Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Singing Violinist

Padma Bhushan Dr N Rajam needs no introduction in the field of Indian classical music. A child prodigy, Dr Rajam has, over her seven-decade musical career, attained a legendary status in the field of classical music. A violinist par excellence and a musician whose name has come to be synonymous with the Violin, Dr Rajam is also acknowledged for introducing the Gayaki Ang and Khayal Gayaki Ang on the Violin. She is also a fabulous and fantastic teacher, and is currently training students at the prestigious The Dr Gangubai Hangal Gurukul at Hubli, Karnataka. Over a Skype interview with Team AALAAP, she shares her musical journey…

N Rajam

First things first; how and where did your love for music stem from?

In my house, right from the day I was born. My older brother, T N Krishnan used to learn music and my father was a teacher of classical music. So, the atmosphere at home was always charged with music. It is impossible then for music not to seep into your system.

So, you had no choice but to pursue music?

In our family, music was a tradition. So the question of choice didn’t even arise; it was always a part and parcel of life. When I turned three, I was handed over the Violin and I began training in it, formally.

As a child, how did the Violin manage to sustain your interest?

My father had an uncanny knack of ensuring I spent enough time on the Violin without ever getting bored. I remember he’d make me play on the Violin for five minutes and then give me incentives to practice and perfect what I had learnt. He knew exactly what he had to do to hold the interest of a child. Having said that, I must add that I was also a very good student.

You were born into a South Indian family, and you grew up learning Carnatic music. What triggered your interest in learning and pursuing Hindustani music?

After I completed my SSLC in 1953, I was really keen to study at the Benares Hindu University (BHU). Owing to an age issue, I had to enlist myself as a private candidate. It was at that point that my father suggested I pick Hindustani music as one of my subjects. That was really the beginning of my journey with Hindustani music.

Was that transition into another genre of music easy?

As far as the music was concerned, making the shift was easy for me. Even before I joined BHU, I had had twelve years of rigorous training in Carnatic music. I had already accompanied M S Subbulakshmi. That apart, even though musically I was trained in Carnatic music, my father ensured my brothers and I listened to a good amount of Hindustani music, either at concerts or on the radio.

But musically, the styles are distinct; how did you pick up those skills?

In terms of the music, Carnatic and Hindustani have the same roots. The difference really lies in the improvisational suggestions, compositions and raga elaborations. By the time I began to learn Hindustani music, I had already mastered the basics and nuances of techniques on the Violin. I was already proficient to reproduce any vocal musician on the Violin.

Is that how you learnt Hindustani music too?

Yes. I learnt to play Hindustani music on the Violin from a vocalist. He would sing and I would play that on the Violin. So, in terms of learning, what I had to imbibe was really the spirit of Hindustani music.

How did you do that?

Although I had an intense training in Carnatic music and learnt the best techniques in the Violin, I realized as time went by, that the techniques I had learnt so far weren’t enough for me to reproduce the intricacies of Hindustani music. It took me nearly 15 years of intensive research to finally create and develop bowing and fingering techniques that enabled vocal Hindustani music to be reproduced on the Violin. Like I said before, I knew I had to create music that preserved the spirit of the genre.

Can you tell us a little about your legendary Guru, Sangeet Marthand Pandit Omkarnath Thakur?

I first heard Panditji sing when I was 12. A friend of mine gave me a set of records by him and even at that young age, I was convinced that if I ever learnt Hindustani music, it would have to be from him. Fortunately, the universe worked in my favour. I had the unique opportunity of realizing my dream. I still remember the first day I met him. He asked me to play the Violin and after I finished, he said I was a good student and decided to be my teacher.

Was it easy learning from him?

It was a pleasure but definitely it entailed a great deal of hard work. Panditji’s music was acknowledged for its emotional content. So, to replicate that on the Violin called for intense bowing manipulation and fingering technique. It also meant that I had to spend several hours training and practicing, after class. Sometimes a phrase took weeks, sometimes, months.

What is the significance of gharana in Hindustani music? Can you briefly describe the Gwalior gharana?

