Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Part 1 - Practice makes one perfect and attracts God's grace - Ashwath Narayan's experience with Sathya Sai

Day: 1st November, 2009
Venue: The Brabourne Cricket stadium, Mumbai
Time: 6:10 pm

Thousands of people had gathered in the stadium to have a glimpse of their ‘Swami’ who was visiting Mumbai after a decade. Dharmakshetra, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s abode in Mumbai (at Andheri) had long ceased to have sufficient space to accommodate the thronging thousands who wished to have his darshan. Thus, the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organizations, Maharashtra, had organized different programmes at different large venues around Mumbai. In this way, everyone could get the opportunity of seeing Him once at least during the 2-day visit. The event at Brabourne stadium - a concert by Santoor maestro Rahul Sharma - was meant to be a grand finale before the curtains came down on the Mumbai visit.

Ashwath Narayan sat on the carpeted stadium lawns with the other members of the entourage which had accompanied Swami, first to Hadshi and from there to Mumbai. Almost all the members of the entourage were singers and musicians. They were naturally excited to be here. But it was not because of the prospects of hearing a maestro play the Santoor! It was because of an instruction that Swami had privately given them the day before.
“Get ready with songs. You will be performing tomorrow in the cricket stadium.”
They were possibly the only people other than Swami who knew that there would be no Santoor concert that day.

Bhagawan Baba arrived to the stadium and ascended the huge stage that had been erected. After the opening formalities, the announcement was made which simultaneously surprised and thrilled the audience - the evening programme would be by the students and staff from Puttaparthi. Ashwath stiffened and readied himself. He was scheduled to sing a complicated Carnatic song, Shiva Shankari.

As they had lined up in front of Swami to take padanamaskar before the programme, Swami exchanged a meaningful glance Ashwath.
“Ready”, he asked.
“Yes Swami. You must only sing through all of us...”
Swami seemed satisfied. The programme began with a couple of bhajans and an opening song by the magical Ravikumar. There was a happy applause. That was when Swami turned to Ashwath and gave a slight nod. The microphone was thus placed before him. Offering a mental prostration at Swami’s feet and closing his eyes, Ashwath began.

The initial Alaap itself muted the audience into spellbound admiration. Very soon, Ashwath was exploring the various highs and lows of the song which is set in Raag Darbari. The highlight of the song originally sung by the legendary Ghantasala, is a rapid-fire sequence of notes towards the end. This day, Ashwath managed to sing it sang it one and a half times faster than Ghantasala himself! He also sang it half a note higher than the legend and added many more gamaks (turnings), khadkas and murkis than the original singer!

{I consider myself very privileged to have been witness to the magic weaved that day by Ashwath Narayan. And in order to appease the curious reader’s hunger for that unforgettable rendering, I offer to you, that song for which I have placed a few photos that I shot that day as visuals. In the photos you can also see the maestro Rahul Sharma seated behind Swami’s chair.}

The Live audio recording with a collage of pictures from
that memorable day at Brabourne stadium.

In fact, when the song had been rendered, it took a few moments for people to wake up from their joyous stupor and offer a huge round of applause. Swami turned and looked at Ashwath. Was there a tear in the divine eyes? The face seemed puffed in joyous pride at what His boy had done. The hand went up a bit in silent blessing and benediction. Once again, His boy had become one with Him as he had allowed the magical notes to flow out through his voice.

Though people who know him look up to him like a celestial angel who has descended from the heavens with a divine voice, Ashwath himself is very humble about his abilities.
“It is only Swami’s grace and nothing else”, he smiles.

The story of Swami’s grace crowning the rigorous effort of an individual, Ashwath’s story, is sure to inspire and enthuse every reader.

The beginnings

Ashwath's grandmother welcoming Swami into
their house in East Prasanthi. His grandfather
clicked this photo. 
Ashwath Narayan’s family knew and worshipped Swami for several decades before he was born. Mr. Ambareesh, his paternal grandfather, had been given a permanent residence in the Prasanthi Nilayam ashram by Swami himself. So, the grandparents lived in the top storey of the East Prasanthi building, overlooking Swami’s mandir in the 1960s. Those were days of great physical proximity to Swami and Swami had even visited their home, blessing them as they partook coffee and snacks!

