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iIn Search of Serendipity

In Search of Serendipity will be published by Fand Music Press.

See also The First Five Days, a sample of the original journal notes.

In Search of Serendipity

Between late 1984 and 1985 Carey took what he called a ‘sabbatical sojourn’ to Sri Lanka and India, during which he kept meticulous notes in a travel journal. This opus became known as In Search of Serendipity, and is currently in preparation for publication by Fand Music Press.

Carey condensed parts of his journal into two articles that appeared in issues 87 and 88 of Composer magazine in 1986, extracts from which are presented below. For a taster of the journal itself, which features much more informal jottings, see The First Five Days.

Serendipity Articles (Extracts)

Article 1: Sri Lanka

From mid-December 1984 to the end of May 1985 I was out East, spending three months in Sri Lanka and two-and-a-half months in Southern India. I was on a self-given and modestly self-financed sabbatical, after 21 years of commitments to the teaching and publishing worlds. I had long had a fascination for all things eastern, and when the opportunity arose for me to get away from it all for a short time, I took it.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is called by the Arabs “The Island of Serendib”, from which we get the word “serendipity”, or the making of happy discoveries by chance. I was to find this a very apt name. I had originally planned to visit India only, going first to Bombay, then across India to Madras, and then to the old French colonial town of Pondicherry, 80 miles south of Madras, to stay as a guest of the Sri Aurobindo Society, observing the life and work of their world-famous ashram. But fate decreed otherwise. Following the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, and then the terrible tragedy at Bhopal, there were interminable delays over my long-stay visa. I had applied for this in mid-August 1984, and when by the start of December nothing had come through, in some desperation, as time was running out, I went to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to await the Indian visa there. Such was the lure of the Island (known also to the Arabs as “The Garden of Eden”) that I was unable to tear myself away from it until the beginning of March.

Bamboo pipe playerI stayed two months in the house of Dr Sripal Tilak Gunewardene in Carlwil Place, one of the many lanes running down to the sea from the very long and very busy Galle Road, Colombo’s most important highway which runs parallel and very close to the coast for many miles. Here I was able to make my first ‘actuality’ recording, on Christmas Day, 1984. I was invited to join the doctor and his family for Christmas lunch, and it so happened that I – a sudu or whiteman – was the only person visible across the garden from the lane. An itinerant street musician [right], playing a bamboo pipe extremely well, spotted me and began an instant recital for my benefit. He was stopped and asked to return an hour or so later, when lunch would be finished. This he did, and I was able to record his playing. The bamboo pipe was about 8" long, and played transversely, like a Western flute; it had six finger holes. I managed to acquire one of these little flutes or pipes as a souvenir later in my stay, but as it was bought from a street-vendor for just 1 rupee (about 3p) I suspect it is merely tourist fodder; at any rate, no-one has got very much out of it to date, although I have yet to ask a professional flautist to try it.

Later in my stay at Carlwil Place I recorded a beggar woman and her 10-year-old son singing three Buddhist hymns in unison. The woman accompanied herself with a primitive percussion instrument made from a stick and a tin can. String passed through a hole drilled in the bottom of the can was affixed very tautly to the stick at each end. In the bottom of the can were a few pebbles. By plucking the taut string with her thumb, the woman was able to mark each strong beat with a percussive twang. Like the bamboo pipe music, the mode of these hymns was minor.

I had made contact with the British Council in Colombo as soon as I arrived, and it was due to them, I suspect, that my standing at 9 Carlwil Place rose meteorically on 6th January 1985, when an article appeared in the prestigious English-language newspaper, the Sunday Observer (“In town presently is Carey Blyton, composer, nonsense poet, children’s author and short story writer…”). It was a very pleasant surprise, but it turned out to be only the first of many serendipitous happenings in that hospitable and very pro-British country.

