Tributaries of song in full flow at Kolkata tribute concert

A tribute concert for Kalyan Mukherjea was an occasion to reflect upon musical experience.

Published : Apr 06, 2023 11:00 IST - 16 MINS READ

Vocalist Manjiri Asanare-Kelkar’s choice to sing the rarely heard Sampoorna-poorva raga came straight out of the Jaipur gharana playbook.

Vocalist Manjiri Asanare-Kelkar’s choice to sing the rarely heard Sampoorna-poorva raga came straight out of the Jaipur gharana playbook. | Photo Credit: The Raga Fellowship Foundation

The world of Hindustani music has always been populated with figures who represent pursuit and integrity more than public success. This is perhaps true for all fields of human endeavour in which the criteria for success are often vague and, perhaps more importantly, varied. Stories of rivalries, successes, and failures (both aesthetic and social), artistic striving, marginalisation and valorisation all come together to form a discourse that manifests, every once in a while, as a public event. The Dr Kalyan Mukherjea Memorial Concert was one such—an immaculately organised, intelligently curated festival that aimed to bring back into public memory the contributions of a reclusive master of the sarod.

An event that pays tribute to such a musician, to his gharana, to a particular tributary of the waters of Hindustani music, makes for a potent place to reflect on what goes on between musicians and their audiences, and what such an experience might be about. Indeed, it becomes possible to read a stirring account of human passion, turmoil, and exuberance into a seemingly straightforward festival of music.

When Arnab Chakrabarty, Mukherjea’s disciple and the force behind the event, suggested that I write this piece, the prospect was tantalising. Despite my involvement in the world of Hindustani music, I had not heard of Kalyan-da, as his disciples call him. Having brought me down to Kolkata over a February weekend, Chakrabarty’s involvement in the project was immediately apparent. To foster bonhomie between visiting musicians at an event, and, on the same day, between the movements of a raga on an instrument takes entrepreneurial enthusiasm and sheer grit. Chakrabarty clearly has both.

But his team must have had it relatively easy. The musicians are almost as well-known for their lack of fuss as they are for mastery of their craft: veterans Yogesh Samsi and Budhaditya Mukherjee, consummate masters of the tabla and sitar, the prodigious Manjiri Asanare-Kelkar, inheritor of the formidable Jaipur gharana of vocal music, and, offering tribute to his mentor, Chakrabarty himself. The organisational energy thus saved went towards crafting a truly thoughtful event.

The G.D. Birla Auditorium and the Ballygunge neighbourhood where it is located both evoke an old-world sensibility that, for better or worse, makes votaries of Hindustani music feel at home—the former’s regal maroon seat-covers and old, polished wood panelling; and the latter’s lack of high-rises and the memory of the Raj embedded in its spelling. Add to this the mythology of the classical tradition and the illusion is complete.

Arnab Chakrabarty simply entered the labyrinth of raga Kedar and traversed it on his own terms.

Arnab Chakrabarty simply entered the labyrinth of raga Kedar and traversed it on his own terms. | Photo Credit: The Raga Fellowship Foundation

What is it about this music that evokes such nostalgia, although it is a genre known especially for the thrill of the moment, for spontaneous composition? It is, perhaps, the steadfastness that the music demands, both from performer and audience, one we imagine existed abundantly in the past, in eras we have not witnessed. Or perhaps it is the romance of rhetoric—of being witness to high art, to a pre-colonial, pre-modern culture, an experience made more poignant by the sound of handcrafted acoustic instruments bereft of accoutrements of modernity (or as bereft as the proscenium stage and amplification systems will allow them to be). As Jigar Moradabadi says, “It is where the sureness of my footing fails/that the territory of the beloved begins.” For the aficionado, the music begins before it has begun. It begins at the moment when this strange nostalgia for a time you have not witnessed envelops you. And as you watch musicians like Yogesh Samsi, consummate in their craft and unassuming in demeanour, take the stage and tune their instruments, you are lulled into a state of quiet receptiveness.

To listen to a masterly tabla solo is to allow yourself, in the span of an hour or two, to be ravaged by the vicissitudes of time. The tabla maestro is a time warper. Aiding and abetting him in this endeavour are the accompanists on the sarangi or harmonium who play the lehera, a simple melody that sets up a straightforward loop, one that you can happily clap along with and with which you can keep time. Sarwar Hussain Khan and Siddhesh Bicholkar, both wonderful musicians, did this with grace and poise. But you do not listen to a tabla solo for the comforting synchrony of a community drum circle. You listen to it for the thrill of guile and deceit.