Gharanas are like schools of thought. In the earlier days, students did not get the opportunity to listen to different styles and learn from them. So they belonged to a particular gharana. Nowadays, of course, things are different; an intelligent student will take to a particular style very easily. But even if you belong to a particular gharana, there is nothing wrong in taking inspiration from another. In the Gwalior gharana, the ragas developed systematically.

You learnt the intricacies of raga development from the renowned vocalist, Mussiri Subramania Iyer. Any anecdotes that you can recall…

To be honest, initially I was really scared of him. He however, was very fond of me as a student. Over the brief period of four years that I learnt from him, I began to look up to him like a father. I learnt raga development from him. He has been very influential and inspirational in my musical journey.

What are your favourite ragas?

I particularly like Raag Darbari, Bhairavi and Bageshri.

You are considered a pioneer for developing the Gayaki style on the Violin. Could you tell us a little about it?

In Carnatic music, there is no separate or distinct style for instruments. In Hindustani music, owing to the construction of instruments like the sitar, sarod, etc, there was a need for a Gayaki style to be implemented. When I began learning Hindustani music, I increasingly felt the need to develop a new path wherein we could reproduce the vocal style on a bowed instrument in a way that the continuity of the tone is easily obtained. This style/technique is highly stylized and sophisticated. In my career as a violinist, I have reproduced all the different forms of music, namely, Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumri, Tappa, Bhajan and also the Natya Sangeet of Maharashtra on my Violin.

Apart from being a performer, you are also an amazing teacher. How do you juggle these two roles?

Where there is a will, there is a way. If you have to do something, you’ve just got to do it! Teaching is my passion.

You have been in the field for over six decades now. How has art changed in the world?

Art has to change, constantly. If it doesn’t change, you cannot call it art. Having said that, young musicians seem to be making insignificant, unnecessary changes and I’m not in favour of that. Change is mandatory but it is important to preserve its sanctity.

Do you have a soft spot for Chennai? Tell us a little about your association with the city…

I have performed at several places in India and across the world. The audiences everywhere are different and respond differently to my music. But I must admit that I have a special place for Chennai. I have had so many lovely experiences there. It is rightly called the Mecca of music because the people there are genuinely interested and sensitive towards the arts.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Voice Over

Is voice an instrument to encourage solidarity? Is it an instrument of self-expression? Is it an instrument to break conventions? Or, is it the ultimate vehicle of liberation?

Sushma Somasekharan

Voice as an instrument

Damal Krishnaswamy Pattamal’s (DKP) career was a landmark event in the history of Carnatic music. It marked the emergence of Brahmin women as public singers and was instrumental in paving the way for female singers of the same community. As the first vocalist of her community to give public concerts, she challenged the prevailing orthodoxy not by argument, but by her Voice. Hailing from a family where her own mother was not permitted to perform even privately, D K Pattamal broke tradition and made history by giving her first radio performance for Madras Corporation Radio (now All India Radio) at the age of ten in 1929. In any discussion regarding the power of Voice to lift a culture, D K Pattamal presents an excellent starting point. Hers is an example of what a culture has to gain by unlocking its unheard Voices, not least because of the power of Voice itself. Despite difficult circumstances, she became the first woman to sing Ragam Tanam Pallavis (RTPs) in her concerts. No one would have thought that this was possible without formal training in the gurukula. She dispelled that belief by showing that she was capable of singing publicly on stage, and handling complex RTPs without learning under the conventional structure. This paved the way for more liberal learning methodologies. It showed that women too were capable of handling complex RTPs and were not musically simplistic. By being a doting wife and mother, she defied the stereotype that performing women were immoral or neglecting family responsibilities. 

The desire to challenge societal normsthrough Voice did not start with D K Pattamal, nor did it end there, for example, T M Krishna’s experimentation with initiatives unfamiliar to the modern music fraternity. During the 2012 December music season in Chennai, he renounced all ticketed slots, coveted by every musician. By performing at non-ticketed slots, he demonstrated that music and Voice should be made accessible to music lovers who cannot afford expensive tickets, and senior citizens who cannot queue for them at wee hours of the morning. 

