Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pt. Brijbhushan Kabra (1937-2018) and the Indian Classical Guitar

Until the 1960s, the Hawaiian Slide Guitar had been heard mainly in film songs, and in the regional music of Bengal. The credit for elevating the instrument to the Hindustani art music platform goes to Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra.
With friend and collaborator: 
Pt. Shivkumar Sharma
In 1968, Kabra recorded the album “Call of the valley” with Shivkumar Sharma (Santoor) and Hariprasad Chaurasia (Flute), which won a Platinum Disc. After this landmark release, there was no looking back for Kabra and the instrument. Thereafter it has maintained a stable presence on the Hindustani music platform, and also created an impressive constituency for itself in North America and Europe.  
In the basic model, the shell of the instrument is an F-hole Guitar of European design, acoustically and structurally enhanced to support a multitude of strings. But, the design of the Indian adaptation is far from standard yet. There are several variants in circulation, with some of them even sporting names suggesting the identities of their “creators”.

The Vichitra Veena legacy

 In Hindustani music, the Hawaiian Guitar has filled the vacuum created by the decline of the Vichitra Veena, which has been used as an accompanist to vocal music, and also as a solo instrument. The technique of executing melody on these two instruments is identical, and draws upon a history of older Indian instruments -- the Ghoshaka Veena described in Bharata’s Natyashastra [200 BC- 200 AD], and the Ekatantri Veena repeatedly referred to in musicological texts from the eleventh century AD. In the Carnatic tradition, the same technique is used for melodic execution on the Gottu Vaadyam, --also called Chitra Veena. All these instruments execute melody by sliding the hard cylindrical or round object along the strings, rather than stopping the strings against the frets, as in the case of instruments like the Rudra Veena, Sitar or the Spanish guitar.
The Vichitra Veena receded from the mainstream almost simultaneously with the Dhrupad/ Dhamar genre of mainstream music, of which the instrument was once an integral part. The major reason for its decline would appear to be its cumbersome handling, and an acoustic quality unsuited for the contemporary environment, governed by the electronic manipulation of musical output.
The Hawaiian slide-Guitar appeared to solve both these problems simultaneously while offering the distinctive quality of the slide-Veena -- the ability to reproduce every nuance of Indian vocalism with minimum interference from the sound-priming [plucking] activity. Admittedly, the slide-Guitar was inferior in this role to the Sarangi, a bowed instrument. But, within the plucked lute family, and as a successor to the Vichitra Veena, it could have no peer as a mimic of the vocal expression. Because of this advantage, the Hawaiian slide-Guitar offered a much wider range of stylistic options than the Sitar and Sarod, both of which required a higher frequency of plucking.
The only trigger the slide-Guitar required for reviving the Vichitra Veena legacy was towering musicianship, which could demonstrate its musical potential, especially relative to the dominant plucked lutes -- the Sitar and Sarod.  The instrument found its  champion in Brijbhushan Kabra.

Kabra’s Guitar

Brijbhushan, a qualified mining geologist, came from a business family with a deep involvement in music. His father had studied the Sitar under the legendary Ustad Enayet Khan, the father of Ustad Vilayat Khan. Brijbhushan’s elder brother, Damodarlal, was a distinguished Sarod player trained by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. In defiance of acute cynicism within the family, Brijbhushan said “no” to the Sitar as well as the Sarod, and accepted the challenge of elevating the slide-Guitar to a level of parity with them under the tutelage of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.
Inevitably, Kabra went along with the established musical approach of the major plucked lutes, the Sitar and Sarod. The first step in this direction was the introduction of chikari [drone] strings. As on the Sitar and the Sarod, his chikari set is mounted on a post midway up the stem of the Guitar on the bass [inward] side. His repertoire includes a three/four tiered alap-jod-jhala movement, slow tempo compositions primarily of Masitkhani format in Tritala, medium tempo compositions in Rupak [seven beats] and Jhaptala [ten beats], and fast tempo compositions in Tritala [sixteen beats] followed by a jhala. As with the Sitar and Sarod, light and semi-classical compositions in a variety of tala-s [rhythmic cycles] became an important part of a comprehensive repertoire to satisfy contemporary audiences.
Despite the benefit of guidance from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a colossus amongst instrumentalists, Kabra had to rely on his own resourcefulness for technique. Kabra’s musical vision is deeply entrenched in vocalism. It might even be said that, in the melodic content of his music, he has pitted his instrument against the Sarangi, rather than the Sitar or Sarod. He places the highest premium on the capabilities of the slide-Guitar for delivering the melodic continuity and microtonal subtleties of Hindustani vocalism. This logically meant the development of an idiom and technique that would minimize the frequency of strokes, and maximize the melodic density achievable under the impact of each stroke. These became the guiding principles of Kabra’s musical endeavors.
Within the raga presentation format of the plucked lutes, Kabra’s musical vision, and the instrument’s capabilities, led him to develop the anarhythmic and melodically rich alap form as his forte. In order to pack the maximum power into each stroke, Kabra dispensed with the picks conventionally used by slide-Guitarists, and opted to play with wire plectra [mizrab-s] used by Sitarists.
Once he had harnessed additional stroke power with Sitar plectra, he could achieve the desired manipulation of timbre, volume, and sustain without the addition of sympathetic strings. In an interview with the present author, Kabra expressed the view that the slide-Guitar is so rich in the delivery of microtonal values and melodic continuity,  that the Sitar/ Sarod model of acoustic design is irrelevant for the instrument. Kabra also argued that the sympathetic strings, which support only the discrete swara-s in the raga scale, have the effect of drowning out microtonal subtleties on the Slide guitar. As a result, the delivery of melodic value is limited, rather than enhanced, by the sympathetic strings, which his juniors amongst Guitarists have widely adopted.
In order to minimize the melodic discontinuity in his music, Kabra reduced the role of multiple-string execution by opting, once again, for a Sitar-style solution -- of using the first string as the main melodic string, and tuning the second and third strings also in the Sitar style . This enabled him to execute melody across two full octaves on the main string, requiring the second and third strings only for the lower octave. In his interviews to the American press, he has argued that Hindustani music, with its vocalist model, does not require a melodic canvas larger than three octaves. 

