Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The essence of India

Photograph Steve McCurry

Having just returned from 2 weeks in this extraordinary country, I felt that a glimpse of its warmth, scents and colours would perhaps brighten some dark days. I first visited the subcontinent in 1963, touring round the world with my father. I was just 19, and the done thing was of course to go overland with a backpack, but I wasn’t going to turn my nose up to the offer of 2 months in Asia in comfortable hotels! The shock of discovery of another world, where a huge number of people lived with completely different standards and values than those I had grown up with, was one of the significant experiences of my life. I remember feeling with great clarity, on the streets of the holy city of Benares, “the West has lost its soul”.

Amidst the chaos of bullock carts, rickshaws, bicycles, goats, dogs and cows, the riot of colours and smells and the cacophony of truck horns, bells and assorted shouts, I somehow felt at home, and did not resist much when an eager shopkeeper draped me in a sari and exclaimed how well it suited me. Nearly twenty years later, I returned, not as a tourist, but as a pilgrim to the shrine of Meher Baba, the holy man who has given the King of Hearts its inspiration, its name, and the friendly face on its sign.


Photograph Steve McCurry

Since then, I have visited about a dozen times, and the feeling of belonging has remained. India is a country of paradoxes and contradictions, symbolised by its constant contrasts: in the streets of the bazaar, the stench of rotting garbage is suddenly replaced by heavenly fragrances of sandalwood and frangipani; religion is expressed by frozen superstitious rituals and fanaticism as well as refined scholarship, sublime poetry or deep devotion. Deep spirituality and rampant corruption rub shoulders everywhere.

Even though Western influence is rapidly transforming the cities, in rural areas there is still a sense of timelessness and grace; women wear the sari and carry great brass pots on their heads with elegant poise, and the men, slight and dark, greet you with a hand on their heart or joined hands with the traditional “Namaskar”. The site where Meher Baba is buried is a hill on the Deccan plateau, from which the view extends in every direction. A sense of peace pervades the immense space, in spite of the many noises, whistle of a steam train, bird calls of all kinds, shouts of children playing cricket, and tooting horns. Diesel trucks, lavishly decorated in bright colours and tinsel streamers, rattle over the bumpy road producing clouds of smoke. “Horn Please” says the completely unnecessary inscription on the back.

Photograph Steve McCurry


At the bottom of the hill lies a small shrine with a charming story. It belongs to the cook of Queen Victoria, who, having served the Queen for many years, declared that he must now return home to serve God. The Queen accepted regretfully and gave him a purse of gold, which he threw in the river as soon as he arrived back in India, to adopt the life of an itinerant sadhu. He gathered quite a following and one day, led his disciples to a deserted, arid spot outside the city of Ahmednagar, and told them that this was where he should be buried. As they remonstrated, saying: “Master, how will we tend your shrine in this out of the way place”, he replied: “You don’t know what you are talking about. A very great master will come to live here, and the dust of his feet on my grave will be enough to honour it.” Some years later, in 1923, Meher Baba established his headquarters on that very spot, and the saint’s prophecy was realised. Such stories carry some of the essence of India, which remains under the current varnish of materialism, and I believe cannot be lost. Aude Gotto

This inspirational article was written by Aude Gotto. The wonderful music making at the King of Hearts in Norwich, and the beautiful harpsichords made by Alan Gotto have been featured several times On An Overgrown Path, and Aude Gotto is founder and Director & Artistic Manager of the King of Hearts, and her husband is Alan Gotto.

In March there are some very exciting things happening at the King of Hearts. On Saturday 25th March the Tudor building will host a display and demonstration by Alan Gotto of virginals, spinets, harpsichords, clavichords, and square pianos. Keyboard players are invited to bring their own music to try out the instruments.

And on the following day (Sunday 26th March at 11.00am) there is A Morning with Mr. Bach, with harpsichordist and actor Geoffrey Thomas playing and acting the great composer's music and life. Both events should be wonderful, more details from The King of Hearts web site.

Image credits - all from photographer Steve McCurry, his online gallery is unmissable. Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Messiaen stars in early music festival

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