I left Colombo on 27th January to spend what turned out to be nine days up country in the Central Highlands, at Pitekande State Tea Plantation (3,000 feet), as a guest of Adu Dharmakirthi and his wife, Heather. Adu is a plantation Superintendent, with about 1,000 acres of tea and a workforce of over 100 under his jurisdiction. For a short while I was able to enjoy being a rich British tea planter of the 1920s or 1930s, living in some style amid beautiful surroundings, with breathtaking views of the Central Highlands. It was on the way to Pitekande that I saw my first working elephants, and at Pitekande that I saw the beautiful ‘Flame of the Forest’ trees, or Flamboyants – huge trees with vivid orange blossoms covering their very tops, way out of reach – and heard the incessant calls of the rain-birds, birds as large and as black as crows, but with gorgeous chestnut-brown wings. The call of the rain-bird is fascinating: it is on a single note, but with constantly changing metres, as though trained by Stravinsky.

From Pitekande I went by bus to Nuwara Eliya, the Cheltenham of Ceylon; a creation of the British at 6,000 feet. I returned to Colombo from Nuwara Eliya by means of a most marvellous 400-mile tour of the interior of the Island by car, taking in Kandy (the Lake and the Temple of the Tooth), the incredible rock-temples of Dambulla and the even more incredible rock-fortress of Sigirya, and two of the ancient capitals, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, with their jungle-encroached ruins of temples, royal palaces, royal baths, tanks (ancient reservoirs of immense size) and stupas. However, this Grand Tour provided little in the way of ‘actuality’ recordings, apart from some bird-song and an SATB choir of frogs at Sigirya.

After one week back in Colombo I was off again to spend one week on the south-west coast of the Island at a little hotel at Habaraduwa, an hotel which must surely possess the very beach used in the Bounty coconut-bar TV advertisement: silver sand, an azure sea and coconut palms.

My last week in Colombo was taken up with the necessary last-minute arrangements and farewells. But on the evening of 6th March, the day before I left Sri Lanka, I was able to hear the 15-minute interview conducted by the Sri Lankan writer, Alfreda de Silva, in the programme called Spotlight on the English Channel of the SLBC. This I had recorded on 19th February—a most interesting experience. The approach to the SLBC building resembled that to the BBC during the last war: all sand-bags and armed guards. I was enormously intrigued by the foundation stone in the main entrance, which itself was like that at Portland Place but smaller. The stone announced that the SLBC had commenced operations in 1925, which must make it one of the very first Commonwealth countries to have its own broadcasting service. The young lady producer of Spotlight was so enthusiastic about my mini-melodramas for schools, Sweeney Todd the Barber and Dracula! or The Vampire Vanquished, that I left the record with her; she said that she would like to use it in children’s programmes. I recorded this interview, but in the excitement of that last evening, I somehow managed to erase it, apart from the very opening introduction and closing remarks. However, I do at least have in its stead the excited chatter of so many of the friends I made in that friendly and hospitable country. It had indeed proved to be “The Island of Serendib”.

Article 2: Southern India

I arrived in Madras, India’s fourth largest city, after a one-hour flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 7th March 1985. But it took over an hour to get clear of Madras airport owing to the stringent security precautions—Madras is the alleged headquarters of the Sri Lankan Tamil separatists.

Once settled into my first Indian hotel, close to Egmore station, a spectacularly Victorian railway station, I made contact with the British Council, that life-line abroad for the wandering scholar. The British Council in Madras lies just off Anna Salai (formerly Mount Road), the great artery that runs through the middle of Madras and, like its counterpart in Colombo, opened by the Queen in 1981, it is a modern and very impressive complex of buildings, including an auditorium. Here, I was much helped by Mr Suresh Jayavant, acting on behalf of Mrs Grace Krishnaswami, who was “somewhere with the British film-maker Christopher Miles, looking for suitable film locations.” (What, yet another film about India?)

It was Suresh Jayavant who kindly arranged for a car to take me to the old colonial French town of Pondicherry, where the world-famous Sri Aurobindo Society has its ashram, now with about 2,000 ashramites. (“We’ll see you get there safely—it’s a firm we always use.”) The 80-mile drive south of Madras was interesting if somewhat noisy – all Asian drivers I have met to date don’t drive cars so much as drive car horns – and I arrived in Pondicherry on 13th March, one day before my 53rd birthday.

