Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is historical novelist Anjali Mitter Duva @AnjaliMDuva
Soundtrack by George Ruckert, L Subramaniam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Chopin
Music is at the heart of Faint Promise of Rain. The setting for the story — 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India — had already been laid down by multiple visits to that stunning part of the world, where temples and fortresses rise up from golden sand, where textiles are jewel-toned, and the sky is devastatingly blue. The next story layer came in a very different shape: a class in kathak dance, a classical storytelling art from North India.
I’d decided to try out kathak, and stepped timidly into the dance center where a class happened to be offered just down the street from my home. As I climbed the three stories of steps to the kathak studio, the sound of ankle bells grew louder. Then I discerned the slap, stomp and drumming of dozens of feet, and the glorious sound of voices singing in unison. In kathak, the dancer becomes an instrument. In addition to studying dance technique and compositions, the dancer must become intimately familiar with the cycles in which Indian classical music is structured—the 16 beat cycle (tintal), the 14 beat (dhammar), the 10 beat (jhaptal) and many others—and develop an awareness at all times of where in the cycle she finds herself. In addition, dancers memorise their compositions and recite them in a series of mesmerising syllables that roll off the tongue: kita taka tun tun na tete dha dha dhin dha kita dha dhin dha. The hundreds of small brass bells around their ankles lend music to every step, a hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain, a deafening jangle indicating an exploding storm. And then there are the sounds of the feet, sharp slaps of entire soles coming down hard on the floor, deep drumming of heels, soft pats of tapping toes.
As I delved deeper into the dance, I learned of its early history, first among wandering minstrels bringing the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, from village to village, then as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples by devadasis, girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity and served it through dance, while also serving wealthy patrons as sexual companions. Soon, it all began to coalesce into a story—the setting, the history, the dance itself.
Music and rhythm in writing
From the moment I started writing the book, I was aware of the power of rhythm in writing. Word choice, sentence length, the sounds of the syllables on the tongue all contribute to the experience of absorbing a story. When it came time, in the manuscript, to convey through words a moment of dance, I found myself dancing the piece in my dining room, or in my head if I was writing in a cafe, willing the feeling of the music and movement to flow out of my body through my finger tips and into the keyboard. I tried to hear the musicality in the raindrops of the city’s first rain in five years, in the beat of hooves as a horse galloped over searing sand.
Music to transport me
I wrote the book in New England. There are some hot days, and many cold ones. Bundled up in a wool sweater as a Nor’easter rages outside, dumping two feet of snow and closing schools, it’s hard to imagine being in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. So I often turned to music to pull me back to the right place. One of my favorites for this is L Subramaniam playing his violin, especially in Raga Kalyani. The strains of the Indian violin are haunting, rich and emotionally charged. They always give me goosebumps, and conjure up images of India right away. L. Subramaniam is from South India, and plays in a Carnatic style that is not the one found in Rajasthan, but his music is all I need to feel back in India. I get memories of playing among the rocks on the coast of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai with my friends while the sun set smoggily and the air filled with the smoky smell of kerosene fires. I see myself standing wrapped in a shawl on the ramparts of the fort in Jaisalmer, looking out over the grey-blue desert as the sun rises and colors it with warmth. I think of sitting on an elephant, plodding through foliage dripping with the night’s condensation, listening for tigers at the break of day.
Once in an India frame of mind, I have some favorites that I put on while writing to elicit a certain mood, or to help with inhabiting a character’s mind. For scenes depicting dancers and musicians, I love the creative and melodious music of George Ruckert, sarod player/composer and longtime disciple of the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a true maestro. George Ruckert is the husband of my dance teacher, a professor, a mentor and a friend. His dedication to his art is inspiring, and so is having his music playing as I write. (He is also on the book trailer.) For energetic scenes, I enjoy the dynamic, celebratory qawwali (Sufi devotional) singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s hard to feel down when he sings. And for getting into the writing mood on a rainy day, I diverge to Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes. The simple beauty of the piano playing, stripped of any distractions, is meditative, and reminds me of the necessity of getting to the essence of the story and the characters.
The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing graduate studies in urban studies and civil engineering at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Additionally, she is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. In delving into the dance’s history, Anjali found in it, and in the dance itself, the seeds of a quartet of novels. Faint Promise of Rain is the first. Find Anjali on her website, Facebook, and on Twitter @AnjaliMDuva