T M Krishna
Margaret Atwood reminds us that, ‘A Voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.’ Undeniably some power is added when the Voice in question is raised in song. When the elegance of music is combined with lyrical power, the product is a melodic splendour capable of birthing wonders. From breaking convention, to encouraging solidarity and inspiring creativity, Voice has been, in a way, a useful implement to achieve a variety of purposes. And not just those stated. After all, M S Subbulakshmi was not doing any of those things when she put Carnatic music on the world map when she sang at the United Nations on 23 October, 1966. Yet, it is her magnificent Voice that takes credit for that accomplishment.

The power of free Voice has long been recognised. As late as 1909, the great Tamil poet, Indian independence activist and social reformer Mahakavi Bharathiyar felt compelled to remark in his essay, Sangita Vishayam, that if married women were taught to sing and appreciate music, society in general would improve. For him, music inculcated culture and ethics. And by prohibiting women from singing, he observed, that it was not only music but some fundamental goodness of life that was abandoned. 

More than advocating singing as an abstract means to better the public’s cultural lives, Bharathiyar used his nationalistic poems to foster national unity, freedom from foreign rule, the removal of discrimination based on caste and religion, and the liberation of women. Renditions of those songs nurtured national integration of people from all classes and creeds for one purpose –independence.

D K Pattamal’s delivery of his patriotic song Aaduvome Pallu Paduvome in the film, Naam Iruvar, was released a few months before India gained independence. It captured his confidence that his burgeoning nation would gain independence. He knew his lyrics only truly take flight with the power of a Voice and its ability to portray with close precision a worthy interpretation of the composer’s work. 

One observes in these examples the direct utility in a Voice, brought artfully together with lyrics and music. The beauty in a Voice and its ability to move, seemingly serves a different sort of ‘utility’. Say, an audience given to witness Lord Siva’s cosmic dance when the singer sings Bho, Shambo! Shivashambho! Svayambo! (Oh, Granter of Prosperity! Shiva! The Self-formed one!). Or observe an audience immediately feeling a mother’s agony when the singer sings Un Kannil Neer Vazhinthaal, En Uthiram Kottuthadi (When you shed a tear, my heart bleeds a river of blood). The capacity of one’s Voice to extract the essence of the composition remains unrivalled in its ability to fuse lyrics and melody. This enables a singer to use Voice as the instrument to allow the audience to indulge in the character of the song. Moreover, when the meaning of the song is elegantly communicated, Voice removes the listener from reality to a transcendent world. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s rendering of Dwaithamu Sukhama Advaithamu Sukhama (which conduces to beatitude, Dwaita or Advaitha?) undeniably invokes devoutness in the listener and brings him closer to feeling the presence of the Divine.

In observing how Voice moves an audience, elevates a culture, and even an entire nation, one risks traversing well-worn observations of the usefulness of Voice. Yet, to return to D K Pattamal and Atwood, what draws Voice its power to be an instrument remains intangible; one wonders whether it is melody, lyrics or the combination of both. Ultimately, it is the numinous quality of a Voice lifted in song, which penetrates consciousness. It can liberate as well as compel the listener to oblige the Voice and its intention. It is this transcendent quality that reinforces an ancient conclusion: that the ultimate desire to liberate the Voice is to appreciate Voice not as a mere instrument to achieve some temporal end, but for the most valuable purpose of all - itself. 

The writer has had a formal training in classical music in Singapore and currently lives, learns and performs in Chennai

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Roll Call

A personal account that focuses on how the camera reflects the way one connects with the world; someone chooses to capture minute movements, some others a larger picture

Anushka Meenakshi

 The Tetseo Sisters, at their house in
Kohima, Nagaland, getting ready
for a performance
Filming performances has been a fascination for me for some 
time now. I usually sit and watch from a fixed space in the audience, and while the sound, light and action on stage may give me clues to guide my eye in one direction, I always have the liberty of casting my eye somewhere else, letting it wander, observing the twitch of the person in the seat in front of me, wondering whether that precariously placed light is going to fall, catching a glimpse of the backstage actor getting ready to run in for her moment, or reacting to the temperature of the AC. Having my attention distracted by something else is as much a part of the experience as watching the action on stage, riveted.

