Song of Surrender

Thursday, 29 January 2015

A sammelan to savour

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

Move over, Chennai. Your place as a hub for an annual music extravaganza is likely to be  usurped  by  Kolkata, where the ITC Sangeet Research Academy’s annual   sammelan in December   2014 set  benchmarks that other organisers could aim for.

First, the highlights of the sammelan (5th to 7th, December 2014) before I make my points about lessons that can be learned (by performers as well as organisers). All three days of the sammelan were all night sessions, beginning in the evening  around 6 and going on till 7 AM or beyond. (On the last day, the sessions began even earlier, around 3 pm, in order to accommodate an extra session on dhrupad that was not originally in the schedule). The  sizeable audience sat through it all, despite the wintry weather and the open air shamiana, every day, all night, till well past daybreak.

This SRA annual sammelan is anticipated by music aficionados and genuine rasikas, we are told, because of the quality fare that SRA promises, the selection of the performers  not on the basis of their “crowd pulling” reputations but for their musical abilities, and the extra transport arrangements at the end of each session in the early hours, to cover multiple destinations, but more than anything else, the quality of the music.

This year’s sammelan focused on SRA’s younger generation of scholar-trainees, selected by a panel to receive scholarships for intensive training under leading gurus. These gurus--each with an enviable reputation as an eminent performer-teacher--are provided with bungalows  on campus, with freedom to fashion their  one-on-one teaching regimen to suit individual apprentices. The emphasis is on classicism, and  the scholars who  had a platform to showcase their  guru’s training and their  own talent, made full use of the opportunity to establish themselves as soon-to-be leading lights on the concert stage. In fact, some of them were so good that they could qualify for ustad status right away.

The opening item  was a display of rhythmic competence by tabla scholars, of whom  the youngest was five years old; most of the group of 13 (including one girl) were not yet ten. Instead of having the conventional lehra (melody repeated on a stringed  instrument, to keep track of the tala cycles while the tabla improvises) guru Samar Saha used  a tabla tarang  by the kids themselves, providing a melodic  reference cycle  (using tablas tuned to different notes) while individual participants took off on improvised rhythmic variations.  This was a novel experiment. Some of the tiny tot tabalchis were barely visible over the top of the tablas they were handling – but their  talent was astounding . This was a tribute to the calibre of teaching as well as the rigorous process of  choosing scholars with innate talent and  unmistakable promise. Some of these kids will soon join the likes of Zakir Hussain as popular  icons of percussion, I am sure.

The vocalist and instrumentalist scholars took over next and each one of them was an ustad-in-the-making. There was no playing to the gallery – every young scholar performed with the finesse, poise, and confidence of a veteran, showcasing the training of the  gurus. Given one hour each, they did full credit to their apprenticeship and their own musical capabilities. Young vocalist Arshad Ali Khan, with his  astounding, super fast taans, promises to be another Rashid Khan,  today’s  leading  Hindustani vocalist with an international following (Rashid was himself inducted as a scholar  at SRA at age 11, for gurukul apprenticeship under Ustad Nissar Hussain Khan of the Rampur gharana, the legendary “tarana samrat” who passed away in 1996 after 17 years as a guru at ITC-SRA. Rashid  lived  with the guru, and imbibed  the finer  points of the gharana before acquiring a reputation as the youngest ustad of all time)

The sarod and sarangi have very few exponents today among the younger generation (especially the sarangi, which is a difficult instrument) but young Mallar Rakshit   and Abir Hossain (sarod) and Sarwar Hussain (sarangi)  restored our faith in the future of these traditional instruments in the hands of  Gen-Next.

Every one of the vocalist scholars, both girls and boys, sang with a ”khula awaz” (full throated, open voice) especially in the upper octave, which was a treat, testifying to the strict standards that the gurus insist on (no false voice, no short cuts). Anyone can teach the intricacies. Only a senior guru can insist on uncompromising standards in basics like voice production. Every vocalist scholar also stuck to “sureelapan” (sounding  aesthetically melodious ) especially in holding the top shadja, while instrumentalists like Saket Sahu who played the violin, displayed a maturity and skill that marked them as front ranking artistes, despite their age. That was a testimony to their training under SRA’s gurus as well as the scholars’ innate  musical talent. Even if I am only mentioning a few names, all of the participants were awesome; there was not a false note, not one recital that was below par,  in all the three days  of extended sessions.

Each day’s schedule included  also a recital by a senior guru. The first day saw Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar, one of today’s leading vocalists and one of the most popular gurus at SRA, treat the audience through the night,  before signing off with the morning raga Bibhas (at 7 AM) and the popular thumri  Jamuna ke teer in  raga Bhairavi (by popular demand) while the last day had  octogenarian Girija Devi  perform with incredible verve and stamina, assisted by two of her understudy scholars. In over half a century of attending music conferences and sammelans, I have never seen one that had participants ranging from a gifted five year old to an 87 year old, both equally spell binding.

