Karuna Kshetra plays Carnatic compositions with a Western rhythm section

During his solos, German saxophonist Rainer Pusch sways as if to match the wildness of what he is playing: he curves, snake-like, and moves with a vehemence that almost, at one point, toppled a nearby note-stand.

A concert of Carnatic fusion-jazz recently served up exactly what the label promises. Karuna Kshetra, a project put together by Pusch and vocalist Manickam Yogeswaran in 2003, is founded on the premise of playing Carnatic compositions with a Western rhythm section.

“This band exists right now,” said Pusch at the event, which was held at Bflat and organised in association with the Max Mueller Bhavan. The current line-up of the band came together specifically for the recent concert tour. The saxophonist and vocalist were accompanied by Jigmee Dorjee Sherpa on guitar, bassist Abhishek Mangla and drummer Reuben Narain.

Pusch studied Carnatic music in Chennai’s Kalakshetra; much of the music was set, then, to classical compositions.

The pieces played included a varnam in raga Shree, a couple of Thyagaraja compositions, and one called ‘Shambo Shiva’, meant to evoke the fearsomeness of Shiva. One particular composition, in raga Hamsanandi, was perhaps the most multifaceted, colourful track of the lot, with a silent, stark beginning.

While the band is clearly filled with very talented individual musicians, the fusion largely flowed in one direction. Besides the sax and guitars riffing on a Carnatic music framework, it would have been exciting to hear some experimentation on the vocal end, as well, beyond simple travels around the scale.

But any simplistic juxtaposition is easy to ignore thanks to Karuna Kshetra’s excellent rhythm section. Sherpa’s guitar is one with many sounds: at times, for instance, it took on a jazz-like organ sound. His solos, too, were atmospheric, and tastefully constructed, not needlessly showy. On bass, Mangla played consistently intricate, if non-intrusive, music; the band also benefited from Narain’s tight, groovy drum work.

To its credit, Karuna Kshetra’s music certainly isn’t cut-and-paste fusion music. It’s intricate, and filled with very talented musicians – that’s, clearly, enough to call attention to itself.

Happily, the band’s usage of Carnatic is more a take-off point, a rough framework rather than a crutch – as far too many fusion bands are accustomed to do.