The Camera gives one great freedom in terms of perspectives and angles - one can catch all the action from the best vantage point, one can turn the performance on its head, bring in views from backstage for example that give the whole thing new meaning - but what you lose is the immediacy and the choice. As a filmmaker or Camera person, I’m making the decisions about what the audience should see, what emotion should be highlighted, and which action is important at a given moment.

Honza and Sieve, students of the
Subbody Butoh School in McLeod Ganj
So when one tries to create something that is beyond just a document or record of the performance, one watches rehearsals, one tries to get a sense of what the performance is trying to evoke, what the performers are trying to convey. Finding a frame is often more work off the camera than on it. Filming Sangathi Arinhya (Have you Heard!), a play based on the stories of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, I tried to get to know something of Basheer and his stories, of the director interpretation of Basheer’s writing and to understand the actors’, especially Chennai-based Paul Matthew, who played Basheer. But I found, later, that what gave me an entirely new perspective, both while filming and while editing the performances was speaking to Basheer’s family and friends who had known him closely. The most rewarding experiences have been where I have known the performers and the production closely, where I have even been involved in the creation of the production in some way.
The most beautiful example of performance translated to film that I have seen is Wim Wenders’ Pina. The way he has woven the choreography into the landscapes of Wupertal is mind-blowing. Wenders watched Pina Bausch’s work for over twenty years before starting work on the film, and for me, the understanding that he gained of her work shines through in every frame.

Young monks waiting to perform at the Buddh Jayanthi celebrations,
Kaza Monastery, Spiti Valley

For the last two years, my friend Ishwar and I have been filming performances as part of a project we were working on, a nonverbal film. The idea has been not to look at performances merely on the stage, but to also find music and rhythm in daily life, as well as to see the performer in the everyday. The focus of our project is on everyday music and rhythms, and a large portion of it is dedicated to work music – music that accompanies or is closely connected to a specific form of work. One of the fascinating things about work music is its theatrical quality. Work music has a strong visual and dynamic quality to it. The swing of the spade, the tap of the feet on the loom, the swish of the broom, the turn of the potter’s wheel, these movements are an integral part of the rhythm of work music. Our visual focus is on these physical movements that accompany the music, looking at what these body movements are, where they originate from, how groups of people move through a certain space, their choreography, how they move the tools of the trade, and how patterns are created.

Filming this has brought into acute focus how differently different people see the world and the use of one’s Camera reflects the way one connects to the world. What Iswar often sees and captures through the Camera are minute movements and emotions - a tick, a nervous or impatient gesture, a small detail that tells something of the personality of the performer. What I look for is a larger picture, stories, and interactions between people.

Passing time at the community sit-out, Phek, Nagaland
Using a DSLR Camera for video has completely changed the way I film and also the way people interact with me. The ease with which one can set up to start filming changes your content matter quite dramatically. Even though people know we are shooting video, that small-sized Camera is still linked with photographs in people’s minds, so the way they go about their work or interact with the Camera is quite different. There are people who are still very uneasy in the presence of the Camera, for whom its presence can never be ignored, but for the most part, people tend to forget its existence very quickly, or – and this is often quite interesting – they are enough at ease with it to interact with it or confront it. The size of the DSLR, and also its technology is becoming more accessible. For instance, people don’t even seem intimidated to take over the Camera from you. There have been some incidents where someone we are filming with will themselves step behind the Camera and turn it around on us. And this for me is exciting because it opens up a new level of interaction, changing, even if just for a moment, the dynamics between the performer and the filmmaker.

The writer is a film-maker and is a collaborator in the project U-RA-MI-LI, which documents music and rhythm in everyday life

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Sultan of Strings

A minor article about a major subject that requires (and deserves) a book-length treatise, takes a look at the violin in Ilayaraja’s music...

Baradwaj Rangan

For someone so steeped in the idiom of Western classical music, it’s no surprise that Ilayaraja’s songs feature so much of the violin, most notably in the symphonic cascades of string music – either in the preludes and interludes of songs, or in the background tracks underscoring scenes. What’s remarkable, though, is how differently, how unusually the instrument has been put to use. Take Endrendrum Aanandhame from Kadal Meengal, and erase from your mind the visions of Suman in a butterfly bow-tie. Fashion, unlike music, don’t transcend their time. The song, though, is a beauty – and one you don’t expect to have much use for a violin. Yes, a violin , a solitary instrument. What might it be doing in a composition designed for a disco-club kind of scenario? The synthesizer we can see a place for, just as we recognise, in this universe, the legitimacy of drums and distorted guitar effects. But a violin?

