Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for August, 2014

Parveen Sultana mesmerises again


Parveen Sultana

I clearly remember the first time I heard Begum Parveen Sultana on stage. It was at an open-air venue in Mahalakshmi in the early 1970s, and I must have been just eight or nine years old. I didn’t understand the nuances, but I remember the huge applause she got. The next performer, the seasoned Kirana gharana vocalist Hirabai Barodekar, received a standing ovation too.

Parveen was in her early 20s then, and was already a star in the world of Hindustani classical music. Though established vocalists like Barodekar, Gangubai Hangal, Kersarbai Kerkar and Kishori Amonkar ruled the female scenario, the young singer from Assam was considered the next big name. The fact that she represented the Patiala gharana, which over the years was dominated by male singers, added to her exclusivity.

Over four decades later, Parveen continues to get a tumultuous applause every time she sings. I saw her on Saturday, August 23, at the first anniversary concert of InSync channel, and her performance was nothing short of breath-taking. Though she had been allotted limited time, and came after tabla maestro Suresh Talwalkar and his troupe, vocalist Venkatesh Kumar and santoor player Rahul Sharma, she charmed the audience with the sheer beauty of her voice and range of her singing.

Parveen is now 64. And having heard her closely over the years, one must admire how she has maintained the purity of her voice, and her ability to repetitively alternate between the higher and lower registers so effortlessly. Over time, she has also added elements of the Kirana gharana style, after training under Ustad Dilshad Khan, whom she married.

There are only a few concerts which stay with you much after they’ve ended, and this was one of them. Beginning with raag Puriya Dhanashree, Parveen was bang on target from the very first note, with the talented Ojas Adhiya giving tabla sangat. The vilambit part ‘Laagi mori laagan’ was built up beautifully, displaying some perfect taans and sargams, and the drut comprising the popular bandish ‘Paayaliya jhankaar’ had feet tapping.

After the khayal, Parveen asked the crowd what they wanted next. While some requested a thumri, others asked for ‘Bhawaani Dayaani’, her signature piece in Bhairavi. Though she joked that the fusion musicians who were to play after her would not her appreciate her singing Bhairavi at that time, she fulfilled both requests, first singing the thumri ‘Rasiya mohe bulaye’ in Khamaj, and concluding with the bhajan.

Most people in the hall had their gooseflesh moments. This was one recital which was memorable in every respect.

TALKING of the Patiala gharana, one was privileged to attend a private mehfil featuring Lahore-based singer Ustad Hamid Ali Khan on August 7. Coordinated by Rajiv Sethi, it was held at a mini-auditorium in a residential complex in Prabhadevi, Mumbai.

The youngest brother of renowned singers Bade Fateh Ali Khan and Amaanat Ali Khan, Hamid Ali Khan sings a wide cross-section of styles, ranging from khayal, thumri, ghazal and geet. He began with ‘Ghan garajat baadar aaye’, a composition in raag Malhar, after which he rendered the famous Amanat Ali Khan thumri ‘Kab aaoge tum aaoge’ and the light ghazal ‘Mere dil mein samaa gayee thi woh’.

The Mehdi Hasan-popularised ‘Pyaar bhare do sharmiley nain’ and the intricate ghazal ‘Guzar gaya jo zamaana usey bhulaa hi do, jo naqsh nahin ban sakta usey mitaa hi do’ were highlights of the first half. After the break, he rendered the famous folk song ‘Laagi re tosey laagi’, and presented rare compositions of the Patiala gharana. He had announced he would conclude with Khusro’s ‘Chaap tilak’, but it was already past 1 am, and this blogger didn’t stay till the end.

Khan has a mellifluous voice, and remarkable control. However, this being an informal session, he chose to talk a lot in the middle of the songs, and that somehow affected their overall feel, specially when one was just getting into the mood of a composition.

That flaw apart, it was another great evening. One got a true jhalak of Patiala gharana charm from across the border.


CD review/ The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale ― Eric Clapton & Friends


The Breeze ― An Appreciation of JJ Cale/ Eric Clapton & Friends

Genre: Rock/ blues/ roots

Label: Universal Music

Price: Rs 395

Rating: *** 1/2

ONE of the most influential American musicians, the late JJ Cale created what came to be known as the ‘Tulsa sound’, a smooth and rootsy blend of rock, jazz, blues and country. His followers have included greats like Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry and Bread’s David Gates.