Kabra’s music
Kabra’s repertoire is basically mainstream music, biased in favour of popular raga-s like Puriya Kalyan, Bageshri, Bihag Madhuwanti, Jaijaiwanti, Hameer and Nat Bhairav. His discography shows a fair representation of light music – melodies like Kafi, Gara, Rajasthani folk, Mand, and Piloo. The patent raga-s of the Maihar Senia lineage, such as Gauri Manjari and the Carnatic raga Kirwani appear to have only a small presence in his performing material.
With his design of the instrument, and his novel technique, Kabra has achieved an acoustic richness in the musical output of the Slide Guitar, which approaches the more mature plucked instruments like the Sitar and the Sarod. In the presentation of raga-based music, Kabra strongly favors the alap-jod-jhala forms, often even as stand-alone pieces of music, without rhythm-accompanied forms following it. Even on a mass medium like the radio, he is known to have performed a 40-minute alap-jod-jhala as a self-sufficient rendition. This predilection is consistent with his highly vocalized melodic imagination, and his belief that these movements are the best vehicles for the unique melodic capabilities of his instrument. Kabra’s percussion-accompanied music largely follows the orientations of the Maihar Senia lineage. His bandishes are composed in vilambit, madhyalaya or drut Tritala, or in madhyalaya Roopak or Jhaptala.
Kabra has also been an immensely successful duet musician. His partnership with Shivkaumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia produced the “Call of the valley” album, which is now the stuff of legend. His duets with Shivkumar Sharma – particularly the LP recording of Jhinjhoti – ia also amongst the most memorable pieces of duets produced in recent history.
Kabra established himself and the slide-Guitar in Hindustani music at a time when three giants -- Ustad Vilayat Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan – were at the peak of their creative and technical prowess. In such an environment, the mere novelty of the slide-Guitar could not have assured the instrument a future in Hindustani music. Kabra’s success can be explained only as a victory of his perception, and exploitation, of the distinctive musical value that the Hawaiian slide-Guitar had to offer.

After Kabra

In response to the changes in the environment of Hindustani music, Kabra’s successors on the slide-Guitar scene, including his own disciples, have drifted away from the technical and stylistic choices he made. Most of them have chosen a stylistic direction with a much higher stroke density than Kabra’s, and an extensive use of multiple-string execution as an important element in their music. The slide-Guitar idiom is now drifting closer to the idiom of the Sarod, but surpassing it in dazzling potential, thanks to the slide-Guitar’s superior ergonomics. The technical decisions of the younger Guitarists reflect these directions.
A melodic canvas spanning four octaves, and across five strings, is now in favour.  Sympathetic strings have now become a stable feature of the Indian classical Guitar. The emphasis is now on kaleidoscopic tonal patterning and dazzling virtuosity, rather than elaborate raga presentation and melodic richness. Strokes therefore need ergonomic facility more than depth or power. To this end, Guitar-style picks have replaced Kabra’s mizrab. Some Guitarists have also found it efficient to shift the chikari drones to the treble [outward] side of the instrument.   
Whether as an acoustic machine, or as the presenter of a well-defined style of instrumental music, the Indian classical Guitar is still in a state of evolution. While the succeeding generations of Hindustani Slide Guitar maestros have successfully sent the instrument into international orbit, Kabra's pioneering and formidable musicianship remains a landmark in the history of Hindustani instrumental music. .
(c) Deepak Raja. April 2005