But it’s there, and it announces itself midway through the prelude by striking a long, sustained note and then several shorter microtone-like bursts. By the latter half of the prelude it has completely taken over, almost essaying phrases from a raga, and the other instruments have receded to the background, doing what the violin usually does in a Carnatic concert. It’s such a burst of unusual colour that the song is thrust into an entirely different dimension – not just disco, but something beyond, something that no one, those days, knew enough about to categorise as “fusion”. That label is often slapped on arrangements that simply fuse an instrument from the East with one (or many) from the West, but this is the fusing of two universes, Carnatic music outlining the contours of a disco number. And not in a gimmicky way, but in a manner that’s so organic that it seems to rise from the red earth of this musical landscape.

The prelude ends, and so does the sound of the violin. We don’t hear it till the first interlude, echoing a passage played by the synth, except that it ends on a lower note. That, in itself, is sharp relief, for the sound of a violin, strident and soft all at once, is so distinctive that it’s impossible to listen to anything else – at least, any other instrument – while it’s being played. And if there had been no more of the violin, the song, this interlude, would have still stood out as unique, different from all the other disco songs of the time. But, of course, that’s not all. After frilly flute passages, and a guitar that rises to a near-crescendo, the violin, ever the diva, elbows its way to the foreground again, grabbing our attention with four lines of melody that end on the note at which the singer takes off in order to render the first stanza.

In the first stanza, the violin is used to add a splash of colour to the line endings, as if playing tag with the singer. And then, silence – until it takes over the opening of the second interlude, with furiously bowed passages. It makes way for other instruments, and then returns to shadow the glorious conclusion. And all along, we realise, perhaps only after the song comes to an end, that a genre that’s known and celebrated for its exuberance has been tinged with an air of melancholy. The fusion isn’t just of genres and instruments, but of mood. Ilayaraja liked to do that. The justly famous Poonkathave, from Nizhalgal, comes to mind, another song that opens with the sad strains of a solo violin cresting above an upbeat bank of violins being played in unison. It’s a love song, a happy song, but again, in the second interlude, this solo violin makes its sorrow heard.

If I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of space describing a single song, with a cursory nod to another, it’s because of two reasons. The first is academic. As the poem tells us, little drops of water make up the mighty ocean, and it is through the specific that we approach the general. Singular instances of violin use in individual songs add up to a grand, overarching statement about Ilayaraja’s use of the violin.
But this reason, though true, is also something of a copout. Because, more importantly, a writer is handicapped when given a word count to write about this subject, which can fill a book, several books, given Ilayaraja’s output and the number of genres in which he’s put the violin to use. Put differently, it’s impossible, with this constraint, to arrive at that grand, overarching statement, and all we can do is analyse and appreciate the singular instances.

Like the four ascending violin lines that hand over the baton to the flute in  the prelude of Sendhoorapoove, from 16 Vayadhinile. Or the solo violin that sets up Pothi Vacha Malligai Mottu from Mann Vaasanai, another instance of a joyful duet being etched with a semblance of sadness. Or the great numbers of violins, in the prelude of Sundari from Thalapathy, that, instead of outlining a tune, appear to vibrate at an atomic level, functioning as the atmosphere from which the flute draws its breath. Or the violin concerto in Raajapaarvai, half Carnatic, half Western, and fully magical, the moment of transition between genres one of the most electric among all film music. Or the entirely violin-free opening of Unnai Nenachen, the terribly downbeat song from Aboorva Sagotharargal that a different music director would have festooned with solo-violin passages, right from the get-go. Sometimes, even the absence of an instrument can make a loud statement about its showcasing by the hands of a master.

The writer is a National Award-winning film critic and the author of Conversations With Mani Ratnam. He is currently the Deputy Editor of The Hindu

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Rare Strains

The fascinating life story of how the Sarod metamorphosed into the Mohan Veena in the hands of its maker, Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra, and re-visiting the times that he lived in...