As Yogesh Samsi began his teental—a long-winding loop of 16 languorous beats—his goal was simply to arrive at the first beat. This is the cardinal rule of the game. The 16 beats mark out the field, and the soloist navigates its terrain, shooting always for that stable goalpost, the climactic first beat, known in the lexicon as the sam. The word connotes stability, the equipoise achieved when a roller-coaster passage of rhythm-play reaches its end, only to begin another. Samsi’s performance certainly rolled as much as it coasted: the constant repetition of the accompanying lehera created a clearly identifiable repeating groove, a stable pulse that kept arriving at the sam in a simple, predictable manner, a predictability Samsi revelled in subverting. And in the hands of such a master, this subversion is as violent as the most tumultuous roller coaster. Samsi would enter the temporal space set up by his accompanists, and populate it with the most unexpected accents, with aaghaat, so that our sense of time, lulled into a comfortable swing by the lehera, would suddenly be twisted, and we would be hurled into unknown territory, only to be returned to the sam again. The tabla solo pushes and pulls at space-time, a continuum musicians seem to have discovered before Einstein did.

The artistry of Samsi

Samsi is a musician’s musician. His conversation, through the performance, was primarily with his accompanists. Watching his eyebrows rise from behind his solemn spectacles every time he wanted to draw their (and thus the audience’s) attention to his manipulation of microtemporality was an experience. But tabla-playing is not only about the arithmetic of time. Especially in the hands of one as skilled as Samsi, this experience is also made more sensual by the sound of the instrument. For the tabla speaks in a language; not a metaphorical language, but a language of timbral syllables, of weighty dhas, airy tins and staccato tirakitas. A tabla bandish, then, is a composition that captures a particular undulation, a particular topography of time, depicted through the poetry of the instrument’s language. Samsi presented many such compositions, each more beguiling, more beautiful than the other, allowing the audience to borrow, through his speed and virtuosity, some of his own hard-earned vitality.

Yogesh Samsi presented many compositions, each more beguiling, more beautiful than the other.

Yogesh Samsi presented many compositions, each more beguiling, more beautiful than the other. | Photo Credit: The Raga Fellowship Foundation

It is a daunting task to take the stage after Yogesh Samsi, but to Chakrabarty’s credit, he did so with reassuring tranquillity. There is a liquid shimmer to the sound of the sarod. Or maybe it is the literal shimmer of steel strings running across a steel fingerboard that adds to the aural experience of fluidity. Chordophones—string instruments—do, indeed, have a liquid mercuriality to them, the kind to which vocalists can rarely aspire. With four or five strings tuned to successively higher pitches, it is easy for sarod players to jump across octaves, a feat the human voice strives to match. This allows instrumentalists to add dimensions to ragas that vocalists rarely can. Chakrabarty did this deftly, containing this mercuriality within the constraints of the raga while avoiding the feverish acrobatics that are increasingly becoming the norm in instrumental music today.

Sincerity and rigour

There was sincerity in Chakrabarty’s playing, and the rigour of tradition in his elaboration of the raga. There is joy to be found in each stage of intensification an instrumental performance goes through: the somnolence of the initial alap, an awakening in the gat composition, and boisterousness in the virtuosic work that follows. The fact that the same raga can be reclusive and assertive and everything in between is sufficient evidence to refute the rasa bhav theory, rhetoric unthinkingly and uncritically borrowed from ancient texts to assert that every raga conveys only a single emotion. Such rhetoric dumbs down the wonderfully complex experience of a raga and curbs the freedom that performers and audiences have to inhabit the music in whatever way they will.

A good musician does not perform with the intention of evoking a singular emotion. Chakrabarty’s intention, instead, was simply to enter the labyrinth of raga Kedar and traverse it on his own terms. There is meaningfulness in choosing a raga like Kedar too. This is an oft-heard raga, a siddha raga that is inevitably a part of every musician’s training, and one avoided by musicians in search of “novelty”. Repetition, revisitation and reinterpretation are acts that give Hindustani music its particular character and are observable at every level—the musician improvises through repetition, he constantly reinterprets the central conceit of the song, and he revisits raga and tala across performances.

What might sometimes appear to the uninitiated to be dreary repetition represents to the Hindustani musician a never-ending quest for subtlety, nuance and a basic and perennially beautiful musicality. This requires shauq, a wonderful word that connotes fondness, madness, yearning, affinity, taste, and zeal, everything it takes to inhabit anything as useless, to borrow from Wilde, as the arts, for no purpose other than to meet an always-unmet need for greater joy. And a reliable way to be infected with this shauq is to apprentice oneself to a shauqeen mentor. For Chakrabarty, the source for this seems to have been Kalyan-da.

