Not very often do you get to see a packed Chowdaiah Memorial Hall on a Wednesday evening. But thats mostly because not very often do you get to see a classical concert that brings together the Saraswati Veena with the Tabla. Especially when you start to name the artistes for the evening, behind the instruments.
The last time Ustad Zakir Hussain recalls playing a similar concert was with the legendary veena maestro Vidwan S. Balachander, all the way back in 1974. Forty years on, on the 29th of January, 2014, the Ustad took the stage with a disciple of Vidwan Balachander, veena stalwart, Vidushi Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh and together delivered a performance that could easily last another forty years in memory for its sublime skill, co-ordination and most importantly, beauty.
The event was titled Illusion of Pure Sound by event organisers Twaang in Concert, who are also the makers of one of the largest music library app Twaang that promotes Indian Classical music among other non-film music to over 60,000 users globally. By the end of the concert, the audience would come to realise that this was one of those rare situations where a classical event was named aptly.
Twenty minutes off the intended start time after the organizer promo and the introduction of the artistes by the MC, the curtains opened to a glittering view of the artistes on stage Vid Jayanthi Kumaresh seated centrally and flanked by the Ustad to her right and Trichy Krishnan on the Talam, to her left. Vid Jayanthi started off with a relaxed and downtempo alapana of the evening raga Kamavardhini while also enjoying the freedom to drift into the Hindustani raga Puriya Dhanashree wherever poignant. While it was disheartening to see people still trickling into the auditorium well past 7PM, those already seated were riveted silent with attention to the subtle and soulful treatment of the raga.
After the alapana, Vid Jayanthi began with a rendition of a Saint Thyagaraja composition, ‘Shiva Shiva Shiva Yana Rada‘ set to Aditalam (Teen Taal) and the Ustad weaved in and out of the intricate sonic patterns within the composition with extraordinary ease. Owing to no other melodic instrument present (Spoiler alert: there actually was), Vid Jayanthi performed kalpanaswaras to the chorus (pallavi) on her own highlighted by myriad variations within one measure of 8 beats (one avarthana) while Ustad Zakir Hussain demonstrated his renowned musicianship by following her lead and accentuating phrases at the right places. The artistes were in perfect sync as was evident from the air-tight stops and control of the volume, especially in the mukthaya towards the end where a crescendo finish awaited the euphoric audience.
The Ustad had mentioned in an interview prior that hell strictly be an accompanist to Vid Jayanthi and throughout the show he stayed true to his word, allowing the vainika to take the lead, which she did in their second piece of the evening through a touching alapana in the carnatic raga Nattai Kurinji (a variation of the Mixolydian mode), complete with natural movements resembling the flutter of butterfly wings and displaying an astounding control over the vibrato. The manner in which Vid Jayanthi had treated and moved notes around had glimpses of the playing style of her uncle, the late violin legend Vidwan Lalgudi G. Jayaraman.
She then proceeded to a rendition of Muthuswami Dikshithars krithi ‘Parvati Kumaram Bhavaye’ in Rupaka Tala while she allowed plenty of pockets for the Ustad to improvise in. More than a leader-follower relation as normally is the case in conventional Carnatic, the music exhibited a relation between two close friends in a very intimate conversation. Another neat surprise was in store, as the composition switched from having 4 notes per beat, to 5 (khandagati) and the shift was masterfully seamless. An explosive improv section followed where a mukthaya again built up to what seemed like the end, before segueing to what the audience had waited for a Zakir Hussain thaniavarthanam.
The Ustad took his time with his solo and infused it with a storyline of sorts by introducing characters in the form of recognizable phrases. The audience present among whom were noted percussionists Vid Ghatam Giridhar Udupa and Vid Arun Kumar, distinguished flautists Pt RavichandraKulur and Pt Pravin Godkhindi and dynamic violinist duo Vid Ganesh and Vid Kumaresh, oohed and aahed at not only the energetic and speedy sections, but also at the sheer fluidity of the story through its climaxes and anti-climaxes. A brisk mukthaya brought the second piece to its conclusion, amid a tumultuous applause.