Arunabha Deb

Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra didn’t look like an inventor. He looked every bit the zamindar that he was: crisp white dhoti-kurta, jamawar shawl, vain little curls of the moustache. But he was never interested in being a landlord. His grandfather, Lalita Mohan Moitra, patronized the Sarod maestro Ustad Mohammad Amir Khan as a musician in his estate in Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh). Moitra grew up riding pillion on Khan, who had become a member of the household, and even wetted the maestro’s shoulders on multiple occasions. When he was slightly older, presumably with greater control over his bladder, Khan found him tinkering with one of the many Sarods in the house. The maestro sensed an interest in the boy and decided to start teaching him. A historic relationship was forged. Moitra went on to become the foremost representative of the Senia Shahjanpur Gharana and one of the greatest Sarod players of all time. People initially found it difficult to reconcile his blue-blooded lineage with his mastery – music was a leisurely pursuit for zamindars, not a profession– but they were soon forced to accept him as a formidable artiste.

Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra

Whenever his recitals were broadcasted on All India Radio, Baba Allauddin Khan would call his children, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna Devi, into the radio room in their Maihar house. Sarod maestro Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, Moitra’s greatest disciple, recounts, “Baba would tell them in his East Bengali twang, ‘Do you hear him? He is a zamindar’s son. He doesn’t need to do this for a living. Still, see how crisply his jaba (plectrum) is cutting the strings!’” Baba Allauddin first heard Moitra in 1937, when the latter stood first in the competition organized by the All India Music Conference in Allahabad. Baba was one of the judges and was also scheduled to perform as part of the same festival. He was so impressed with Moitra’s playing that he asked the young zamindar to play alongside him at the recital. This was quite a deviation from the norm. Usually, an artiste is accompanied by his disciple (and never by someone from a different gharana). The memorable Allahabad recital was testament both to Baba’s generosity and to Moitra’s inherent talent.

After Allahabad, Moitra never looked back as a performer. But somewhere within him, remained that curious child who tinkered with the family Sarods. In the mid-forties, after he played a duet on the Sursringar with Veena exponent Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan, he was obsessed with the idea of creating an instrument that could be played using the same techniques of the Sarod but would have the resonance and gravity of the Veena. The Sursringar belongs to the Sarod family, or rather to the Rabab family. The Afghan Rabab is almost unanimously acknowledged to be the origin of the Sarod. (Only the Maihar gharana Sarod player, the late Sharan Rani, had challenged this notion, claiming that the sarod originated in India.) The Sursringar is much larger than the Sarod and requires a different playing technique, essentially because the two instruments are held at different angles. Moitra’s quest was for an instrument that a sarodiya could play with his inherent skills and yet one that could match the tonal richness of a Veena (which the Sursringar, to an extent, did).

He made two principal changes to the Sarod and the effect was miraculous. The resonator of a Sarod (loosely called ‘the drum’) is carved out of a single piece of wood and the hollow semicircle is covered with hide. Moitra decided to cover the hollow with a sheet of wood instead (like in the Veena and the Sursringar). Further, he changed the structure of the bridge, a contraption on the resonator that holds the strings. Instead of a typical Sarod bridge, he placed a Sitar bridge. A Sitar bridge is flat, as opposed to the slightly raised Sarod bridge, and helps produce a richer, fuller sound. This bridge, placed on a wood-surfaced drum, produced a resonance far richer than that of the Sarod. Moitra’s two aims were achieved: a tonal quality closer to that of the Veena and a playing technique similar to that of the Sarod.

He did some peer reviewing and the responses were positive. Thakur Jaidev Singh, eminent musicologist who was at the helm of All India Radio at the time, gave the instrument its name: Mohan Veena, based on Moitra’s middle name. Moitra started performing regularly on the Mohan Veena, including on the National Programme of All India Radio. Those were not the days when Indian classical musicians thought about patents. That he was performing on the radio (the archives still survive and one of the AIR recordings has been released by HMV) and some of his disciples were also playing the instrument were enough to assure Moitra of its posterity.

