I was shirtless and already feeling as white as I have ever felt when my tuila teacher, Kali Shankar Mahli, asked me to sing. I looked at Mukund with a face that I hoped conveyed my desperate desire to avoid this request, but he was no help. “I don’t know why he wants this,” he said with a shrug, and the lesson halted while the two men waited for me to sing a song from America.
We waited a long time. I felt the sort of crippling paralysis that must haunt anyone with bad stage fright. We waited and waited for minutes and minutes, and I scanned my brain for a song—just one song!—but no melodies came, only remnants of the folk song Kali had just performed. Finally, humming quietly to myself, I pieced together the chorus to Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” I faced the two men and sang the snippet of song, feeling absurd as I sat shirtless in a poverty-stricken community in Ranchi, singing the words, “Lay down your money and you’ll play your part…Everybody has a huuuuu-ungry heart.”
Kali listened with grave attention, and then he attempted to play the song on the tuila. He nodded at me, and I sang again, and he picked at the instrument. I sang and he tried some more. Finally, he shook his head. “He doesn’t like that song. You should sing another,” Mukund said.
I laughed at the absurdity of the situation, but before the crippling fear could return, I had a new melody in my head. Who knows what depths of memory produce answers when we are put on the spot. From some corner of my subconscious came a theme from Charles Ives’s Second Piano Sonata, the sweet angelic melody he based on the death-rattle of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and I sang that for the musician. This one was better. After listening only a few times, Kali played the melody, now transformed by the style of the tuila. If his points were to impress and humble, he certainly succeeded.
Kali Shankar Mali playing the tuila during a recording session.
Traditionally, the tuila is played in the summer months and during the rainy season. The reason, I was told, is that its plaintive sound evokes sad emotions in listeners, the same emotions brought about by the heat of summer and the rain that follows. In Indian music, it seems that emotion is paramount. Certain styles of song could not be performed in the wrong season because they would evoke the wrong emotion, though that practice has waned in recent years. To achieve the correct quality of sound, and thus the correct emotion, the tuila was also performed shirtless, a tradition that Kali and I followed during our lessons.
These were slow, difficult classes. I had come to Ranchi hoping to learn one or two songs, but I only ended up mastering the scale. Still, that achievement seemed to impress Kali and his brother Lalu. “You cannot learn this quickly,” Kali said, and he urged much practice and constant patience.
Just as I had hoped, the technique from the Cambodian kse diev transfers to the Indian tuila. The right hand plays harmonics, though on the tuila it plucks the string with the middle finger instead of the ring finger for the kse diev. The left hand dampens the string to change the pitch. The trick is to get both hands in exactly the right places, or else no tone will sound, and the places change on every instrument. This music is not mass-produced. Each instrument is crafted by hand, and just like handmade clothing, there are quirks and qualities individual to each one. Therefore, the right hand’s harmonic technique alone can take two or more weeks to learn. That produces three notes. I came with that technique already mastered, but combining the left and right hands takes at least another week, so my progress—playing seven notes after five days—was actually quick.
We spent most lessons running up and down the scale. Kali would play, slowly at first and then faster. Then he would pass the instrument to me, and I would practice and practice, passing it back to him when I tired of the repetition. In this way we passed hours. When I had it wrong, he would mutter “No, no, no, no, no,” and when I played well he would say, “Very good boy!” and give me a thumbs-up. When I studied with Lalu, he was even more emphatic, yelling “Yes my son!” and leaping up to give me a lengthy bear hug when I produced the desired sound. More than once he kissed me on the cheek.
I loved that the seriousness of the study was interspersed with moments of absurdity and humor. I also, despite only learning the scale, achieved what I had come for. I had come to establish a connection between the two instruments and their music, and when I first showed Mukund a picture of the Cambodian kse diev, he gasped. When I played him a recording, he said, “This sounds like the sam thing, just like the tuila!” Kali was even more insightful. Listening to a recording, he said, “This instrument has a metal string,” as opposed to the tuila’s, which is made of fabric, and of course he was correct. “If we put metal on the tuila, it would sound just like this,” he added. I have recorded tuila songs and have started notating them, and I will compare them with Cambodian wedding songs played on the kse diev. Studying from a video of Kali playing, I will learn at least one important tuila song, a tune traditionally performed for a baby’s birth and the melody Kali played after listening to the Cambodian song “Haom Roung” on the kse diev. He said the emotions of the songs matched.
From Left: Lalu Shankar, Jeff Dyer, Kali Shankar Mahli
I hope that I was not the only one to take lessons away from this interaction. I showed Kali pictures of Sok Duch, my Cambodian music teacher, performing the kse diev with his students. I also showed him a statue of Krom Ngoy, the legendary Cambodian poet and kse diev master, that the Cambodian government recently erected in Phnom Penh. “My state does not respect this instrument,” was his response. Earlier, he said that most classical Indian musicians have never even seen the tuila. It is our shared hope that both situations—disregard from the government and the classical music establishment—change. The car company Tata has recently supported Kali with a grant to teach the tuila to ten young students. At 500 rupees per lesson it isn’t much, but it is a start. Now, a foreigner has come to study his instrument. I can only hope that my lesson for him has sunk in, that he will play his instrument with the pride it deserves, and that—with support from near and far—he will pass his knowledge on to a new generation.