The central piece of the concert was a conventional Carnatic Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi. Vid Jayanthi rendered an alapana in the raga Keeravani (Kiravan in Hindustani or the equivalent of Harmonic Minor scale) and caressed it with her grace and elegance. Space and time seemed to stop by and take notice as she made the raga her own and the audience acknowledged a moment of dexterity as she produced sounds of ripples on the veena by only using her left hand. More than a focus on speed, Vid Jayanthi successfully produced an illusion of the sound coming in from many directions and from all possible distances. The audience made their admiration known and she took their ovation as a cue to adeptly drift into a tanam of increasing tempo, where she made use of rhythms commonly observed in nature like the gait of horses, frogs and elephants.
The highlight of the composition that followed in Adi Tala was a rare jugalbandi between the veena and the tabla which had taken the role of the second melodic instrument as the Ustad effortlessly churned out Keeravani phrases (were still talking about the tabla here) in responses to the ones Vid Jayanthi had raised and like the previous piece, a very elaborate mukthaya peppered with precise rhythmic co-ordinations and movements ended the song on a high note before proceeding to another Zakir Hussain tabla solo.
The second tabla solo of the evening had it all. If Vid Jayanthis alapanas provided an illusion of space, the Ustads gave an illusion of multiplicity. Complete with multiple rhythms, grooves, phrases, a sotte voce bassline and audaciously an improvisation section all running simultaneously, the solo evoked gasps from the audience who struggled to believe that a single tabla set was the source. Even within these sounds, the maestro had the time and the temerity to mimic the Doppler Effect and to be versatile enough to adopt a very classical mridangam style too. If there was still any doubt that the audience were witnessing one of the greatest percussionists of all time in his element, that was erased somewhere in the middle of that grand solo. After a pulsating end, the artistes acknowledged the standing ovation that lasted for a good minute and a half.
The encore performance was a Behag thillana in tisragati (3 notes per beat) in Aditala and despite it being the last piece of the show, the artistes did not let the level of the performance drop and the crowd recognized and appreciated their devotion.
It was important to know that in addition to the pure love and devotion to the instruments that the artistes had, both had perfect posture and efficient techniques which are some reasons why they keep getting better with age. There is no doubt that despite their success and longevity in the field, the effects of daily, dedicated practice is very visible in their playing. But in the light of the nights events, none of the artistes sacrificed soul for speed, beauty for technique.
The organisation of the event was expertly done and there will be an anxious wait for Twaang in Concerts next event. Makers of a classical music library app stepping out of their conventional line of work to organise such unique events is a huge step in the right direction for Indian Classical music.
Lastly, despite the event headlined by two worldwide acclaimed artistes, there never was a moment where it felt like a competition; such was the humility and integrity that they had carried themselves with.
No one but music was the big winner of the night.
Kailash Kher, charismatic singer in the Sufi-rock style, proved yet again that he is right at the cutting edge of fusion music in India during his performance at IIM Bangalore this weekend.
I left early for the venue to beat Bangalore traffic, and reached so early that I caught the band’s sound check. I chatted with lead guitarist Paresh Kamath who told me about the lineup for the concert, especially singling out Tapas Roy on mandolin and saz (long-necked Turkish string instrument).
Roy’s instrumentation added a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour to the performance that evening. But that’s getting ahead of the story a bit! The crowds began to fill in late in the evening as the crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter lined up in the east, and the stars of Orion filled the sky above. The stars then descended on the open-air stage at IIM-B grounds: Kailash Kher and his band Kailasa.
Naresh Kamath on bass, Kurt Peters on drums, Sameer Chiplunkar on keyboards, and Sanket Nayak on percussion (tabla, darbuka, dol) provided solid energetic support. It was great to see Sankarshan Kini on stage as well (acoustic guitar, violin).
The band played a tight two-hour set with sixteen songs, covering everything from ballads to dance numbers. The global mix included rock (instruments, chords), Middle Eastern flavours (darbuka, saz), Indian percussion (tabla, pakhawaj, bhangra dol), reggae and Sufi vocals (with incantations to Allah; depiction of human love as an instance of divine love).
