It’s been a decade of solo classical music concerts for me and the journey truly has been fantastic! During the course of these ten years, one thing I always tried to do was to push my boundaries and tread areas which were new to me. So, although trained in pure classical khayal gayaki, I tried not to limit myself to that alone and out of these were born experiments in music and themes (more on all of that in a separate post!). I will start with the most recent one!
After experimenting with various themes ranging from narrating a story through the bandishes, to a rare jugalbandi (duet) with the harmonium, composing music for dance dramas with the message of environment protection, a complete two hours concert of Marathi Natyasangeet, and so on, I felt like doing something I had not done before. So the natural thing to do next was to try my hands at ‘Fusion’. Doing fusion is nothing uncommon. So many artistes have been doing it for so long! In fact, the assimilation and use of western instruments like the violin and harmonium in ‘pure’ Indian classical music is nothing but a fusion: a fact which most of us overlook! So how would my fusion be different from that was a question I needed to first ask myself and more importantly what is my objective in doing that? This is a habit I acquired in during my days as a Ph.D. scholar in Economics: first set your objectives so that your ideas get clear and you get a quality output! Studying ‘Research Methodology’ (and now teaching it for almost 8 years) has really helped me a great deal in my musical pursuits as well: as they say all knowledge is one!
So, the first thing to do was to reflect on ‘why’ I was going to do this. As I gave some thought to answer this question ‘why’ I was surprised at the number of answers I got and the wide spectrum over which they were spread! First of all, I thought of my own creative satisfaction. I was impressed with the tones and sounds of the instruments which we never use in pure Indian classical music. I was also impressed with the myriad of western rhythms and styles and thought they could gel very well with my style of classical singing. I remembered a tune I heard in a beautiful cathedral in Germany when I was just 15 years old that was so much like our Raga Kafi! So really speaking, knowingly or unknowingly this idea had been in the recesses of my mind for so many years!
Another reason was that I knew that I was fortunate to have got Indian classical music as a legacy from my parents, then my training in classical dance and further training in classical music and having grown up with it, I could appreciate it since an early age. However, there were a lot of my peers who were totally uninitiated and preferred listening to popular music which was easy to understand and appreciate. Of course, once or twice you pull them to a classical concert, they start loving the music! But there are those people who have a mental block that classical music is hard to understand and hence prefer to stay away from it! I wanted to take classical music to those people who would otherwise never listen to it, as well as those, who were totally into it! So basically, I wanted to do something which everyone would enjoy, the young and the old, the trained and the untrained, the classical lovers and the pop lovers, and so on! So it had to be something which retained the essence of Indian classical music without distorting the ‘shaastra’ and the same time embellishing it with western beats, sounds and instruments. Actually, even to call them ‘western’ would be a misnomer as Indian popular music has so well assimilated these so called ‘western’ types, that it has now become the common musical dose of so many Indian listeners. Utmost care, however, had to be taken to ensure that the ‘fusion’ does not become ‘confusion’!
This whole idea was there in my mind for almost two years and I was thinking about how to give shape to it. But other things were happening: routine concerts, travel, research and publications in Economics and my lectures and other work at the Management Institute I work at as Faculty in Economics. As they say, things happen when they have to happen!
It so happened that last November, we had our annual alumni meet at the institute and as usual, after the alumni symposium on some business or management related issue, there is a cultural programme where the current students perform in various events like music, dance and drama. Around the same time, I got an invitation to perform in December at the ‘All India Music Festival’, Kolkata, and hence, I had to apply for leave at my institute. Our then Director, himself being a music aficionado, after accepting my leave application said to me, “You have been singing for external audiences, why don’t you sing for our own home audience on our home ground?” I liked the idea of performing at my institute in front of my students and I accepted the suggestion!
I knew that at an event like the alumni meet cultural evening, the performance had to be something light and fast paced to go with the mood of the students and alumni, for whom it was a happy home coming to their alma mater. I called up my friend and Tabla accompanist Amit Joshi to ask him to accompany me on the Tabla for the performance. Amit had already tried his hands at fusion, mainly in percussion and had his own group ‘Triaum’, where he used all types of oriental and western percussion instruments. I had already discussed my idea of fusion with him almost two years back and this time, it struck to us that this was indeed the opportunity to try it out! And out of it was born my first performance in fusion! It was like a test market for me and we just sat for a rehearsal once, and I knew what I was going to do! In this we used very few instruments. I did not want to use too many sounds and create a ‘band’. So I had Amit playing both, the Tabla and the Octopad (often simultanouesly!), which took care of the rhythm department and I retained the harmonium accompaniment as in pure classical music because being a pilot performance, I did not want a very big departure from pure classical music. So basically, it was partial fusion, only with non-conventional percussion to accompany Indian music, both vocal and harmonium. The compositions I chose were very light and peppy and had the audience cheering and clapping as I performed!
