Friday, October 18, 2013

I'm dancing at the feet of my lord, all is bliss all is bliss!

I would still like to believe that this was a typical habit of all the children back in the late 80s, to go through their dad's things when nobody's watching. Today when I look back, those episodes seem quite amusing dipped in sheer innocence. With no intention to come across something dramatic, there used to be this surge of excitement to know more about your father; and it rarely mattered if that something made any sense even. My father was an advertising professional and his study although impeccably tidy was quite a potpourri of sorts; filled with books, fancy magazines, newspaper cuttings, stencil drawings, long calligraphy pens, paper samples, colour bottles, paint brushes, music cassettes, old photographs, post-its, a magnifier lens in a leather pouch and a world of random things. Going through his desk was was like peeping through his thought bubble and wondering the endless possibilities that one can create by mixing any of the three things together. And so I used to sit and wonder, each thought happily spiralling into another, innocent imaginings I would say but like in a children's fairy tale there used to be a villanous thought buster as well - my dad's visiting card!

The designations mentioned on all the other visiting cards lying on the desk always made sense to me but not his. Unlike a Marketing Director or a General Manager or a Chairman his visiting card mentioned his designation as a Creative Director. And I was always puzzled what does this really mean. Like, what does he do at work the whole day that keeps him busy through the week and mostly weekends as well. Now if you ever happen to read the technical definition of creativity, it states creativity as a process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile. What is produced can come in many forms and is not specifically singled out in a subject or area. Obviously a young mind of mine then was in the midst of utter befuddlement. So I started having my own ideas about 'creativity' and about 'creative people'.

Shakti at a live performance
For me, being 'creative' was about doing something your way, starting a new trend and being recognised for it. And with that definition a lot of iconic people started featuring in my list. The list was quite a long one as it included all the names that I had come across while going through my dad's desk - Satyajit Ray, Kahlil Gibran, Ravi Shankar, V S Gaitonde, Kumar Gandharva, Bach, Edward De Bono, P L Deshpande and many more. But to be honest, these were mere names; I didn't know who they were nor did I know what did they really do. But as is the case ever so often, there was an exception. In this list of creative people, there also featured a music cassette and I exactly knew why was it on the list. I used to play this cassette endlessly on the loop and gather such joy every time I heard it. The sound of the bow instrument especially gave me goose bumps as a kid. And I was dead sure these musicians were super super creative. To my luck, I was not proven wrong, the album was a concert recording of an Indo-Western music group and I later found out the four group members were mavericks in the music world. The group was Shakti and the members of course were John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Vikku Vinayakam and the one to whose music I was hypnotically attracted to, the ever-so innovative, the creative mastermind, L Shankar.

L Shankar
Laxminarayana Shankar was born to be a musician; not because he was the youngest of the six children in a family completely devoted to music for generations, but because of the sheer inquisitiveness that he had about music. The unquenched thirst to do something new, breaking the strict barriers of traditional music yet staying true to the discipline that offered him the platform to innovate, compulsively collaborate and daring to create something so unique that by the time you fathom, all you remember is his genius. 

A violinist, singer, composer and producer, L Shankar has worn many hats in his career of over 40 years and has managed to sell over 10 million album copies. An acclaimed master of improvisational music, he is a rare virtuoso who embraced distinct genres making his music a conflux of Indian music and World music with a blend of pop, rock and contemporary jazz. In one of his interviews, he was quoted saying, 'I would like to bring the East and the West together. That, I think is my role'. 

L Shankar's father V Laxminarayana Iyer was one of the most celebrated violinists of his times and his mother was a singer and a Veena player. So it was not a surprise that Shankar's musical training started from the age of two and he gave his first public performance just five years later.  His elder siblings are musicians as well including two world renowned violinists, Dr. L Subramaniam and late L Vaidyanathan. As a child, Shankar's training was not restricted to a specific idiom of music as his father was open to all kinds of music - Carnatic Classical, Hindustani Classical and other western musical styles. This surely laid the foundation stone for Shankar to combine the musical traditions of Southern India with world influences in violin and vocals both. Interestingly, Shankar not only managed to blend various musical styles but also bridge diverse cultures through his extensive collaborations with musical giants across the world.

After completing his BS in Physics in India, he moved to the US in 1969 and earned a Ph.D in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was during this phase when he spent most of his time combining music styles of the East and the West. And it was here where he met John McLaughlin who was then studying the ancient Indian instrument Veena. They both took an instant liking to each other and decided to form a group, Shakti roping in Vikku Vinayakam and Zakir Hussian on Ghtam and Tabla respectively. Their first performance was held at South Hampton College on July 5, 1975. The recording of this concert was later released as their debut album in 1976. And since then, the group went to produce some of the most striking sounds in Indo-Western fusion for audiences world over. Shakti released two other albums in later years, Natural Elements and A Handful of Beauty. But with each member getting busy with their own exhaustive tours and schedules, the group dissolved by 1978. Interestingly though, each of these musicians stayed close to the musical style that had been pioneered during the 'Shakti' days.  According to Shankar, 'such experimentation and experience are more in depth than any college, unless you are studying in guru-shishya paramara, on a one-to-one basis.  