In each track Kailash Kher’s soaring vocals and earthy style shone through, right from the opening tracks ‘Dilruba’ and ‘Aoji‘ down to the closing pieces ‘Allah ke bande‘ and ‘Saiyyan’. The songs ‘Teri Deewani’ and ‘Na Batati Hu‘ drew huge applause, as well as ‘Tu Kya Jaane’ and the title track from his latest release, Rangeele.
“There must have been at least 7,000 people in the audience,” event organiser Vasundhra Jain told me; she said Kailash Kher was chosen as the headliner for their Unmaad Festival because he is not only a commercially successful singer but also keeps his independent and innovative edge, and is involved in social causes (eg. against human trafficking, child labour, global warming). He also performed in support of the recent Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement.
Indeed, at the Bangalore performance Kailash Kher revealed not only his creative edge and infectious energy, but his humourous side and social awareness, delivered in irreverent “Hinglish” while bouncing and jumping around the stage.
“English is the first most confused language in the world,” he joked. “Let us focus not just on movie music but indie music also,” he urged the audience, taking a gentle dig at the Bollywood industry which dominates much of the Indian popular music scene. Kailash Kher has had hits in Bollywood as well, which has won him admiration from the indie scene for being successful in both areas.
“Don’t focus just on branding and marketing, you must also cultivate a sense of corporate social responsibility,” he told the students in the audience. “Half of life today is pretentious anyway, don’t waste the other half,” he joked.
He endeared himself to the Bangalore audience by saying that the people and weather of Bangalore were perfect for music, and he even said a few words in the local language Kannada. He invited a couple of girls to join the band on stage for a dance, and seven girls eventually joined him. “Live life Queen size,” he advised them.
“The time for this performance is very short,” he said, taking a dig at the stifling government regulations and the “moral police” in India who insist that live entertainment and pubs shut down at the ridiculously early hour of 10 pm or 11 pm, an absolute dampener for the live music industry.
His Sufi messages drew the most applause. “Divinity is in love, everything else is bakwaas (nonsense),” he said.
For his last song he called on everyone to dance. “Including you sitting there, you with the tie,” he said, singling out an attendee in the ‘VIP’ section.
Now in his late 30s, Kailash Kher appeals to a wide range of Indian society, and has a huge fan following abroad as well. His early influences included spiritual music, folk songs of North India, and classical music (especially Pandit Kumar Gandharv). He then moved to Mumbai in 2001, singing jingles for various TV and radio commercials.
In addition to Hindi, he has sung songs in a range of Indian languages such as Oriya, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Telgu, Kannada, Gujarati, Marathi, and Punjabi. He has been involved in hundreds of Bollywood film songs, and has collaborated with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, Salim-Sulaiman, Zakir Hussain, Vishal Bhardwaj and A.R. Rahman. His songs have featured in Hindi movies (eg. Mangal Pandey, Corporate, Salaam-e-Ishq) as well as other regional movies in Kannada (Junglee, Jackie).
The band’s first independent album Kailasa (2006) and second album Kailasa Jhoomo Re were huge hits, as well as the subsequent ones, Chaandan Mein and Yatra. This was seen as part of a broad revival of Sufi literature and lyrics.
“Kailash has this rare touch of marrying tradition with innovation in his compositions,” according to Adarsh Gupta, head of business at the label Saregama India, on the release of the latest album Rangeele. On TV, Kailash has also served as a judge on Indian Idol and IPL Rockstar.
His music has been described by critics as “intoxicating,” “hypnotic,” and commended for blending Hindustani classical forms (dhrupad) and Sufi qawwal. Followers of south Asian music notice more of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in his voice than Mohammad Rafi.
In contrast to Bollywood-style formulaic and poppy production, Kailash’s songs stand out for their folksy and spiritual nature even with the contemporary mix. Mumbai-based composers Paresh and Naresh Kamath have been co-founders of the band Kailasa and have been with Kailash Kher since the beginning.
“You will get to meet all the killer musicians in my band,” said Kailash, as he introduced the band members one by one at the end of the Bangalore show. The group is bound to find more success as they continue to innovate on the foundations of Indian folk and Sufi music along with a solid contemporary and Middle Eastern feel.
