For Ramatara, her first visit to India was an overwhelming experience. As part of her Yoga course, a batch of students went to India for three weeks. For most of them, it was their first visit to India. They visited ashrams and temples.
Ramatara’s travel was not a smooth ride. She fell sick on the second day in India after a bath in Benares. Although she was sick, she said, “The trip was purifying at both physical and spiritual level. Mentally I was really peaceful but physically completely devastated. The contrast was already a breakthrough.” She made sure that she attended every single ritual and Satsang. She was mesmerised by the devotion in the chants that filled the air. “I was resonating deeply with the devotional vibes you can find at every corner road of India”, she said.
She visited Chinmaya Mission, Mumbai, to film a documentary on Indian spirituality. She landed in Mumbai a week before Shivaratri and the ashram was celebrating a week filled with rituals, offerings to the fire, flowers ceremonies to Shiva, Vedic chanting and 108 repetitions of mantras associated with Shiva.
“The spiritual discourses were all in Sanskrit or Hindi but still I would attend them even if I did not understand a single word. And yet after every discourse I had this feeling that I had grasp something but could not explain it. After years I can now say that these Sanskrit words were deeply resonating opening the way to deeper but later understanding,” Ramatara told CSP.
Every year she visited India, she would be eager to delve into the devotional atmosphere of temples and ashrams. She always felt at home.
A Yoga instructor, she brings together her expertise in Yoga and Music. Her association with India began in 2008 when she joined a Yoga school in France whose aim was to introduce people, interested in Indian spirituality, to the different branches of Yoga in a broader sense than just the Asanas. During her four years of training, she practised hatha yoga, meditation, kirtans (chanting of mantras with harmonium), studying the main texts of authorities such as Patanjali Yoga sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Shiva Sutra and other Vedanta scriptures.
A celebration of Indian classical music festival with spiritual teachings was conducted in France regularly and many spiritual teachers from India would visit. Through these programmes, Ramatara and her friends came in contact with many teachers (who have lived with great masters of the past century) and were on their own path now. Via this association, she acquired knowledge of both the spiritual and cultural aspects of India. In this process, she was undergoing a transformative process herself.
How long have you been learning Vedic chanting and how has it impacted your life ?
The week in Chinmaya mission ashram was my initial introduction to Vedic chanting. I learnt a few introductory Vedic mantras. I thought the learning of longer chants was reserved to priest or native Indian and she would not be taught those mantras.
I began attending Upanishads spiritual camps in India and in France. Every time I became familiar with the meaning of the Upanishads, I was struggling to chant them along with the other participants who were mainly Indians. I was convinced that if I wanted to go deeper, I would have to learn Sanskrit first.
But that was not really an option since life brought me a loving husband and child and I could not spend as much time as I wanted to travel and commit to learn the language.
However recently, two years ago, that Vedic chanting became part of my daily practice. I met a western student of Krishnamacharya in India who was giving an introduction course to Vedic chanting and a few months later while I was looking for a way to dive more into this practice, I found Shantala Sriramaiah’s website- Veda Studies. I wrote her asking If I could join her course and I was really surprised how accessible and efficient her way of transmission was. She incarnates the legacy of her Gurus, the authenticity of the tradition with immense devotion and dedication while providing a western like framework for studies. It is surely a matter of regular practice but also a matter of trust in the process of repeating over and over until the chant really gets into your system. When I chant my mind completely dive into the repetition, it is like shewing a candy, the more you practice the more you want it again and again until you are so filled with the taste that you can rest in silence and peace.
What Indian instruments do you play? How did you develop an interest in Indian classical music?
After the first Yoga course I attended, I was really puzzled whether all these Indian teachings (intellectual, physical or devotional) were relevant to me. Since I had no religious or philosophical background, my mind was open but also rational and doubtful. The first experience with kirtan was “hmm..interesting but…” and I was still not sure.
But when I attended my first Indian classical music concert of santur and table, it completely took me over. The first notes uttered with santur touched me so deep that I burst into tears. I had the feeling my heart would explode since the music was so powerful. I was scared that I had no control on that overpowering experience and no reference to explain it yet.
Following this encounter with Indian music, I stopped looking for an engineering related job and signed up for a job in the Yoga centre where I was already studying. I had just finished my engineering studies and I had no idea at that time how this encounter with Indian spirituality would completely change the way I perceive the world today and live my life.
First, I began chanting kirtans with harmonium. It was a way to connect to the spiritual linage I was discovering and resonating with. Then I learnt to tune and chant with Tampura.
Over the years, I had the opportunity to listen to few really good Indian classical musicians like Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Barun Kumar Pal, Nayan Ghosh and also some westerners that spent their entire life learning under great Indian masters.
This devotional dimension was a very important part of my personality. My scientific mind was hindering me from relating to Indian deities but very soon, I could not make myself doubt the deep feeling I had while listening to the music. The aspiration was emerging from deep inside through the contagious devotion shared by musicians and teachers.
So music and chanting became Yoga to me, a medium through which I can relate to the divine. And the first and foremost instrument available for us is really our voice.
