09 September, 2013

The almost forgotten instrument-Surbahar or the Bass Sitar

I have not been writing anything for almost 2years now and had forgotten the beauty of being able to express myself through my blogs. But something that has happened in the last few weeks has made me go back to writing and so here it is--

The last few weeks has been another journey of self-discovery for me and for this to happen, I owe it all to the rediscovery of one of the most beautiful instruments of our music, the Surbahar. I have been in possession of this beautiful instrument for almost 12yrs now but never dared to venture to practice it except now and then when I would just tune it, play for a few minutes and keep it back. This particular instrument is at least 70-80yrs old and was made by the original Kanai Lal brothers who were very famous instrument makers in the 1940's and 50's. In fact, my Guru Pt. Ravi Shankar ji used to perform on one of their original handcrafted Sitars in the 1940's before shifting to the Sitar made by another great instrument maker, Nodu Mallick. The fact that this particular Surbahar still used flat frets makes it a really old one. Bishan Das Sharma ji from Rikhiram musicals once told me that the rounded frets on Surbahar started sometime about 60-70yrs ago and hence, my Surbahar was older than 60yrs old. This was almost 10yrs ago which makes it at least 80-90yrs now.

There is a beautiful story how this Surbahar came into my hands. The famous and legendary Kannada movie icon, Dr. Raj Kumar was a great lover of music, especially the Sitar. When I was growing up in Bangalore, my family was very close to him since my cousin, Chi. Udayashankar was a legendary lyricist, screenplay and dialogue writer for Kannada films and was like a brother to Dr. Raj Kumar. I remember Dr. Raj Kumar coming to our house many times late in the night to listen to me playing (if he came during the day and people got to know about it, there would be a riot at our place--that was the kind of popularity he had). Dr. Raj Kumar found this Surbahar somewhere and gifted it to my father. This was sometime in the 1980's  and so was in my house for almost 15yrs before shifting residence to Delhi in 2000. I owe it to Saskia for bringing it to Delhi since she forced me to bring it the first ever time she was in Bangalore to meet my parents. So, there we were--traveling by train from Bangalore to Delhi for the next 48hrs and our luggage consisted of my sitar, her Cello and this big instrument, the Surbahar. Luckily there was a seat vacant in the compartment we were traveling and all these big instruments got their own berth to sleep!!

Anyways, coming back to how I took it up again a couple of weeks ago---Saskia and I have been busy composing music for the new production of Dr. Sonal Mansingh, an icon of Classical Dance of India. We were very honored to be asked to compose for her new production, Meeting of the Gods. We finished a wonderful piece in Jan 2013, could not do the 2nd piece since we were busy with concerts and touring. When we returned from Europe end June, she wanted us to finish the last piece, the story of the marriage of the Indian Gods Shiva and Parvati and their Greek counterpart, Uranus and Gaia.  Whatever music we composed had to have the dignity and grandeur of Shiva. Saskia had already composed a beautiful entry music for Uranus and also the wedding of Uranus and Gaia. So, the music for Shiva and the wedding of Shiva and Parvati had to be equally grand and do justice to their stature as Gods. After the initial discussions and meetings, I suddenly came up with this thought of perhaps using my Surbahar for the music for Shiva. So, one evening when Saskia and Ishaan were playing some games in the other room, I slowly took the courage to walk into our music room and got the Surbahar out. Apart from a little dust that it had gathered and the tuning that had gone bad, everything else sounded beautiful. Even now I can still feel the deep reverberation that went through my whole body, through my whole soul with the very first stroke. I could not keep this beauty to myself any longer and rushed to get Saskia and Ishaan to hear the magical sound. Ishaan was just stupefied and I could see the slow transformation in both of them. I was playing Raga Shankara since that was the Raga I had chosen for the composition for Shiva. The next couple of days--the whole house was reverberating with the sound of the Surbahar and my entire being was dancing with the joyous sound. Of course it is a very difficult instrument and I can understand why constantly-traveling musicians could not tour with it or play the Surbahar and the Sitar. But should we lose it completely just because of these difficulties? The beauty is too great to be lost so easily and I want to bring it back to the main concert platform. Of course, there are a few artists who are performing the Surbahar even now but they are so few and unfortunately, it is not getting as much attention as it richly deserves. Every single person who has heard it ever since I have restarted practicing it cannot just believe its beauty and its magical sound. I have never seen Ishaan as peaceful as he is when he hears the Surbahar. He was unwell for a few days and one morning during his illness, Saskia brought him to the music room where I was practicing and within 10mins, he was fast asleep at 9AM in complete peace and a smile on his face.

