Musings

Entranced at India Music Summit

This is sentimental. Because music makes me sentimental.

I write this with the feeble authority of one who has taught himself to play percussion by ear. I must hastily add: I also play percussion by fingers, palms, and feet.

I write to say I was utterly swept away by the ocean of music created by the many ustaads who performed during the MTV India Music Summit, organized by Musiconcepts at the Fairmont, Jaipur from 12th to 14th October.

I dare not try and describe what they played or how they played or why their performances were so wonderful, so moving, so magical. That is best left to the countless others who are more qualified and knowledgeable than me in matters musical.

But this much I bravely declare: the music I heard during the Summit unshackled my mind (it is of no relevance whether the mind was already unhinged); it carried me off to float effortlessly into realms of utter harmony, where, on the waves of timeless rhythms and riffs and cadences and chords, I transcended – if only for a few days – the mechanical world of space-time that I think of, and usually dwell in, as Reality.

Borrowed and adapted shamelessly from Musiconcepts
Some of the maestros who played at the Summit [I’ve shamelessly ‘borrowed’ and adapted this collage from Musiconcepts ]
Among the maestros who performed at the Summit were Shujaat Khan on sitar, Ajay Prasanna on flute, Amit Choubey on tabla, Ambi and L. Subramanian on violin, Aruna Sairam and Suresh Wadkar on vocals, Prasanna on guitar…. to name just a few. We heard Indian and Western classical, jazz and rock and world music, pop and devotional…

And more than once, at the end of some performance when I opened my eyes to the sound of applause and cheering as the last ethereal notes faded, I remembered something that the great jazz drummer Max Roach once said: that a great musician makes music the way a lover makes love.

Many of the musicians at the Summit demonstrated (and how!) the truth of this maxim in their performances: blending boundless curiosity with childlike delight, self-control with confidence; tempering blazing passion with tenderness, raging desire with empathy; taking us soaring to celestial heights of ecstasy, utter abandon, and then gently, respectfully, bringing us back to earth…

They performed with love, pure and unselfish. The love resonated as much in the joyous, crystal-clear choruses of the Mizo Cardinal Choir as in Usha Uthup’s husky, throaty, sending-shivers-down-the-spine crooning; in the devotional songs of Mazhar and Javed Ali Khan and of Pandit Chhannulal Mishra; in the innocent, lilting violin-cello-piano melodies of the Ramakrishnan Trio comprising Aaliya, Naima and Nisha; in the divine flute duets with which Suchismita and Debopriya Chatterjee dispelled dawn’s chill and welcomed the rising sun.

And if the Summit was shaped and held together by these many delicious and diverse strands of music, their impact was hugely enhanced by the interludes during which the maestros shared their musical knowledge and insights with us, through relaxed baithaks and conversations filled with anecdotes and banter. It was amazing how, with seemingly no effort or intent, these little one-off sessions developed a dynamic and logic of their own, with the ideas and musings and music in one session reflecting and being built on in another, till they became threaded together into a single string of multi-faceted, many-hued gems of gyaan.

There was so much of value, so much to listen to and revel in, so much to learn. Here are just a few random strands drawn from rapidly fading memory, in no particular order (the interpretations and translations, and any inaccuracies in them, are entirely my own):

  • Shujaat Khan, fondly recalling his father Vilayat Khan, and also Bhimsen Joshi who would often visit their home:

“Once, while listening to me as I was doing my riyaz, Joshiji began to chant the refrain of what sounded like a bhajan. Of course the bhajan blended perfectly with the raga I was playing, but I was unfamiliar with the lyrics. They went something like this (sings):

       Pachhhee-suhha

       Lakshmi Maaaa Ryg Gyu – Poo

       Ney-Mahaa

       Raaaaasha-Trahah

“After we finished, I asked Joshiji what the bhajan was. He replied, with a chuckle, that having momentarily forgotten the actual lyrics, he had instead sung out the address of his residence in Pune: ‘25, Lakshmi Marg, Pune, Maharashtra’… 

