The National Gugak Orchestra charmed Chennai with not just great Korean music but also Bollywood tunes…

To celebrate 40 years of Indo-Korean diplomatic ties, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, InKo Centre and the Korean Cultural Centre, New Delhi presented The National Gugak Orchestra’s premiere in India. The National Gugak Orchestra, a 42-member group with a reputation for precision, power, melody and harmony, enthralled Chennai with traditional Korean music. The venue, Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Hall, saw attendance from Korean expats as well as locals. “The National Gugak Centre is that primary institution that has preserved and perpetuated traditional music for more than one thousand years,” the announcer at the event informed the audience.

At 7.10p.m., the members of the orchestra sat in front of their respective instruments. It was a sight to behold. Men and women, brisk, dressed in traditional Korean attire, took to the stage with flutes, gayageum, geomungo, haegeum (traditional Korean instruments) among others. The opening piece, a creative interpretation, Baek’s Namdo Arirang, composed in 1994, (which focussed on the ‘Jindo’ and ‘Miryang’ arirangs) was a harmonic composition that arranged “patterns of tension of relaxation, a universal characteristic of Korean classical music”. The brochure that was given to the audience, at the event meticulously detailed the history of the orchestra and also placed every piece in cultural context. For instance, it explained that “Arirang is to Korea what raga is to India”. My knowledgeable companion at the show, immediately recognised shades of raga Shuddha Dhanyasi in Baek’s Namdo Arirang.

The second piece of the concert featured Lee Sanggyu on the daegeum, a large transverse flute made of bamboo, along with the orchestra performing Daebaram Sori (the sound of bamboo trees blowing in the wind) with an “interplay between solemn Korean classical orchestral music and the sounds of the daegeum”.

The third piece called Gourd Scene from Pansori Heungboga featured a sorikkun (singer), Yu Hayoung, who performed standing. Her performance had sori (songs), aniri (descriptive speech), and ballim (body motions). The singer was accompanied by a gosu (drummer), Seo Subok, who provided the rhythm with his drum beat and exclamations of encouragement called ‘chuimsae’. Much like our own villu paatu.

The scene depicted a poor brother opening a gourd and discovering a fortune inside, a part of one of the five surviving stories of the Korean Pansori tradition.

The orchestra took the audience by surprise with its next act. Along with singers Nishi Rastogi and Bhanu Pratap Singh, and Veermani Trivedi on tabla, they performed ‘Chaiya chaiya’ from Dil Se, reproducing the riveting dance number using traditional Korean instruments. This was followed by ‘Dola re dola’ from Devdas and ‘Zoobi doobi’ from 3 Idiots. It appeared as if someone well-versed with both genres of music picked these songs out, for, it showcased the best of these instruments using music we are all familiar with.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the ‘sinmodeum’ that featured samullori, “a genre of traditional percussion music that has its roots in the folk-ways of rural communities, and is closely related to shamanism”.

As its final act, with beautiful images of India in the background, the orchestra presented A.R. Rahman’s version of Jan Gan Man, to a stunned audience that stood up in all solemnity. The night ended with the traditional arirang with all the Koreans in the audience singing along.