Columns Stories from Scientists

Researchers in lockdown: Melodies and musings of a grad student

Vanshika Singh

In this series, we ask scientists from different backgrounds, disciplines and career stages to reflect upon their life in lockdown and how it has influenced how they approach doing science. In this article, Vanshika Singh from the National Brain Research Centre, Manesar, discusses how the synergy of music, literature, and neuroscience has helped her make her way through the pandemic months. This article was first published on COVID Gyan.

Vanshika Featured

12 March 2020, 11:30 a.m.

My eyes bore into the screen of my phone in sweet disbelief.

This is to let you know that I really enjoyed reading your submission for my fiction call. Your entry has made it through a round of reviews, and I’ll be happy to include your piece in the print anthology that I am curating about stories on the experience of disability and caregiving.

Best,

Srilata

Srilata Krishnan. An Indian poetess extraordinaire who teaches Creative Writing as a Professor of English at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras and also holds the position of an adjunct professor at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.

I was elated. What started one night as a creative impetus to write about a theme that I hold very dear to my heart — disability — was now set to make it to the pages of a curation by a well-regarded writer and a force to reckon with (Read a preview of this literary work here).

Little had I known that within the next few days, I’d have a lot of these midnight musings, this being the part of the day that I find most conducive to let my pen flow on paper. The first few days of the lockdown were a seamless string of digging into books authored by Srilata Krishnan. Each word she had inked on paper rang like a melodious note to me and my erstwhile blissful solitude. Her poems from the collection The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans” remained a constant companion throughout the lockdown.

One of the poems from her collection of poetry Bookmarking the Oasis” particularly hit home for me.

Writing has made its violent way
into hide, skin, wood and paper,
squatting down in two-dimensionality,
no longer kinetic,
slicing through our minds
with its alphabetic, linear whiteness.

Titled A Brief History of Writing’, this poem brings across the sense of agency that different forms of writing can bring to the writer as well as the reader.

The lockdown also brought me closer to my other craft — the craft of groove.

drummer vanshika
Image: Priyanka Sigar, NBRC

As a drummer being trained in the Rockschool method, I am an out and out purist when it comes to following sheet music notations for my practice sessions. Reading and playing musical notations through sheet music brings a sense of discipline and scientific rigour to one’s art that is very grounding. Much to my immediate neighbour’s misfortune, I happen to be locked in with my drum kit, and I have pretty much set up a parallel laboratory in the music room where I spend a huge chunk of my time experimenting with grooves and fills.

The musical instinct runs deep in my family, with my first foray into music coming in the form of learning the ropes of Indian ragas as a 5‑year-old under the tutelage of my aunt, Seema Shukla, trained in the kirana gharana of classical Hindustani vocals at Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, Delhi University. (Listen to her sing an alaap’ in raag Yaman here). Very early on, she had let me into the musical sanctum sanctorum that she had created for herself, a revered nook in the pooja ghar (household shrine) of my nani maa’s (grandmother’s) home that to this day resurfaces my earliest childhood memories. Some of my most distinct memories are of moringa incense sticks that would infuse the entire house with the alaaps of raag ahir bhairav.

As my early formative experiences with Hindustani classical music met my recently acquired rock and jazz drumming chops, my musical identity found home in the songs of an Indie band — Bombay Bandook. Through Spotify’s daily music mixes, I had the fortune of being introduced to the work of these fabulous musicians, who bring together Indian ragas with Indie rock music.

Around this time, inspired by COVID-Gyan’s sundowner sessions, I set out on some podcasting business of my own. The result was Saturday Sundowners, a podcast that brings stories of people who have been or are actively engaged with science, and their parallel journeys in different forms of art that provide them with a creative and expressive medium. I invited Sannidh, Jagravi and Brijesh from Bombay Bandook for the pilot episode. We had a freewheeling conversation about the creative process of Bombay Bandook as a band and drew parallels between the aha’ moments in the pursuit of science and sound. With Sannidh and Jagravi being biotechnology graduates prior to taking on music full time, we explored the interesting theme of whether being trained in science enabled their artistic pursuits as well.

The motivation behind this exploration comes from my personal journey as a neuroscientist and drummer-in-training. When I sit down on my kit, I begin by exploring all the permutations and combinations in which I can play a groove, and then let my musical instinct take over to play what sounds right”. We wrapped up an hour of chuckles and friendly jabs at each other with Sannidh breaking into Azaad, Bombay Bandook’s latest original track. (Tune in to the podcast here)

For the next episode of the podcast, I will be in conversation with Sonali Sengupta, a molecular biologist who handles both her pipette and paintbrush with absolute finesse. At present a postdoctoral researcher associated with Louisiana State University, she raised money for COVID and AMPHAN relief measures through her digital portrait page — Brushes and Becomings.

Fondly missing the reverberations of drumming in the premises of my music school, a weekly go-to affair for me before the lockdown, I took to online mentorship to further my practice of the percussive arts.

You’ll play fast, Vanshika, but eventually. It’s only when you can play at a slow pace with clarity, that you should attempt to reach faster tempos. That’s what my abba would tell me, and I’m here to teach you. Mashallah, you are picking on the kaaydah very well.” Ustaad Toufiq Qureshi beamed at me through the screen, as I dexterously moved my fingers over the djembe — an African hand drum- to play the kaaydah (groove) that he had just demonstrated for me. Ustaad Toufiq renders a unique style to the instrument, bringing learnings from the tabla that he has imbibed from his father, Ustaad Allah Rakha over the djembe. I feel blessed to be receiving an amalgam of rhythmic sensibilities directly from the unparalleled percussive lineage, the legends that are Ustaad Allah Rakha and his sons — Zakir Hussain, Fazal Qureshi and my guru Toufiq Qureshi.

A deep dive into honing my musical and literary skills has afforded me the headspace to think and act clearly about the academic facets of my life as a neuroscience graduate in the making.

Though the pandemic shadows academia with uncertainties like any other line of work, we have been quick to adapt, with rapidly evolving online forums to take our science to. Neurizons, a biennial neuroscience conference hosted by the graduate students of International Max Planck Research School for Neurosciences, Göttingen, was conducted entirely in a remote mode this year in the light of the pandemic. While engaging in talks spanning the entire gamut of neuroscience, I also happened to reconnect with an old friend from my parent institute, National Brain Research Centre, who happened to be on the organising team of Neurizons 2020. Isn’t the world a small place, as the saying has it?

Worldwide Neuro is another such venture, born out of the Oxford Neurotheory Forum. It has conducted 55 online neuroscience seminars since March 2020 and has more than 78 upcoming seminars, creating an open online platform for any neuroscience enthusiast to engage with distinguished scientists as well as graduate students and neuroscientists-in-the-making.

As these online communities keep the neuroscientist in me ticking, I have found a deep sense of comfort in honing my craft of writing and music to get through the uncertainties that COVID-19 brings with it. Here is a couplet that I have penned in Urdu, the language of the Sufis, to capture this collective sentiment about the lockdown. 

Waqt raet ki tarah haathon se phisaltha hai, suna toh tha
Ab registan-e-marz mein khadi hun, toh raet kya aur waqt kya?
Phir aasman ki ore taak lagayi toh ehsaah né awaaz di
Tu shaheen hai, apne parwaaz ko mukammal kar


Time eludes you, so I’d heard

Now that I find myself in the midst of a land barren with disease,

I look upon the sky, and a voice beckons -

You are a falcon, realise the flight of your pursuits.

Written By

A neuroscience graduate student in the making, Vanshika is interested in the art of communicating science effectively. She complements her PhD with science writing and public outreach activities.