  • The Dr Kalyan Mukherjea Memorial Concert was an immaculately organised, intelligently curated festival that aimed to bring back into public memory the contributions of a reclusive master of the sarod.
  • To listen to a masterly tabla solo is to allow yourself, in the span of an hour or two, to be ravaged by the vicissitudes of time.
  • Sarodiya Arnab Chakrabarty’s intention was simply to enter the labyrinth of raga Kedar and traverse it on his own terms.
  • Manjiri Asanare-Kelkar’s choice of the rarely heard raga Sampoorna-poorva came straight out of the Jaipur gharana playbook.

No time to pursue audiences

It is often the case with shauqeens like Kalyan-da that they are too wrapped up in their pursuit to bother with the performance circuit. That Kalyan-da’s other great shauq was mathematics, and that this shauqinai was formidable enough to take him from Oxford to Cornell to UCLA while still in his 20s demonstrates his uncommon ability to pursue the intangible with grit and fervour. These shauqs are jealous mistresses, and Kalyan-da kept two, which left him with no time to pursue audiences. His doting disciples, however, were close witnesses to his private pursuit and must inevitably wish to make it known.

Kalyan-da studied sarod with Radhika Mohan Maitra, a renowned master of the Shahjahanpur gharana, the particular sub-tradition that this event wanted to bring back into public consciousness. It is a name that does not enjoy the glamour of the two big contemporary sarod gharanas—Ali Akbar Khansaheb’s Maihar and Amjad Ali Khansaheb’s Bangash. The reasons for this are social and political as much as aesthetic, and a growing body of scholarship now seeks to address this history. The sarod has had a complex, storied past, and competing claims to authenticity and aesthetic superiority abound. It is always healthy for the arts, however, for a minority aesthetic to assert itself in the face of the dominant ones, and this tribute event played an important role in that respect.

Budhaditya Mukherjee’s sitar performance of Shyam Kalyan involved conforming to and subverting the grammar of the raga.

Budhaditya Mukherjee’s sitar performance of Shyam Kalyan involved conforming to and subverting the grammar of the raga. | Photo Credit: The Raga Fellowship Foundation

In a short and poignant ceremony, awards were presented to four “sentinels” of music—two patrons, an instrument maker, and an orator; and a lifetime achievement award was given to Irfan Muhammad Khan, khalifa or heir to the allied Lucknow-Shahjahanpur gharana and a storehouse of old compositions, one of which Chakrabarty chose to conclude his performance.

Valuable music

What is it about a bandish, a raga, or a gharana’s style that makes it valuable? Is it merely the rhetoric of marginalisation that makes it important? Can such rhetoric, indeed, be called “mere”? Or is there something about the way the composition engages with musical form and structure that makes it intrinsically valuable? On the other hand, is it really conceivable for a composition to have aesthetic merit in an absolutist, ahistorical sense?

These questions come to the fore in the music of a singer like Manjiri Asanare-Kelkar. As she began on day two of the event, Asanare-Kelkar displayed all the trappings of dedicated gharanedari. The choice of the rarely heard raga Sampoorna-poorva, the choice of teental, and the shunning of the worldliness that comes from singing text in favour of the other-worldly austerity in the use of the resplendent ah vowel to sing increasingly complex phrases; each of these choices came straight out of the Jaipur gharana playbook.

What the aficionado seeks in such a performance is an esoteric joy. It is one that depends on historical value and fidelity to traditional principles as much as it does on the music. Ragas are the grammar, and while grammar aspires for standardisation, it is rarely able to stand up to the entropy so endemic to human nature. It is, in fact, the human struggle against both utter disorder and stifling order that lies at the heart of raga-sangeet. The Jaipur style emerges from a discourse of austerity and fashions itself to strengthen that discourse, creating a self-perpetuating theory-practice loop.

