What leads dancers and musicians to raise the bar in classical collaborations?

On July 12, at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Auditorium in Chennai, siblings Gundecha Brothers and Malladi Brothers — from two distinctive genres of classical music Dhrupad and Carnatic — opened the act for a three-day Jugalbandi Festival 2013. Sharing stage space with them were a violinist, a mridangam player and a Pakhawaj artiste. In their two-hour collaborative journey, the duos captured the essence of the styles that they are both masters at, but the concert was consciously structured — over a series of sit-down rehearsals — to capture and convey the similarities and sameness of the basics of the two genres. “At the end of the day,” Ramakant Gundecha says, over a phone call from his home in Bhopal, “the science of the two styles is the same; our attempt is to really present Bharatiya Sangeet (Indian music). It’s important to look at our music that way; it is, after all, the way forward.”

For five years now, the brothers have been performing and touring India and the world with an intent to celebrate uniqueness and togetherness at the same time on the same stage. “And at no point, compromising on our classicism,” says Shreeramprasad, elder of the Malladi Brothers, from his home in Vijayawada. “In fact, we try and do what we can to present Carnatic music in all its chasteness to ensure the concert is both peculiar and interesting.”

Next month, Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna and Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarsini Govind will embark on a three-city tour of their production, Saayujya, which premiered in Washington D C last year. Their first stop is at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, followed by a performance at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore (on September 30) and finally culminating at the Music Academy in Chennai (on October 3). It isn’t like dancers aren’t used to working with musicians but, as Priyadarsini says, “when you work with a musician of the calibre of Krishna, the learnings are fantastic; you think about how much one has to experience music, its technical aspects and its emotional content and then think about how it can be incorporated in the dance.”

Creativity has always been the core of music; at the moment though, the classical arts and its artistes are busy sharing, exchanging and experimenting with that creativity, both within the genre and outside of it. In the context of the classical arts, collaborations are the new cool. On their part, artistes are freely and liberally pouring — into their arts — a slew of mixers to stir up interesting creations that will enchant and appeal, both in terms of idea and content, to audiences who are varied, mildly curious and mostly open-minded. “There are some rasikas of Carnatic music who have no exposure to Hindustani and vice versa,” explains Umakant Gundecha. “Collaborations like these are opportunities for them to get a sense of another style and widen their knowledge and appreciation base.”

If numbers are indicators, March 2013 in Chennai may be a good example to illustrate the growing number of collaborative concerts. On March 9, a day after the International Women’s Day, at the Music Academy, Carnatic musician Aruna Sairam and Bharatanatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai presented Sammohanam. Constructed thoughtfully from the lives and stories of Andal, Meera and Radha, Sammohanam’s founding principle was a meeting of two minds.

Exactly a week later, at the Narada Gana Sabha, the curtains went up on a collaborative concert by Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghunathan and Kolkata-based Hindustani vocalist Kaushiki Chakrabarty. Raag Roop Aur Rang (loosely translating to form and colour of a raag), as the performance was titled and promoted, was a near-spontaneous unfolding of music that not only celebrated the potential of each style and the prowess of its presenters but also the possibilities of unique one-off moments born out of shared creativity. Two days before that, a full house watched Chennai-based Western classical pianist Anil Srinivasan and Delhi-based flautist Rakesh Chaurasia create Melodies in the Breeze with standalone and collective sounds of their music.

The stories of these collaborative concoctions are almost as interesting as the ingredients that go into their making. Some make for fascinating narratives in research and rigour; others translate as joyous outbursts of the artistes’ ingenuity and imagination; and some sparkle with a sense of admiration for each other’s minds, and music.

Perhaps that affection was the starting point of collaborations in the context of classical music in India. “One of the earliest documented efforts that I can think of, though the outcome was not strictly a performance,” says Vikram Sampath, author and founder of the Archive of Indian Music, “was as early as 1912. French pianist Maurice Delage came to India fascinated by the voice of a lady in Madras whose records he had heard and which had sent ‘chills up his spine'.” The lady in question, Vikram adds, was Coimbatore Thayi, a devadasi singer and one of the earliest gramophone superstars of south India. Delage is supposed to have been “so inspired by her voice that he came all the way to Madras and composed an entire corpus of Western compositions called Ragamalika that were an inspiration from her Arutpas”.

