May 28, 2020
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Seeking Perfect Blends

Indian musicians, both popular and classical, are composing new sounds for the music-of-ideas era

Seeking Perfect Blends

"All kinds of labels are given to music to make it sell. People have to find new names to continue the selling game—like New Age Music, World Music and so on. But, frankly speaking, these terms mean very little, although I have always loved to experiment with musicians from the West." —Pandit Ravi Shankar

THE labels might be inappropriate. But there’s no escaping the reality. The contemporary Indian musician is displaying an explicit urge to create music without frontiers. As Ustad Zakir Hussain states in his introduction to his album Spaces, today’s composer is reaching out for that elusive "yet another dimension" in music. In other words, it is the music of ideas era. The parameters of a composition are created as the soundtrack evolves. There is nothing defined, very little is premeditated, and the texture can be such that a sitar can expect to find some parking space alongside the leen, a Tibetan drum.

In India, the signs of this revolution are visible though the consequences are far from predictable. Fusion as one knows it continues to evolve—and much more extensively at that—while popular artistes are fiddling with lighter vocal genres to create novel musical forms that are tough to define but pleasing to hear.

More importantly, the number of such trial-seeking musical adventurers is increasing with every passing day. In modern times, it is only an outdated perspective that can attribute a fusionist label to only a few artistes like Ravi Shankar when he performed with the late Yehudi Menuhin or associated himself with Phillip Glass for creations like Passages; or, Zakir Hussain when he participated in an escapade like Eyecatcher but came up with classics which include his work with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart for his Planet Drum essay; or L. Shankar and L. Subra-maniam whose endeavours have been immortalised because of their musical visions and artistic skills.

With a view to creating good, ‘different’ music, the number of experimentalists continue to multiply. And their quest for innovative soundscapes has ensured that musical trials permeate the households of several Indian classical musicians. For instance, while Zakir Hussain can be termed as a genuinely avant garde musician, his father is the conservative tabla genius, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan. What’s even more interesting is the fact that Zakir’s brother Fazal Qureshi composes music with the Swedish fusion group Mynta, while the youngest, Taufiq Qureshi, is a dynamic participant in the ‘new’ music forays. And so, Alla Rakha’s initial apprehension has given way to appreciation for anything that is good.

Other performers too have broken away from their conservative classical heritage. As a result, while the Indian violin has been employed primarily for classical performances by N. Rajam, her daughter, Sangeeta Shankar has displayed a positive approach towards eclectic, non-classical compositions while remaining loyal to her classical roots.

So, while Shankar is viewed as a puritanical performer, her drifts have resulted in releases that reflect a fascination for new melodic compositions. Says Shankar: "While my forte is Indian classical music, I would like to perform in, and compose, albums which gives me scope for experiment. Of course, I wouldn’t do it just for the sake of doing it because the result must be good."

Shankar’s approach is an indication that several Indian artistes are willing to set aside the rigidity of performing ragas alone to perform their own distinctive but unclassifiable compositions. As Ronu Majumdar’s A Traveller’s Tale suggests, these artistes are romancing with novel structures of musical thought itself.

 One interesting artistic reaction to the tormenting cadence of modern living has been the composition of soothing music aimed at mental relaxation and meditation. Albums from the Osho commune have been published regularly. Among those to have been released by Oshoites are Swami Chait-anya’s albums in Pune first and Oregon later. Titled Aum, his first album blended acoustic sounds with the sounds of the sea. Even the great Indian flautist, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, used the gentle tone of the flute to create albums like Now and There with the Oshoite Amareesh Leib.

Magazines for personal growth like Life Positive have released albums like Shanti and Shakti to aid meditation. And a Music Today venture is titled Music For Meditation, composed by Vanraj Bhatia. Musicians like Bhatia are aware that the melodic component inherent in any Indian musical form creates enormous scope for soft tunes. One predictable example: any early morning raga’s base and the freedom to harmonise with comparable western influences can furnish one with the ideal composition for a listener who wants to relax and relish good music at the same time.

In their desire for imparting a concrete shape to their musical notions, several Indian performers are collaborating with artistes from abroad. Having moulded the Hawaiian guitar into the mohan veena, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt teamed up with the legendary blues guitarist Ry Cooder to produce the awarded release Meeting by the River in 1993. Bhatt also collaborated with J. Bing Chan, a folk violin player. Ravi Shankar has been responsible for the exposure of young artistes in the international artistic firmament. Acknowledges flautist Majumdar: "After I played with Panditji abroad, I was exposed to the challenges of performing with musicians whose styles are totally different. That has been a truly divine experience."

ONE remarkable development in recent times is that the sarangi, whose very survival as a mainstream musical instrument was being threatened, has positioned itself in the territory of the musically non-defined. Dhruba Ghosh, son of the eminent tabla player Nikhil Ghosh, has helped revive the sarangi as a major instrumental force. To introduce "richness of sound and clarity of tone", he has added a combination of strings never used before in the instrument. He has also worked with Japanese pianist Yamashita. Says Ghosh: "Basically, all experimentation must be done to see that music lives. This is an attitude hardcore old-timers would not appreciate."

It is a world full of creative possibilities that the contemporary Indian musician is looking at. And, this attitude has trickled down to popular music. One of the most talented Hindustani classical vocalists, Shubha Mudgal, recorded the hugely successful Ali More Angana recently. While she found the essay ‘challenging’, what really surprised the average Mudgal fan was the combination of diverse lyrical influences and studio-sterilised instrumentation.

The Colonial Cousins managed to execute an ambitious venture with reasonable creative but phenomenal popular success. They tried to sing blues with an Indian classical backdrop in one of the numbers; blended folk and urban influences in a second number; while a mainstream popular number with bilingual lyrics became a major hit. Along with the Cousins were performers like Bhatt, Vernon Reid and Najma Akhtar—each a positive evidence of the team’s effort to create music without frontiers. Shujaat Khan, son of the legendary sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan, sung folk numbers while he played the sitar himself in another album titled Lajo Lajo.

A great change indeed from the times when eclecticism was looked down upon, if the musician choosing to make trials hadn’t transcended criticism like Ravi Shankar in the ’50s and later or Zakir Hussain today. In the contemporary era, bands like Indian Ocean can afford to start off by releasing ‘elemental’ music—which is different from fusion because of being a spontaneous blend of Indian and western music. And each new sound is a sign of our times.

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