Mother Home, Mother Om: On The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda

Alice Coltrane took me home. I have felt this way once before. It was when I watched the movie Awake! Yogananda was with me thus when my father passed away in November 2014, and now, days after I saw the pictures of my old childhood home being demolished without a trace, trees and rocks and all, I can only say that Swamini Turiyasangitananda came to tell me that Swami is home, and home is Swami, all over again.

There is music of place, and there is the place of music. For me, the former is easily ascribable to certain albums, perhaps even genres. The sounds of the American sixties, or even the California or San Francisco sixties to be precise, I associate with places and memories. They remind me of my teenage years in Hyderabad gazing at the sun set over Golconda fort. Back then, I imagined, longed even, for the places that had produced this music. Seemingly stuck in a slow and changeless Hyderabad, I dreamed of Golden Gate Park and the urgency of a spirit and a time commodified and passed on now to inspire future generations. In time, much to my own amazement (and gratitude), I actually landed in the city of Country Joe and the Fish. I thought of San Francisco and Hyderabad both as home. And yet, I never saw it coming at all. The music remained, but the place of my birth, my hometown, my home, all vanished under bulldozers and shopping malls.

The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda has won the admiration of music reviewers. For most music lovers, Alice Coltrane is familiar as the wife of John Coltrane, and as the critics have noted, the newly released songs mark the recognition of a long overlooked talent. Beyond that though, most of the commentary on the album so far has seemed rather limited in its comprehension of what hesitant observers vaguely call “Eastern spirituality.” Little has been said on the currently all important issues of exchange, appropriation, and most of all, of the ecstacies of singing the name of Rama (among other names). I note this limitation because somehow the immensity of this album cannot be appreciated without it. American arts and letters have gone cold-dead on Hinduism and Hindus despite all the yoga they can get (and then some with beer and stuff too), and while I do not wish to go too far into the ignorance of the way Hindu globalization has been appropriated, ignored, distorted and even demonized, we have to remember this to appreciate what Swamini Turiyasangeetananda is not.

Rama Gravity

The opening track Om Rama immerses you in its speedy universe instantly, but what is interesting is its detour through a slower Narayana chant in between. There is a pain in the voice that is seemingly not from the world of studios, minds, or intents. It reminded me somehow of the dark and cavernous prison cell high up the hill in Golconda fort where the great devotee of Rama known as Ramadasu was incarcerated by the King. In Ramadas kirtanas, known to most Telugu devotees and music lovers, we perceive a yearning for Rama that is both spiritual, but also immediately comprehensible to us today because of his life-story. We can imagine him alone in his prison, staring up at a small opening towards the sky, asking not even Rama but his wife the Goddess Sita, why she hasn’t told Rama to rescue him yet.

I do not know what cold dark prison might have surrounded the voice that chants in Om Rama; perhaps it was the loss of a loved one, or the pain of a body fighting its own failures, or maybe the history and the saga of being African and American. But somehow, the cause and nature of that pain, or rather its specificity, becomes secondary to the glory, the integrity of the voice that declares its attention to that pain, and at the same time, more importantly, to the redeemer of that pain and all pain that there still is, yours, mine, everyone’s. Om Rama.

The album though is more than an engagement with the sublime as merely an alternative to existential pain. It is centered in its chants (or bhajans, as the Sai cultural world that Alice Coltrane was part of might call it). But the music, for lack of a more incisive word, does accomplish something unique, compelling, and powerfully enchanting. The beautifully designed album notes contain a fascinating recollection by Alice Coltrane’s daughter “Sita” Michelle (among others) that reveals the intriguing way in which her mother took to the world of synthesizers to transform the bhajan experience at their ashram near Los Angeles. There is a frequent feeling of being around spaceship engines (of the imaginary sci-fi imagined kind, granted) powering up and accelerating us into a cosmic space of endless exploration (and occasionally and almost playfully powering-down too), even as we are invited into the simple but profound four-syllable chant of Rama Guru-Krishna Guru.

Unlike most traditional Indian bhajans where Rama and Krishna evoke images of the everyday Rama and Krishna, smiling kings or mischievous children, their evocation in this album is unique and for lack of a better word, I will say only cosmological. I had to think of their names as gravitational invocations to abiding principles the body and soul know and yearn for passionately while the rest of us float on adrift in a black night sky of aimless existence. It’s far out, yes.

