Gabriella went to St James school in London and then studied Sanskrit at Oxford. After trying various jobs, her love of Sanskrit got the better of her. Her Madālasā video on YouTube has 2.8M views! She released an album in May 2020 and a documentary is under way about the power of Sanskrit sounds. How do you become a vehicle for the creative process?
Being a Vehicle
Gabriella Burnel, London
I have never worked in the usual sense of the word because teaching Sanskrit, and writing and recording songs is what I love. Every day is different and an unfolding of myself.
After leaving university, the question was ‘what next?’ The world didn’t seem to need me, or so I felt. Every moment is important, valuable… and if it wasn’t being used for something that felt worthwhile … I couldn’t do it.
My dear parents have always supported me, but to keep myself going I worked as a nanny, and taught piano and singing to young children, whilst performing stand-up comedy, writing musicals, singing songs I had written with my band in various pubs and clubs, and chanting Sanskrit as a personal practice.
But I underwent a quarter-life crisis: even though the comedy and song were creative, they had lost significance. Another road was waiting, and I began to teach Sanskrit in yoga schools.
One day a fellow Sanskrit teacher asked me to make a short film on why I loved Sanskrit. I posted it on the You Tube channel that I’d used for my old comedy videos and it all began from there.
Musical comedy began to take a back seat and Sanskrit singing took over. Instead of writing songs that “I” wanted to write, something began to shift and I began working on songs that wanted to be written. An audience was there waiting to receive them. The recording studio I’d previously used for my songs in English now echoed with the sounds of Sanskrit.
One such Sanskrit song was Ānandamayi. During a trip to Pondicherry the energy of so many people and the purity of their devotion to the Mother were very striking. Their willingness to serve her and heed her words, long after her death really struck a chord in me. On returning, I recorded the track which expounded her qualities: Ānandamayi – made of bliss, made of consciousness, made of truth.
I experimented with looping the phrases, starting out with just one voice, then recording harmonies over that same phrase again and again until there was a whole choir – of me!
That was the first real experience I had of something singing through me. “I” had disappeared, become lost to all else except what was emerging in that very moment. When I “woke up” from this state, there was the song. After it went on to YouTube, a friend who wouldn’t normally have listened to anything I posted, commented on how it had helped him with meditation, saying he had found it very beautiful. Lots of other tracks followed and with each one I learned how to refine the process of writing, singing, recording.
The act of creation: Madālasā
Anthony Renshaw, leader of the School in Sydney, asked me to compose a song based on the words of Madālasā to her son, from the Mārkandeya Purāna. The simple directions were that, unlike a typical lullaby, it should be imbued with strength and that all I needed do was ‘become Madālasā herself’.
First, I had to get to know the text by studying the Sanskrit and translation. Then sit with it, or let it sit with me, not really ‘doing’ anything at all, just being with the text itself. I didn’t force anything but somehow trusted the process, waiting, knowing that it would arrive when the time was right.
That year I went with my Ma to India. Every day I would visit the cows nearby, and sit with their calves. One particular calf especially favoured me and it was a joy to say hello to her.
Then came a time during that stay when something shifted quite powerfully. I was inspired to reflect on the Madālasā lyrics. I went to sit by the calf in the afternoon sun and became its Mother, singing to her as a Mother would to her child and the whole song was formed. The process of actually ‘writing’ the song took about an hour. The actual act of creation happens quickly, but preparing the ground, that is the work, that is the discipline.
When it came to recording the song for the YouTube video, without any thought I put together an outfit, went to the studio, sat down and with the phone camera nearby on a tripod, the music producer clicked ‘record’. Going within to the energy of Madālasā, I sat before the eye of the camera with a sense of being Mother to everyone in the world, everyone as my child. Throughout the experience of that song, this was the feeling. Within 20 minutes, we had the track. It was a gift.
Because of the songs on YouTube, many offers and career opportunities have come my way. Perhaps there will be a time when a manager will be needed, especially with singing in different places around the world. But until now, any income generated from songs goes back into making more songs and any personal income generated goes into reconnaissance trips to India and Nepal. When I return from these trips I share what I have learned with students. These experiences make their way into new songs.
Food for the soul
Attending a weekly online philosophy group is invaluable. The study material we receive is so nourishing – so is the satsanga, the company. Touching base with individuals who, during the group session, become a unit, a family, is food for the soul. It’s uplifting and humorous to hear each others’ observations. The questions and input mean we get to see a much bigger picture. I find that meditation and reflection are always somehow more powerful in a group.
It’s a bit like the story of The Elephant and The Blind Men. When the blind men described an elephant, one touched the trunk, one the leg, another the ear and to each of them, ‘elephant’ was something different. Likewise, alone we are blind, but as a group we get to see the whole elephant.
Taking a moment to pause
Apart from twice daily meditation, the practice which has helped me most is the pause. Before every song, before every class this is with me, I just stop to be quiet, and most significantly, at the start of every day. With singing, it gives me a chance to take the opportunity to surrender ‘me’ and pray that something much grander and more beautiful, something divine can simply work through me. The pause helps me with this.
Being a vehicle
In the heightened situation of actual performance or when recording a song, something changes, something happens. Shortly beforehand, without words, I ask for help. Then I trust completely and implicitly that it will take care of itself and it has nothing to do with me.
Once in a class with Nikki Slade, a great teacher of mantra and voice, she asked me to ‘become Saraswatī’, become a vehicle for the energy of the goddess Saraswatī to flow through me. For ten minutes, in a most unexpected way, beauty, love, energy and joy poured through me in the form of sound and song. Another time she said: ‘Become Kāli’, a completely different energy, a dynamic powerhouse, after which I melted into tears, unable to comprehend the power and strength that could flow through me.
These experiences proved to me that I am just a vehicle for these sounds. To be a powerful vehicle, it is absolutely imperative that the ego should disappear and that this body and mind be purified as much as possible. If I am to sing, then the song needs to be part of every fibre of my being, the essence of music needs to be breathed by every cell of my body, and the sounds of Sanskrit become my nature. The thoughts I think need to be as far as possible, clean, true and positive. Sanskrit helps me with this.
How has your life been affected by Sanskrit?
Singing and Sanskrit are life for me. They are not separate, not work, but everything, and almost every choice is influenced by this. The thing about exploring sound and Sanskrit is that you discover those same sounds in everything. I experience great joy in nature, walking and being with our dog, Merry. Life is very simple and it seems it will carry on this way until I hear another call.
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