Friday, March 9, 2012

The Pakhawaj: Bramha’s handiwork

The Pakhawaj (originally known as Mridang) is a venerated instrument. The Mridangam of Carnatic music belongs to the same family. The instrument was originally made of clay. In recent years, however, it has been crafted from wood.

Mythology attributes the Mridang’s origination to Brahma, the Creator of the universe. According to legend, Lord Shiva was once dancing totally out of synch with rhythm. Bramha  was worried that Shiva’s wayward footwork might disturb the balance of the universe. So, he instructed Vishwakarma to craft a drum, and ordered Ganesha to start playing it in order to discipline Shiva’s dance. Thus the Mirdang/ Pakhawaj was born. Several other Indian instruments are associated with such legends, suggesting their antiquity and untraceable origins. 

Up to 18th century AD, the Mridang/ Pakhawaj was the dominant rhythmic accompaniment for art music and even Kathak dance. Today, its presence is largely limited to the Dhrupad genre. The Hindustani mainstream now prefers the Tabla across all modern genres of music. The Pakhawaj, no doubt, still enjoys immense prestige as the originator, developer, and preserver of the rhythmic science and percussion art.

The most widely cited derivation of its name is from Sanskrit: Paksha = side + Vadya = instrument. The Pakhawaj is a horizontal wooden barrel-drum, asymmetrical on one side. Its forearm-powered open-palm playing technique gives its sound a booming resonance and sonorous dignity. In addition to accompaniment, the Pakhawaj also has a solo tradition for connoisseurs of rhythm. 

Having been a resident of the Vaishnava temples along with Dhrupad, the Pakhawaj cultivated its art most assiduously in the Mathura/ Vrindavan region. From there, it travelled to the Mughal court with Dhrupad, and continued its forward march. The landmark figure in Pakhawaj history was Lala Bhagwandas, a product of the Mathura/Vrindavan tradition, and an esteemed musician at Akbar’s court (16th century). His disciples spearheaded Pakhawaj traditions in several parts of the country – Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Bengal.

When Dhrupad was declared a “museum piece” in the early years after independence, this description did not apply to the Pakhawaj. After European and US markets warmed up to Dhrupad, starting from the 1960s, gathering steam in the 1980s, the Pakhawaj scene also got a shot of adrenalin. The instrument now shares the fruits of the Dhrupad revival. 

The Pakhawaj now also appears to be on the threshold of the global market for Indian and cross-cultural ensembles. Several Hindustani and Carnatic percussion instruments have entered this segment since the 1980s. The entry of the Pakhawaj, though late, is hardly surprising. Any instrument which speaks the language of rhythm with such grace and authority had to, one day, find a global audience.  

Amongst segments of the Dhrupad legacy, the world of the Pakhawaj continues to be more vibrant than either Dhrupad vocalism or the Rudra Veena. Historians attribute the comfortable supply of Pakhawaj players to the additional talent available outside art music – in the devotional music traditions, where the instrument is well-entrenched and relatively insulated from market forces.

Note: For a detailed report on the Pakhawaj and the Tabla, please read "Hindustani Music Today", by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, New Delhi.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The violin in Hindustani music

During his trips to India, the iconic Western violinist, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, never failed to meet and hear MS Gopalakrishnan, the Indian violinist. Interestingly, Gopalakrishnan commands equal stature amongst Carnatic and Hindustani connoisseurs.  His musical persona virtually sums up the story of the violin in Hindustani music.  

How it all began

The violin came to India with European colonists -- the French in Pondicherry, the Portuguese in Goa, and the British in Bengal. It was introduced to Indian art music by Baluswamy Dikshitar (1786-1858), a brother of the legendary Carnatic composer, Muthuswamy Dikhsitar. By the end of the 19th century, the violin had been enthusiastically accepted at the Mysore and Travancore courts. Since then, several generations of violinists have worked to make the violin a major instrument in Carnatic music.

The instrument entered Hindustani music in the 1930s through the initiatives of Allauddin Khan (Baba), Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, SN Ratanjankar, and Gajananrao Joshi.

Allauddin Khan, also a master of the violin, published the first ever violin recording of Hindustani music on a 78 rpm disc. His disciple, Timir Baran, introduced the violin to film industry orchestration, and another disciple, VG Jog, emerged as a towering violinist. SN Ratanjankar, the principal of the Maris College of Music at Lucknow, invited VG Jog to teach at the institution.

Around the same time, Vishnu Digambar invited Parur Sundaram Iyer, an eminent Carnatic violinist (the father of MS Gopalakrishnan) to teach at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. Gajananrao Joshi, an eminent vocalist of the Gwalior gharana, was ordered by his patron, the feudal chief of Aundh in Maharashtra, to master the violin – which he did without a teacher, and later groomed several young violinists.

Second fiddle or first?

Until the acceptance of the bowed instruments in art music, the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions both gave pride of place to the Veena as an accompanist to vocal music. Once violin accompaniment partially replaced the Veena in Carnatic music, it was also able to emerge as a solo instrument. When the violin entered Hindustani music – almost three generations after its Carnatic debut -- the Sarangi was the preferred accompaniment, but fast losing ground to the Harmonium. Hindustani music thus ended up reserving the violin for solo performance, and using it only sporadically as an accompaniment. 

For evolving into a mature instrument for Indian art music, the violin has thus had much more time and much wider exposure in the Carnatic tradition, than in Hindustani music. Little wonder then that Hindustani music remains indebted to Carnatic music for the art of the violin.

