through Sri Karunamayee’s ability to teach those transcendent processes, I was also able to
make connections in the understanding of these powers as spoken of in the Rig Veda.
It has been such a tremendous honor to be able to study with a teacher as highly respected as Sri Karunamayee Abrol, a Class A musician on All-India Radio, an administrator of all educational levels, trained in music education, in music history, in many repertoires of Indian music, a woman whose family was so immediately active in India’s Satyaagraha, as well as someone who was a deeply humble devotee and exemplar of the truly spiritual life.
She was a wonderful ambassador to this country of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Delhi Branch. She was a wonderful ambassador for Sri Aurobindo and for the Mother, she was devotee and wonderful ambassador for Mahatma Gandhi-ji and India’s Freedom Movement. She was a wonderful ambassador for Sri Surendranath Jauhar Cha Cha ji, and for her Guru ji Pandit Pran Nath.
She was a patient and caring Mother for her students; she could be stubborn and demanding with those she loved most; she was a meticulous scholar and an inspired musician-saint; she loved her family fiercely; she walked with canes but she rode a three-wheeler; she seemed to love every moment she was here, and she could make you laugh ’til your sides ached; she was able to lift the veils of this world, and through her music, transport you into the arena of Music Divine.
So full of Light, and Love, and Mission, she is sorely, sorely missed. But, having felt the kind of love we felt from her, a love so deep and genuine, so beautiful and strong, I know that it was surely Love Eternal, and that Light, that Love, that Harmony never ends.
Rev. Cynthia Snodgrass. Phd.
Born birthing music
Gone but eternally present
Once upon a time with Didi. (from Zia’s Journal)
November 11, 1993 in India –
“Breath is the Universal. The breath doesn’t belong to us. We didn’t make it. How did it come to be?
Inhale God as breath. Exhalation is our offering.
(On a later occasion Didi said: With every inhalation: ‘remember’. With every exhalation: ‘offer’.)
Music is carried on the power of the breath, not through muscle.
Breathe in a relaxed manner. On the exhale release completely…let go” (Didi pointed to the jaw area).
“It’s hard to let go”, I said.
She replied. “But you must surrender. This is the music of surrender”.
Monday at 6:00 AM: “Six, the number 6 is the time to come into manifestation. This is the time the birds start singing and we are very privileged to be used – both you and I – in this way, in God’s timing. The Divine is using us both!”
1993: Monday early morning, on Lord Shiva’s Day: “Sa is the keynote. You have a choice. But once you have chosen you must bring the musical form to completion. It must be fulfilled. The life force can be found in everything, but once you have chosen your path, you must wait patiently. Day and night you must offer your effort-aspire-and it will be fulfilled. Once the seed has been sown it will grow and ripen. It can be no other way. With God’s Grace, if you did and dig, you will find water everywhere. It will be faster near the banks of the Ganga, and it will take many months in Rajasthan, but you will reach the source-the well of ground water. And when you do, you will be joyous and recognize that it has been fulfilled”.
Later that night: “This music is liberating. Even when I’m not singing I am making music. I am making music all the time, even though you don’t hear it outwardly.
Patience is an attitude. You practice all the time on the breath, with the breath. AUM in all you do. You are not just a God-person for 2 hours a day on Sunday. Either you are a God-person or you are not. You understand this, being a Sufi”.
“SA is the Sun and MA is the Moon. The stars can’t always be easily identified, but the Sun is always clear.”
December 17, 1993: Singing Instruction
“First sing AUM in notes of the song-this will improve your singing.
Use the breath from the depth.
Make it full, round and resonant.
Sing from the timbre of the spoken voice.
Sing from laughter. Your laugh is very good. Sing like you laugh.
Sing from below the navel. The breath must come from that depth.
Sing only with the breath, not with muscles or mouth.
Singing is yogic only when it is practiced with detachment.
Fill your capacity full, and from there – even if it is a teaspoon – your capacity will automatically grow through Divine’s Grace.
Wanting too much detracts and works against us.
Practice singing with patience and detachment.
You must not be anxious or worry about the results. Three obstacles: the words, the notes and anxiety – wanting too much.
Sing as if you are singing into a well.
I did my best to follow her instruction and Didi said, “Wah, Wah! Have you ever heard a sound like this before?”
1994 in the US: We sang “AUM Sri Ganeshaya Namah”, then “AUM Asato Ma”.
Didi stroked my cheeks and forehead with so much love in her face and touch, and tears in her eyes. She told me my voice was so beautiful. That she was very happy with my singing. That I was a wonderful instrument – a wonderful instrument for the Mother.
I told her that I had taken the seeds she had given and taken care of them. She said to sow more seeds.
Didi told me that the physical teacher does not always need to be present. It is a relationship of spirit. She said to pick a time that is my music time with her, and sing with her as if she was present, because she would be.”
Didi spoke about honoring the Earth in the United States, like Mother India, Mother America. She said that she asked permission to step on the Earth. That the Earth here is has fresh, new energy and needs our worship and devotion. When we worship, Mother Earth blesses.
Didi instructed me to breathe deeply, not just from below the belly, but from the depths of the earth. She gestured from deep below and showed in movement how blessing, life force is released.
Then she sang AUM and the Gayatri Mantra, word by word, then phrase by phrase, followed by AUM Asato Ma.
1994 in India: Didi said: “I’m waiting for you to ‘come up’ (and gestured to the central channel: grow up, rise up) and for the world to hear psychic music. This music is Yoga, it is Integral Music. There is Integral Yoga and Integral Music. ”