The recent launch of the coffee table book, Pathfinders: A journey through art & culture over the last sixty years of the Indian Republic at Taj Coromandel began and ended with two performances that were guaranteed to convince even the most cynical in the audience that Indian art and culture is something special, something worth preserving and celebrating through books such as this one.
Pathfinders is a labour of love for Shashi Vyas, son of the late Pandit C.R. Vyas. Vyas has, over the years, organised several events for the promotion of the classical arts, but this is his biggest project yet, a massive compilation of essays on and interviews with some of the greatest Indian innovators in the fields of classical music and dance, the visual arts, literature, theatre and cinema.
“The hardest part of putting together the book was selecting the personalities to profile,” said Vyas during the launch. “In spite of featuring 150, I feel we've barely touched the tip of the iceberg— and the book already weighs five-and-a-half kilos!”
“All these performers and artists have enriched our lives, brought inspiration into our mundane existences,” he added. “This book is nothing but our humble offering to them, a way of giving back beyond just buying a ticket and going to an auditorium to watch them perform.”
The evening's first performance — a brief but magical concert featuring three young men, all scions of great musical families and disciples of legends of Hindustani music — was ample reminder of the depth of talent in the Indian arts. Flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, nephew and disciple of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee, disciple of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan of the Maihar Gharana, and tablist Satyajit Talwalkar, son of tabla legend Suresh Talwalkar and vocalist Padma Talwalkar took the stage for a beautiful jugalbandi in which they matched each other note for note and beat for beat.
They opened with Raag Yaman, beginning with an incredibly soulful alaap and moving on to a melodious, romantic composition set to teen taal. Chaurasia and Chatterjee proved to be the perfect foil for each other, with the flautist's quiet stage presence and smooth musical style balancing the sitarist's infectiously high-energy persona. Technically all three were brilliant, drawing applause from the select audience of music lovers as each completed a particularly complex solo or interlude. When they ended with a brief, lively piece in Raag Pilu, one wished the performance could have lasted longer.
The second performance that bookended the evening was the keynote address by theatre legend Vijaya Mehta. Her words were crafted so beautifully, and delivered so perfectly that the audience was moved to applaud now and again, and at the end, one felt one had witnessed something more akin to a theatre performance than just another launch event speech.
“‘Pathfinders' talks about a tremendous movement I experienced during my lifetime — the cultural Renaissance of India after Independence,” she said. “We felt so proud to be the first generation of independent India; we wanted to define ourselves, our position in the global context of culture. That's what made mine a generation of ‘pathfinders'.”
The event was attended by leading Carnatic musicians such as ghatam legend Vikku Vinayakram, flautist Shashank, Mandolin U. Srinivas, and Chitraveena N. Ravikiran, all of whom later joined Chaurasia, Chatterjee, Talkwalkar, Vyas and Vijaya in launching the book.
Ravikiran, who also contributed to the book, spoke at the launch, reminding us that this legacy of culture needed to be preserved. “All of us as Indians have a responsibility to protect and pass on our culture,” he said. “Apathy is not acceptable. We must ensure that our future generations know about it all.”
It was up to Vijaya to provide the final word, which she did in style: “Art is the defiance of reality, a lie that takes you closer to the ultimate truth. That's what ‘Pathfinders' is all about.”