Double Violin
I have been listening to Shankar for years now, and whenever I do, there is this feeling that tells me he must be quite a dreamer. But then someone has said it quite rightly, those who dream, seek! Shankar's ultimate foray into musical innovation and experimentation has been the invention of the ten-string double-necked stereophonic violin. This instrument was conceptualised and designed by Shankar and built by guitar builder Ken Parker. The most distinguishing feature of the double violin is that it gives a single player the five and a half octave range of a full string orchestra, including double-bass, cello, viola and violin. The instrument in more ways gave Shankar greater flexibility as an instrumentalist. He introduced the unique sound of this instrument on his first solo album, Touch Me There in 1980. In the late 70s, Frank Zappa had replaced Jean Luc Ponty with Shankar on the electric violin for a short period but this stint had paid off Shankar quite well. Impressed with his talent, Frank Zappa produced and contributed lyrics for Touch Me There.

After the success of his debut album, Shankar continued to impress audiences and critics alike with his unmistakable sound through various albums and concerts. This also includes the 1996 Grammy nominated album Raga Aberi with his own Indian group featuring Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakam. Over the years, he has literally perfomed alongside the who's who of the music industry - Peter Gabriel, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Phill Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Sting among the wide array of pop stars; Ravi Shankar, Palghat Mani, Jan Garbarek, A R Rahman, Trilok Gurtu and many others from the World and Indian music genre. The list of collaborations and performances by Shankar is quite endless but what really makes his music stand apart from the rest is his philosophical approach to music. In one of his interviews, he said ' We should never be so busy that we cannot pray, dance, write, sing or do whatever we are destined to do.' In recent years, Shankar has been performing and touring extensively with Gingger Shankar and has been receiving rave reviews for the same. 
I just hope we all get to listen to more of his music in coming years as we come across musicians like him quite rarely and far between.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

HCM's best kept secret: Mallikarjun Mansur

In life, there are incidents that you don't want to forget and then there are incidents etched in your memory so vividly that every time you reflect upon them, they come out as fresh as you had remembered them to be. You grow with it, and as you do its memory opens up newer perspectives, dimensions, thoughts that had not crossed your mind yet. So the same incident gets an all-new meaning in your head; only until you remember it again. Nostalgia is such a spiral, but talking about incidents that have left lasting impressions on my memory, I remember many many years ago that one late afternoon when my dad's friend Bal Deshpande had visited our home. 

As an unwritten law, be it any time of the day we would always have some music playing in the background at home; the naad of the electronic tanpura at the least. Dad maintained it gave a certain continuity to your thoughts. But that day, our home was reverberating a little too loudly compared to the other days as my dad had bought me a cassette of Trilok Gurtu's brand new album African Fantasy. Excited obviously, I had been playing it on the loop from the time it was gifted to me. And I was in no mood to switch the cassette player off once the guests arrived. As a fair gesture, when the doorbell rang I voluntarily turned the volume down by half.

Now I will tell you why are all these details so important to the incident. Dinki Puriya is one of the tracks on African Fantasy, and as it started playing in the background both my dad's and Bal kaka's face lit up. Grabbing the moment, I pumped up the volume. Dinki Puriya is a beautiful acoustic track, packed with zesty sitar and powerful tabla accompaniment. Towards the end of the composition, Bal kaka started mentioning that it was such a treat these days to listen to ragas like these. Until then, I had not known that dinki puriya is actually a raga. Well, that was the smaller of the two revelations I experienced that day. 

As they continued discussing about rare complex ragas and artists who performed these with utmost finesse, Bal kaka said 'he neither had an imposing voice nor a grandiose stage personality but what a rare gem of an artist he was!' I had not heard about this artist until then, so asked dad to suggest a few recordings that I can listen to. Out of the many albums he pointed out, I selected raga bhimpalasi and once it started playing; a new world opened up in front of me. I discovered something new that day, the best kept secret of Hindustani Classical Music was now upon me. And that's how I was introduced to the music of Mallikarjun Mansur.

Of the many felicitations attributed to him like the doyen of Hindustani Shastriya Sangeet or the last of the purists; Mallikarjun Mansur was an artist, truly one of its kind. A towering personality, that was a sublime combination of humility and eminence. Born in 1910 in a village named Mansur near Dharwad in Karnataka, Mallikarjun went on to become one of the most celebrated singers of Hindustani Classical Music. His story is that of a genius who chose to live his life as a sadhak (disciple) of music. 