Interestingly, while Cale maintained a low profile throughout his career, some of his songs were popularised by others. In fact, two of Clapton’s biggest hits ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After midnight’ were originally Cale tunes, and Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd covered his ‘Sensitive kind’ and ‘Call me the breeze’, respectively.

Appropriately, a year after the singer-songwriter’s demise, Clapton teams up with a few seasoned musicians to release the tribute album “The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale’. Containing 16 songs, the record features Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Derek Trucks, former Cale bandmate Don White and Cale’s wife Christine Lakeland.

The selection mostly features songs from the earlier part of Cale’s recording career, with six tracks from the 1974 album ‘Okie’. Not surprisingly, Clapton avoids ‘After midnight’ and ‘Cocaine’, though one wonders why popular Cale tunes like ‘Crazy mama’, ‘Shady grove’, ‘Don’t cry sister’ and ‘Clyde’ are not used either.

The album opens with Clapton himself playing ‘Call me the breeze’, using the trademark 12-bar blues shuffle and laidback rhythm. Other Clapton tunes that don’t feature celebrity guests are the popular ‘Cajun moon’ and ‘Since you said goodbye’, which features an immaculate, wailing slide guitar stretch.

Knopfler is on great form on his very Dire Straits-ish take of ‘Someday’, where he sings, “When she left with no goodbye, I was stuck with those lonely nights, You know what I mean, it’s always the same, Ain’t no medicine for that kind of pain, Someday comes and goes away, Bringing me a better day”. His ‘Train to nowhere’ has one of the most infectious hooks on the album and is the kind of number that’ll keep your feet tapping.

Petty, who’s recently released his own album ‘Hypnotic eye’, has a winner in ‘Rock ‘n’ roll records’, where he renders Cale’s lines, “I make rock ‘n’ roll records, I sell them for a dime, I make my living and feed my children, all in good time.” He also appears on ‘The old man and me’, where Clapton chips in with some moody electric guitar, and the fan favourite ‘I got the same old blues’, another Cale track covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The brilliant John Mayer appears on ‘Lies’, a vicious tune about a failed relationship, ‘Magnolia’, which is also known for its Poco version, and the uptempo ‘Don’t wait’, which has the Cale stamp written all over. Country legend Willie Nelson gives ‘Songbird’ his own touch but sadly, his appearance with Clapton and blues wizard Derek Trucks on ‘Starbound’ falls flat, with Trucks seeming totally wasted.

The famous ‘Sensitive kind’ is rendered by Don White, a regular at Cale’s shows. This versions cuts down on the tempo but one misses the charm of the original, which had some intricate strings and horns, or the fizz of the Santana cover.

White, however, does an excellent job on ‘I’ll be there (if you ever want me)’, a country hit popularised in the 1950s by Ray Price. As an apt conclusion, Cale’s wife Christine Lakeland appears on ‘Crying eyes’, first featured on his debut album ‘Naturally’ in 1972.

Though one misses, as mentioned earlier, some of the more obvious favourites, what’s noteworthy is that this is a heartfelt tribute from a group of musicians who have all been inspired by Cale. Clapton’s guitaring is consistently stylish and forms the backbone of this effort, which is a must for all his fans, and that of the genius of JJ Cale.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

See also: ‘Impressions of JJ Cale, the Lord of Lilt’, blog dated July 29, 2013

Taking the ‘cool’ route


Purbayan Chatterjee

DURING informal conversations with many Hindustani classical musicians, one has often heard them talk about how fewer youngsters are appreciating the genre, and how many of them do not have the patience to listen to full-length ragas. Keeping that in mind, many artistes have tried to use different methods to attract these younger audiences.

The concept of ClassiCool, initiated by sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee in association with digital media agency, is aimed primarily at such audiences, who have either not been exposed to or not have had the right ear for traditional music. Thus, the musicians involved have played shorter compositions, retaining the basic elements of the ragas, and yet adding modern effects using bass, drums or keyboards to make them sound ‘cool’.

ClassiCool was launched at a concert at St Andrew’s auditorium in Bandra, Mumbai, a fortnight ago. This blogger could not attend that show, but heard the compositions on a CD sent by the organisers. Here, Amaan Ali Khan plays raga Desh on sarod, Rakesh Chaurasia renders Bihag on bamboo flute and Purbayan presents Shree on sitar. Drummer Gino Banks and tabla player Anubrata Chatterjee, who accompany the instrumentalists on all numbers, also perform a percussion duet. And Suchismita Das chips in with vocals on Bhairavi and Khan’s Desh.

