April 07, 2020
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Seduced By Indian Rhythms

Beyond the mystique of the land, it's the complex body of art forms that's drawing foreign students to the university that is India.

Seduced By Indian Rhythms

THEY no longer come in chartered busloads, toting rickety guitars, nosing around for nirvana. The second generation is here; smaller, perhaps, but with a distinct qualitative change. They're equally smitten by the India bug, but it's aesthetic salvation that they want--not just a few sitar strains to decorate their hit singles back home. "People are getting tired of the West and searching for fresh forms which are equally deep-rooted and challenging," says Japanese Bharatanatyam dancer Kats Sukasawa. Still spouting the same lines, but the focus is on form, not mystique. And the bottom line has altered: they aim to be serious practitioners of Indian art forms.

German guitar man Uwe Neumann, 33, discovered the sitar in a most unusual fashion. As he walked down a crowded Benares lane, some 10 years back, a stranger approached him and offered free lessons in sitar. Neumann, who had played classical guitar in church choirs and was an accomplished folk and jazz guitarist in hometown Nuremberg, followed the man into a shop, tuned in to the sounds of the sitar and was hooked. His compatriot, Christian Kathrein, 32, came to Mumbai to study the sitar under Nayan Ghosh about five years ago. And settled in nearby Pune.

Helene Brunet, 34, was introduced to Indian culture through her father who had "studied some Tagore poetry when in university". And when she wanted to quit the frenetic bustle of Quebec life, it was Tagore again that she turned to. Three years back she enrolled for the five-year BFA course at Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati's art school. "In Santiniketan, I found the mix of country life and culture. I found peace," says she.

As did Jutamas Thenantae, 25, who discovered a dusty copy of The School Under the Tree - a translation of Tagore's treatise on Santiniketan, Ashramer Upor Bikash --in a bookstore in Bangkok and wanted to get a feel of the place straightaway. Once at Santiniketan, she found her metier and personal style. Says she: "I draw about myself. I'm not realistic, my work's more figurative, symbolic. I don't draw from my surrounding environment much, I don't draw landscapes. but I'm free to draw what I want to. That's what's great about this place."

Indian percussion-"complex" as The Doors drummer John Densmore once put it--is another enigmatic body of music that attracts younger musicians. Among the students of Pt Shankar Ghosh, the Calcutta-based tabla-player, are Mauritian Shiva Capaye, 18; 27-year-old Prabhu Amritan, an Indian who left for France when he was five years old and returned to India after 21 long years to learn the instrument; Rahul Sengupta, 24, a naturalised German; and French jazzman Phillipe Foch, 33.

It is the Indian experience again, absorbed over long years, that has brought much acclaim to jazz and world music saxophonist of Natraj, Phillip Scarff of Germany. Music apart, Indian classical dance too is spawning distinctive talents. Take Trinidad-born Radhica Laukaran, 34, a talented exponent of Kathak, Bharatanatyarn and Chhau after a 10-year affair with classical forms.

Total involvement, rather than mere curiosity, is the hallmark of most of these performers. When a musical adventurer like Kathrein--who has played the rhythm and blues guitar, the rock guitar, travelled through Europe as a folk guitarist, and who is a competent jazz and classical guitarist--displays loyalty to a tradition he has explored late in life, it reflects a measure of growing maturity. As a child, Kathrein was fascinated by the namaz in Iran. "Some of the voices which performed the ritual were great. In the namaz, one could hear the alaap quite often," he proclaims. That element perhaps pushed the young German towards Hindustani classical. Recalls he: "fascinated by Indian music, was: interested in the sarod or the sarangi initially." But he did not have access to either the sarangi or the sarod--which reached Europe after Ustad Ali Akbar Khan opened a school in Switzerland--and so Kathrein, who grew up listening to Ustad Vilayat Khan, took up the sitar. "What makes the Indian musical form astounding is the combination of tradition and freedom, and the different moods one can express through different ragas at different times," he says.

Neumann too was attracted by the unique development of melody in Hindustani classical. "I realised my playing lacked melody. Most of the popular music we're exposed to has a strong beat and harmonic structure, but its melodic content is weak, " says the jazzman. He came to Santiniketan to learn the sitar under Indranil Bhattacharya. There, the versatile artiste charmed his teachers by playing the sansa, a traditional African percussion instrument. Neumann has now spent seven years in Santiniketan and has already earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music and is planning to do a doctoral dissertation. He also runs a one-man band, Ragleela, in which he plays the sitar, acoustic guitar, bass, sansa, and the aboriginal wind instrument, didjeridoo. He has a tabla player who provides the backbeat. "But," says he, "I will only be satisfied with my sitar playing when I am completely accepted in India."

