Howard Jacobson: The English sound of Hindu bagpipes

This music somehow reflected the spirituality of India via the emotionalism of Scotland thanks to the citizenry of Bolton

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:22

Skipped the Notting Hill Carnival this year. Skipped it last year, too, and the year before that. Nothing against it in principle, though I admit to being a person who embraces Carnival more in the abstract than in actuality.

The last time I went to the Venice Carnival I was writing on the subject, actually standing in St Mark's Square with my notepad out, scribbling about the importance of a day of disorder to the health of a culture, and transgression to the well-being of the individual. Then someone dressed as the Pope tweaked me by the nose. I was furious. How dared he trespass on the inviolability of my person? Had I been armed I'd have mowed him down in front of the Basilica. This was when I came to accept that transgression looked better on paper than in deed, and that I was not cut out to be a Carnivaliser.

Plus there's the street food which I love but eat too much of, discovering the jerk chicken I've been looking for all my life the minute I've polished off a dream mutton vindaloo, which itself is an indulgence given the perfect hog roast sandwich that came before. Carnival is about excess, but you still have to know how to pace yourself, and I can't. The point of Carnival is that you do things you wouldn't normally do, but you don't have to do them all at once. So it makes sense, all things considered, for me to stay away.

But I had a more specific reason for staying away from this year's Notting Hill Carnival, and that was that I had already witnessed a carnival of sorts in Britain only a few weeks before and didn't want to spoil the memory of it. I say "of sorts" because it wasn't a carnival in any of the usual senses; it wasn't concerned to overturn the prevailing hierarchy, and it certainly had no ambition to license misbehaviour. You could say it was just a street procession, but that doesn't do justice to the surprise of its being what it was where it was, or the degree of utterly disinterested pleasure it gave.

I was holidaying with my wife in the Lake District, carless, though not walking as adventurously as the word "carless" might suggest (there are always taxis), enjoying the unexpectedly good weather. I'd hired a taxi, speaking of taxis, to drop us in Bowness from where we were going to take a boat across Windermere to Ambleside. Later that day we would go to Ruskin's house on Coniston Water, and the next to Dove Cottage where William Wordsworth had lived with his sister Dorothy. How English that all sounds. How English we wanted it to be. No disrespect intended to what isn't English, but a dose of Englishness – English lakes, English fells, English poets: call it the English genius – was simply what we felt like.

Picture then, our surprise, when we found crowds lining the streets of Bowness and heard Scottish bagpipes approaching, playing "Mairi's Wedding", followed by "Donald, Where's Your Trousers?", and then beheld a pipe band coming down the High Street, magnificently accoutred in military doublets with regimental badges, tartan kilts, white hair sporrans, pristine spats and high plumed feather bonnets, except ... except that the pipers, for all their musical dexterity and puff, were not Scottish Highlanders but Indians: Hindus, members of the Swaminarayan faith, followers of Jeevanpran Shree Muktajeevan Swamibapa.

It turned out that there were several bands here, gathered from different parts of the country, but the one that held my eye longest was the Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Pipe Band from Bolton. The photograph my wife took of the youthful drummer, erect and handsome, soft-eyelashed and perspiring, shows him standing outside a shop called Bargain Booze. If I remember rightly the band was now playing "Danny Boy". The sun beat down. It had rained in the Lakes all summer, but today, we would hear on the news later, Bowness-on-Windermere was hotter than North Africa. I don't have to describe to readers of this column the melancholy of the pipes, echoing the faraway sadness of the islands. We all weep when we hear the pipes. But this pipe music, somehow reflecting the spirituality of India via the emotionalism of Scotland thanks to the citizenry of Bolton and expressing itself with great heart on the broiling streets of Bowness-on-Windermere, was more upsetting than any pipe music I had ever heard.

So what was it all about, this carnival that wasn't and yet was? Here's the story. In 1970, Jeevanpran Swamibapa, a Hindu monk and founder of the Swaminarayan sect – a worldwide movement dedicated to the promotion of peace and co-operation through beauty – visited his disciples in London. It was during a concert given in his honour in Trafalgar Square that he heard the Scottish bagpipes for the first time. So moved was he that he called upon his supporters to take up the pipes. A year later, in Windermere, his mortal life came to an end, in memory whereof, and in the name of the values he promoted, his followers were today holding a piped parade that would culminate in a cruise on the lake and a prayer of peace that would "reverberate and echo in the valleys of Windermere and rise upwards to the heavens".

Such was reason for this charming occasion. Behind the pipers came a sweetly scented float in the form of a dove. In this, enjoying the day, sat the new leader of the sect, beatific in orange robes. Behind him walked women, cool in their saris, bearing pots of spices on their heads. We followed them through the town until they climbed aboard the cruisers and sailed away, only the fluttering feather bonnets of the pipers visible, and the raised arms of the women, praying to whichever divinity of love and beauty would take care of them on the water. "'Will ye no come back again?" I sang in my heart.

Multiculturalism in action? I hate the word. This was not my culture, it was theirs. Good for Jeevanpran Swamibapa for being confident enough to borrow from others. You can be distinct and not afraid. You needn't lose yourself in what you admire. But good for the English, too, who loved what they were seeing and opened their hearts to it. So we'd had a distinctly English day after all. Is this, too, not the English genius? – to make a space for what isn't English, to facilitate difference and enjoy its free expression? We live, I thought, as the Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Pipe Band from Bolton set sail on Windermere, in a wonderful country.

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