Pondicherry was laid out on a grid system by the French (by Baron Hausmann?): a canal containing little water, except in the monsoon season, bisects the town into the “native quarter” (about three-quarters of the town) and the old French quarter (about one-quarter of the town). The old French quarter is nearer to the sea, flanking the 1½-kilometre Avenue Goubert which runs along the coast. I was to discover that all the Aurobindo ashram buildings – post office, dining-hall, perfumery, batik section, handmade paper section – were in the old French quarter, comprising mostly old French villas of varying sizes and styles. The society owns between 300–400 houses and villas in this quarter of town.

My first impression of Pondicherry (or Pondy to its inhabitants) was one of bicycles; and the six weeks I spent there were spent as a (paying) guest at what turned out to be the “International Hilton” of the Society’s several guesthouses, the “Sea Side Guest House” on Avenue Goubert, overlooking the sea (the Bay of Bengal). Over the weeks I was there, I investigated the life and work of the ashram and came to discover more and more about its founder, Sri Aurobindo, and his “right-hand man”—or, rather, woman: a French woman named Mirra Alfassa, who was later to be, as it were, “deified” and known to all simply as “The Mother”. Sri Aurobindo first came to Pondy in 1910, and The Mother first in 1914. She came a second time in 1920 and then remained there, never setting foot outside the town limits again. She died in 1973.

Since it is of paramount importance, the music of the ashram needs some comment. The Mother gave up a promising career as a musician and painter in order to devote her life to the day-to-day running of the ashram and its needs (food, accommodation, etc.). When she arrived, she brought with her an American harmonium, and all her life she supplied the devotional or meditational music used by the ashram in its various functions. This was never written down, but extemporised: later, of course, it was recorded, and much of her playing and organ music is preserved. Much later on, the harmonium was replaced by an American electronic organ, a gift to The Mother from devotees and well-wishers in the States.

Upon her death in 1973, the job of providing music for the ashram was taken up by an Indian musician/composer named Sunil (surnames are never used on the ashram), who had first arrived in Pondy in 1943. Although I was able to meet Sunil briefly on one occasion, I never did manage to get to see “Sunil’s Music Room”, i.e. his composing room, situated on the upper floor of an old French villa in Nehru Street. (Getting to see Sunil was difficult, as he was available only from 8.40 to 9.00 a.m. for “any administrative work”; he was inviolate. I felt a little like a visitor trying to get an audience with Wagner at “Wahnfried”.)

My first introduction to the music of the ashram came on the morning of my first day in Pondicherry—at 7.45 a.m. I became aware of the sound of rather lugubrious organ music, later followed by The Mother’s voice, accompanied by the strong smell of joss sticks. I discovered that the sounds emanated from a vast three-storey concrete building very close to the only window of my room, but the smell came from within the house. The building turned out to be “Knowledge” or “The Academy of the Future”, the last stage (university level) of ashram education; all first classes were prefaced, as it were, with such music and/or a spoken homily (recorded) given by either Sri Aurobindo or The Mother—rather as we have “morning assembly” with a hymn in schools over here. The joss sticks I found burning in the guest house dining-room, on a side-board upon which were very large, framed photographs of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and vases of flowers, mainly hibiscus. Such “religious” music and the smell of incense were a little hard to take on an empty stomach, although, over the weeks, I became used to these daily experiences.

Debiprasad Ghosh
Debiprasad Ghosh tuning his sarod

Much as I enjoyed learning about the manifold activities of the ashram, and the very frugal life on it, I think I enjoyed even more my daily visits to a little restaurant called the “Patisserie”, in Rangapillai Street, rather audaciously situated next door to the old French villa housing the ashram dining-hall. Here congregate a motley collection of habitués, both Asian and Western: ashram drop-outs, middle-aged Westeners with long hair and many beads (apparently unaware that the hippy movement is over), musicians of many kinds, plus various pilgrims passing through the town, and fleeting visitors. Here I met a superb sarod player named Debiprasad Ghosh and an Indian flute player named Tublu Bannerji, both teachers at the ashram “International Centre for Education”, a professional Algerian flute player who had been on the ashram for one year, a number of Westeners learning to play various Indian instruments like the tabla, and singers. It seemed to be a sort of Indian Maxim’s, and I loved it. Once it was discovered that I was a composer and writer, I was readily accepted into this fraternity and I spent many hours in philosophical discussions with the little restaurant’s cashier, a Gujerati named A. E. Motiwalle, who, at one time, had been a pianist “specialising in English classical music”. Intrigued, I questioned him as to what he meant by this, and was pleasantly surprised by his reply: “Well, you know—Granville Bantock and composers like him.”