Journey’s End, Journeys Home

There are also two songs which seem quite different from the usual world of Indian bhajan singing. Er Ra has Alice Coltrane evoking a world of Egyptian devotional mythology that takes place in a very different soundscape of strings, while Journey to Satchidanda honors her guru with a deep, sweet, anthem full of slow grandeur (and some Tamil lyrics too). The last song on the album, Keshava Murahara, is appropriately intense and measured, and at the end of it, there is indeed a sense of fulfillment, albeit complicated with a tinge of hope and petty wanting that there are perhaps more such treasures in the world of wonderful beings Alice Coltrane seems to have lived with in the Sai Anantam ashram, singing songs of great purpose indeed, for all of us.

The journey (to Sat-chit-ananda, to home, to our natural end and destiny, truth-existence-ecstasy) each of us will make with this album will of course be one’s own, and remain rooted in who we are and where we are and our own lives and thoughts. For me, the clean cut with mundaneness and thoughts of a reality that has proven to be rather unfortunate no matter how I view it was a welcome experience. But, to return to some of the questions I felt some of the commentary on this album has failed to address, but one of growing importance to many Hindus in America and in India: how do we reason out the place of this utterly beautiful and transformational musical work within our understanding of the forces of politics we are caught up in? What is the relationship between your “new age” and my old heritage, or of places within the web of what is called “world music”?

I will admit that one of the things that endeared me to this album and to the lives of the ashram that produced this album is the connection to Sri Sathya Sai Baba, not only because I revere him as my family’s guru and refuge, but also because it marks very tangibly the travel of the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary visions (“anubhavas” is the word I really prefer here) affecting each other profoundly with insight, wisdom, kindness, and oh that deceptively simplistic word the literary jet set can’t handle except as irony, which is Love. The album photo of Alice Coltrane in a sacred saffron sari walking down the road in an Indian village (which I guessed correctly was Puttaparthi) somehow seemed very different to me than most hybrid images of East-West cultural and spiritual borrowing.

American Satsang

As someone whose engagement with Indian devotional culture has been both traditional and through the detour of the West, I cannot notice where we all stand in relation to each other today. I appreciate my Beatles, and Kula Shaker, and more recently, Jai Uttal and Krishna Das, and salute all those who make music for Krishna, whatever else one might call Him too. But there is an interesting thing going on in the world. I remember Krishna Das rocking the hall off with his opening song in San Rafael a couple of years ago, and then asking the audience if they knew who they guy they had been singing about was (Rama). My cultural detective apparatus was on alert, but he was honest and disarming about it by saying he didn’t know either, saying His name just made him happy. I respected that attitude. The names of God are indeed mysteries and reflect ultimately the love and reverence with which we approach them, indeed, imbibe them. But there’s also the fact that Rama is increasingly caught up with postmodern iconoclasts, tatva-trashers and beauty-smashers all, who have no clue what they are doing in what they see as the culture wars. Lunatics are in the guise of experts on Hinduism. Ganesha is on slippers and underwear. The Om is on doormats at American yoga studios. Authorities on Yoga tell us it has nothing to do with Hinduism. We live in a bewildering world.

I do not know much more than the stories in the album booklet about the world of Alice Coltrane’s ashram. But I offer all my gratitude, respect and love for its people who brought me closer to my Swami, my home, and indeed, my hopes and dreams for finding and being myself, for being at home again in this new land that I have now perhaps finally accepted as such since my old one is gone. It was poignant to read about the uncertainty that hangs over the future of the Sai Anantam ashram, and I hope all will be well for all in an age when even the endless seems helpless before the ruthlessness of our time.

I do not know what Swamini Turiyasangitananda meant to all who knew her, but I saw a bit of my Swami in her through the experience of this album, and I adore and worship all that she and her family and friends have preserved and passed on now to the world. I was moved intently in particular by a picture of her in the last pages of the booklet, by her seemingly primordial presence and smiling face. I do not know if it’s my own heated imagination from the prehistoric-era novel I am trying to write, but I felt her presence as one ancient brotherhood undivided between what is now Africa and what is now long drifted off India. When she says “Narayana,” it is not hard to imagine that sound having been there for all time, from the beginning of all things, old and big as the sky, old and just there still despite the inadequacy of the names we give to things like Jwalapuram and Olduvai.

I laugh at the weak cliché that the well-meaning slogan that “we are all migrants” has become. We are all home, that’s all. Mother home. Mother Om.

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