A concert celebrating the monsoon throws up two contrasting styles of music

“Which raga shall I play?”

“Pahadi! No, Bhairavi!”

Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia was asking the question. The audience was divided into Pahadi and Bhairavi; eventually, the ‘pahadi’ section got louder. “Sure,” said the 74–year-old flute player, as casually as if the entire mass of people gathered at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall were a single friend. And the flute legend launched into the aptly-named raga, which typically evokes pastoral scenes.

Pandit Chaurasia was in the city for Barkha Ritu, an annual monsoon-themed concert. The concert series taps into Hindustani music’s seasonal ragas – such as the Malhar family – and invites top artists from the country to perform. The result is a treat for music-lovers.

At the Bangalore leg of the concert at Chowdiah Memorial Hall recently, before Pandit Chaurasia’s performance, the evening began with a stirring vocal recital from Pandit Venkatesh Kumar, who blends the Kirana and Gwalior styles of singing. Pandit Kumar chose raga Miyan ki Malhar to open.

This is a popular raga; its name is thought to refer to ‘Miyan’ Tansen. With a long, multifaceted profile, the raga contains beautiful phrases in practically every nook. One such phrase, for example, is the ‘ni dha ni sa’ pattern. This phrase contains the interplay of two versions of one note: the nishad or ‘ni’, as komal or shuddh (the komal is one notch lower in pitch than the shuddh). A less imaginative artist than Pandit Kumar could easily slip into predictable, if pleasing, improvisations on the scale.

But Pandit Venkatesh Kumar displays an admirable restraint in his careful selection of embellishments. The faster composition, “Mahmad Shah Rangeele Re”, was an energetic song of praise; its 12-beat ‘ektal’ helped in this function. Here, in his interactions with his accompanists, the vocalist displayed an enjoyable playfulness. “Barase Badariya”, a composition in the not-oft-sung Jayanth Malhar, followed. Pandit Kumar especially delighted listeners with his long ‘sa’ or ‘pa’ notes; here, harmonium and tabla players quietened, allowing the audience to fully experience the single note.

As the concert progressed, it became increasingly evident that a modern auditorium, with its plush air and its casually late entrants, was not the right setting for Pandit Kumar’s vocal magic. This is music meant to be experienced outdoors, in a natural setting. Those who had come expecting only a flurry of Malhar variants were in for a pleasant surprise next: the vocalist launched into “Kalabeda Kollabeda”, a vachana by the Kannada poet Basava. As he sang the first few words, the audience burst into spontaneous, warm applause. Pandit Kumar negotiated for a few more minutes with organisers and managed to fit in another vachana – “Toredu Jeevisabahude”. These lighter, more emotional selections are clearly his forte: one needn’t don any particular stripe of religiosity to be moved by Pandit Kumar’s singing.

Pandit Venkatesh Kumar was all impassioned, expressive vocals; Pandit Chaurasia’s raga Malhar, which came next, was whisper-thin, almost ambient music.

The master flautist held his flute with gently quivering hands; before beginning, he set it down, briefly. “Some ragas,” he explained, “are meant to be sung”. The monsoon family of ragas add to the flavour of the season not just with their notes but with their lyrics, he said. Indeed, many compositions in the Malhar ragas are themed around the monsoons, with words such as ‘barkha’ and ‘savan ritu’ recurring. Another element involves waiting for one’s lover (or ‘piya’), explained Pandit Chaurasia.

“But I have to play these ragas,” he conceded, despite their predominantly vocal nature. “If I don’t play, they (organisers) won’t include me,” he quipped, to appreciative laughter from the audience.

Pandit Chaurasia’s performance included a slow alaap, a jod (a slightly faster section, but without percussion), and a composition, which saw tabla accompaniment by Yogesh Samsi. The recital was replete with tihais (repetitions in sets of three), which were usually followed by ‘trick’ endings, where the composition appeared to end but in fact did not. A lengthy sawaal-jawaab (call-and-response) section had sections of the audience literally shrieking in delight.

Clearly, if Pandit Chaurasia’s concert was any indication, there’s much to be corrected about any notion that great classical music can’t be fun.