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'.