Alaap of honour: India at Grammy's : The Tribune India

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Alaap of honour: India at Grammy's

Alaap of honour: India at Grammy's

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

Zakir Hussain was a toddler in Bombay trying his hand at the tabla when, on another part of the planet, teenaged John McLaughlin was bowled over by a slice of South Indian music he encountered on BBC radio. This was seven decades ago. Subsequently, into the 1970s, when both gained fame, percussionist Zakir and guitarist John launched an artistic adventure. This month, half a century after the birth of Shakti, the fusion band hit yet another milestone. Its key members won the 2024 Grammy award for the Best Global Music Album. For two in the quintet, this wasn’t the first recognition from The Recording Academy of the United States.

Shankar Mahadevan

The Mumbaikar, with familial origins in Kerala, is among the very few singers who can modulate his voice to Carnatic and Hindustani requirements.

Ganesh Rajagopalan

The violinist has been performing with younger brother R Kumaresh for the past 50 years.

Ustad Zakir Hussain

To the ustad, fusion requires knowing fellow artistes inside out. As he often says, musicians in the greenroom don’t talk of the art while readying for the show. ‘We chat about cricket, weather, a funny incident.’

V Selvaganesh

The percussionist has accompanied stalwarts such as MS Subbulakshmi and M Balamuralikrishna.

Guitarist John McLaughlin. ANI

Zakir typically refers to his learning lessons on the two-piece drum as trysts with Ma Saraswati. The syllables on the tabla are mantras offered to the Hindu goddess of wisdom. Woken up three hours before the break of dawn, little Zakir would take the tap-and-roll lessons from his father Alla Rakha (1919-2000). After sunrise, the boy would join the namaz at the madrasa by the bend of their bylane in seaside Mahim. That would be on his way to the prestigious St Michael’s High School, where classes began with an assembly of the students chanting Christian hymns.

This routine went on till the mid-1960s when, a good 7,000 km northwest of the Indian metropolis, Englishman John had made London his home. During his formative years in Doncaster of Yorkshire, John was as crazy about music as he is today at age 82. At 13, the public broadcaster in Britain aired a Carnatic pipe concert. Nagaswaram legend TN Rajarattinam Pillai dished out Deccan ragas with the tavil accompaniment from Valayapatti AR Subramaniam. Least knowing then that Subramaniam was only two years elder to him, John would later recall: “I had no idea what this was. Only, I knew it kind of made my hair stand on its end.”

Life in different continents apart, the eclecticism driving John and Zakir are clear from the above fundamentals. Both maestros had realised before their meeting that a penchant for experimentation alone fuels improvisations. And, an open mind is enough to tread down novel paths of music. Respect for traditions doesn’t imply orthodoxy; nor does a spirit to rebel invariably translate into creativity. What is needed is passion.

Curious confluences

Such heterogeneity, stemming from inclusivity, is a defining attitude of all the members of the 1973-founded Shakti. They have a craving for introducing novelties to world music; it’s involuntary. In fact, more often, these happen out of accidents during get-togethers. To Zakir, it requires knowing fellow artistes inside out. As he often says, musicians in the greenroom don’t talk of the art while readying for the show. “We chat about cricket, weather or a funny incident on our way to the concert hall,” he notes. “These help us judge the collaborator’s mood and tune into the pitch of the programme.”

This norm proved its worth once more in the case of their latest album. The eight-song ‘This Moment’ won Shakti top honours at the 66th annual Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles on February 6. Chipping in were three relatively young virtuosos: Shankar Mahadevan (vocals), R Ganesh (violin) and V Selvaganesh (mridangam/ganjira). Basically Carnatic practitioners in their late 50s, the three have always had a flair for tasteful absorptions that manifest as melodies of universal appeal.

Shankar has seldom been a regular in the kacheri (traditional Carnatic music concert) circuits down the country. The Mumbaikar, with familial origins in Kerala’s Palakkad, is among the very few singers who can modulate his voice to Carnatic and Hindustani requirements. A loops-packed Tyagaraja composition he delivers cannot betray his parallel expertise in Surdas bhajans or Urdu ghazals with their greasiness. If his late guru Shrinivas Kale composed for Marathi movies and owned a special interest in abhangas of the Hindustani repertoire, Shankar also learned from TR Balamani (1936-2014) of the meditative Musiri style she imbibed at Chennai (to where she came from Kochi) before Balamani shifted permanently to Mumbai in 1962.

Ganesh, too, is a Tamil Brahmin, but raised elsewhere. The lilts in his talk leave no clue of his birthplace: Kanpur of west-central Uttar Pradesh. The grammar of Carnatic stems from the veena, he emphasises, substantiating how the implosive oscillations from its strings define the vocal gamakas. “In any case, music is the only non-visual art, I’d say,” Ganesh shrugs, highlighting the synergy he draws from younger brother R Kumaresh for the past 50 years on stage.

The violinist Shakti had in its opening decade was the flashy L Shankar, now 73. Half a decade after inception, the group disbanded, only to regroup in the late 1990s — with a vocalist. Thus came in Shankar, along with Selvaganesh (who replaced his father-guru TH Vinayakram, also a Grammy winner). In 2014, Shakti received a rude shock when mandolin wizard U Srinivas, only 45, died. Six years later, in 2020, on reassembling, they brought in Ganesh.

