THERE was a time when classical music was confined to the connoisseurs. To relish the complexities of its grammar and the slow unfolding of classical compositions required patience and knowledge. But many musicians of our era are bringing in a freshness that makes classical music universally relatable, especially to younger audiences. Upholding the core principles of Hindustani music, five Mumbai-based Gen Z musicians, as they call themselves, have contemporised classical performance with innovative and often unconventional symphonic renditions. Their concept is called ‘Araj’.
A brainchild of tabla virtuoso Ishaan Ghosh, 23, the band Araj includes vocalist Pratik Singh, sarangi player Vanraj Shastri, flautist S Akash and sitarist Mehtab Ali Niyazi. Each of them is intensively trained. They present their own unique and individualistic styles, giving a distinct colour to each performance.
“Araj literally means prayer. A homage to our great classical traditions,” explains Ishaan, son and disciple of tabla and sitar maestro Pt Nayan Ghosh. Vanraj, Pratik and Ishaan happen to be his students; ‘guru bhai’ or disciples of the same guru. When the five of them got together and jammed informally for the first time a few years ago, they clicked instantly. “We just wanted to play what we felt from within. Retaining our classical core, we incorporated a layer of our own which makes our music distinct and individualistic,” he adds.
While Ishaan’s racy fingers and crisp tonality provide a fine rhythmic backbone to the music, Pratik’s sonorous and versatile voice lends soul to each rendition. Vanraj, known for his sensitive and refined sarangi, harmonises flawlessly with the mellifluous flute and the sitar. “Although we do decide on the basic theme of each rendition, we sprinkle in a lot of spontaneous improvisation. Apart from Hindustani classical, our performances also bear hints of jazz, Middle Eastern, Carnatic and light classical styles,” Ishaan shares.
He says the concept is ‘neo-classical’. “It’s a novel idea wherein Hindustani raga and taala music is presented to diverse audiences with a modern outlook. We have stuck to our classical base. Though we are not a clichéd ‘fusion’ band, the essence lies in our refreshing perspective,” explains Ishaan.
Having released ‘Chakra’, a one-of-its kind album last month, available on Spotify, the harmonious chemistry and musical bonhomie between the band members have received wide recognition among music lovers of all ages, including millennials in India and abroad, considering the very young vibe around the music. The entire album was recorded live. “‘Chakra’ features Araj’s vast musical spectrum. From racy and cerebral pieces to soothing ones, from complex rhythmic tapestries to avant-garde melodic harmonies, listening to ‘Chakra’ is like watching a multi-genre movie,” Ishaan smiles.
Comprising four tracks, it begins with ‘Sargam Crossing’, a skillful interaction of two ragas — Vachaspati, originating in the South, and Patdeepki, with a spirited 4-4 beat. “The track ‘Peace at Eleven’ is centered on an 11-beat rhythmic cycle divided into two halves, 5.5 beats each. It makes you tranquil as it unfolds,” Ishaan says. While ‘Summing Up’ in Raga Basant Mukhari includes the African Djembe by renowned percussionist Shikhar Naad Qureshi, son of the famed Taufiq Qureshi, ‘Thumri Lore’ is a moving and soul-stirring thumri rendition by Pratik Singh.
“For this particular track, I chose an old thumri, ‘Beech Dagar Mag Roke, Dekho Daj Ki Matki Lai, Gaari Dai’, in the sweet Raga Maanjh Khamaj. It has been sung by the elders of my Jaipur Kuwar Shyaam gharana. The rendition is in the absolutely traditional thumri ang,” explains Pratik.
Having swept audiences off their feet at esteemed international venues like the Center for Fine Arts at Bozar in Brussels, De Singel in Antwerp, Belgium, and Muziekgebouw at Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Araj has also made waves back home. At an arts festival in Rishikesh, they performed before nearly 25,000 people. Despite Bollywood and drum ’n’ bass line-ups, this purely acoustic classical band had the audience on their feet, dancing to their grooves!
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