My 30 minute performance was so well received at the alumni meet, by both, young students and mature alumni and faculty, that I knew that a little more tweaking, trimming and sharpening would transform it into a full-fledged concert! My idea was, as I previously said, to make it enjoyable for everybody, so as the common listener would sway to the rhythm, I did not want the classical music listeners with a ‘trained ear’ feel that they were excluded or that they did not get the same listening pleasure from this as they got from pure khayal singing. So the look as well as the sound had to be just perfect, a golden mean. So definitely no disco lights, no jeans and glares for the drummer: simply out of the question! The set-up would be the same as an Indian music concert would be. As for the sound, this time, I needed a keyboardist to add some different tones to the classical compositions. It had to be somebody with good knowledge of Indian classical ragas with the ability of spontaneous performance and not the type who play set tunes and film songs in an orchestra. Luckily we found in Rohit Kulkarni exactly what we wanted. I wanted to keep the accompaniment simple as it is in Indian classical music, where the performer creates magic with just three instruments: the Tanpura, Tabla, and Harmonium! The further question was whether to have a harmonium as well for accompaniment, but later I thought, for the fusion to be real, it should have harmonious chords while I sing and not follow me as in Indian music. In the interludes, however, the keyboard would play notes of Indian ragas.
Now the question was what kind of compositions to select. A vilmabit composition was obviously ruled out since it would be difficult to give it a contemporary treatment and I personally feel a vilmabit bandish sounds best when presented traditionally. As for the other forms I decided to have a representation of almost all of them! I feel my biggest strength not just as a musician, but also as a person, lies in my versatility. I have never let myself get shackled in any barriers. So while I learned dance, vocal music, playing the sitar, in my musical career, I opted for subjects, poles apart from each other like Economics, Logic and Methodology of Science, Psychology, German and English Literature in my academic career! Then while teaching Economics to would-be business managers, I started reading about ‘Management’ as well. I feel, to be a master of any one trade, you first need to be a jack of all! What’s the harm in trying to learn? If you feel it’s not your cup of tea, you can always leave it. But often people pre-decide what they can do and what they cannot or should not, and get stuck in the same thing without trying to explore new horizons. Due to my curiosity and urge to learn different forms I try to learn from every source, every person accessible to me, along with the blessings of my parents and gurus. So I decided to present different forms of Raga based compositions, and out of that was born ‘Raga on the Beat’!
I planned the entire two hour sequence starting with a bandish in madhyalaya, a bandish in drutlaya, a fast paced tarana, a thumri, a ghazal, a Sufi composition, and finally coming down to raga-based film songs. I tried best to retain the melody of Indian music, no compromises on that and interspersed it with the vibrant rhythms of Western classical and popular music like the Waltz, Soul Rhythm, Jazz. And our product was complete with the wonderful support provided by the keyboard. The only department now left to be taken care of was the compering. People often confuse compering with plain and drab announcements of the items on the list in a performance. In my concerts, the compere has a lot more to do! S/he has to reach out to the audience explaining the nuances of the presentation so that the audience not only enjoys the music, but also understands it. Raga on the Beat was particularly a concept which needed to be explained and then presented and there could be no one better than my father, an exceptional orator and an extraordinary writer! So he was roped into it. I told him what I had done and then left the entire job of compering to him. He researched further and as usual his compering added more colour to the programme!
We staged ‘Raga on the Beat’ for the first time in Pune on 27th April 2012 and were overwhelmed with the response we got! I had thought that this would be something which the youngsters would relate with more, but to my surprise, the audience was a mélange of people of absolutely all age groups and the senior people were also tapping and swaying as we presented our pick for the evening, the best out of the so many we had worked on, and each one was so well received by the audience that we felt it was indeed worth all the effort! My usual loyal audience was there, knowing that each time they would get something different in my concerts, and we were able to pull many others who would otherwise have never attended a ‘classical concert’! The biggest satisfaction for us as a team was definitely the fact that we were able to take classical music to the common man: a very tiny step in the vast empire of music, but a step all the same!