  • Shankar Mahadevan, talking about his work with Bollywood songs and explaining—through songs—why we must, and how we can, respect, preserve, build on, and popularize our incomparable musical heritage—Hindustani, Carnatic, and all their many regional streams—without compromising on the rigour and purity of their classical systems and structures.
  • Shujaat Khan on sitar, sliding almost mischievously from a lovely contemplative Hindustani classical piece to a Bollywood pop tune. And leading us, with his wizardry on the strings, on a voyage along a river of liquid notes during which we experience the closeness of music to nature, to life, to Creation.
  • Ambi Subramaniam with his violin bearing us smoothly, blissfully, across the realms of jazz, world music, Carnatic raga.
  • Chhannulal Mishra effortlessly switching from Hindustani raga to Carnatic raga, providing glimpses into the one deep ocean whence both great rivers of traditional Indian music originate…
  • Sufi Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi,  speaking  passionately on her ‘Courtesan Project’ to erase the social stigmas attached to the tawaifs (courtesans) and give them the respect and credit they deserve as  supreme exponents of dance, music, drama and literature:
    • Today, it has become so convenient for us to depict the tawaifs as ‘victims of sexual exploitation’ because they were women who performed in the nawabs’ courts. This is wrong! By the same token, we ought to be depicting as ‘victims of sexual abuse’ the men who performed in the nawab’s courts! The truth is, the tawaifs were great artistes, they were ustaads. And ustaad is a gender-neutral word! We only denigrate the tawaifs, we diminish and devalue their achievements by looking at them through the narrow prism of gender. Their music, all music, should be judged by its intrinsic value and quality, not by the gender or social position of the performer…”
    • “NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, carry ‘golden records’ containing sounds and images intended to depict the diversity of life on Earth for any extraterrestrial intelligence that may come across them. The records contain music from many countries: the song selected from India is the raga ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’ sung by khayal singer ‘Surshri’ Kesarbai Kerkar. Today Kerkar is still remembered in NASA’s golden disc on distant Voyager…but she is forgotten by us…”

The memories of the conversations blur and coalesce; presently they will fade and disappear altogether.

The music and passion endure, enthrall.

    High on music, captivated by this mighty war drum, I tried echoing the driving beat of  the Fairmont Gatekeeper…and succeeded in driving away a number of guests

General ravings, Musings

A road forgotten…a road remembered

Wandering through some long-forgotten folders, I came across a few ancient F-class photos from late September 2008, when I travelled for a few days in eastern Uttar Pradesh, visiting villages in Allahabad and Pratapgarh districts. These villages were home to migrant brick kiln workers: primarily, kiln firemen and their families.

I’d taken these photos with my first and most favorite camera phone. How I miss its simple practicability: no frills, no fancy apps, just the large-sized alpha-numeric keyboard, left–right button navigation, and a 1-megapixel camera. The phone, alas, is long expired; as indeed are most of the memories of that trip. The sights, sounds, scents, emotions, the people I met, our conversations, the food we ate, the places I stayed in, the sequence of events, their vividness, the once-sharp outlines, are now smoothed and rounded off and merged into one amorphous, uniform, featureless, mass…like the distant hill you see from a speeding car or train, a blurry pile shimmering in mid-afternoon haze like a dream, seemingly moving along with you, keeping pace as you speed along across a vast plain, but ever-so-slowly lagging, slipping back, till it is left behind forever.

Yet the photos now bring back shards of memory; and even memory of memory. Broken memories they are, discontinuous, yet sharp and clear as glass splinters. A few village names come to mind:  Ghuisarnath, Akhirajpur, Lakhram, Tharia. The drives to the villages, from Allahabad or Lalganj or Pratapgarh, were very hard on the bones and muscles, especially the stretches along rutted, pot-holed country roads. Yet I’d loved the experience. With the monsoon over and winter yet to set in, the streams and canals ran deep and wide, the exhilarating aromas of moist earth and damp vegetation hung over the rich green countryside, raucous birds rejoiced in the dense copses of mango, babool, neem, amla.

Amidst this richness, the firemen’s villages presented a sharply contrasting picture of poverty, endless toil, of quiet, timeless despair. Typically, each village was located on elevated ground; a few score huts scattered across the slopes, linked by mud-and-rubble-and-brick paths, with the inevitable tank at the base of the village, filled to the brim post the rains, some with flotillas of duck. Every village had a shrine, usually a temple of sorts, beneath some giant pipal or banyan, fronted by a large swept clearing that was the community meeting ground.

