Improvisation the Heart of Innovation

This video shows the great master, Ravi Shankar, at work. Notice how with the change of locale the music or the melody changes instantly. When in India (depicted by the famous Taj Mahal) the melody has a distinct ‘Indianess’ about it. But as soon as the locale changes to China the melody highlight strains of typical Chinese melody. Again the mood changes with changes in nature and times of the day. Isn’t is quite remarkable that while the tune (or raga as it is called in India) remains just the same for every situation the melody changes to reflect the master’s feelings or his responses to the changes in the locale, mood, timings etc.

This is a brilliant piece of music or innovative music at its best. But this is what the Ravi Shankar calls improvisation or instant improvisation. Such instant improvisation is nothing but human responses to his/her situations and environment. Improvisations reflect human feelings at that particular moment in time. 

This helps us to understand innovation much better. The other name for it would be improvisation or a response to a given situation.

There would be many ways to understand this response. But one of the easiest would be — ‘going with the flow’ — responding to the feelings the situation evokes in us.

But that is tricky business. Much more tricky than what we might care to imagine. It is tricky to feel and stay in the present. This is because our feelings can take us back to the past experiences through our memories or transport us quickly to a future that is yet to be born through unbridled imagination, which is again distorted memory. Both are bad for us. The risky balancing act is to stay with the feelings and be intuitive about it without falling back on memory or false imagination. That is a risky tight rope walking. But that is what all masters of their games have mastered. 

For example, Sachin Tendulkar in cricket from whom rival captains have a hard time setting a field to hold him down by closing gaps.

Or take Ravi Shankar, the musician, for whom feelings flow from the depths of intuition.

Or the World chess champion Viswanand Anand who invariably finds a gap in the strongest armour of his opponents.

Or Michel Angelo who ‘saw’ entrapped figures trapped in uncut stones waiting to be freed by his hands. 

There is one thing that is common to all of them and one thing that sets them apart. The common thing is they all intuitively find the gaps or the existing imperfections in the present moment with their uninhabited awareness. They improvise their games based on those gaps or existing imperfections in the most intuitive manner — no copy book styles for them. They have learned the rules of their games so well that they now break them with impunity.  

And what sets them apart? They apply the same principle in whatever game they have chosen to play. The games differ but the principle does not.

They are constantly responding to the existing ‘gaps’ or ‘imperfections’ by understanding and balancing numerous resistances the system offers. They intuitively sense these resistance and respond through improvisations accordingly. They seem to see the parts and the wholes at the same time within the same space.

This is what innovation is all about.

The Japanese have a name for it. They call it Wabi -Sabi, which means understand the imperfection in a given situation and improve upon it to make it stronger and more reliable.

The Chinese have a name for it. They call it Shan Zhai, which originally means balancing numerous resistances, see what is possible to be done cheap and effectively, start small and then grow in strength.

The Indians have a name for it. They call it Juggard, which means understand what is to be done, start with whatever is available at hand, go with the flow and build up over time.

These are all present moment responses to the feelings evoked. That to me is the best way to harness ‘uncertainty’ that clouds our lives.

Being in touch with one’s feelings without distortion of any kind is being in touch with one’s essential nature.

Or as Gregory Bateson said, “When man lost touch with nature, he lost touch with himself”

That touch has a magical creativity about it. It is innovation through improvisation born out of intuitive feelings.

This is the only way to create a good sustainable future for all since “The future is never empty, never a blank space to be filled with the output of human activity. It is already colonized by what the past and present have sent to it.” (Fry 1999)

How do we develop that is the question?

Understanding that involves deep learning.

And having an answer would be nothing short of ‘Know Thyself’. That is living in freedom with heads held high.





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