Have you had prior knowledge to French classical music? If yes, how did you find the transition from French to Indian classical music?
When I was a child, I was trained in western classical music. I was spending most of my time out of school or singing or rehearsing my piano lectures and pieces of orchestra. After ten years of constant practice, I met the expectations of my teachers and took part in musical competition.
Until one day I happened to meet some autodidact pianist and that day was a revelation. It became obvious when I heard him play that music had nothing to do with technicality. Of course you need technical skills, but I could see how much music was making him alive, how his hands were following his direction without a thought. It was heart-breaking breakthrough that I had no deep connection with the music I was playing. This day was so strong that I completely stopped my music training and even closed for a while the board of my piano and went on with my academic studies.
It is only after my higher education that this connection with deeper aspects of music struck me and that the whole journey from western music to Indian classical music began. It was a complete shift of perspective that progressively took place going from mind to the heart. Music, chanting, studying of the scriptures and being in the company of sages was the way. I had no word or form to match my aspiration but at some point, it became natural to relate to Indian figures should they be Gurus, murtis or ragas (musical modes) knowing they were just outer forms or vibrant forms of some inner reality and cosmic forces present in every single being.
Singing was reconciling the dichotomy I was experiencing between heart and intellect. It brought perfect balance between the intellectual approach of jnana yoga (path of knowledge) I was more familiar with and bhakti yoga (path of devotion).
In my sadhana, while Jnana opens space for more clarity and understanding, bhakti gives sweetness to it.
Can you tell us more about Vocal Yoga? How has Indian classical music and Vedic chanting supported it? Do you also apply French classical music to Vocal Yoga?
Vocal Yoga is a combination of Dhrupad and Vedic mantras. It uses composition based on ragas which includes Sanskrit mantras or poems. Although it isn’t something new it is something that is more accessible to our everyday life. This approach has been beautifully made accessible by two French Yogis and Dhrupad singers, Nathalie Nichanian and Adam S. Callejon. Through this method, you can get a glimpse of the beauty of Indian classical music.
The aim of vocal Yoga is to not become a musician but to connect to the power of the vibration and to drive you towards your deeper self through music, sounds and mantras. My teacher always says that what he only wants is “to become a virtuoso of silence”. And that is the effect of this practice, it drives you directly to your inner peace, silence and joy. It arouses deep devotion and feelings.
I have never experienced such profound states through French classical music. But I can clearly see what my upbringing in French classical music gave me that I was able to absorb with more ease the basis of Indian music. But the beauty of Indian music lies in all its subtle aspects, the music between the notes, the feelings, being transcended by and through the music and this path is not an easy one to access.
Both vocal Yoga and Vedic chanting practices brings different qualities for a Sadhaka. While vocal Yoga makes you experience different spiritual moods and ultimately the non-dual silence of your inner self, Vedic chanting give you endurance, clarity, acumen and delight of Sanskrit language. Vedic chanting also connects you directly to the difference cosmic and inner forces. Both music and chanting are the expression of the divine speaking is own symphony through mantras and sounds.
When you conduct workshops, how is the outreach? How interested are people in learning Indian chanting and music?
Indian chanting and music is universal. It is the expression of the soul- of the divine dimension of the being. It speaks directly to the heart of people coming from different background, upbringing, or age. But it also needs some preparation to be able to receive it and appreciates its beauty.
Even in India the spiritual dimension of the classical music is sometimes covered under technicality and virtuosity; from being offered in temple to the divine to Maharajas and their court to a larger audience in spectacular shows.
In France, there are two movements. There is a huge interest in Yoga for mantra chanting (although a few years ago it was considered too esoteric). Thanks to a few westerners who incorporated mantras in western music, there is growing interest in kirtans. Also westerners trained in Indian classical music are now integrating mantras in their practice, like in vocal Yoga. The bridge between the two worlds that didn’t exist for so long is now built. Experiencing the effect of chanting, the participants are more inclined to go deeper to look into the roots of the tradition.
People attend workshops for different reasons, some because they have always wanted to chant but did not have a chance, some because they heard mantras and they want to experience the joy and peace, some because they heard about the healing power of sounds.
What were the challenges you faced when you started to learn to chant?
Since I was little, I have been chanting. At some point, the main challenges I faced while learning mantras and music was really to stop chanting. The music or the mantras are with me even when I sleep and shower. My voices gets tired and so is my family of hearing me always uttering mantra.
Apart from my husband and child who are supportive, those around me were always looking for an outcome or a purpose in me learning Indian disciplines. In our modern society you always need a goal in life. Whatever you undertake it is surely for a purpose and people could not conceive the thought that I was answering an inner invisible call.
While western culture is turned towards “having” or “getting” or “becoming”, Indian tradition is about “being” and it brings a completely different perspective of life.
We are so lucky these days to be able to meet all these great Indian teachers who share a deep and profound knowledge, directly in Europe and who even adapt the way of transmission to our western mindset. Outwardly it is as if we adopt a system but inwardly it is just pure joy, deep gratitude and reverence to them and it is truly us who have adopted and are taken care of by the universe.