Synthesis Of Tradition And Experiment
By MOHAN D. NADKARNI
The Bombay Sentinel, February 1, 1958
Our classical music has developed in both vocal and instrumental traditions. The predominance of the human voice, however, has always been emphasized in the very concept of Indian music and, for that reason, paramount interest has attached to the practical art of singing. Compared to vocal music, therefore, instrumental music in this country does not seem to have received its due share of patronage and encouragement in the past.
Many and varied
Our musical instruments are many and varied, and they have a long tradition.
The string and the wind instruments are designed to reproduce what is sung by the human voice and those of percussion regulate the rhythm and time-measures.
While many of these instruments form an indispensable accompaniment to singing, quite a few others are intended for solo performances in their own right.
The veena, the sitar and the sarod, for instance, each reveal the fineries and subtleties of melody as beautifully as in singing, and have become a potent medium of musical entertainment.
Lately, the concert-hall and the radio have afforded ample opportunities to the average music-lover for the appreciation of the subtle refinements of instrumental melody. The credit for its growing popularity must inevitably go to unrivalled masters in music like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.
The Bombay Madrigal Singers Organisation is presenting Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, the sitar and the sarod virtuosi, respectively, with Kishan Maharaj on the tabla, in two concerts – at Rang Bhavan this evening and at the Naaz tomorrow morning.
The joint appearance of these two celebrities of the Seniya tradition of Rampur, coming as it does after quite a long time, is a big event for connoisseurs in Bombay and elsewhere alike. The keen anticipation with which lovers of classical melody have been looking forward to the occasion speaks of the uncommon popularity the two artistes enjoy and the national prestige they command.
Indeed, both Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan have achieved so much in so short a time – they are still in their thirties – that it is no easy task to assess their greatness with due justice.
Few masters have enriched the domain of instrumental music so well as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Fewer still are cultural ambassadors going abroad who have earned for themselves and their country so much goodwill, respect and esteem.
In a sense, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar are lucky in being born and brought up to the sound of lilting melody and rhythm and even luckier in getting no less a celebrated master than Allaudin Khan of Maihar, the nonagenarian doyen of musicians, who successfully pioneered an aesthetic movement in music and brought about a brilliant synthesis of tradition and experiment.
The stamp of the master’s genius is evident in their technique and presentation, though their media of expression are different. Yet each is a consummate artiste in his own right, and their styles are equally individualistic.
Both the artistes have great gifts of imagery and one finds in their styles a perfect blending of linear grace, tonal vigour and lucidity.
While Ravi Shankar’s renderings on the sitar are notable for their dignified alaps and fluent gatkaris, Ali Akbar Khan’s slow playing on the sarod is as sweet and reposeful as his rapid work is vivacious, brilliant and precise.
Though well-versed in the traditions of Beenkars, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan are modern in their outlook. They are imaginative composers, never afraid to experiment with new styles and techniques rooted in classical tradition.
Their achievements in the field of operas and ballets have started a new vogue. Their orchestral compositions have admirably harmonized the various instruments of totally dissimilar and unequal timbres.
Their musical scores in several notable filmic ventures are full of sensitivity and deep feeling and a pioneering effort in using the indigenous music idiom for cinematic purposes. The films ‘Aandhiyan’ ‘Pather Panchali,’ ‘Aparajito’ and ‘Kabuliwala’ are instances in point.
Most of these pictures have won international awards. The last mentioned one, for which Ravi Shankar wrote the music score, recently won a special award for music at the Berlin Film Festival.
Incidentally, he is the first Indian musician to give music to a foreign film, ‘The Chairy Tale’, a Canadian fantasy.
It is easy, writes a contemporary art critic, to be a dry traditionalist in art but difficult to interpret the wealth behind it. Indeed, nothing can perhaps sum up the truth of this statement better than the art of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. For, behind their cultured representation of music lies not merely a long period of traditional training but also a deep awareness of the greatness of their country’s musical inheritance.
What is more, the advantages of a formal education abroad helped Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan to catch up with the medium of Western music. They became keen enthusiasts of Western masters and developed a Catholic understanding of their classical systems.
The reactions their international sojourns cooked in their minds express themselves as much in their innovations as in their outlook. And that is what makes them our most popular and also most controversial instrumentalists of today.
The beauty and charm of our classical music lies in its spontaneous improvisation. Our traditional music is, therefore, essentially individualistic in its conception and execution.
When a few years ago, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan first introduced yet another exciting innovation, their “jugalbandi” (musical duet), through their respective media, it seemed almost incredible, even preposterous for the sticklers fortradition to imagine such a partnership of two different artistes.
The innovation, as was to be expected, created a great stir. The music world, riven with rivalries, does not take kindly to innovators. It would be hard for us to believe that the exuberance and freedom of Ravi Shankar’s and Ali Akbar’s style had once come in for severe criticism. Even the very authenticity of their art was questioned.
Today, the time-honoured and artificial barriers between different schools are slowly breaking away. The technique of music initiated by Allauddin Khan and ably perpetuated by his son, Ali Akbar and son-in law, Ravi Shankar embodies the very quintessence of all that is best in our classical traditions.
The success of their impressive mode of expression can well be judged from the large following they command among the up-and-coming stylists of the country.
Though musical duets are a common feature today, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar, to my mind, present their melodies with a difference.
Having played together for years and right from their early childhood under the great master, the artistes intuitively feel that jugalbandi ‘comes’ naturally to both that is what they once told me.
Besides commendable teamwork, we find in their musical duets a deep understanding and playful competition, a mutual admiration and emotional unity, seldom noticed among such stalwarts. Indeed, the success of the proverbial accord they achieve in their jugalbandi is but one of the many aspects of their musical and personal comradeship.
This is what a western critic of Indian music has said about the duet performances of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan:
“The understanding between the two (artistes) is remarkable. The light, feminine nuances of the sitar and the deep, resonant and powerful tones of the sarod reflect the very personalities of the fair, godlike Ravi Shankar and the dark masculine and quiet of Ali Akbar Khan.”