Most Indians are familiar with collaborations like that of Pandit Ravi Shankar with the Beatles, Yehudi Menuhin and Ali Akbar Khan in the 1940s and 1950s. From South India, Vikram records the contribution of Dr. S. Balachander who formed the first South Indian instrumental ensemble that exposed Carnatic music to the West in 1962. Apart from Balachander, Sangeetha Madras comprised mridangam players Vellore Ramabhadran, Umayalpuram Sivaraman and flautist N. Ramani.  

About two years ago, in Bangalore, Krishna shared stage space with Hindustani musician Rashid Khan. Format-wise, the performance steered clear of a classic jugalbandi, in which, as Krishna says, “two well-known artistes from two different styles go up on stage and present the usual set of Yaman/Kalyani or Sohini/Hamsanandi or Malkauns/Hindolam together”. Krishna and Rashid’s collaboration had the artistes, individually and together, investigating and presenting an interesting possibility in music. “Rashid wanted to sing Desh and I decided to sing Surutti, a raga very close to Desh in terms of a similarity in phraseology but not exactly the same in terms of swaras. The choice of these ragas was based on the need for a deeper exploration of a similarity in phraseology rather than the usual superficial similarity sought on the basis of the swaras.”

“If you ask me, I’d say,” Krishna continues, “that integral to any collaboration are those in it. Every artiste, for example, has a sense of the other artiste’s music. In a collaborative performance, when you actually sing together, you hear your own idea along with that of another artiste. It definitely makes you think and introspect about your own music and what you can do with it.”

In many ways, that’s probably the primary purpose of a collaboration; to raise the artistic bar. “You need both an open mind coupled with a sense of adventure,” says Sudha Raghunathan. “While signing up to work and sing together, it is important to recognise its primary purpose — for every sound to mix with the other to produce a new sound.” Kaushiki Chakrabarty, her most recent collaborator, is in sync: “The elements that come together in a collaboration need to mix homogenously, not like oil and water, and together create a third variety.” A classicist and trained and honed by her father-guru Ajoy Chakrabarty, Kaushiki has travelled many interesting collaborative paths but without compromising on her classicism. On April 6 in Kolkata, she was part of a collaborative performance with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Birju Maharaj. “I think my stories in collaborations are very different in their very ideologies.” In her album Yatra 2, with a Rabindra Sangeet singer, she presented a composition on the raga that the Rabindra Sangeet was based on. In a Coke Studio performance, she presented a traditional composition with a sarod on one side and a keyboard, guitar and saxophone on the other. “The important thing is to use these layers of sound in a way that it embellishes the composition,” she explains.

Following her performance with Kaushiki, Sudha was part of WOMADelaide (an annual festival that unfolds in Botanic Park, Adelaide, in which 450 artistes from across 25 countries participate), where she met and performed with Hindustani vocalist, Manjiri Kelkar. She recalls with fondness a collaborative effort she was part of in early 2000. Eight voices – gypsy, hip-hop and jazz among others — together. “It was superbly exciting,” she says of that experience that presented in the city of Lorrach (on the border of Germany and Switzerland).

Yet another integral aspect in the popular story of collaborations — that often tends to be ignored — is research and rigour. Hindustani musician, Shubha Mudgal firmly believes that the “process of collaboration, the ups, downs, highs, lows, challenges and how they are overcome are aspects that need to be documented and shared with other students of music and music lovers.” But with time being a luxury and commerce calling the shots, collaborations have emerged as mere “events and performances,” she says. “I’d say that not only is it imperative that collaborations be documented meticulously, but also the documentation should include diverse voices and perspectives. For example, if one is studying a collaboration between two classical Indian vocalists, Hindustani and Carnatic, the documentation should include the comments, reactions and contributions of the lead musicians as well as those accompanying them. This will provide a more comprehensive and realistic understanding of the project.”