Sewing class taking a break – the newspapers are not for reading, but used instead of waste cloth (a costly and hard- to-get raw material) to train the young seamstresses
Tharia

Such was the little village of Mendara. Memories of trudging across broken land and halfway up a small hillock to where a great banyan stood, ringed at a respectful distance from its hanging roots by other smaller trees. Sitting in a circle with the villagers beneath the banyan, conversing about the lives they led—at the kilns, which were sometimes thousands of kilometers away, where the firemen worked ceaselessly for seven months or more each year in the most horrific conditions; and in the villages where, with the menfolk gone for most of the year, the women and children and the elderly faced extreme hardships.  How deeply moving was their warmth, their innocence, their incredible generosity. Hogging large quantities of fresh gur, bananas, drinking sweet yet deliciously strong chai liberally laced with goat’s milk. Walking around the village; making comic faces at the little children who scampered around and giggled and guffawed and made faces right back at me. The small village shrine, exquisitely clean, utterly peaceful, with fresh flowers and a bunch of bananas placed in front of the tiny sanctum lit by a single lamp, redolent of goat’s butter.

Mendara

The village elder led the way up toward the crest of the hillock. The trees thinned, the ground levelled off, and suddenly, we were standing on the edge of a cliff that followed the contours of the hillock on either side: a broken, fifty-foot- high wall of angular rock faces and red, iron-rich earth, strewn with stone and rubble and the corpses of countless trees and bushes that had once dwelt on the slopes. Far across the shallow valley I saw a line of low hills; and running across their midriffs like a jagged knife wound, a road under construction—its course marked by the hideous, characteristic signs of road building in Indian hills: scarred slopes, littered with mounds of earth, blasted boulders, tree trunks scattered like matchsticks on the denuded expanses.

“That is the new road from Allahabad,” the elder murmured.

“The Allahabad Bypass Expressway,” a young fireman corrected him politely. “It will turn round that slope and pass close to Mendara, right below us. See? They are working quite close already.” He pointed toward the left and I saw in the distance a stretch of muddy track carved out from the hillside. A bright yellow earth-mover was gouging out great chunks of earth from the slope; the clattering roars of its engines faint but distinct.

“They say the Expressway will bring us jobs; that it will bring prosperity to us,” the young fireman went on. His voice was hesitant. “With jobs, maybe we can earn more, be closer to home through the year; we can take care of our women, our children. Maybe we won’t have to travel to work in faraway brick kilns any more…”

The elder sighed. “Yes…but with the coming of the road, our old ways are vanishing,” he went on softly, his eighty-five years carved into deep lines that divided his face into a thousand weathered segments.  “So many trees have been felled; entire forests are gone. We have always grazed our goats, our buffalo, in the plains down there, but now the grasses are withered, the ground is hard, the streams are bitter, or have dried up. Where  will we take our animals for grazing when the road is finished? When thousands of vehicles are moving up and down, day and night?”

His voice trailed away and we stood there in silence.

And that’s when, without warning, a memory flooded my mind like a river; a much older memory, from a time when I was much younger, maybe ten years old. It was during a drive in the mid-1960s, somewhere between Jorhat and Kaziranga in Assam; father was driving the car, mother seated next to him, brother and I were dozing in the back…till we were woken up with a start by the screeching of tyres as the car braked to a shuddering stop. Through bleary eyes I saw, in the dull red light of dusk, a dozen goats milling about on the road in front of the car, a young goatherd – a boy about my age – frantically darting about, crying out and wielding a bamboo stick expertly till he assembled the animals in a loose group and led them across the road and up a path leading to a cluster of huts on the slopes to the left.

“My God, I nearly hit them,” father murmured, his voice trembling, hands gripped tight on the wheel.

“It’s all right,” mother murmured. “I’ll drive for a bit…you take a break, you’ve driven the whole afternoon…”

As we set off again, mother at the wheel, I spoke up. “Stupid goats. Stupid villagers! Why do they have to live so close to the road?”

Father glanced around sharply but before he could speak mother replied. “Understand, always remember, they were here before us.” Her voice was soft but stern. “The villages, the villagers, were here long before this road came…before we came…”

On that hillock above Mendara, I heard and felt the impact of those words undiminished by the decades…as I do now, fifty years older but not much wiser.