Saturday, September 18, 2010

An Audience with the Tigress

I heard this woman play the sitar two weeks ago.Her nimble hands slid gracefully across the frets as she played with both soul and dexterity.It is a rarity among musicians these days,particularly among Indian classical musicians.Her style is typical of those who have trained under the tutelage of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Yes, she is one of his pupils, just not the one you're thinking about.

Jaya Biswas,a stalwart in her own right, epitomizes the artist who creates for the sake of art alone. She instructed the bewildered Master of Ceremonies not to make any introductory remarks about her save the name of her guru. She then apologized, in advance, for any mistakes that she might make during the course of the concert. I expected her to be some kind of Diva, but she only had one complaint; that the heat generated by the harsh lights was causing the strings of the sitar to expand, thus setting them out of tune. She nevertheless re-tuned the instrument painstakingly and without fussing over the laxity of the light attendants.

Great musicians let their music speak. Western classical composers seek solace in knowing that their music is preserved for posterity. Sheet music survives the ravages of time and the limitation of human memory and serves as the only living proof of the composer's genius. Indian classical music, on the other hand, relies entirely on improvisation. Indian classical musicians are limited by the whims of a particular 'raga' (a limited sets of notes, their sharps and flats) . They must find their freedom in such confinement. Before the recording era, there was no way to preserve such impromptu compositions. Things like technique,interpretation, and a select set of compositions were passed down from teacher to pupil. An artist's reputation was left to word of mouth. The current situation of such musicians is ironic. One one hand, recordings of their work stand as stronger validation than mere word of mouth.On the other hand, it is nearly impossible for a musician to replicate that genius each time, without sounding repetitive.

It is for this reason that the audience was offered an apology that turned out to be rather pointless. While some artists wane with age others surge to new heights. The latter is the case with Jaya Biswas. At the ripe age of 75, her interpretation of the raga was original without any disrespect to her guru (all Indian classical musicians must allow their style to betray some proof of identity of their guru). Between performances she joked about how she is often referred to as 'the tigress', and compared to frightening women politicians. It takes a 'tigress' to admit that an experimental concert is likely to be flawed, and then to give a performance that speaks quietly of perfection.

I often wonder how, being a woman, she was 'permitted' to become a musician. Till the advent of playback singing and the national obsession with celebrity, Indian women belonging to families that were either 'respectable' or of 'sufficient means' were barred from becoming performing artists. Women in music either needed the protection of a doting father, the surname of a 'broad minded' husband or the patronage of a wealthy connoisseur to survive. It takes immense courage to create something with single minded devotion; allowing the music of the present to cast a shadow over unanswered questions of the past. I leave you with a piece of music here. It is a duet and the sitar is played by the 'tigress'.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Music Room

I am generally wary of the 'prowess' of contemporary writers, more so if they're Indians writing in English.There is something very unnatural about the writing style of most contemporary Indian writers who use English as a medium of expression.It's not that their writing comes across as foreign,it just appears as though they make a tremendous effort to sound literate.It is with this skepticism that I sat through a book reading by Namita Devidayal, a Princeton educated journalist turned writer, as she read out excerpts from her first book and memoir,'The Music Room'.

'The Music Room' is an account of the author's experiences during the course of her training in Indian classical music.It also contains the histories of Dhondutai(the author's teacher),Kesarbai(Dhondutai's teacher) and Alladiya Khan(Kesarbai's teacher).It begins with a reluctant child being brought to her teacher, Dhondutai,to learn music. It then covers the dichotomy of the author's 'double life'.On one hand she studied in a westernized school for the elite, and on the other hand she took lessons from a traditional Indian guru. The book talks about the author's personal strife to reconcile the two worlds, and the personal strife of her guru to carry her musical tradition forward.

The narrative tends to sound like what Indian writing in English has sounded like ever since Arundhuti Roy won the Man Booker Prize. What redeems this book is that it doubles up as an anthology of anecdotes that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The occasional clash of cultures that are diametrically opposite was something that most readers will find fascinating.The musicians mentioned in the book hail from a variety of backgrounds and, as the author said, 'would probably not eat food in each other's houses'. Yet they somehow touch each other's lives and, quite inevitably, the author's. The inexplicable relationship shared between a music teacher and her student can only be understood by one who is musically inclined. This book gives us rare insights into a world that is slowly withering away due to its inability to carve a niche for itself in the present.

Reading 'The Music Room' was a pleasant experience on the whole. It left me with a deeper understanding of a tradition that I've struggled to come to terms with(a different story all together).