Saturday, September 16, 2006

Dhrupad overdrive

On one late sunday afternoon in fall 2002 near a remote town called Starkville in Mississippi, I had come across, in my T.A. cubicle, a few names totally new to me-- first was the raga Shankara, next was the word Dhrupad, and next was 'Gundecha brothers'. After listening to the clip of their vArUri Mrig drighan kO' in Shankara at SAWF, I had already become a fan of all the three. That was the age of discovery.

When I came to know that the Gundechas are coming to perform for SPICMACAY, Bangalore, a random thought occured to me-- why not request them to sing 'Adbhut Kalyan' (NiroshTha in carnatic-- it is Kalyani without ma and pa... a really special and unique raga)? One of the DAgars had sung it long back, and the Gundechas belong to DAgar tradition-- so they must be knowing it. So, I sent a rather senti (yet, honest) mail to them. I got an equivocal reply that they would see if they can make it.

Saturday 9th sep. 2006:
The Gundechas were coming to Bangalore for someother concert as well, so some of SPICMACAY money was saved there. Their first concert was on Saturday, 9th Sept. at Chowdaiah Hall. I had to pleasure of meeting them along with another member Vinay before concert, courtesy GAyathri, the convener of SPICMACAY, Bangalore. They were practising Rageshree (close to carnatic Natakurinji). They pleasantly inquired who was the one that asked for Adbhut Kalyan. That evening, they sang an elborate Rageshree alap (about 50 mins) and then a Dhrupad 'NirAkAra niranjana' and then a fast paced Bhairavi Dhrupad based on Kabir's verses 'Hum sab mahi'. I daresay that any person with a little interest in classical music would have loved this one!

Sunday 10th sep. 2006:
The sunday was a very odd one. There is something called a 'Forum' in Bangalore which does warrant much attention, except for the fact that it houses a posh book store called 'Landmark'. Even that might have escaped the displeasure of my acquaintance if not for Gundacha brothers' workshop-- right in the book-store! It was a surreal sight-- a stage with a red carpet; some room for the small gathering (lets not denigrate the word 'audience' by using it here); all the cups, cutlrey, books, etc arranged all round us. Go through this article for more:
The gathering, as usual, was made of only enthusiasts and die-hard listeners, and of course, 2 SPICMACAY members. They sang Durga Dhrupad 'Adi Shiva Shakti' first and started answering those basic FAQs, intermittently singing some Hameer ('Abeera GulAla', misreported in the Hindu article), and Kedar ('Radhika Aj Anand mein dOlE'), and then wound up with their trademark, much loved, CharukESi 'jheeni jheeni' based on Kabir verse.

And then, Arijit and I (SPICMACAYites) took them to woody's, and during the time we were there, we did have some time to establish our credentials as serious Dhrupad listeners, and of course, I was always on to my not-so-hidden agenda of Adbhut Kalyan. I also asked them why they dont do any sargam upo which they smiled and said they dont do it. (I paid the bill and lost the receipt!). And while returning home, I had the pleasure of the company of two of their lady disciples (one of whom has already spent 3 years in training, and the other, might well be on-road to become the first female Tamizhian Dhrupad singer!).

Monday 11th sep. 2006:
In a nice open room (not an auditorium for God's sake!) with large windows on sides, and breeze flowing in, it was the inaugural concert for Virasat 2006, the SPICMACAY Bangalore concert series at MES college, MalleSwaram. One of the best concerts ever attended, perhaps because I was sitting on ground and the artistes were hardly 10 feet away. In fact, I dont remember enjoying a concert sitting on those cushioned chairs. They sang an elaborate AlAp in Khamaj and then a Sadra (a lighter form of Dhrupad) 'Sudh bisarath gayI' in Khamaj. Absolutely mesmerising-- I never knew Khamaj, a folksy raga can be sung this way by the DhrupadiyAs. After that,they sang a Dhrupad in Shahana (remember 'Radha kaise ne jale' interlude?) 'AvaguNA bhayO sakala'.

Tuesday 12th sep. 2006:
I received an inside information from GAyathri that afternoon, and I was restless from then on. The venue this time was IISc. I went to the green room and listened to their practice from outside, and smiling, I came back.
When the artistes entered and took their places, they announed-- "We are going to sing a very beautiful and special raga called Adbhut Kalyan. It is a type of Kalyan without madhyam and pancham. First we are going to sing an elaborate AlAp and then a DhamAr [a form of Dhrupad piece set to 14-beat Dhamar taal]". And they sang the AlAp for more than an hour. Surprisingly, they did some nice sargam (perhaps to introduce the raga to the audience ) and then picked up on a Dhamar that they had just composed that afternoon; lyrics are from Sumitranandan Pant's poem 'Mein nahin chAhtA chir sukh'.

Needless to say, I was floored! Just on some random request, they spent a whole day composing and practising in that raga, and made it the main piece! And what raga! What extemporisation! The output may have been sub-optimal (mostly because of the sound-system quality, and the fact that it was not a thoroughly rehearsed one), nevertheless, it was no mean effort, and I cannot thank them enough. More importantly, I think they are making a great effort not to get 'stereotyped'. In 4 days, I got introduced to listening dhrupads 'live', in chautaal, sooltal, a dhamar, a sadra, their experimentation with a rare (and unprepared) raga, and their newly introduced sargam singing. Their zeal for trying new things and still be within the prescribed parameters of Dhrupad is amazing. They are making a more than wonderful effort at taking the Dhrupad to the average classical music listener.

After that, they started on CharukeSi AlAp. Though short (may be 10 mins), it was truly heavenly, and there was not a soul that was not moved. The way the two brothers moved and coordinated with each other reflected the amount of practice that went by. Truly awe-inspiring! And they employed sargam here to a terrific effect. After that, they went to their customary 'Jheeni, jheeni'.