Selvaganesh, who has accompanied stalwarts such as MS Subbulakshmi and M Balamuralikrishna, played with Zakir as early as in 1990. In their years of growing up, Zakir and Selvaganesh had their fathers largely missing at home. Abbaji and Vikku (now 81) were both globe-trotters. If Zakir went on to co-opt Vikku into Shakti, Alla Rakha’s foreign tours had started in the 1960s. This implies a striking point: Chennai-born Selvaganesh, 57, is a third-generation global ambassador of Indian music.

Desi discords

For all its popularity across the seas, traditional Indian strains have relatively less takers in their native land. What’s more, the world’s only country with two streams of classical music has their buffs often unappreciative of the “other”. The typical Carnatic buff might find, say, the opening phrases of dhrupad recitals too slow to even locate any raga. Those attuned to Hindustani tend to dismiss kritis as mere reproductions of age-old exercises. To them, unhurriedness is integral to grand music and too many microtones stringing so many compositions make Carnatic almost cacophonic.

Frontline practitioners, too, have shared their criticisms. Kishori Amonkar (1932-2017) found percussion in Carnatic disturbingly intrusive. Across the fence, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy (1927-2014) concluded that khayals lacked structural variety. (All the same, Ravi Shankar of a previous generation introduced Carnatic ragas to Hindustani, while the influential GN Balasubramaniam was in awe of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.) Too much of improvised arithmetic harming the desired beauty is a complaint against Carnatic even from within, though Hindustani fans allege several restrictions in the South Indian idiom. Since the main suite of a kacheri, taking half its three hours, comes only towards the centre, the unfamiliar suspect Carnatic has no alaaps at all.

It is against such a domestic cultural backdrop that Zakir’s evangelism deserves added merit. The ustad ensures that Carnatic, too, is represented — now with vocals as well, courtesy the two-in-one Shankar Mahadevan. The singer’s selection of ragas, too, has a hybrid quality. For example, Shakti’s Grammy-winning ‘This Moment’ has a bubbly ditty where the vocals apparently surf along Mohana Kalyani in sol-fa format. The notes blend two Carnatic popular ragas, which have Bhoop and Yaman as the respective counterparts upcountry. The item is cryptically titled ‘Bending the Rules’.

Fusion, as Zakir has often reiterated, is not a phenomenon new to the subcontinent. While the sacred Prabandh Gayan and Haveli Sangeet of the first millennium CE did enrich the even more ancient dhrupad, the genre branched out into evolving as khayal, thanks to Indo-Persian poet-scholar Amir Khusrau (1253-1325). His own Sufi music had, into the 20th century, incorporated the banjo and mandolin, among others. It was in the 1960s when Pahadi folk music of the Himalayas began filtering into Hindustani, after the ‘semi-classical’ kajri, dadra, thumri and tappa. “So many alloys have preceded what came to be called fusion,” the ustad says. “This will stand for long. More waves will follow.”

Rakesh’s flute in ‘As We Speak’ tells it all

For Rakesh Chaurasia, Indian heritage music is all about impromptu progressions. Tribune file photo

Ten seconds from Béla Fleck’s rhythmic plucking the banjo, fellow American Edgar Meyer chips in. The bassist’s long-drawn notes lead Rakesh Chaurasia to impulsively shake his head sideways in appreciation. As that phrase ends towards the first half-minute of the item, Rakesh blows into the flute with percussion assistance from Zakir Hussain. And that’s how the piece from ‘As We Speak’ proceeds.

The other day, the 12-song work of fusion caught fresh attention from music freaks around the globe. The ensemble by the foursome won the 2024 Grammy for the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. It is another matter that Zakir has accompanied Rakesh on Hindustani concert platforms. And so has he played the tabla for the flautist’s uncle-tutor Hariprasad Chaurasia. Rakesh’s latest achievement, as observers note, has further brightened the reputation of Indian classical music on the global map.

Chaurasia Junior has his broad notions about improvisations. For him, Indian heritage music is all about impromptu progressions. “You take up a raga, and go for an alaap,” he gives an example, suggesting one way of colouring any melody. “Be it five minutes or 50, it’s all about improvisation.” That way, LP records, which didn’t permit a loop beyond three minutes, threw an added challenge to Hindustani musicians in the 1950s when the discs began to gain popularity. “You really need stronger focus for shorter versions to bring out the essence.”

Within the country, Carnatic has found a healthy co-traveller in Rakesh’s bansuri. The 53-year-old’s jugalbandis with Shashank Subramanyam of the southern system have been received well. “Initially, we tried for a synthesis by incorporating each other’s techniques. Eventually, we realised the beauty of sticking to one’s own style,” he says, stressing the significance of tonal quality. “I like to maintain composure and keep my deliveries serene.”

For all his liberal ideas, Rakesh believes in the time theory in music. “You may be inside a big hall with the electric bulbs leaving us clueless if this is morning or night. Yet, it’s best to stick to convention.” On a lighter vein, he adds: “During travels, the bansuri necessitates no additional baggage. Nor does it require tuning.”

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