One way they do this is to choose ragas like the one Asanare-Kelkar did, ones that are wrought by hewing several ragas together into what becomes a network of possibility. This is done in other gharanas too, but where others might aspire to move through this web towards simple, song-like cohesion, Jaipur revels in deviously switching from one constituent raga to the next, constantly challenging one’s melodic skill. Asanare-Kelkar’s ability to do this won considerable applause—she would constantly devise new pathways, each more treacherous than the other, and arrive at the sam with aplomb. One cannot help but feel a sense of respect for a musician who makes it a habit of setting up, in full public view, such difficult challenges for herself, and still has the candour to smile at every little success and grimace at every little failure. For all its austerity and other-worldliness, it is the act of rising to these self-inflicted challenges that imbues Jaipur performances with playfulness and makes them eminently human, and Asanare-Kelkar’s was no different.

You know that a musician is on another level, however, when you hear musicality even in the tuning and setting up of the instrument. Budhaditya Mukherjee, who followed Asanare-Kelkar and provided the coda to the event, was, in spite of his reputation and his mastery over the sitar, visibly nervous as he began to play. It was an endearing, genuine nervousness, one that anyone invested in producing music on a concert stage will immediately understand. It is, ironically, often this lack of confidence that makes master musicians what they are. Like the musicians who preceded him, Mukheree played a traditional raga—Shyam Kalyan. His performance involved conforming to or subverting the grammar of the raga, but herein lies the catch: grammar is relative, and the way each musician understands, conforms to, or subverts it is wonderfully idiosyncratic. There arise, thus, dialects and even idiolects of the language of raga-sangeet, and the invested rasika attends concerts for this diversity.

A simple evocativeness

There was a simple evocativeness to Mukherjee’s Shyam Kalyan. It aimed not to sidestep complexity but embrace it and draw a simple expressivity from within it. It contained the joy of cohesion, the kind of joy that creates the illusion of order and harmony, and suspends for its audience the chaos of reality. Mukherjee played his sitar in the khayal ang. The term “ang” here refers to the kind of vocal music the instrument tries to emulate: the syllabic dhrupad or the melismatic khayal. To play in the khayal ang, then, is to shun dhrupad’s austerity and indulge in the expressive, even floral ornamentation khayal is known for. But in Mukherjee’s playing, there emerged another approach that seemed to be more deserving of the khayal label: Mukherjee completely avoided the long-winded alap-jod-jhala sequence. Indeed, he almost skipped a free-form alap altogether, playing only a few short, perfunctory phrases instead, and began immediately with a masitkhanigat—a medium tempo bandish set to teental with a five-beat mukhda or repeating refrain around which to build the performance.

This allows the musician to give the bandish precedence over the raga that defines it, and to spend performance time developing musical statements that are more focussed than they would have been otherwise. This was, perhaps, one source of Mukherjee’s cohesiveness. The other source probably came from a facility all players of plucked chordophones like the sarod have—the percussive accentuation their plectrums afford them, which gives them the clear temporal definition that percussionists regularly use yet softened by the melisma of melody the latter lack. This balance of the syllabic and the melismatic is often responsible for the clarity of melodic contour good instrumentalists have, and that vocalists, especially those who favour the aakaar over syllabic bol or word-based development, might lack.

Mukherjee’s performance was made more noteworthy by Soumen Nandy’s subdued accompaniment and his poignantly uncomplicated solos. The two complemented each other beautifully, achieving this, much to our relief, without resorting to the saval-jawab antics that have become the bane of instrumental performance today. There was no crude trading of solos, no playing to the gallery and, perhaps most importantly, none of these seemed to be missed by the audience at all. The gathering seemed fully immersed in what was unambiguously and unapologetically a solo sitar performance.

A quiet resolution, even a quiet resplendence, was something all the musicians at this event shared. What was truly fascinating was who their performances seemed directed towards: Yogesh Samsi, completely invested in his world of rhythm, seemed to play mostly for his accompanists. Asanare-Kelkar’s conversation seemed entirely with the gharanatradition to which she belonged. Chakrabarty seemed focussed inwards, entirely on the music he wanted to coax out of his instrument, while Mukherjee seemed engrossed in mining the vast reserves of raga expression for gems directed at the audience.

In the face of the banal global monoculture of popular media, it was refreshing to see such diversity within a genre as niche as this. And even more refreshing to see the musicians attend each other’s performances and appreciate each other’s efforts with candour, seriousness, and good humour—another phenomenon that seems to be the preserve of small-scale events. It is in these, and rarely in the big-ticket spectacles, that the thrill of Hindustani music is made manifest, and one sees real musical give and take. What remains when the dust has settled is only the prospect of another, newer way of expressing a raga, the untapped potential of a tala, and the musical exuberance captured in a bandish. And it is this infinite promise to which such events really pay tribute.

Srijan Deshpande is a performer and scholar of Hindustani music.

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