Since the age of ten, stage has been Mallikarjun's best companion. Starting as an actor-singer in musical plays in Karnataka, he soon gained popularity and built a repertoire of khayal, natyasangeet and bhajans. He had his first commercial release in 1933 and thus the ball had been set rolling. But the journey was not an easy one and the main reason for this was that until 60, Mallikarjun spent his life fulfilling commitments with All India Radio and HMV in Dharwad. Thus he was unable to create a following of national stature in the prime of his life through concert performances and tours across the country. But thanks to his disciplined lifestyle, he went on to perform for over 20 long years post his retirement. During this phase, not even once had anyone a slightest doubt of he being physically unfit to perform.

In my view, 'the meeting of the two oceans' is an analogy that best descrbes the music of Mallikarjun Mansur - his gayaki represented two gharanas, Gwalior and Jaipur Atrauli. And it was through this amalgamation that he carved out a style, so beautiful, complex yet intrinsically delicate that can be called only his. Although trained under these two gharanas, his true musical identity blossomed under the tutelage of three gurus - Neelkanthbuwa Alurmath (Gwalior Gharana), Manji Khan and Burji Khan (sons and disciples of Alladiya Khansaheb, founder of Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana). His reverence for his three gurus has been paramount in his life. He regarded them as perennial rivers of music that he could not draw enough from. 

While studying under Manji Khan, Mansur honed his technique to visualise the raga where each sur (note) seamlessly blends into the other, and while doing so how one can change the tempo within the same time cycle - making the raga, tala and laya a single unified body. As was the practice in a typical Gurukul parampara, a single raga was taught over days but every time it assumed a new form; this gave Mansur the impetus to think, ponder, debate over each composition and what emotions does it stir; thus understanding how the same raga with the same set of notes performed at different times can emit different feelings. It was during this apprenticeship that he mastered the Dhrupad-based style of Alladiya Khansaheb and built a wide repertoire of ragas including some rare and complex compositions, the unique characteristic of the gharana. Even at forty, Mansur frequently visited Kolhapur to continue his music lessons until Burji Khan passed away in 1950. In his autobiography Nanna Rasayatre, Mansur talks very candidly about his gurus saying that they continue to guide and inspire him in spirit, enabling him to understand the true meaning of music. Not surprisingly then, he had dedicated his success and the reputation he had gained to his gurus.

When you listen to Mallikarjun Mansur, there is an unmistakable string of authority and beauty in each performance; then be it raga yaman or a twin raga like basanti kedar or a complex one like khat. He would often cast a spell on his audiences with the purity of each note and the virtuosity to stitch together varied emotions of the bandish (lyrics) and thus revealing the individual beauty of each raga. Some say, he brought along a special intensity to his singing, an urgency and earnestness in the treatment of the melody. As admired for his Khayal renditions, Mansur was also notably popular for Natyasangeet and Bhajans in Kannada and Marathi both. Musicologists maintain that the one feature that stands out most uniquely in Mansur's style is the way his compositions grip the audience almost instantaneously. With no slow build-up in the form of an alap, the composition directly jumps to the bandish with the accompaniment of tabla. And this direct, dramatic feature of the performance helps establish a rapport with the listeners immediately. 

He was indeed a musical phenomenon and they say he didn't stop performing until his last day. He passed away in 1992 and thus an era came to an end. He was conferred with many titles and awards including Padma Vibhushan, Kalidas Sanman, Karnataka State Sangeet Academy Award and many others although no award would match his selfless service to music. There would be no one like him again but his music will surely continue to inspire scores of Hindustani Classical music lovers for years to come.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Trilok Gurtu - Spellbound

It’s really hard to fathom what goes on in the mind of a master percussionist and serial collaborator like Trilok Gurtu. With a career that spans across decades, Gurtu has experimented with numerous sounds and styles in what we call World Music today. Gaining critical acclaim in the late 80s for setting ground for Contemporary Asian music, his music has simply grown from strength to strength since. From Indian to Jazz to African, Gurtu has interwoven various genres and worked with some of the biggest names in the circuit whilst adding that touch to each performance making it his own.

Cut to May 2013, and he’s back with his latest offering, Spellbound - in other words, a musical expression dedicated to trumpeter Don Cherry; someone who was his mentor and a dear friend as well. The album takes you through a few originals and pieces by Cherry, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis as interpreted by an all-star brass cast along with some foot-tapping rhythms on the drums.

A little shocked at first to see Gurtu going back to doing improvised music, but it’s simply inspiring to listen to jazz presented in a form which is devoid of any boundary or style. With every note on this album you can sense the emotion that goes with it. Featuring an array of trumpeters like Nils Petter Molvaer from Norway, Paolo Fresu from Italy, Ibrahim Maalouf from Lebanon, from America Matthias Schriefl and the classical trumpeter Matthias Höfs from Germany and Hasan Gözetlik from Turkey; superbly talented trumpeters all, their participation also showcases Gurtu's astute talent to shortlist the right artist for the right material. All in all, Spellbound is a must have in your music collection if you are an admirer of world music.

When asked about this album, Gurtu promptly replied saying that the idea behind this album was to present a message, which is spiritual and the one that emphasizes the musical experience. Grab a copy today, and let the music do the rest.