Karsh Kale is an Indian American producer, composer and musician, known for melding Indian music with the modern electronic club music of his American upbringing. Kale often creates a unique blend of Indian percussion with techno music and drum & bass. WTS got talking to him about his style of music, collaborations and more…
WTS: You grew up in New York but you showed promise as an Indian percussionist from an early age, how did that happen?
Karsh: Well I was first introduced to Indian music by my father who’s a great lover of Indian classical music and of course old film music. That’s the environment I grew up in. So the tabla and mridangam, the sounds of those things were introduced early on, and then I just naturally caught on. My father was very close friends with a film composer from India, they grew up together. We used to visit him when I was a small child. His name was Bal Barwe, he’s a Marathi guy he lived in Bombay, and he generally composed for Marathi films. He and my father had grown up together, so he brought me to him when I was about three years old and that was really the first time that I’d ever kind of played the tabla and from there I was always interested in it.
WTS: Your father played a major role in your musical development. Could you tell us more about that?
Karsh: Besides the fact that he was always playing music, he was the Vice President of an organization called the Indian Academy of Performing Arts, which was an organization in New York which used to bring Indian musicians. This was back in the time before people were playing in places like Carnegie Hall etc. They would organize concerts in high school auditoriums, so when I was growing up I got to see people like Bhimsen Joshi, Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia. So I really got to be backstage, meet the musicians and spend some time with them and things like that. My father’s also a singer and he plays the harmonium. So I grew up accompanying him and we played a lot of Marathi community events in the States. And then of course at home, at least four times a week he would be sitting with this harmonium and have me come and play with him. So a lot of my development came from that as well.
WTS: Tell us a little about your musical background and how your solo work came about.
Karsh: Ever since I was a teenager, I started composing music, and started playing with different sounds because I was the drummer in most of the bands that I was playing in and of course there were all those instruments in my house, so I started learning with them, and we had 4 track recorders and 8 track recorders, so I started composing early. Once I came to New York as a student at NYU, I really started to see how I could take all of these different musical influences that I had from everything: from orchestra music to rock and roll to jazz, and that time electronica was something I was getting really interested in, and how I could take all of that and bring it together into one sound. And also, at the same time the technology helped too, being able to start making music in your own bedroom using computer software and things – that was coming up as well. So all of this happened at the same time and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, being in New York. Being able to be around a lot of different inspiring artistes, who were doing something similar – taking their culture, and incorporating it into a new idea, that was really what inspired me to start developing a sound. From 1993 to the end of that decade was when I really developed a sound for myself and found the places that I wanted be able to go as a composer and as a musician.
WTS: How would you describe your sound?
Karsh: That’s a tough question to answer. I think I’ve always tried for the past 15 years to try and describe the sound but I’ve never really found the right words. But I would say that the way that I describe my sound is creative. Once people hear what it is that I’m doing and the different places that I’m referencing it becomes clearer. Simply put, it’s a mix of Indian classical music, rock and roll and electronic music.
WTS: Do you plan to drift into other genres as a matter of experimentation?
Karsh: I already have. For me, even trance or psy-trance or techno or tech house all of these different sub genres of electronica, I don’t like how they become controlled by purists where it becomes stagnant. It becomes like still water for me and starts to stink if that makes any sense (laughs). Music has to continuously flow and it has to continuously evolve and as soon as you define it as something it stops developing. For me, that’s why I don’t like those terms like tech-house or something like that because that to me is like still water.
WTS: What kind of material do you like to play for your DJ Sets?
Karsh: I play all kinds of different stuff. We just played a show the other night, myself and The Midival Punditz, where we were DJing all kinds of music – everything from electronic ghazals to Jay-Z remixes and Rage Against The Machine to Underworld – we have really run the gamut of all the different kinds of music that we love. When it’s presented that way, people really understand you as an artiste because they really see the different places that you’re coming from. Those are my favourites of the DJ sets but I play everything from trance, to house to dubstep to drum and bass. But when I come back to creating my own music, I try not to fall into the trappings of creating a particular style and borrow different things from different styles to create something new.
WTS: How has the response been from the traditional folk artists that have heard your material?