While this is a valid point, the reality is that many collaborative projects materialise almost overnight. Literally. “Last August, at a music residency in Liverpool, Rakesh and I were staying in adjacent rooms,” says Anil of how his collaboration with Rakesh Chaurasia was born. “We went on to become conference buddies, so to speak.” The night before Rakesh’s performance Morning Raga, Rakesh casually asked Anil, “Mere saath bajayega?” (Will you play with me?) “I thought it was a practical joke,” Anil says, “until the morning of the performance. Just before the concert, Rakesh told me he was planning to play Aahir Bhairav, and that’s it.” 

“I found there was an unspoken chemistry between the piano and the flute and even Anil’s music and mine had a sort of deep connection,” says Rakesh from Mumbai. “And as we performed, we formed a relationship on the spot.” The concert, needless to add, “worked like magic” in Anil’s words.

Other collaborations develop gradually. Following a suggestion from a common friend, Aruna and Malavika began exploring the possibility of a co-creation. “It began last year,” Aruna recalls how Sammohanam came to be. “We’d just meet for coffee, amble along discussing art, life, work etc.” These seemingly random ramblings slowly and seamlessly materialised into a creation with a plot, a storyline, and sensitivity in terms of presentation to both the arts and its artistes. “It was a fascinating experience,” Aruna says. “I had to have a very strong connection with the dance and the dancer and the time we spent together — getting to know the person, what she thinks, how she thinks, some non-verbal cues you pick up — really enhanced my understanding and, therefore, the performance.”

Some collaborations are like marriages; they grow deeper and stronger, over time and years spent together. Sandeep Narayan, a Chennai-based Carnatic vocalist, and Mahesh Kale, a Los Angeles-based Hindustani vocalist, first met and performed a jugalbandi in 2004. “We have moved on from having to find common ground in our performance; the music itself has come to be a common ground,” says Sandeep. Last year, the duo toured North America, and intends to tour the United States and Europe next year. Equally exciting is the opportunity to discover another style of music. “My understanding of Hindustani music was from the point of view of a Carnatic vocalist,” he explains, “Singing and practising with Mahesh has allowed me to understand and appreciate the finer nuances of Hindustani music. Now, when I sing a Hindustani raga, I am sensitive to its rendering.”

For solo performers, this artistic and aesthetic mingling mean a certain shift in the dynamics of the performance itself. “When I work on a composition in dance,” explains Priyadarsini, “it is really my vision; I am at its helm. When you work with another equally talented artiste, you need to understand there is more than one artistic mind at work. Each is being led and influenced by his/her style of working in his/her own genre.”

Alarmel Valli, whose dance has travelled the world, makes an interesting observation on the very idea and meaning of collaboration itself. “Today, the moment you speak of collaboration, you invariably think of two artistes from different genres,” she says. “You think of an event, a show, a spectacle. So, among the many things I’d like to say on the subject, one of the most pertinent is the fact that without collaboration, art cannot exist. At the most basic level, we, as artistes, are constantly collaborating, interacting and exchanging creative ideas and energy with one another.” Her most recent work, Annamayya, based on Annamacharya’s poetry, sparkles with the combined energy and contribution of a host of people who have together helped her with research, translation, delineation, composition and explanation. “I have embroidered them all and created a garment,” Valli says of the work that she will soon present in Chennai.

In the space of collaborations, Valli is also recognised for her production, Samanvaya, with Madhavi Mudgal. “We were clear from the start,” says Valli, speaking on behalf of Madhavi as well, “that we didn’t want to do anything for novelty’s sake. We were convinced that we wanted to use the two arts and their aesthetics as a foil to explore the differences and similarities. We had to de-construct to construct; the process was really a re-weaving a tapestry so the threads of Odissi and Bharatanatyam could form a fabric.”

When that fabric unfolds on stage, in all its finery, the experience is exceptional. Not always though. “Some collaborations,” Krishna says, “tend to be gimmicky.” Like all fizz, and no fun. But that’s another story.