We have finished the recording of our composition and have used the Surbahar in 2 sections--the grand entry of Shiva and the Shiva-Parvati wedding. Someone of Sonal ji's stature said that there has never been music so beautiful that has been composed for dance previously. Coming from someone who has heard the best, seen the best and is herself a powerhouse of knowledge, it humbles me to hear this. All I can say is that I am thankful to her for giving us this opportunity to work with her and compose for her which led me to my rediscovery of my Surbahar. It will be my sincere endeavor from now on to bring this instrument into main-stream concert platform. I am sure everyone who hears it even for the first time will be transformed and taken into a new beauty that they never knew existed.

God bless music and the beauty it brings to whosoever decides to love it.

12 January, 2011

Concert in Dewas in memory of Pandit Kumar Gandharva

Here I am, sitting in my hotel room in Dewas. Its the morning after my concert last night in Dewas in memory of the legendary singer, Pandit Kumar Gandharva. I have a train to catch at 5pm back to Delhi and my family and I look forward to seeing Saskia and Ishaan. I miss them even if I am away for just 2 days.

Last night was indeed one of my most memorable concerts. Playing in such a gathering where the audience can shake hands with you, sitting right in front of the artiste, where everyone is there because he/she wants to listen to the music, other wonderful musicians also sitting and listening and most important--in memory of a great singer. These luminaries are India's treasure and I have grown up listening to these great artistes. I was very happy when Kalapiniji invited me to perform this year and I was eagerly looking forward to it. I arrived here in Dewas straight from Bangalore where I had performed the previous evening with Saskia at Infosys. Drove 2hrs straight to the airport, caught a flight to Mumbai, spent 5hrs at the airport to catch my connecting flight to Indore at 6am. No sleep the whole night and surely was tired when I reached here. Slept a few hours and woke up with nightmares(or was it daymares since it was 10am). I was dreaming that I woke up at 9pm and the concert was supposed to start at 7pm--dreamt that my sitar was broken on the flight and there was no way I could perform. Dont know what these dreams meant but slowly, I got out of that horrible feeling and when I took my sitar, I felt a huge sense of relief. After a little while of playing, I decided that I would start the concert with Raga Hemant and maybe play Mishra Pilu or Manj Khanmaj after Hemant.

I reached the house where the concert was happening at about 7:30 when Kalapini ji asked me what I was planning on performing. When I told her that I would perhaps start with Hemant, she said that she had a special request and if I could play Baageshwari since it was a long time since anyone had performed it there. So, I decided to play Baageshwari instead of Hemant. In the audience was Vasundra Tai, Bhuvanesh Bhai and many other musicians and music lovers. Even as I started tuning on stage, I got this very special feeling and no words can describe this feeling. After a long time, I played without looking at my watch. These days, we are told by the organizers not to exceed an hour or maximum and hour and a half. I do understand the modern day constraints and am happy to respect it but there should be some concerts where there is no time restriction for the artiste since in our music, it takes about an hour for us to start feeling each note. The alaap, jod, jhala went on for over an hour. Soumen Sarkar, a wonderful young Tabla player from Kolkata was accompanying me and I decided to play Rupak Tala followed by Drut Ek Tala. He too was in a great mood and it was such a beautiful game we played on stage--each challenging the other, each appreciating the other. Sometime during the concert, I cut my second finger and it had started bleeding but I was totolly lost in the beauty of the moment to even notice it. It was only after I finished the concert that I started feeling the pain and realized that I had cut my finger badly. The second Raga I performed was Manj Khamaj and when I finished the concert, it was after 11pm. People were willing to listen more but aware of the fact that it was a weekday and people did have to go for work next morning, I decided to end it then.

These are the kind of concerts why I do this music. The beautiful feeling of letting go of everything and just enjoy the depth of this music, feeling each note deep within. Now I am beginning to understand what these great artistes mean when they say that music is an ocean and the deeper you go, the more you realize how little you know. The response from the knowledgeable audience, some who had heard my Guru in his prime and drawing comparisons with him, their blessings---indeed this is something I shall treasure all my life. No reason why we cannot have more such concerts where the artiste can express his deepest self to a hungry audience.

Have an exciting next few months ahead--US, Kennedy Center, Canada, Mexico, Europe and IRAN. I hope that I can continue to write and share some wonderful moments with you.

God bless.

11 January, 2011

Parents and family

Its 4:44AM on 12th Jan 2011 and I am at Mumbai Airport waiting to catch my next flight to Indore. Will be performing this evening in Dewas in memory of the Legendary singer, Pandit Kumar Gandharva. Finished my concert with Saskia at Infosys last evening and rushed to the airport to catch my flight to Mumbai. Traffic in Bangalore is just unbelievable and I made it in time thanks to the fact that my flight was half hour late.