My next stop: raga Durga of Khamaj thaat (S G3 M1 D2 N3 S" : S" N2 D2 M1 G3 S).

Dhrupad Update:
Attended the Gundechas' last concert of their Bangalore circuit today evening. The elaborated AlAp was in Jayanth Malhar-- a delicious cocktail of Jayjaywanti and Miyan-ki-malhar, follwed by the Dhrupad 'Mayi rI barkhA kO Agam'. It was followed by Shankara (quite coincidentally I must add, for I was thinking about it wistfully just today morning while typing this post) Dhrupad in 9-beats 'Shankara Pancha Vadana PannagabhushaNa', and then they wound up with their Adana 'Shiva Shiva Shiva'. The AlAps seemed all top-notch with their meeNds and all, but the execution of the first two Dhrupads indicated that they were new and they could get enough time for a thorough rehearsal together. Or may be the continuous travelling and performance has tired them a tad.


Friday, September 01, 2006

A cassette case

I have never written a post here on Mavericks. And I have now decided to break some traditions (yes, be a maverick and such). Content-wise, be adviced, this does not border anywhere on the brilliant & intricate music analyses done by my colleagues, yet my own five rupees and seventy five paise for Music Mavericks!

The first time when I listened to "Video killed the Radio star" by The Buggles, probably I was not in the right time and place for some soul searching. Ok, I will say, I was a lot younger. I now allow myself more often to go into the symbolic spirals of a flashback, a redux.

Getting to the point now, Audio Cassettes. I will be making a case FOR them today.

Though I have managed a monstrous collection of "Moving Picture Experts Group Layer-3 protocol compressed audio" (cough cough) or 'mp3s' of all imaginable genres, audio cassettes remain my favourite for the following reasons.

1. A cost-quality trade-off does not exist here.
What I preach - A cassette (say, Sony/BMG Crescendo/Magnasound) for 120 Rs and a CD (say, 200 Rs). I would not even bother a second thought for the CD. And knowing that an audio CD bit rate is a maximum of 44.1 kHz does not help your cause too. If it is a cassette, your listening experience is limited by your music system, not by the quality of the cassette (except of course some Echo, Supreme or Aditya releases)
What I do - I will buy a CD, so I can dump those songs in my computer and still share the joy with others. I believe it is akin to the choice between an ink-pen and a ball point pen. Damn me.
Rationale - So, I need to be more resolute in this case, which Iam sure will directly result, partly from my obstinacy and partly from my love for the old school.

2. I have too many of them to get rid of (if I ever plan to).
I have bought, begged, stole and acquired a few hundred cassettes until now. This would be nothing compared to the collections of Aakarsh or PRC, but a decent one in that.

3. Chromium Oxide wins over high bit rate.
Pitch a DVD quality audio, increase the bit rate, do whatever, it cannot beat the tape any day. Simply put in HMV's words - 'digital is like wearing a condom, nothing like the real thing' (they were referring to LP records though), but it applies here.

4. No playlists, Yes credits.
With due respect to the audio connoisseur in us, I understand that we like to sustain our mood by dumping our favourites in one list, conjuring up a mish-mash of Beatles, Devi Sri Prasad, Ilayaraja, Chopin and Ousepachan (sincerely, I did not make that up for the rhyme, he is a good Malayalam music director). But with cassettes, the plus is we dont forget great songs just because we did not like it or do not want to hear them so often. And proper audio warrants its own attention, no Skip, Next or even worse, Buffer! And if you are like me, while I enjoy the songs in my 'walkman', I keep staring at it and 'battify' the cassette credits. I digress here but if the cassette is from Echo or Sangeeta, I try to figure how bad/good the cut-paste patchwork is on the cassette. If it is ARR's there is whole compendium of credits telling us who played the 15 second oboe piece in that third song. That is good, and that we like, no?

5. Very Important. My proud acquired skill of rewinding cassettes with Reynold pens.
The standard white coloured 045 REYNOLDS FINE CARBURE has an eight-faced outer body and fits perfectly into an audio cassette wheel. I just need to know the side (A or B) and which way I want to go. Hold the pen and let the cassette rotate around it, in the right direction. I did this so much over the years, that I would stop between songs, such precision and intuition (*pats his own back). The feeling is that of a monk rotating his prayer drum. Good karma in the end. Its faster and it saves batteries.

6. Iam a sentimental and nostalgic bugger.
-- I like the scratchy noise and clucks when the cassette ages.

-- I like the experience when the batteries are running out.
[At about four-fifths of their life, the playing speed begins to drop, but is still inconspicuous. You ignore, but not long after, it is slower and you can tell, also by the little delay and the drag when you stop and start the walkman. You smile, insist, keep it running and then the sound balance slowly shifts towards one side until the stereo turns into a mono. You breathe deep, switch ears with the one phone but carry on. You then roll the cells vigorously between your palms to warm them up, later keep them in the sun for an hour. There is spring in the song one last time when the whining starts and then they die a slow death, finally! - new batteries? Yes, a new day and for a new song. Fellow Mavericks, since you all never found time nor could take up the case for the sentimental self in you, and put your feeling in words, I did it for you. You can thank me now (snigger)]

As I listen, share, exchange, make abstract art work on the cassette, I get attached to it. The look, the feel, the weight, the screech of the cassette cover when I close it, the smell, the cellophane tape that holds together broken pieces. It becomes a chronicle gently reminding me of times gone by. The same song feels different after a while. Songs dont change, we do. All in all it teaches us some big lessons which we often forget. To not let go of things just because they are old, to realise the beauty of what is in your hand rather than going after something that is virtual, easy, yet not retentive and most importantly that life goes around in circles.

*Iam banking on the comments section for some interesting opinions.