Tune in to the rhythm of Indian classical music…
When you’re living in Delhi, you’re not just living in India’s bustling capital. You are in a city with an enigmatic past, deeply entrenched in time as far back as 3500 BC! The enduring seat of political power over centuries, right from the Pandavas to the Mughals and the British…a perfect backdrop to experience the abundant culture heritage of one of the oldest civilisations of the world. Today Delhi hogs the limelight as India’s cultural hub and I highly recommend my city for a plethora of fascinating events all year round. Come winter, it hosts some matchless cultural extravaganzas, music fiestas, theatrical shows and food festivals. Enticing enough…
So last week, when the city hosted the 4-day long annual classical music-dance festival, Swami Haridas-Tansen Sangeet Nritya Mahotsava, nothing could keep us away. The event is named after 15th-century saint musician of North India, Swami Haridas, and guru of Tansen, India’s greatest musician. Organised by renowned kathak danseuse Uma Sharma and funded wholly by corporate sponsors, attendance to this event is entirely free! Come one, come all.
As expected, there are no allotted seats and audience is unlimited. Reach an hour before show time for a good seat. If you don’t mind a little adventure, arrive later and squeeze yourself into the (already-filling up) cushions arranged on the semi-circular steps bordering the main seating area. Else, just drop all your graces and settle for the carpeted aisles. Rejoice if its really last-minute…you have the liberty to race to the stage and squat around the raised dias, close enough to reach out and touch the performers. The warm informality, chaotic as it seems, will strike a chord in your heart. Now that’s an engaged audience!
While you wait for the evening to commence, allow your mind to deliberate India’s rich classical musical inheritance, going back to the 16th century, when Tansen rose to fame in the Hindu court of Gwalior, and later Mughal emperor Akbar’s court, where he was bestowed of title of Navratna (one of the nine gems). Many modern gharanas (music teaching houses) are offshoots of the lineage of this founder of Hindustani classical music: Dhrupad (solemn, spiritual), Khayal (moody, celebratory), Thumri (romantic-devotional) and Tappa (folksy). Khayal formed the template for Sufi and Qawwali songs among the Islamic community of India…some unmistakable Arab and Persian influences there. It is this diversity that is quintessentially Indian! And Delhi…so apt as its stage.
Reflect on the intrinsic sagacity behind the seemingly ordinary ceremony of lamp-lighting. It is actually a peek into an age-old Indian ritual (still part of many traditional households), where an oil lamp is lit at the beginning and end of the day as an invocation to the divine light or cosmic energy. The burning of the flame represents a rise in spiritual knowledge, drain of negative tendencies (oil) and the destruction of the ego (wick). Inspired?
The line-up is stellar. Think renowned mohan-veena instrumentalist Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt, tabla exponent Ram Kumar Mishra, Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal, classical flutist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, sitar musician Ustad Shujaat Khan and sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The very idea of witnessing live performances by these revered celebrities is overwhelming. All torch-bearers in their chosen fields, some of them with several generations of family legacy behind them…creative geniuses who have left an indelible mark on the world stage. Drink up…every priceless drop of this enlightening evening!
Brace for something unfamiliar. Music has a universal language, yet Indian and Western classical music are worlds apart. Ragas are like broad frameworks within which musical notes are interwoven following a complex cycle of rhythmic beats (taal). Simply put, ragas are the colors and the music is the painting. There are no standard compositions (as in western music) and artists have the liberty to creatively express, improvise or attempt reproductions from their idols. In Indian classical music, there is no concept of documenting work…its a constant evolution.
Its magic from the word ‘go’. Couplets from mystic poet-saint Kabir and Sufi musician-icon Amir Khusrau fill your ears and transport you into a new consciousness. Ragas and talas float in the air around you, lift you up and carry you to a marble palace by a serene blue lake, diaphanous white curtains floating between dozens of carved pillars. Or the ghats of a river, near an ancient temple. Sometime, somewhere in the 15th century. The gentle strumming of the sitar, the soft beat of the tabla and the slow swirl of the dancers’ skirts pace up imperceptibly until the energetic gusto reaches a crescendo that makes your heart skip a beat.
Amjad Ali Khan’s craft dazzles, and you’re glued magnetically as his fingers dance over the sarod (popular stringed instrument) tirelessly. Sixth generation from a family of master musicians, and now proud father to two sarod-masters, Amaan and Ayaan Ali, he is a legend par excellence. The two tabla (type of drum) players accompany him effortlessly, even fade off for his solo. But occasionally, he restricts his instrument to a background hum and encourages them to take the limelight, showcasing their virtuosity. Different from a Western classical concert, where the composer and conductor are the centrepiece and the rest of the performance is a team effort! Hold on to every spontaneous improvisation and every joyous jugalbandi. There won’t be a playback.
Shubha Mudgal stirs your soul with her full-throated vocal rendition. She is accompanied by stringed tanpura players, shadowing the tonality of her voice. Unlike in Western classical music, here instrumentation falls into the background as a steady tone…call it a point of reference for the singer if you will. Half-way through, a little girl behind us, who’s probably taking classical music lessons, can’t control her curiosity. “Is that Shubha Mudgal?” she asks her mother, who chides her. “Hush! While taking the name of a guru or senior, always touch your ears in respect. They are too highly accomplished for you. And do you understand now how much riyaaz (practice) you need to do everyday, to achieve even a fraction of what these fine artists have achieved?” she reminds her solemnly before the child runs towards the stage, her phone camera poised in her hand. The fascination for classical music may have taken a back-seat to modernity, but the sacred guru-shishya parampara lives on…
Ustad Shujaat Khan weaves magic with his sitar (named after a Persian instrument called the setar, meaning three strings). A musical pedigree of over seven generations after all! We sway to the lush reverberations, amazed by the impeccable gayaki ang, (mirroring the human voice). He declines an audience request to perform a certain raga because it is not the appropriate time of day for it. A reaffirmation of the wisdom and science of ancient Indian musicologists.
A reminder. The roots of the classical music of India are found in the Vedic literature of Hinduism (1500-500 BC). The mind is considered to be affected by nature’s rhythms, so music is a holistic experience designed to facilitate symphony with the universe. Accordingly, ragas have specific times of day or seasons of the year associated with them. It is said that Tansen’s musical genius could light lamps (Raag Deepak) and even downpour of rain (Raag Megh Malhar)!
Meanwhile, here, in this auditorium, we are part of a shared communion, a spiritual awakening. People are humming, nodding in sync, tapping their hands and feet. A young man sits with his eyes closed, all through, as if in trance, shutting out every sensory impulse, except the music in his ears. A little girl in a red velvet dress thoroughly engrossed in the flute recital, has her own fingers fluttering over an imaginary bansuri (flute). A lady holds her index finger thoughtfully against her cheek, gazing in full intent. A young man holds his bent head in his hands in utter concentration.
We follow the move of every raised eyebrow, every muscle twitch, every smile, every grimace, every concerted frown of the musicians on stage, ride the waves of the scale and the pitch, until the delirious applause brings us down from the divinity of heaven. Some are left agape, some mesmerised, and some utter appreciative ‘wah wah’ aloud. But everyone is promising themselves to come back for more. Will you be there next time?