Karsh: From the get-go, I have gotten a very positive response. On my very first album, I had got a call from Ustad Sultan Khan who happened to be in New York and he said if you’re working on an album I’d like to come down. Besides that, I have mainly been working with local artistes. Once these artistes started getting involved in what I do it was definitely very encouraging. Since then I think that more than listeners and more than people who keep the construct of the institution alive, the musicians and the artistes themselves – theyabsolutely understand where the music is coming from and more so they see where it can go in the future. That’s why we get so much support from people like Zakir bhai and Pandit Ravi Shankar, they have great respect for what is it that we’re trying to do and where is it that we can try and take it.
WTS: You’ve collaborated with a number of artistes including Anoushka Shankar. How has the experience been and how does it help you musically?
Karsh: For me especially, I don’t have an actual formal Guru who I turn to for musical advice, I’ve always listened to my own voice, my own instincts. So when I get to work with people, it’s a learning experience for me as well, I try and absorb a lot from them. Working with Anoushka for instance, we didn’t just go to the studio for a couple of weeks and write. We spent almost 3 years between the time that we started writing the music and between the time we released and started performing the music. Being around her and learning so much of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s repertoire through that and being in the studio with people like Shankar Mahadevan and Vishwa Mohan Bhat – these are people who you learn from when you’re writing with them , and when you’re recording with them. So I’ve had the opportunity to be around such great artistes. I tend to absorb what’s around me. For me, I’m fortunate that I can really absorb a lot from an artiste if I’ll be able to spend time with them. So, what I learn from collaborating with people like them is that I take a little piece of them with me.
WTS: Tell us a little about your musical background and how your solo work came about.
Karsh: Before I work with different artistes, I tend to assess what it is that they are going to bring to the table. Because for me, I can do a lot of different things – I can sit down a guitar, on a piano, on a computer and start programming and I can sit on tabla, harmonium, and start training Indian minds and things like that so it depends on who I’m working with. When I was working with Anoushka I was mainly playing acoustic guitar while she was on sitar. And we were trying to figure out the different places where we can take these traditional lines and bring them into a western context. When I’m working with The Midival Punditz our frame of reference is different. I might be sitting and programming with them and Gaurav might have composed some keyboard parts, so it really depends on who is bringing what and I try to fill in this gap. What we did with ‘Karthik Calling Karthik‘, I was doing more string arranging while these guys were doing a lot more of the electronic programming sounds which all came together to make the soundtrack. So it really depends on the project and who I’m working with.
WTS: Tell us about your association with The Midival Punditz.
Karsh: Well we’ve done a tremendous amount of stuff together (laughs). We met in 1998 in London, and we had both been playing each other’s music in our DJ sets. At that time it was very exciting to meet artistes who were doing something similar because all of us started with the feeling that we were alone, that we were the only ones trailblazing this sound. So when I met the Punditz, we met on a musical level but firstly we got along on a personal level so well that we’ve become family and over the years our families have become family as well. In that way that’s first and foremost what our association had become. But then more than anything, we recognized that we bring so much to each other, because we come from such different places because they tend to come from a DJ culture even though they grew up listening to rock music and are very well versed in Indian music, from film music to Indian classical music. So we get to meet on a lot of different levels. When I can sit with an artiste and reference Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and Stravinsky at the same time that’s when the associations, for me, tend to continue and that’s what it’s like for me and the Punditz. We can come together on so many different levels.
WTS: Is the audience an important factor to consider while composing?
Karsh: I think it depends. We need to think differently when we are working on a project like a film because first and foremost you’ve to think in terms of the director’s vision. It’s not just your own artistic vision that you’re adding, you have to be in line with the main theme and the main idea of the story and what the vision of the director is in the direction of the film. When I was working on Cinema, I really kind of went in and every time I’d hit a wall and think this is what’s expected of me, I tended to turn the other way and do something else that I felt going to be more challenging. But that’s what I like to do as an individual artiste but if I’m working with somebody else and they say I want to do something for the radio then I know how to think that way. Personally, I would much rather challenge my audience, make them scratch their head a little bit and then come back and realize and discover something new, as opposed to giving them something that they have already heard before.