In keeping with the concept, the pieces are five or six minutes in length, and use effects to sound contemporary. As Purbayan said in a recent interview: “As youngsters have a lower attention span these days, classical music needs to be fed in shorter doses of a few minutes in a song-like format. Also, youngsters are used to a certain bass-drum soundscape which they think is cool. We will retain the sanctity of the raga, and yet sound contemporary.”

Of course, this is not the first time musicians are making efforts to reach out to newer audiences. Back in the 1960s, sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar and sarod legend Ustad Ali Akbar Khan popularised the concert of instrumental jugalbandis (duets) to add some variety to the traditional solo form. Of course, they played the raga in its entirety, and barring from a section of purists who insisted that classical music had to be played alone, got a good response, specially among youngsters.

Those days, Ravi Shankar also collaborated with western musicians like violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composers Andre Previn and Philip Glass, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Mumbai-born conductor Zubin Mehta in what were the early instances of fusion. More than anything else, such experiments helped more foreigners get exposed to Indian music.

As a genre, fusion took off in the mid-1970s. The Indo-jazz group Shakti, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin, became a craze among younger audiences, most of who normally listened to western music. Later, over the years, artistes like tabla wizard Zakir Hussain, violinist L Subramaniam, keyboardist Louiz Banks, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, Mohan veena exponent Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and mandolin player U Srinivas helped spread the reach of fusion music, and later, the style was used in vocal music too by groups like Indian Ocean and Colonial Cousins in India, and Mekaal Hasan Band and Fuzon in Pakistan.

One of the aims of fusion was to help new audiences, specially the youth, get exposed to Hindustani classical music. By and large, however, it did not succeed, as fusion fans remained fusion fans who got fascinated more by the star power of the artistes, the on-stage energy and gimmicks, and the virtuosity of instruments than by the intricacies or depth of the compositions. Very few of them actually shifted totally towards Hindustani classical music.

Unlike in south India and specially Tamil Nadu, where youngsters are normally exposed to Carnatic music from an early age, Hindustani music is followed by a smaller percentage of younger people in north India, where the emphasis is more towards Hindi film music or western pop. Though places like Pune, Gwalior and Kolkata have many young audiences, the same is not the case in most of the country.

In such a scenario, a concept like ClassiCool can play a role. Of course, it’s not the first time that musicians have played shorter ragas or added western effects. But most earlier efforts, often marketed as ‘lounge’ music, have been one-off cases by individual musicians, and not by a collective, as it is in this case.

Needless to say, such a format will have its critics. Those who have heard the real thing might complain about how the whole approach to a raga has been diluted, and may crib about the absence of the alaap-jod-jhala method under which ragas are traditionally built. The presence of western instruments may force people to think of this music as an east-west dialogue, when the truth is that unlike in fusion, the guitar, bass and drums have only been used to add some flavour.

While all those points may be justified, the truth is that in the current situation of declining audiences, such methods can help build a newer audience base. With most youngsters today tuned in to the latest Bollywood songs, electronic dance music or even Yo Yo Honey Singh, one way of getting them close to the classical form is by keeping things simpler and shorter. Moreover, the ClassiCool compositions are pleasant to the ear, and in no way jarring or unnecessarily flashy.

In the West, the similar concept of ‘classical crossover music’ has become a full-fledged genre. There too, young musicians play the compositions of legendary composers like Bach, Mozart and Debussy in a contemporary setting, adding a few keyboards and drum passages. While the majority of purists slam them because in western classical music, one is not supposed to tamper with even a single note, the fact is that this newer form has its own set of followers, many of whom actually got converted to pure classical symphonies and concertos.

In India, we are lucky to have such great and rich forms of music like Hindustani, Carnatic, ghazals and folk. Each form has an amazing history of tradition, and a huge amount of talent. Sadly, because of the Bollywood craze, and the obsession to keep up with the latest trends or be guided by peer pressure, many youngsters miss out on such great art.

Only time will tell whether ClassiCool will succeed in its mission. But given the sorry state of affairs today, it seems like a move in the right direction. The purists can always listen to something much deeper.

The grace of Gwalior


Laxman Krishnarao Pandit

EVERY Sunday morning, the Karnataka Sangha auditorium in Matunga West, Mumbai, organises a concert. The hall is rarely packed, but those who attend are regulars with an immense knowledge of music.

On August 3, one may have expected a larger crowd, but that was not to be, despite the fact that the very senior vocalist Laxman Krishnarao Pandit was performing. Yet, there were many true rasikas, who had come to listen to some rare gems of the Gwalior gharana.