Contemporary Hindustani violinists

The most venerated violinist is MS Gopalakrishnan (born: 1931), popularly called MSG. He studied the violin in the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions with his father, Parur Sundaram Iyer.  After his father’s demise, he studied Kairana gharana (Hindustani) vocalism with Guru Krishnananda. He exploded onto the Hindustani music scene in his early youth, accompanying leading vocalist like Omkarnath Thakur, DV Paluskar and Bade Gulam Ali Khan. His trajectory in Carnatic music was equally sensational. Despite a less frequent presence on the Hindustani platform, his name spells magic amongst connoisseurs in both the traditions.

In the same generation as MSG, the Paluskar tradition of the violin is represented by DK Datar (born: 1932). He studied the violin under Vighneshwara Shastry, and vocal music under his uncle, DV Paluskar.

The Carnatic tradition continues to lead the Hindustani art through N Rajam (born: 1938). She studied Carnatic music under her violinist father, Narayana Iyer, and the famous vocalist, Musiri Subramaniam Iyer. While still in her teens, she became a concert performer and accompanist to the tallest Carnatic vocalists, including MS Subbalakshmi.

She later enrolled for a degree from the Benares Hindu University (BHU), where Omkarnth Thakur headed the Faculty of Music. Once she joined BHU as a Lecturer, her musical persona flowered as a performer, teacher, and academician under her mentor’s supervision.

The Hindustani violin today

Rajam is acknowledged as the foremost Hindustani violinist today. In the next generation, the significant Hindustani violinists are both Rajam’s disciples -- her daughter, Sangeeta Shankar, and her niece, Kala Ramnath, who later became a disciple of  the distinguished vocalist, Jasraj. In a sense, quality Hindustani musicianship on the violin is presently the domain of Carnatic expertise.

While pockets of violin training do exist in the Hindustani music world, there is still a noticeable absence of a “violin culture” which can nurture quality musicians. Violin enthusiasts  hope that Hindustani music will continue to attract exceptional violinists from the Carnatic culture at least for a few more generations. 

Note: For a detailed report on the Violin in Hindustani music, refer "Hindustani Music Today", by Deepak Raja. DK Printworld, New Delhi.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Tabla: Everybody wants Zakir

Every musician in India wants Zakir to accompany him. Every assembly of Indian connoisseurs wants to hear a Zakir solo. Every Kathak dancer wants Zakir to add sizzle to her footwork. Every world-music ensemble wants Zakir as the lead percussionist. And, every student of the Tabla wants to be a Zakir. This is, undoubtedly, the triumph of a charismatic genius called Zakir Hussain. But, it is also the victory of the Indian art of percussion, and of rhythm as a musical expression sufficient unto itself.  

Zakir Hussain is a product of the North Indian art music tradition of transforming geocentric time into musical time, which began with the Pakhawaj several millennia ago, and continues with the Tabla. 

The origin of the Tabla, the vertical drum pair, is a puzzle that defies solution. The instrument came into prominence during the 15th century at the dawn of the modern era in Hindustani music. The ponderous Dhrupad genre was being challenged by the modern Khayal genre. In the emerging post-Dhrupad scenario, Hindustani music needed a percussion partner of greater agility, delicate playing technique, and softer output. The Tabla, already a mature instrument by then, steadily enlarged its role on the emerging music-scape, to finally replace the Pakhawaj by the 18th century.

Historic developments in the Tabla idiom took place during the reign of Emperor Muhammad Shah of Delhi (1719-1748), whose court was also host to the launch of the Sitar, and the maturation of Khayal vocalism. The musician responsible for the percussion revolution was Siddhar Khan Dhadhi. He was an accomplished Pakhawaj player, who translated the forearm-powered open-palm Pakhawaj idiom into the wrist-and-fingers idiom of the Tabla, thus creating an entirely new percussion language. His students spread to other major centers of music, and adapted the style to respond to local influences and aesthetic values. As a result, the world of the Tabla now recognizes six major styles, known by the names of the centers where they evolved.

(a) Delhi: In recent times, Inam Ali Khan and Lateef Ahmed Khan have been the most distinguished exponents of this gharana.

(b) Ajrada: Habibuddin Khan was the most distinguished percussionist of this style in recent memory.

(c) Lucknow: Afaque Hussain Khan was the most recent distinguished percussionist of this lineage.

(d) Farukhabad: This tradition produced three luminaries in the same generation: Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, Shamsuddin Khan, and Ameer Hussain Khan.

(e) Benares: This pedigree again produced three outstanding percussionists in the same generation – Shamta Prasad, Kishen Maharaj, and Anokhey Lal.

(f) Punjab: This style produced the super-stars of late 20th century music – Allahrakha Khan, and his son, Zakir Hussain. Though masters of their own traditional idiom, the Punjab lineage maestros  have enriched it with ideas from several other sources.

The stylistic distinctions between these lineages are, obviously, not as evident in accompaniment, as they are in solo performance, because an accompanist needs to respond spontaneously, free from gharana preferences. 

The Tabla today commands the largest base of professional, amateur, and aspiring musicianship amongst all Indian instruments. The profession is amply endowed with scholarly as well as creative faculties. The idiom of the instrument is being constantly enriched by contemporary maestros. As an accompanist, soloist or ensemble performer, and in India or abroad, the Tabla is in good health. 

Note: For a detailed discussion on the Pakhawaj and the Tabla, refer to "Hindustani Music Today", by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, 2012.