Percussionist Amritan echoes that sentiment. While abroad, he viewed his fascination for the tabla "as a pretext for remembering the country". But he realised his passion ran deeper than that when his uncle inspired him to actually play the instrument, and then introduced him to tabla teachers in Paris. Says he: "I used to take lessons from Indian masters when they came for concerts in France." In 1993, Amritan won an ICCR scholarship to India. He stayed for 10 months, and went back to Paris. Only to return in 1996 to learn under Pt Shankar Ghosh.

Unlike Amritan, Capaye was enticed by the tabla in Mauritius itself. Recalls he: "I grew up listening to the instrument on CDs and cassettes back home. I heard tabla players like Ustad Zakir Hussain and Anindo Chatterjee." When he was just 16, Capaye went to the music centre in Paris to learn the tabla. In 1995, he came to India to learn under Ustad Alla Rakha Khan. "I love to play the instrument," says the hesitant prodigy, whose skilful fingers never seem to stop once he lays them on the tabla.

Rahul Sengupta's preoccupation with percussion was motivated by a more fundamental query: what is Indian music:, "I was curious to know what they did, and why," he says. A percussionist in Germany, Sengupta had experimented with Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. But he still knew little about Indian percussion. "My father is from India and my mother is German. So, I came down to India to see my family, know what Indian music is like," he says. He came to India for the first time in 1993. And has been coming since then every winter to learn the tabla. "The rhythm structures are so different from what one plays in the West," he says. Now he wants to incorporate the "feel of the tabla" in his performances abroad. "I can't have the speed or sound which people in India have after years of playing. But I can introduce the atmosphere of the tabla when I am playing a different kind of music." Dissemination and fusion are inevitable by-products. And if they are looking beyond mere exotic soundscapes, maybe not entirely undesirable.

Take Foch, whose career took off when he joined the Jazz School of France in 1981. Like Sengupta, he too wants to use the rhythms and sound of the tabla "while I am playing the drums". A contemporary jazz drummer, he has been "studying from guruji for two years. The tabla is one of the most sophisticated instruments, and I am interested in its rhythmical literature," he says. Given such scholarly diligence, the output could well be interesting.

Natalia Friedman feels the same for Indian dance. A dance teacher in Russia, she won a one-year ICCR scholarship for classical dance at Kathak Kendra in New Delhi. Now she intends to go back to Russia and teach. Captivated by Bharatanatyam and Kathak, Friedman took up Indian dancing in Russia itself, and was taught by "teachers in her nation". "I saw the dances when I was 12 years old, and began dancing when I was merely 16," she recalls.

Irina's Russian family shared her love for classical Indian art, and persuaded the 30-year-old to learn Bharatnatyam in Chennai. Says she: "My husband Gregory Harrz, a software businessman, shuttles between Chennai and Moscow while I stay with my seven-year-old son Roman." She learnt Bharatanatyam under Nirmala Chandran, who runs an academy for performing arts in Moscow. Nirmala advised her to go to Kalakshetra if she wanted to learn more. And so, she landed in Chennai four and a half years ago.

Californian Paramjothi, 21, says his parents were under the "divine spell" of Indian culture for the last three decades. Inspired by the spiritual pull of India, they even changed their names--his father is now called Janakar and his mother, Bhavani. Theirs was a regular presence at the cultural festivals and kutcherys organised by the huge Tamil diaspora in California where most major vidvans of the South performed. "That's how 1 got interested in Carnatic music," says Paramjothi, who is learning both vocal and mridangam at Kalakshetra for the last two years. He calls it a very satisfying and fulfilling experience.

Radhica Laukaran's active involvement with Indian culture began in 1987. She began her study of Indian dance forms with Kathak which she learnt for "seven long years". "When I came to India, I learnt Bharatanatyam under Leela Samson," says the distinctively accomplished dancer. She has also studied the lively and rigorous Chhau: "Basically, we islanders are a vivacious and rhythmic people. I have also been exposed to African drumming, and I find it very stimulating," she says. Associated with a dance company in London, she played the lead role in the dance drama Meera on her recent visit to India.

The passion for innovation also brought saxophonist Phil Scarff to India. Scarff--about whom Boston Herald noted, "He glides between structured Indian melodic development and characteristics jazz phrasing, bringing the two improvisational styles together with surprising ease"-has studied and performed the intricate polyrhythms of West Africa, and stayed in India to study with masters of Indian classical music. Among his teachers are vocalist Shreeram G Devasthali and the shehnai player, Shyamrao Lonkar. Scarff, who grew up listening to Bismillah Khan, admits that jazz is his mother tongue. But, like all experimenting musicians, he says: "Since jazz is improvisational music, it has a lot in common with Indian music which allows for expressiveness and emotion."

For Scarff and others like him, a visit to India is a reflection of their creative aspirations. Says Laukaran: "I am a very spontaneous person, and I go wherever my dreams take me." And India is the new destination of their dreams. They come with a genuine desire to see the country, to ]earn its arts, and take back with them the unforgettable influences of Indian culture.


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