Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Nancy Lesh (Kulkarni): “Dhrupad is the music for me. India is the place for me.”

The US-born Dhrupad Cellist, Nancy Kulkarni writes about her journey in Hindustani Music

My journey in Indian music started completely by chance. When I first came to India In I982, I had been playing Western cello for 13 years, had played in several symphony orchestras, including Principal Cellist of the Rome Festival Orchestra, and was currently Section Cellist with the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale of Florence, Italy. I was blissfully playing Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and all the greats of Western classical music.

Every summer was a three-month holiday from the orchestra, and that year I saw a special for a $500 round-trip ticket to Bombay. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to vacation in such an exotic land. However, I knew nothing of India and its music, and knew nobody who lived there. Nevertheless, I sewed a backpack for my cello with the intention of backpacking throughout India, and returning to the orchestra in the fall.

When I stepped off the plane in Bombay that June morning, I was immediately struck by the fragrance of burning campfires, mixed with cooking spices. That particular smell was very familiar to me, and I felt immediately that I had come home. I still relish that delightful smell each time I come to India. All the sights and scenes I experienced that first month were also strangely familiar. The next day I started wearing a sari with bindi, and soon had my nose pierced,Indian-style.

I spent the first month in Bombay, playing the Bach suites for solo cello in parks and hotel lobbies, and listening to concerts of Hindustani classical music every evening. I was amazed by all the new sounds I was hearing: sitar, sarangi, surbahar, bansuri, tanpura,tabla, pakhawaj. Growing up in the West, I had assumed that Indian music was of the “folk” category. I was thrilled to hear so many styles of classical music, and an amazing array of ragas. I was aching to learn some of this music on my cello. But where to start? With whom to study?

Fortunately I made the acquaintance of the noted scholar Dr. Narayana Menon, that time Director of the National Center for the Performing Arts. He gave me some advice which I have always cherished. He said that I must not be in a hurry to choose a teacher and begin studying. He advised me to spend my entire 3-month holiday listening to as many concerts as possible. From this, I will naturally find an attraction for a particular style or instrument. Then in my next trip to India, I can pursue a formal study with a chosen master.

I did as he said. The next day, I left for a music-listening tour of the major cities of Northern India, cello strapped to my back. Everywhere I went, I played Bach for locals in parks and hotel lobbies by day, and attended concerts at night. After a month of travel, I came to my favorite city, Banaras. I gave a recital for the Banaras Hindu University’s School of Music, playing the famous Fifth Suite for Solo Cello by Bach. At that time, Dean of Music Dr. Ranga Naiki, and musicologist Dr. Premlata Sharma were present in the audience.

After my recital, Dr. Sharma came to see me, saying, “It always amazes us how you Westerners are able to play note-by-note memorized pieces for hours.” I replied, “Its even more amazing how you Indian musicians are able to go on improvising in a single raga for hours, always fresh, and never repeating a phrase!” I asked Dr. Sharma her advice about pursuing a study of Indian music. “This instrument is perfect for Dhrupad,” was her reply. Only many years later, I came to know the wisdom in her statement. “We have one fine teacher of Dhrupad here at BHU, Dr. Ritwik Sanyal. I will introduce you to him.”

The next day, I went to Dr. Sanyal’s home for my first Dhrupad lesson, not having any idea what is Dhrupad! In all my travels, I hadn’t even one opportunity to hear this wonderful musical genre. As soon as I heard Dr. Sanyal’s alap in Bhim Palasi, I knew this was the music for me. The low ringing tones of his voice, the timeless un-measured movements of his alap, the poignant melody, all had me mesmerized. But what was even more thrilling, was when I found that I could somewhat reproduce those phrases on my cello. Hearing the familiar sound of my cello take in a new exotic expression, I could hardly contain my excitement! I came daily for lessons with Dr. Sanyal until it was time for me to return to Florence.

But, when the time came, I just couldn’t do it. In those days, public telephones were a rarity in Banaras, and after a many-hour wait, the connection was often bad enough to be useless. So I sent a telegram to Maestro RichardoMutti, Director of the orchestra in Florence, to please fill my post , I had to stay in India. I remained in India for seven years, studying two years with Dr. Sanyal, and five years with his guru, the Dhrupad veena master, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. I was joined my husband and son, and my daughter was born in Panvel on the outskirts of Bombay.

Along with Dhrupad cello, I studied Hindi and Marathi. Those were wonderful years, and I will always cherish the memories of the Ustad and his celestial music. After the untimely demise of my Ustad in 1990, I visited India every year to continue my Dhrupad cello study with his brother, the eminent vocalist Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar of Bombay.

During these last 25 years of playing Dhrupad on my cello, I have tried all kinds of modifications to my cello, with the guidance of my guru. This has been an interesting adventure in itself. I currently have two extra strings, which are plucked in the chikari style of the rudra veena. My four melodic strings pass over a sloping elkhorn nut, modeled after the veena to produce a ringing tone. One can see from my photo that I have adopted the Indian posture, holding the cello while seated on a carpet. I have eliminated the vibrato, which I had so carefully groomed in my Western classical training, so that the subtle ornaments of Dhrupad are clearly articulated.

The rest is just the life of a striving musican. I can only thank my Gurus for the inspiration and guidance they have given me, which was so strong as to last all these years. I am looking forward to shifting myresidence permanently to Pune in 2008. India is the place for me!

(c) Nancy Kulkarni
The finest recordings of Nancy Lesh (Kulkarni) have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York. Nancy’s biodata and other CD releases can be accessed at www.Dhrupadcello.com.

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