Ashwath’s maternal grandparents were no less blessed. Though not frequent visitors to Puttaparthi, they made it a point to have darshan and seek blessings whenever Swami visited Madras (Chennai). In the 1960s, such visits were frequent and the grandparents had many experiences. One of them evokes goosebumps. Those days, Swami used to stay at the Abbotsbury bungalow. (He later sold it to Magunta Subbarami Reddy, the founder of Balaji group of hotels who, in collaboration with the Oberoi Group, has got it converted into the five star Hyatt Regency Chennai according to The Hindu article). Ashwath’s grandfather had the opportunity to garland Swami once. On that memorable day, instead of the petite frame of the Sathya Sai, he had the darshan of the massive and magnificent frame of Lord Narasimha! The vision was made more special by the fact that the family deity was Lord Narasimha at Sholinghur.

Ashwath’s parents grew up revering the picture of Swami along with the idols of other gods and goddesses in their respective altars. Ashwath was thus blessed to be a ‘devotee from birth’.

The Sholinghur Lakshmi Narasimhaswami temple atop a hill. 
The Lord Narasimha (left) and his consort Goddess Lakshmi (right) at Sholinghur. 
Music and Swami

Ashwath met his music teacher much before he met Swami. That was because, at an early age his father spotted his musical talent. The kid had the ability to render even nursery rhymes as beautiful songs. He would memorise the title tunes of popular serials and shows and reproduce it to the delight of the guests at home. Added to that, the family was living in Thripunnitura in Kerala, where every house resonated with classical music of some kind. It was only a matter of time before Ashwath was enrolled under an able Guru, Mrs. Lalitha, the principal of the music college there, to begin training in Carnatic vocal music.

Throughout the school days, Ashwath was a singing star, winning several prizes in several competitions. He became a regular at cultural fests and programmes. By the time he reached 10th grade, he had won the third place in a state level competition also. While all this happened, Ashwath saw Swami only in the confines of his altar at home. Of course he had fond memories of his first darshan in Brindavan in 1995. But that was about it. Most of his holidays were spent in music alone.

His success in music sprouted in him the desire to sing before his God - his Swami. This was indeed a blessing because success often spurs people to seek greater success in the world. The desire for such success never dies and, more often than not, leads man away from God. However, Ashwath’s desire led him to God. He applied for the 11th grade in the Sri Sathya Sai Higher Secondary School.
“Your marks in Mathematics makes it difficult to give you a seat in the MPC (Maths, Physics, Chemistry) stream. However, you can take BPC (Biology instead of Maths) instead...”
Ashwath grabbed the opportunity with both hands because whether he did MPC or BPC did not matter for his singing in front of Swami.

Becoming a singer of the Prasanthi Bhajan Group

When a child is ready, the parent starts it on its journey of education. When the soul is ready, God starts it on its journey of Educare. While education focuses on stuffing the child with things from outside, Educare focuses on eliciting what is within each one. The long journey towards ultimate perfection was about to begin for Ashwath with Swami as the Divine Parent and the Divine Teacher.

The 23rd of July 2000 was a special day for Ashwath’s parents - it was their wedding anniversary. It became more special when Ashwath got his first ever opportunity to sing in Swami’s presence. It happened during a private session with all the students in the Poornachandra Auditorium. Though trained in Carnatic classical music, Ashwath had chosen to sing a Hindustani song - Raghuvar Tumko Meri Laaj - a kirtan of Goswami Tulsidas. There was a prevalent belief that a Carnatic classical singer would find it difficult to get into the Bhajan group because singing a variety of bhajans demanded a kind of versatility which a singer of pure Carnatic classical might not be able to offer. Of course, there are multiple flaws in that belief but Ashwath did not want to take any chances of not making into the hallowed group.

A photograph from one of the Poornachandra sessions (or PC sessions as they were called). It was a private session
where only the staff and students would be with Swami in the auditorium. 

Swami did not seem mightily impressed with Ashwath’s singing but Ashwath got his first ever padanamaskar. It was such a wonderful feeling to touch those tender Divine feet that Ashwath wanted to be at Swami’s feet for ever.
“Don’t sleep there boy...”
Ashwath looked up at the stern face of Swami.
“Swami, you please sing through me always...”
Swami nodded, blessing him. After that, Ashwath returned to his place.

It was his teacher and the Bhajan Group coordinator, Sri Sailesh Srivastava, who gave him some of the best advice of his life.  
“Practice daily and practice hard.”
Mere singing of a Hindustani classical song in technical correctness wasn’t sufficient to become Swami’s singer, Ashwath realized.

Sailesh's sir's advice was a mantra indeed - Practice daily and practice hard. It emphasised the perseverance and intensity that one needed to get into the Bhajan Group. Ashwath was prepared to put in that effort. Within a month itself, he had put in more than a hundred hours of practice. That was promptly rewarded when, in August, Swami gave Ashwath the explicit permission to sing bhajans during the mandir sessions in His presence. With ‘Govinda Krishna Vitthale’ Ashwath became one of the very few singers of the Prasanthi Bhajan Group who had made it while still in school. (Almost all Prasanthi Bhajan Group members were from the University.)