The concert last night was something very very special. Playing at Infosys which is perhaps the face of India's achievements in recent decades was indeed wonderful. But for some strange reason, even as I was lost in my music and enjoying Saskia's passages and my own Mishra Pilu, I was overcome by some beautiful emotions and thinking of my father even as I was conscious of my mother in the audience. A flood of emotions just took over me and all the sacrifices they made, the love they showered, the beauty of music to which they introduced me--I owe everything I am today to these 2 wonderful people who brought me into this world. How proud my father would have been to see his son and daughter-in-law yesterday. I miss you Anna. There is not a single day when I do not think of him or my mother. I could just not hold back my tears and I am sure many people in the audience also may have noticed it. Why does music have this impact? The beauty of the notes, the Ragas, enjoying the rhythms--everything just transcends you to a different plane where there is nothing but just emptiness and where one can enjoy the empty space you create. The same feeling overtook me a few minutes later when Saskia and I played our favourite composition that we feel brings out the best in both of us--a piece where we celebrate our little son, Ishaan. Being parents ourselves has made us realize the beauty of life. If on one side, I miss my father so much, I also enjoy my beautiful son. This is life and what a beautiful feeling to be able to share this feeling through my music.

Last few days in Bangalore has again been very special. For the first time, my mother got to enjoy her 4 grand children together. Just to see her eyes light up when she saw them all playing together, making jokes, eating together, going out to eat their special "Dosas" at 7AM. Ishaan is the youngest at 6 and Divya, my niece is the eldest. In between are Smita and Nikhit. I love each one of them passionately and am blessed to have such a wonderful family. God bless each one of them.

10 September, 2010

In Tokyo after Nagoya

Here I am in Tokyo for the 2nd time. My first time was 3yrs ago but I did not spend much time here to get to know about the city. Tokyo seems like any big city in the world---large, crowded and huge,tall buildings with everyone in a rush. Somehow I enjoy the smaller cities and Nagoya surely was a lovely experience.

The past few days in this wonderful country has made me think a lot. Courtesy and honesty is something everyone can learn from the Japanese. In Nagoya, we were very well looked after by Jun san and Shinyo san. Jun is learning Tabla from Ty and Shinyo plays the Santoor. He was so happy when I asked him to bring his Santoor and play for me. He said that the few things I taught him has changed his life and now, considers me his Guru. They are just amazing people and the only word that comes to my mind immediately when I think of them is "cute". They looked after us so well and made sure we were comfortable in every possible way. The concert was in a beautiful Temple and it was indeed a spiritual experience. We had more than a capacity audience and many people, listening to Classical Indian Music for the first time. The sound was good too and somehow, I lost myself completely in the beauty of the sound. It was very hot and I surely sweated a couple of gallons but nothing matters when the feeling within is something special and I felt it last night. Both the Ragas that I played, Hemant and Kirwani are Ragas that I have performed many times but there was something magical last night. I could just feel each and every note vibrate within me and I let myself go like very few times before. To add to this enriching experience, I dreamt of my Guru where he told me that after hearing me, he felt that I was taking the right path and was on the right track!!!

People here are amazing. Last night after the concert followed by a wonderful dinner with some friends, we were coming back to our hotel in a Taxi. Our friends pre-paid the Taxi driver and on reaching the hotel back, he found that he had been overpaid and returned about 500yen back!!! Can we imagine this happening anywhere else? In Delhi, the auto and taxi drivers are waiting to fleece every single person. Why is it that people cannot be honest? I am sure that the taxi drivers here are also not the richest people but they live honestly. You cannot dream of tipping anyone here, either a Taxi driver or a waiter at a restaurant. It would be like insulting them if we tried to. What is also amazing is that you see very few cigarette butts on the street. Many people carry small pouches where they stub their cigarettes out and toss it into a garbage bin when they see one. It's funny that you can smoke inside restaurants and many buildings but cannot smoke near the train station.

Another thing I have noticed is that people are so healthy and it is indeed very difficult to see an obese person, be it someone young, old or middle-aged. Honestly, I have not seen a single person who is over weight. It cannot just be because of their small body structure but I am sure it is also because of their healthy diet. For me as a vegetarian, it has been tough since Japan is such a "fishy" place. Yesterday, Ty and I went to this amazing super market, Takashimaya and in the basement is their food section. Huge would be a small word to describe it but after walking around for almost an hour, we had to come out empty-handed since there was just nothing vegetarian there. Reminded me of the saying, "Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink". For me it seemed like "Food food everywhere but nothing to eat since I am a vegetarian". To top it all, I am practicing to eat with chopsticks(whenever I do find something vegetarian!!). I am sure that if you know your way around, you can find some places but unlike India and many places in the West, it is really tough being a vegetarian. The journey from Nagoya to Tokyo in the special Shunkansen train was just about 2hrs. This train travels at speeds of about 250km.

