Pianist and writer Anil Srinivasan talks about his appearance at The Hindu Friday Review November Fest in 2007, the experience of performing with Sikkil Gurucharan, his collaborations with other artistes and the new vistas the fest opened up.
November 2007 was a very exciting time. It was also a very confusing time. I had just started the process of fitting western classical harmonic layering around Sikkil Gurucharan’s free flowing Carnatic voice. We had released two albums which had been received very well, and a lot of people, including senior musicians, were beginning to take note of our work. We had also been subjected to criticism, some of it very harsh. The debate between traditionalism and innovation within traditional contexts was raised by several intellectuals and the jury was still undecided on the topic (being an issue of aesthetics which by definition is a complex amalgam of personal and social values, the jury remains undecided). Only two things were clear. One, there was a dedicated following for our work. Two, the battles that we will have to face had just begun.
It was in this context that the invitation to perform for the much-discussed (and still relatively new) The Hindu Friday Review November Fest came. Gurucharan and I were elated and definitely very nervous. The mandate for the festival was clear — the work should not have been performed publicly in Chennai before, the repertoire has to reflect the highest degree of innovativeness and originality and we will be pitted against some of the best acts from around the world. I remember meeting the team at The Hindu for a first discussion. I was asked what I expected out of the festival. After a moment’s reflection I believe I said “I want to find out if what we are doing is worthwhile”.
We were also asked to include more musicians in the ensemble. This was again a challenge since both Gurucharan and I relied almost solely on the chemistry we both shared to guide us through what was then a concept for chamber performances in more intimate settings. Excited by the prospect of performing for the festival, we did invite Murad Ali from Delhi to accompany us on the sarangi (which I still believe to be a serendipitous addition to our repertoire), Mysore Srikanth on the violin and friends Vedanth Bharadwaj and B.S. Purushotham on guitar and percussion, respectively.
The concert was reasonably well received. For a relatively unknown combination (piano and voice), the discerning audiences of music-soaked Chennai were both open and encouraging. We discovered that we did have the capacity to take on a full-length concert, bring in additional instrumentation and rework our existing arrangements and foray into exciting new sounds. Murad Ali’s sarangi playing was scintillating and we discovered that we had laid the seeds for a great friendship and future collaborations (he has since contributed to our CD, The Blue Divine and performed with us in the Esplanade festival in Singapore. He will be part of our forthcoming trip to Europe).
The biggest outcome of the performance was its effect on our estimation of our own potential. We realised that we did have a proposition worth exploring further, and the November Fest performance opened up the avenues to performances worldwide. Since then, we have toured the Far East, Australia and the U.S., and are already onto our sixth album. We’ve travelled a distance within ourselves, understanding our capabilities and hopefully, our limitations as well. For instance, we realised that we need not have taken the suggestion of a “full-bench” concert so literally. Our repertoire did suffer from overanalysis, being the amateurs that we were at the time (as opposed to an apparent lack of planning that The Hindu review went on to suggest). I wish I had asked for a grand piano to be hired and installed on stage for the performance instead of making do with a digital piano. However, as Helen Landsmann remarked once, regret is a wasted emotion unless we were to use it towards bettering our tomorrows. And the tomorrows always come, bright and early, urging us to become better at our respective processes.
The performance brought me into contact with a number of phenomenal musicians who I have since worked with in other exciting collaborations. These include mridangam wizard Padmavibhushan Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, the immensely brilliant Chitravina Ravikiran, the affable and profound Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, celebrity vocalists Unnikrishnan and Srinivas, the vivacious Anooradha Sriram and many others. Most of these musicians have come to play a very important role in the shaping of my understanding and love for music, apart from becoming great friends.
To a confused but enthusiastic musician who had just returned from a gruelling time in the United States, the November Fest was a homecoming of sorts. It challenged me to become more of myself and pushed me into acquiring a great deal of self-confidence in a relatively short period of time. It transformed the way I thought about performances at a time that I was unsure about pretty much everything.
A roving jury?
Across the past few years, I have seen great acts being featured into what has become one of the best music festivals in the country. I have also seen some acts that did not meet the bar, either because of an apparent sense of complacency exhibited by those on stage or because the originality/novelty requirement seemed forced and contrived. I am not sure if the selection process already does so, but an audio-visual screening of the content presented by a roving jury might help assure our audiences of consistently extraordinary fare.
There is something to be said for situations that challenge the limits of our thinking. They force you to come to grips with who you really are and what you really feel about things. In my case, the Friday Review November Fest forced me to stop accepting the standards I had set for myself, coercing me to raise them. It also made me fall in love with Chennai all over again. I realised, that in order to truly discover my sound, the journey of the ten thousand miles back from New York had incredibly led me back to where it all truly began. Home.