Dr. Ashwin Dalvi finished the conversation, put his phone away, and picked up right where we left off.
After awhile, he changed the topic, pointing to the picture of a young boy on his computer’s desktop. “This is my son,” he said with a smile, “And he likes to play the drums for his aggression.” Ashwin retrieved the phone from his pocket to show me a video of his son attacking a drum set, and we both laughed heartily.
“So, will you teach him music?” I asked.
“That depends on him. I already know he can play, and if he wants to, if it is in his heart, then I will teach him. But, I do not want to decide for him, to take him from his own path if he chooses a different way. So, right now I only observe him, to see his interests. That is the first step.”
I asked if that is a normal attitude for Indian parents, and he said no, that much is still determined by the caste system. The system has changed greatly in the past decade or so, but in Ashwin’s mind it hasn’t changed altogether. For example, if a father owns a shop and his son starts a business online, both still work in a type of business, in essentially the same caste. Progress has changed the dimension or the perspective of the caste but has not eliminated its existence. It may also be easier for a son to continue a parent’s work than to start over, spending his best years building up what could have been inherited from his parents. If you can follow the parents, he said, then you can have a head start.
From the left: Dr. Ashwin Dalvi, Jeff Dyer, and two men researching archaeology in Rajasthan
We sat in his office, a narrow space dominated by desk and computer, which lies adjacent to a recording studio and the spacious main room, on the second floor of his house in the Ram Nagar District of Jaipur, Rajasthan. Our conversation continued, veering from the British Empire to recent globalized changes and India’s multifaceted economy. Ashwin’s thoughts are insightful, and I could have stayed there for hours, asking questions and listening to his measured, thoughtful, and intellectual perspectives. But, I had come for my first sitar lesson and he had a student after me, so we changed to the music room and got started.
Teaching is not Dr. Dalvi’s main interest, and he actively attempts to minimize the time he teaches, limiting it to a few hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. His passion is research. In 2004, in addition to his work lecturing at two universities, he created a website he hoped would be helpful for researchers. In 2009, he professionalized the website and started the organization Nad Sadhna, an Institute for Indian Music & Research. The reason, he says, is that no such center existed. “The government is not very interested in giving money to a subject that does not give money back,” he laments.
So began Nad Sadhna, loosely translated as “Preserving the Eternal Sound,” with nad, “the eternal sound,” being a philosophical way that many Indian musicians refer to music. The center is an innovative space for anyone interested in Indian music, where ideas and materials are shared to further scholarship goals and interests. The organization and Dr. Dalvi’s website are what brought me there. I was interested in the jantar, a folk instrument played in Rajasthan that has potential connections with an ancient version of Cambodia’s kse diev. With Ashwin’s help, I learned about the jantar’s use by the Rajasthani Gurjar tribe to play devotional music for their deity, Dev Narayan Ji, as well as the jantar’s historical position as “the mother of the vina” and other Indian instruments. Through the sitar lessons, he helped me begin learning the foundations of classical Indian music.
The music lessons and especially the information about the jantar were extremely valuable. But, as with any research of this kind, it is the people who make the research possible who are just as important and provide unanticipated lessons that are just as valuable. Those people and their lessons are what remain with a traveler, signifying a place and its people, long after the journey is complete.
From Ashwin, much will remain. There is the lunch we shared, cooked by his mother and sister, and the long wandering conversations. Even more, there is his work, his devotion to the research center, and his willingness to aid anyone interested in Indian music and culture. From what I can tell, he is a new breed of Indian musician: a professional performer who pursues research, not for personal promotion but for the gratification that accompanies discovery and the promulgation of new ideas. “In India,” Ashwin reflected, “You must work for more than money. In India, you must work for pride.”