A high point

One of the wonderful traits in Ashwath was that he didn’t stop practicing after having achieved his goal. He knew that it was Swami’s blessings that had given him the honour of singing in His presence when he was still in school. But he knew that God’s blessings flow on those who put in efforts. It was practice that had brought him so far; it would be practice that would keep him going too.  

The academic year was nearing its end. It was February of 2002 and Ashwath would be completing Grade XII and applying for a University seat in a couple of months. The outgoing students put up a gratitude programme in Bhagawan’s presence in the Sai Kulwant Hall. (Wish to know what a gratitude programme is? Maybe you could read this account of the 2013 gratitude programme to get an idea...) Swami seemed so moved by the programme that he called the school warden and conveyed a joyous news - that He would be visiting the school boys hostel the next morning! He also said that He would treat all the boys to a feast for lunch!

It was a memorable morning for the students of the School Boys' hostel as Swami entered the hostel and sat
on the Jhoola that had been specially decked for Him.

\hus, on the 26th of February, Bhagawan Baba walked into the school boys’ hostel. It was a memorable day for everyone, especially Ashwath. Swami sat on a swing that the boys had lovingly decorated and placed next to the altar in the prayer cum dining hall. The singers of the hostel sat opposite to the swinging Jhoola, singing out to their Lord. Looking at Ashwath, Swami materialized some vibhuti and gave it to him as Prasadam even before he could sing. That was such a joyous moment for Ashwath and it reflected in his singing. As he sang Pibare Rama Rasam, exhorting everyone to drink deep into the nectarous name of Rama, Swami seemed to be drinking deeply into Ashwath’s heartfelt feelings. He was so satisfied with that song that He didn’t seem to want to hear any more songs after that. He looked at Ashwath once again and smilingly said,
“Now, Pibare tomato rasam.”
Everyone laughed as they understood that Swami was referring to the South Indian tomato soup (rasam) that had been prepared for lunch!

That evening, during the darshan, Swami beckoned to Ashwath. He then told Prof. Anil Kumar who was seated nearby,
“This boy sang very well yesterday. He sang Pibare Rama Rasam in classical style.”

A few days later, Sailesh sir revealed something to Ashwath.
“Do you remember the day when you sang that song during the Poornachandra session?”
“Yes sir... how can I forget...”
“Well, that day, Swami looked around and gently asked, ‘Who is the fool who gave that boy a chance to sing?’ I was scolded for that! But now, Swami is happy with you.”

Swami was happy with Ashwath. It was evident on the day He visited the school hostel and, even before Ashwath could sing,
blessed him with vibhuti. The vibhuti can be seen in Ashwath's palm.
It was a dream come true for Ashwath. From asking which fool had allowed him to sing, Swami had not publicly commended him for his classical performance. That would sustain him in the next 3 years when he would study in the Brindavan campus of the University (Bangalore) where one would be physically far away from Swami. But Ashwath decided that he would utilize the days of physical separation to practice even harder to sing for his Swami.

to be continued in Part 2 which is at the link below:

For all the readers:

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  1. Beautiful one brother..That effort is indeed felt while listening to his Shiva Shankari .amazing..looking forward for the next..

  2. Ah... yet another narration... thank you brother Aravind... eagerly waiting for 26th Aug...

  3. Divine lord and his leelas are to be cherished for ever, ever, and ever. I am just a human who am I to judge it. Jai ho baghwaan Sri Satyha Sai Babaji Killed.

    1. There is a typo… "Jai" has come as "led". Autocorrect maybe? :)

  4. Sairam Aravind.....now waiting for the next part of the narrative from SWAMI through your pen........:-)

  5. Thanku aravind anna sairam....

  6. It was beautiful whenever we hear swamis students singing it feels as if the lyrics and music beautifully blended are flowing out like water

  7. Sai Ram Aravind,

    What a beautiful divine experience. Soul stirring rendition. More importantly, your blog brought Swami to me thousands of miles away.

    Many thanks.

    Loving bregards

  8. Awesome. Great narration Arvind as always.

  9. Om Sri Sai Ram.
    Beautiful feeling after reading the article. Waiting for part two.

  10. Blessed is Ashwath brother and Swami' grace is proportional to the very hard practice that he does. Thanks for sharing. JaiSaiRam

  11. Sairam! Pl continue doing the good work......


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