But ‘Mohan’ is a pretty common middle name. When Vishwa Mohan Bhatt modified the Hawaiian guitar, he too settled for Mohan Veena. Bhatt prospered as a musician at a time when messages were easier to spread. Most listeners today, unfortunately, associate the Mohan Veena only with Bhatt. I had interviewed Bhatt a couple of years ago for another publication and had asked him if he was aware of Moitra’s instrument. He said he was made aware of it much after he had named his guitar, not before. He said that he lived in Jaipur and Moitra in Kolkata, and communication wasn’t quite what it is today. While that is perfectly acceptable, it would be a nice touch for Bhatt to acknowledge this fact somewhere on his website, which has reams on his invention, the Mohan Veena.

Thankfully, the original Mohan Veena is making a bit of a comeback. Two of Moitra’s disciples, Jaydeep Ghosh and Somjit Dasgupta, and Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta’s son, Bhabanishankar Das Gupta, perform regularly on the instrument now. Das Gupta (junior) has also developed an electric version, where the sound of the instrument is amplified. He insists that he has done this only to achieve greater volume, not to change the tonal quality. (He performed on it in Kolkata last February and his claim is correct.) The three of them will hopefully record and release a few Mohan Veena renditions. If recording companies are being difficult, they should at least flood YouTube. They owe it to a great maestro.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Monday, 18 March 2013

Long Playing

A story of the "Evil English Instrument" which completely democratized music and brought it out from the cloisters of royal courts, salons and aristocratic soirees to the doorstep of the common man...

Vikram Sampath

Dressed in her most regal finery, she entered a rudimentary and make-shift recording studio that was set up in two large rooms of a hotel in Calcutta. Proving to be a shrewd businesswoman, she had haggled for a handsome Rs. 3000 per recording session and the European recording expert had grudgingly agreed. Her accompanists on the tabla, sarangi and harmonium tuned their instruments and the European team asked her to crane her head into a long horn that was fitted on the wall. At the narrow end of that horn, a needle was attached to a diaphragm and was connected to the recording machinery which consisted of a thick shellac master on a rotating turntable. She was asked to sing as loudly as she could into that horn. Depending on her volume, the diaphragm would vibrate and transfer these vibrations to the needle which then would cut etches on the shellac disc. At the end of the 3 minute rendering, which is all that a single disc could hold, she proudly announced “My name is Gauhar Jaan!”
 Gauhar Jaan

It was this way, on 11th November 1902, that Gauhar Jaan, the sub-continent’s first musician to record her voice commercially on the gramophone, created history as she recorded for the Gramophone Company’s German agent Frederick William Gaisberg. 

Invented in 1887 by Emile Berliner, the Gramophone was a marvel of human invention. Following successful attempts by scientists like Thomas Alva Edison at recording and reproducing the human voice through devices like the Phonograph, the Gramophone revolutionized the way music was understood and consumed world-wide. Berliner formed the Gramophone Company in 1898 as a syndicated firm in London and the same year recording experts were sent out all over the world on ‘expeditions’ to record native voices. It was after a lot of hesitation that the Company decided to send its agent Gaisberg to India to record artists here on its ‘Far Eastern Expedition’. Apart from Gauhar Jaan, the Company recorded artists like Peara Saheb, Lal Chand Boral, theatre artists of Bengal like Binodini Dasi and Krishnabhamini and a few other sundry nautch girls. In 1904-05 the Company also made South India a part of their itinerary and recorded artists like Bangalore Nagaratnamma, Salem Godavari, Dhanakoti Ammal of Kanchipuram and others in Madras.

Several superstitions prevailed about how recording into the ‘evil English instrument’ would ruin one’s voices and the Gods would be displeased! Most male musicians kept away as they also saw the condensed 3 minute format of recording as a compromise on classicism. But what is noteworthy is that in these early decades of recording it was only women—largely tawaifs and devadasis-- across India who embraced this new technology circumventing all these logistic challenges and social stigmas associated with recording. Thus we had artists like Gauhar Jaan, Malka Jaan of Agra, Janki Bai of Allahabad, Husna Bai of Banaras, Mumtaz Jaan of Delhi, Zohra Bai of Agra, Mehboob Jaan of Solapur, Bai Sundarabai of Pune, Salem Godavari, Coimbatore Thayi, Tiruchendur Shanmukhavadivu, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, Mysore Adilakshmi, Dhanakoti of Kanchipuram and others who were the recording super-stars of the early 20th Century. Their records sold like hot cakes and brought them overnight celebrity status. Gauhar Jaan’s pictures for instance started appearing on match-boxes made in Austria! In 1912 Coimbatore Thayi collaborated with a French musician Maurice Delage who had heard her records and came looking for her all the way from Paris to Madras.