Uday Bhawalkar, a young guru at SRA, took the stage on the last day, to present  a very impressive dhrupad in raga Adbhut Kalyan. He announced that this raga which eschews both the madhyama and the panchama, is known as  Nirosh in the south but I could find neither Adbhut Kalyan nor Nirosh in any of the comprehensive lists of ragas that I have access to (including Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar’s compendium, Bhatkhande’s books,  and the 500 raga listing published by  Dr Lakshminarayan Garg of Hathras who brings out a comprehensive monthly magazine called Sangeet in Hindi). 

Using just sa, ri , ga,  dha and ni, (of Bilawal or Sankarabharanam scale) Bhawalkar spun out the item for a full  hour, accompanied by a young pakhawaj artiste (again, another instrument that has very few practitioners, due to the decline of the dhrupad form itself). And he made it sound melodious too, not just a tight rope circus  item despite the absence of both ma and pa. It was a musical  feat. Notwithstanding the esoteric  form and  the rare raga, the audience heard him out with interest ,respect and appreciation.

How does one commend an audience too – for providing the right ambience for listening, without any show, or distraction ? There were no ‘page 3’ personalities, or VIPs, flaunting new shades of an exclusively woven sari, or diamonds, or gossip. At one point, when the stage was being reset for the next item, there was complete silence in the audience for several minutes. I have never seen anything like this before. The bane of many a performer today, is the distraction of an indifferent audience. A keen  and receptive one draws out the best in a performer and lets him/her rise to greater heights. This is what a sammelan should be like, I caught myself saying. We all stayed awake through the night, for three consecutive days, for a  veritable feast of good, unadulterated, high class music. Including the recitals by the youngsters, mostly teenagers, including t he daughter of Pandit Suresh Talwalkar of Mumbai  who matched her distinguished father stroke for stroke on the tabla.

Entry to the sammelan sessions was free, and though the first two rows of seats in the audience were reserved for gurus and parents of scholars, I saw no “press enclosure”, unlike in other prestigious sammelans. SRA is an ITC entity,  part of a corporate  set-up, but where the  music  sammelan was concerned, there was no pandering to the press by the organisers or to the gallery by the performers,  no advertisements, no hoardings, no banners, no flaunting of products (even  ITC ‘s own  brands like Ashirwad or Sunfeast). Just music, good classical music, and more music, from beginning to end, whether it was a teenage scholar performing, or a veteran guru.

Last year an Italian sitar player, Fulvio Koren,  was  at SRA for training, and this year there is a Japanese girl,  Eri Yamaguchi, a south American (who sat  onstage behind Girija Devi, helping with the tanpura)  and a Pakistani girl  Maham Suhail, from Lahore. 

The sammelan has also established a collaboration with  the Bangladesh Foundation, for cultural exchange . Perhaps SRA could become a hub for south Asian networking, a kind of cultural SAARC, since we share musical roots and heritage. Last year, ITC-SRA  collaborated in holding a music festival in Dhaka where the audience was reportedly over 31,000 strong. Leading flutist Hari Prasad Chaurasia echoed my sentiments when he commented that he felt “jealous” of SRA’s scholars, since they “get everything”. Quite.

Along with music, the gurus  also impart  related  cultural lifestyle ethics – there is much “touching of feet” (not just one’s own guru’s,  but those of all the elders who teach at SRA) as a mark of respect for  mentors. At the same time,  once the disciple takes the stage, he/she is trained to perform with great self-assurance and aplomb (after paying  the ritual obeisance to the guru). There is camaraderie, rather than jostling for primacy, among the scholars, who encourage  and appreciate  each other in a spirit that sidelines everything except  musical scholarship. SRA’s initiative for training future generations of eminent musicians is a unique revival of the traditional gurukul, with disciples having access 24X7 to their mentors and gurus. The  green  and spacious campus ambience adds to the enriching atmosphere that scholars are fortunate to live and learn  in. The team of gurus at SRA includes centenarian Ustad Abdul Rashid Khan who still turns up to attend sammelan sessions.

In addition, SRA ensures that there is minimal interference in the process of  learning, with rules interpreted  to suit each individual prodigy,  backed by an administrative and executive team that ensures that the annual sammelan is something all connoisseurs eagerly  look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. Adbhut Kalyan is Niroshta in Carnatic. Sri Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar is credited with inventing the raga in the south. The famous song "Raja Raja Rajithe" by Sri HMB is in Niroshta.