My most treasured memory of Pondy is of an evening towards the end of my stay there, at an apartment in a house at the far southern end of Avenue Goubert known as “The American House”. After a superb meal of lobsters, Debi Ghosh, the sarod player, played for about an hour on the little balcony of the apartment. He played three ragas, to the accompaniment of the sound of the sea, the crickets in the garden and occasional passing traffic, and about halfway through the recital, the moon appeared from behind the corner of the building to illuminate the strings of his instrument with a soft tropical radiance.

I had one further experience with the ashram school which provided a piece of serendipity worthy of Sri Lanka itself. When I arrived in Pondy on 13th March, the day before my birthday, I was handed a packet from England. It contained a copy of the new paperback edition of The Faber Book of Nursery Songs, my collaboration with Donald Mitchell which had been published in hardback in 1968 but which had been out of print for several years: it was a birthday surprise from my wife. The Society asked me to meet Olga, an Englishwoman in charge of the kindergarten school music, so that she could see the book. When I met her, she mentioned that one of the children’s favourite songs was Bananas in Pyjamas, the title-song from my collection of nonsense songs and poems published by Faber in 1972. They knew it from its inclusion in the A. & C. Black anthology, Apusskidu. And I had come all this way “to get away from it all.”

I returned to Madras on 1st May and, upon reporting once more to the British Council, I found that Mrs Grace Krishnaswami had returned from her “location-hunting trip” with Christopher Miles. I also learned, to my chagrin, that I had missed Michael Hurd’s visit to Madras, to give choral workshops. Through Mrs Krishnaswami I met Handel Manuel (“You must meet Handel—he is Western music in Madras”), who was most helpful to me in my desire to visit a Madrasi film recording session.

I returned to the UK at the end of May 1985 with my memory crammed with hundreds of impressions, and my luggage crammed with mementoes, including all those tapes of music, dance, speech and “sounds of the East”—from Sri Lankan pop music to the extraordinary ‘call to worship’ which I heard emanating daily from the little temple to Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, in one of the courtyards of the New Woodlands Hotel, Mylapore, Madras: a clangorous racket made by bell and gong, with a gradual increase in volume and speed reminiscent of Britten’s use of percussion in the Church Parables. So far the only result – musically – has been a parody piano duet for purely domestic/informal use called The Indian Coffee House Roof Garden Orchestra Tango or The Last Tango in Pondy: perhaps a private tribute to that strange restaurant on Avenue Goubert, Pondicherry, which must surely have been the focal point for the French “beau monde” of the town in the 1920s, with its potted palms and moonlit views of the Bay of Bengal. But I hope for more substantial results in due course, once the multitudinous impressions have faded into the background and the influences begin their subtle work.

In idle moments I ponder on the great gulf that now exists between the serious composer and his lost audience. And I also think about Schoenberg, faced with what he deemed to be the great crisis in (Western) music which drove him into what must be the longest and most intense act of navel-contemplation in the history of any art. What if he had been able to accept that Western music, as we know it, from about 1600 to 1900, is a mere drop in the ocean of the world’s music; what if he had packed a bag and travelled instead, studying some of the ancient musics whose histories go back over 2,000 years? How different the recent history of Western music might have been! It has taken two world wars and modern communications to reveal how rich the world’s heritage of music actually is. And now we have a multi-racial culture in the UK, although one would not know this from much of the serious music written here today.

Along with a number of composers working in this country today I believe the future of serious music to be found in looking outwards, not inwards. That was one of the reasons – perhaps the most important reason – that I undertook my musical travels.