The gramophone democratized music like never before and brought it out of the confines of salons, royal courts and aristocratic soirees to the doorstep of the common man. They became the new status symbols of the middle class and the elite. 

Community listening sessions were popular where people congregated to listen to the songs of their favourite singers, whose live concerts they could neither afford nor attend due to social hierarchies. The brisk business that the Gramophone Company made attracted several European recording companies like Pathe from France, Odeon from Germany, Beka, Royal, Nicole, Sun Disc, James Opera and others to explore the Indian market. It was however the Gramophone Company, that later became HMV(His Master’s Voice) and EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries Ltd) that retained the monopoly. In the years of the World Wars it was India that sustained the profitability for the Company world-wide, even as the European market bled.
Ustad Abdul Karim Khan

By the 1920s as Electrical recording replaced the earlier Acoustic method, microphones were introduced to amplify the voice and artists no longer had to scream into horns to be heard. Musicians had seen the potential of this technology and the wide reach it gave to those who recorded. Hence more people started giving up their inhibitions and recorded prolifically. Apart from classical music, theatre music, full-length plays recorded over a set of 10-12 discs and later cinema songs when sound entered Indian films in the 1930s were the hot favourites. K L Saigal, Devika Rani, Chandroprabha, G N Balasubramanian, M S Subbulakshmi, Musiri Subrahmanya Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Ashok Kumar, M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and others became the phenomenon that they were, thanks largely to the gramophone that popularized them across the country. This being the time of the freedom struggle, the gramophone became an important social and political catalyst too. Artists like M S Subbulakshmi, D K Pattammal, K B Sundarambal, Vai Mu Kothainayaki and others recorded Gandhiji’s bhajans, Bharatiyar’s poems and patriotic songs and used the medium to bring about social reforms for women’s emancipation and the uplift of the downtrodden castes. The Congress Party too realized the power of the medium and used the gramophone as an important propaganda tool for the nationalistic movement. Be it speeches of leaders, patriotic songs, Tagore reciting his stirring poems or recordings of the Jan Gan Man and Vandemataram, the gramophone ensured these reached out to as many Indians as possible.

In the 1950s, with the advent of Long Playing (LP) and Extended Play (EP) records of the pioneering artists of India like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Dr. S Balachander, Indian music reached out commercially to Western audiences too. There was no longer a time constraint and artists could sing or play leisurely, painting the portrait of the raga note by note.

In the last century or so of recording in India, the gramophone has played the most vital role in close to 70-80 years of this journey---either with the original 3 minute shellac discs called 78 RPMs or the later Vinyl records of LP’s and EP’s. Yet, today even as we are surrounded by a slew of modern gadgets that have built on these earlier achievements and revolutionized the world of music, it is hard for a connoisseur to access these voices of the distant past or even play these records even if they own them. The turntables are no longer manufactured and the needle that goes over the grooves and plays the discs is not available any more. In despair, people have been junking their valuable holdings to which they are sentimentally attached but do not know what to do with. The Government has been completely apathetic to preserving this rich slice of our cultural heritage. A few private archives and collectors assiduously guard their holdings, seldom allowing anyone to even take a look at what they have. And the country at large, which has little regard for history and documentation, and more so in the field of the performing arts, doesn’t care any less about the dire need to preserve and restore whatever little is left of these treasures. Instead we leave them to rot in the damp alleys of chor bazars!

Unlike India, most European countries have National Sound Archives where voices of their ancestors are carefully preserved for posterity. India needs to get its act together at least now and build one such easily accessible repository where this national treasure can find its pride of place. Else, the day is not far when the last traces of our cultural inheritance would pass away into oblivion and the gramophone with its gleaming horn would just remain a symbol of old world

The author is an arts' commentator, award-winning author and Founder of the 'Archive of Indian Music'