Music in a bottle – by Francesca Diano

 Music in a bottle

                                                                                                                 For Udayji

I wish to thank dear Sunanda Sharma, sublime singer of Thumri, for having brilliantly suggested the title of my short story.



She had never seen before – and seen, she thought, was the apt word to use – a singer of that kind.

She had met other singers and musicians of Indian classical music, among the greatest in fact, and appreciated their skills, had felt deeply touched and moved by their art, but this time she was experiencing something altogether different; because he not only sang Dhrupad in a heavenly way, but he also moulded the sounds with his hands, making the invisible visible. While the sounds emerged from his throat and lips, in fact from his entire frame, and then merged with the surrounding air, he seemed to gather with his palms a living substance, twisting it and shaping it into sinuous forms.

She could actually visualize slowly dancing waves of notes and sounds as if they were a shiny, translucent matter he almost kneaded with his hands and fingers. He gathered it, spread it, expanded it between his palms and then compressed it into round or elongated shapes. Or even, while the notes rose upwards, he pulled them down from above his head, persuading them gently to flow back towards the core.

Form is luminous in itself, being its luminosity but the visibility that is its true essence, a philosopher had once said. And here she was seeing form after form floating around him like planets around their star.

He was creating a new, sonorous reality of existence. This was the first time she understood what it meant that the universe had been created by sound, that matter had emanated from an original, primaeval sound, but also that sound is energy vibrating into matter. That sound and matter are of a one and same nature.

He shaped the deep, dark, low sounds selfgenerating in the depths of his being, right at the centre of his body, and yet it was as if he were drawing them from the hidden burning core of the earth.

He dived into it, letting the flowing sonorous stream permeate his flesh and bones, and then conveyed the flow through his entire frame, imbuing each atom and molecule, until it reached the resounding cavity of his mouth up to the lips. He let it free and then collected it with solemn gestures, as if performing a sacred rite, taking it with his palms and fingers, raising it, caressing it, shaping new visible worlds of swirling rhythm and harmony.

He was singing Raag Yaman.

That night she was witnessing the miracle of creation, reproduced and performed by an artist, who was the heir of an ancient musical tradition, of hundreds of Gurus, who had handed down to their disciples their unique knowledge. And yet it was not just an artistic tradition, it was also an exoteric one. Because his gestures, the peculiar qualities of his vocal art, his whole hieratic composure, but most of all what it evoked, revealed a secret knowledge he had no doubt received along with the teachings from his Guruji. And she had had the distinct feeling of perceiving some part, it didn’t matter if only just a glimpse, of what that could be. She felt overwhelmed and cried.

Was she dreaming? Or was the miracle of that singing that had captured her, so powerful, that had carried her away through space and time back to the origin of all things?

She felt blessed then by the chance she had been given of listening in person to Guruji, an artist who was also a messenger of Truth and Beauty; Truth and Beauty being one. He was the living proof that music had a sacred origin, and that the universe had originated from a sacred sound.

Later that night, after the concert, she was lucky enough to have dinner with Guruji and other people. She sat across him. Guruji, still a young, handsome man, was a lovely, kind, caring person, and, although a world-famous artist, he had in him the gentleness, the humbleness and the simplicity of every truly great souls.

He engaged gladly in conversation and appreciated the Italian food he was served. While they were talking, she could smell, lingering in the air, a heavenly scent, not too sweet, slightly spiced and musky, with a hint of black pepper, yet mellow and opulent.

<<What a lovely perfume>>, she couldn’t help saying.

<<Is it this you mean?>>, said Guruji, bringing his wrist closer to her.

<<Indeed it is!>>, she exclaimed. <<What an exquisite scent.>>

He then drew out from his pocket a tiny silver box, and, from the box, a small glass vial with a golden cap, containing some golden oil. He handed it to her. She reached out and opened it carefully, almost with reverence. Guruji’s scent…

Wafts of blissful sensations reached her nostrils and penetrated her brain. She felt swept along with them to a place of happiness and fulfillment. And suddenly the sounds of that sublime music came back to her, the soft translucent matter and shapes Guruji had evoked and moulded on the stage at the dim light of the theatre.

<<It’s yours to keep if you like it>>, said Guruji with a smile.

<<Really?? Do you really mean it?>> she asked almost in awe. She couldn’t believe her ears. It was such a great gift, even greater because so spontaneously offered.

She couldn’t find the words to thank him enough. She was moved to the core.

Back home, she did some research online about the shop, whose name was printed on the tiny label. She discovered that it came from the oldest perfume shop in Delhi – Old Delhi actually – founded in 1816, where, in a tiny space crammed with glass and cut crystal bottles of all sizes and shapes and colours, the skilled perfume Masters created their marvellous attars – oil-based perfumes – with fresh flowers, natural ingredients, woods, spices and precious oils. She explored, full of wonder, that fascinating world. Following to a centuries old tradition, they still went around the country, from village to village, in search of  the freshest flowers and plants, which were carefully distilled in copper alembic stills to extracts their essential oils, then adding precious woods like the rare oud, the Gods’ Wood, spices and aromatic resins.

During the 200 years of their history, the perfume masters had prepared exclusive attars for Mughal emperors, royalties and celebrities and still to these days, following the centuries-old tradition, they scrupolously kept the secrets of their art, of their recipes, mixtures and procedures.

Guruji’s attar had been created for him and every time she opened it and inhaled its complex aroma (it was too precious to her to wear it), it evoked that same mystic bliss she had experienced at his concert. Following the wafts of scent emanating from the little bottle, she could go back to that world of music, where invisible became visible, where sounds turned into a translucent, shiny matter, imbued with all the colours of the rainbow, where vision, sounds and imagination could become a liquid, golden substance and melt into a scent that was the secret essence of Guruji’s art itself. Where there was no separation among beings or things and everything was one.




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