| Carolyn on the harmonium
Varanasi, July 9: A veil of rain mists the horizon in Varanasi’s Samne Ghat, deserted but for a few boats adrift in the Ganga that curves wide eastwards towards Bihar, its stillness broken only by the faint strains of devotional songs.
As one nears the Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ram Bal Ashram perched on an erosion-pocked bank, the songs grow louder.
Sitting on a designer stone mandap that overlooks the river, a blonde woman chants in chaste Bhojpuri: “Nimiya ki daliya, navia devi ne jhuluwa…(the goddess swings on a neem branch during Navratri).”
A cluster of children sits with folded hands around the singing sanyasin and a couple of foreigners sway to the rhythm as Carolyn’s fingers fly over the harmonium keys.
Rechristened Shivani three months ago, the 36-year-old IT consultant from Massachusetts is seeking salvation in Indian devotional music to tide over the infotech blues gripping techies in the land of microchips.
A former software consultant with Silicon Valley’s KPMG LLP, a member of KPMG International, a Swiss cooperative, Carolyn has picked up from where late George Harrison of the Beatles and Madonna, in recent months, have left off.
The use of “Om” in western music — popularised by the pop diva — has apparently inspired Carolyn to master the rustic Devi geets (songs of the goddess) of Bhojpur (in Bihar) and Uttar Pradesh. Also on her list of accomplishments are Hanuman Chalisa, the Ramayana, Shivakastham or hymns of Shiva, and Durga Thup Stati or songs that eulogise the goddess.
Next on Carolyn’s agenda are the bhajans of Kabir and Meera. “I would love to become a full-time bhajan singer if god is willing. It feels wonderful to sing songs in praise of Lord Ram, Hanuman and Shiva. The words are so profound and the folk tunes so lilting.”
She is training in Indian classical and devotional music under Pandit Anandji, a post-graduate student of shastriya sangeet from Benaras Hindu University.
The locals are impressed with her bhajan prowess. “Her voice is such that it touches all and her Bhojpuri and Sanskrit diction is flawless. She picks up very fast,’’ ashram mahant Virendra Narayan said. She was congratulated by the Uttar Pradesh director-general of police and several state ministers after they heard her sing at a religious gathering last month.
The ashrams and the temples dotting the riverbank are abuzz with praise for her talent and dedication. “She is really good,” said Baba Akhilesh Narayan, a French-speaking Indian sadhu, at Dashaswamedh Ghat.
For Carolyn, music is peace. “The pleasure derived from singing devotional songs is beyond words. No amount of money or success in the infotech industry can match that,” says the software expert who has no plans to return to work nearly three years after she left it.
Aghore Harihar Ram, the California-based founder of the ashram, is intent on using her musical talent to “reconnect technocrats from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in Silicon Valley to the indigenous folk culture”.
The ashram is headquartered in Sonoma Valley, barely 50 km from the Silicon Valley in California. It has branches in Italy and Bali, and over 140 chapters in India.
Virendra Narayan said Carolyn’s music is “hugely popular among the Indian professionals in Silicon Valley and the bulk of the ashram’s 5,000 members and donors are from the infotech and allied industries”. She is also fast becoming a role model for the younger generation. Will Anderson, an 18-year-old high-school student from the US, is on an extended holiday at the ashram to learn the ropes of “devotional music”.