WTS: For a performance such as yours, what do you aim for in your music? People don’t seem to realize skill in such music, what do you think of that?
Karsh: I think that just comes from people’s ability to be able to see it in different ways, visually being able to see a concert and see what people are doing because otherwise, we don’t necessarily know what we’re hearing when we listen to a piece of music unless you hear live music and see how they interact with electronic musicians and things like that, because this is a new phenomenon as well. What we’re doing now in a live context is taking the aspect of electronica and DJing and bringing together the aspect of interaction between musicians. I think the audience is growing with more and more that they get to see of what it is that we do.
As far as what we want to accomplish, I think it’s more on a level of making people have an experience, letting them lose themselves. For me that’s what music is. Music is an intoxicant that takes you to another world, takes through your own thoughts and animates your life. That’s what we try and do with our music, we try and let people go into their own space and let this music become the score for their own life. As opposed to drawing their attention to my fingers or to somebody’s skill on the sitar, which is impressive when you see a concert, but it tends to take away from the cerebral experience, what we try and do is focus our music more on the mind experience. For me, there’s a fine line between music and sports (laughs).While growing up as a table player, as a drummer, I grew up in that competitive environment but I realized right away that is not where it ends for me, music is much more than that. It goes beyond than somebody’s doing or their dexterity on the instrument, it goes to what is the story that’s being told and how profoundly can you tell that story.
WTS: Where do you think the future of electronica lies?
Karsh: When people say electronica, it’s almost as if it’s something different or separate from live music. I think it’s just another instrument and another dimension that’s been added to music. So when people see music in the future they are going to see musicians who have incorporated technology in whatever they are doing. Think of the tabla, as a traditional instrument the way it sounds today is not the way it sounded even 50 years ago. There’s a lot of technology involved and there’s a lot of audio analysis that has gone into how to present the music on an international platform. We can’t think of electronica as something brand new and challenge that. It’s just a natural progression of something traditional. Because otherwise there’s no way to fill that space with sound and there’s no way to be able to make those instruments so eloquent. All these great artistes have been part of the development of these instruments. And now I use electric tablas on stage, I have modified my tablas so that i can go through the laptop and modify the sounds, and I can control the instrument, but what you’re hearing is something certainly new.
WTS: Tell us about your connection with Bollywood and about your upcoming projects.
Karsh: Bollywood is something we’ve always talked about, not as a style but as an industry that we’d love to break into, that we’d like to use as a platform to expose what we do as artistes. It was once again a natural progression for us to get to that point where the audience is ready to hear what we’ve been developing all these years. If you look at any scene or any exposure for a particular style of music, you’d think that it became popular when it was discovered. But usually when you look into it there are years or decades of development that went in to that before the major or general audience came to know about it. What I feel what we’re bringing to it now is a natural progression because it takes time to develop something before it is time for it to be exposed.
WTS: You’ve expressed a desire to work for Hollywood projects, has anything come up yet?
Karsh: We’re not doing anything right now but we’ve collaborated with a lot of independent artistes in the States, we have worked with Ajay Naidu, who’s a Hollywood actor and has his own independent film that he’s produced directed and we have done the music for that. It’s called Ashes which is now playing in film festivals across the States and of course we have higher hopes to do more. For us it’s not necessarily about Hollywood/Bollywood as much as it’s about a good film. Rahman for that matter – he’d just done a Hollywood film last year and it wasn’t a very good film, but it was Hollywood. I think the differentiation has to be made about a good film because genres put out all kinds of different products. As an audience we have to differentiate between what’s quality and what’s not.
WTS: You’ve said you enjoyed collaborating with Sting the most. What was so different in this collaboration?
Karsh: Well I think for me it was that I got to write the song as opposed to him coming and writing the song with us. When we worked with Norah Jones on the album, we sat together and had written the song together. He’s another hero of mine, he’s somebody I had been listening to since I was 12 years old, studying his music and style, even when he was with The Police and as a solo artiste. Getting to the point, writing a song for him was like a final exam, it was that moment where you have to prove what you know and I had to prove it with a man who for me is one of the best song writers in the world. To be able to write something like that is like writing a novel for Shakespeare!