Grandson of the legendary Shankarrao Pandit and son of Krishnarao Pandit, LK Pandit has been one of the torchbearers of the gharana for years. His talented daughter Meeta Pandit provided vocal accompaniment, and what one heard was nothing short of pure magic. The singer turned 80 in March, and barring a couple of throat-clearing parts in the beginning, there wasn’t a moment when his voice wavered. And he sang for two hours, without showing any sign of fatigue or stress.

With tabla sangat by Omkar Gulvady and sarangi accompaniment by Farukh Latif, Pandit began with raga Lalit, and followed it with raga Alhaiya Bilawal (which featured a tarana in the drut section) and two compositions in Miyan Ki Malhar, specially chosen to celebrate the rains. The final piece was ‘Madhave sakhi Madhave’, a traditional ashtapadi, a hymn with eight lines in the composition.

The Gwalior style of khayal is in fact marked by a systematic eight-fold elaboration of the raga, consisting of the alaap-behlava, bol-alaap, taan, bol-taan, layakari, gamak, meend-soot and murki-khatka-jamjama. While these terms will be better understood by serious followers of Hindustani vocal music, let’s suffice it to say that Pandit’s rendition was a textbook demonstration of each of these facets.

While Pandit shone in the taans, bol-taans and gamaks, the coordination between father and daughter was excellent. Meeta is an accomplished singer in her own right, and it has been heartening to see how she has developed to represent the next generation of the gharana.

THE oldest school in Hindustani vocal music, the Gwalior gharana was said to have been inspired by Raja Mansingh Tomar of Gwalior in the early 16th century. He was a master at the dhrupad form of singing, but along with his court musicians, wrote compositions in Brijbhasha. This style was popular during the reign of Emperor Akbar later in that century. The great Miyan Tansen followed the Gwalior dhrupad style, and today, the Tansen Samaroh is held annually in his memory in that city.

Eventually, dhrupad made way for khayal, and though the latter form had been prevalent for a few years, the Gwalior singers played a major role in popularising it. Though there are different theories on the actual evolution of the gharana, it is generally believed its main innovator was Nathan Pir Baksh, who eventually passed on the art to his maternal grandsons Haddu, Hassan and Nathu Khan. It was during this time that the gharana developed the way we know it today.

Besides khayal, the Gwalior school is well known for styles like tappa, which is a very difficult form of singing, ashtapadi, thumri, tarana and pad. And over the years, it has boasted of a great line-up of vocalists.

From the older generation, the names of Nissar Hussain Khan, Rehmat Ali Khan, Balkrishnabuva Icchalkaranjikar, Shankarrao Pandit, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Ramkrishnabuva Vaze, Mirashibuwa, Rajbhaiyya Poochwale, Omkarnath Thakur, Krishnarao Pandit, Eknath Pandit, Vinayakrao Patwardhan, Narayanrao Vyas, Sharatchandra Arolkar, Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, Rajarambuva Paradkar, Yeshwantbuwa Joshi, Lakshmanrao Bodas, Abdul Rashid Khan, Shankarrao Bodas, Jal Balaporia and Dattareya Vishnu Paluskar come to mind.

The late Pt CR Vyas blended the Kirana, Gwalior and Agra styles, whereas Narayan Bodas mixed Gwalior with Agra. Though BR Deodhar was a disciple of VD Paluskar of the Gwalior gharana, he was trained in various other styles too.

Among current singers, LK Pandit, Malini Rajurkar, Veena Sahasrabudddhe, Neela Bhagwat, Vidyadhar Vyas and the young Meeta Pandit have carried forward the purer nuances of the gharana. Of late, Amarendra Nandu Dhaneshwar has been giving many concerts in Mumbai.

There are also many singers who have primarily learnt in the Gwalior style, but also added elements of other gharanas like Kirana and Atrauli-Jaipur. They include Padma Talwalkar, Ulhas Kashalkar, Vinayak Torvi and Kedar Bodas, and Kashalkar’s disciple Manjusha Patil-Kulkarni. Trained in other styles as well, Sawani Shende has imbibed elements of the gharana through guidance from Veena Sahasrabuddhe.

Clearly, the Gwalior gharana has had a huge wealth of singers. And what’s really remarkable about this style is its emphasis on swara and on simplicity. The bandish, or composition, comes at the heart of the presentation, and thus, one finds it easy on the ears.

To come back to LK Pandit’s concert, one only wished more people had been there to enjoy its brilliance. This was the Gwalior gharana at its purest, and one really hoped more people had relished the experience.

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