We have a few concerts in and around Tokyo next few days and I am really looking forward to appreciating Tokyo more. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to share my music with these lovely people and to get to understand them a bit better.

Signing off now and will try to write again in the next couple of days

05 September, 2010

Being a vegetarian in difficult places

Here I am, sitting in my small room in an apartment in Kyoto and getting ready to leave for my next destination, Gifu. I arrived in Japan a couple of days ago and have finished 2 concerts. Everything about Japan is small and compact--the rooms, the men and women, the cars. This is my second visit to this country and the first time, I am trying to understand more about this beautiful and ancient culture. But not getting far yet since I don't speak the language. It is indeed very difficult to make yourself understood here and yes--being a vegetarian is a huge problem. Perhaps if you live here or can even make yourself understood, it may be a bit easier. Last night, Ty and I had to look at several places before finally finding something that could at least serve some sort of a soup that had only fish sauce. Of course, this was unacceptable to me even a couple of days ago but rather than starve completely, I have had to accept this. In some parts of the world, it is indeed difficult being a vegetarian and if you cannot speak the language too, it becomes very difficult. I wonder how I am going to manage the next couple of weeks. Will surely lose a couple of pounds!!!

The concerts have been amazing and it's wonderful to be able to connect with the people through my music. Even though the people here are initially hesitant to open their hearts, once they do so, they are amazing people. Some people have come up to me after the concert saying that they have never experienced such emotions ever before and were crying during the concert. Just proves the often said sentence that music is indeed the only universal language that knows no boundaries, no language, no religion. If only more people can love music passionately, this world would be such a better place.

Signing off now and will continue to write about my Japanese experiences.

04 August, 2010

"Naturally Inspired" In Edinburgh--Getting ready for Wimbledon 2011

Saskia, Ishaan and I are here in Edinburgh for the 2nd year in succession. After the wet experience we had last year, we were prepared totally with our umbrellas and poncho for Ishaan but what a surprise!!! We have had the best weather here--quite cold for the August we are used to but I am not complaining. After the summer in Delhi and the humidity of the monsoons, I am very happy that I am not sweating at all. Actually, that's not true because I do sweat it out when I finish my hour long tennis every day. Tennis and me? yes--that's one of my "naturally inspired" projects here in Edinburgh as I prepare for Wimbledon 2011!!

I have always loved tennis but never had the nerve to hold a racket and start playing. Something in the air inspired me to start finally after 45yrs 8 months and a couple of days and here I am, trying to replicate Federer and Nadal. Luckily I have a wonderful sparring partner in Kees Nooren, my brother-in-law. But I was quick enough to understand that maybe I would not be able to play as well as Federer or Nadal but I have to admit--for never ever playing the game, it's going quite well and my dreams of competing at the Center Court in Wimbledon might still come true in my next life. If I had not taken up Sitar and Indian Music, maybe I could have picked up a tennis racket and found my calling.

On to serious matters---Saskia and I feel great to have been invited to this wonderful project called "Naturally Inspired". This is an initiative taken by one of the festivals in Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Mela festival. We have been put up in a beautiful cottage in the country side of Edinburgh about half hour away from the city. It's an absolutely gorgeous cottage surrounded by mountains and it's wonderful to breathe fresh air. Lovely weather helps and it's great to have some of Saskia's family and friends around since they decided to join us for their summer vacations. Ishaan is having the time of his life--playing with his cousin and friend from the minute he wakes up till they all finally just fall asleep. After a week of residency here, we are supposed to perform our "new creations" on Saturday at the festival and Sunday at the beautiful Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Saskia and I have indeed been inspired by the beauty of the nature around us and have finished composing 2 beautiful pieces. We have given the names "Bonney Fierey"(meaning Beautiful Fairy in Galic). Not too sure what to call the other one but I suggested that we call it "Amitabh meets Sean Connery" to the other one. Just joking of course. But its a beautiful Scottish song that we are both inspired from and from which we take off into a beautiful Indian folk tune and an Irish Folk tune in the Raga Khamaj that we learnt in 2001 when we are in Galway from one of Ireland's wonderful musicians.

Its just so lovely that we still have these wonderful initiatives taken up by people. Just such a pity that in India, we are still only dealing with negativeness. All we read is about the corruption, be it CWG or some other corrupt politician or sensationalize rapes, murders or gossip about the Bollywood. Is there nothing else that the media can write about? Cricket and Bollywood is all Indian media writes about but wonderful initiatives like the one we are in gets no mention. Too bad but I am happy that the internet still gives us the opportunity to share our experiences with those people who are still interested in our work.

Will share with everyone how the events go this weekend. Till then--Cheers!!