The Indian National Orchestra comprising a set of 16 extraordinary musicians reiterated its engagement with the rich musical traditions of India

Most new ideas appear insane in the beginning – accomplished veena player Jayanti Kumaresh remembered Einstein’s lines, flagging off the Indian National Orchestra’s programme at the Gayana Samaja, organised by the Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira.

The ‘idea’ of an orchestra is not new – but the challenges that such an endeavour throws up remain eternally new, bordering the insane, as Jayanti put it. The Wadiyars of Mysore set up the orchestra hundreds of years ago with legends as a part of it – Titte Krishna Iyengar, Chowdiah, Veene Seshanna and others. The All India Radio took forward this idea and set up the Vadya Vrinda unit in 1952 itself. Phenomenal musicians employed with AIR played equally remarkable compositions by Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Panna Lal Ghosh, T.K. Jayaram Iyer, Anil Biswas, Emani Shankar Shastri, H.L. Sehgal, M.Y. Kamashastri and more. The more recent memory of such grand musical visions is that of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s orchestra at the Festival of India in Moscow, 1988. Several more have followed as well, but what makes the Indian National Orchestra led by Jayanti Kumaresh exceptional is that it stems from a deep understanding of their musical selves and an intense commitment towards the practice of art.

An Indian orchestra cannot be understood in terms of a Western orchestra. Unlike an Indian classical concert which relies completely on the manodharma of an individual artist, an orchestra has a written composition, and yet, the rich imaginative strokes that each of these 16 musicians brought into the ensemble strictly belonged to their own aesthetic canvas. Indian music cannot be artistically pre-determined like Western music, not even when it’s an orchestra.

The opening was brisk and lively – Ootakadu Venkatakavi’s ‘Shri Vighnaraja’ in Gambhira Nata. It began with a basic organisation of sounds but as it progressed it roped in a whole lot of ideas hinting the continuous process of musical history.

The ‘Dancing Peacock’ in the charming Reetigoula was beautiful. Pramath Kiran, the multi-talented percussionist, kept transforming the effect of the composition as he switched instruments. The brilliant violins (Charulatha Ramanujam and Akkarai sisters) swayed at counterpoint while the veenas interpreted the racy passages, Sikkil Mala Chandrashekar’s flute contemplated on the notes and suddenly the peacock became an embodiment of all the great dance traditions of India.

It’s hard to pick the best piece of the evening. Each one outdid the other. But Adi Shankaracharya’s ‘Gangashtakam’ was the most poignant. Set to Raga Gangeshwari, Pandit Ravi Shankar’s melodic invention was a highly complex piece switching between six, seven and eight-beat rhythmic cycle, capturing the varied flow of Ganga itself. Ganga had a different impact on each of these musicians – Rafique and Shafique Khan on the sitar were deeply reflective and Bhutto’s flute plumbed the depths of the soul, Ravindra Katoti on the harmonium was so intense that the violins and veenas forgot their strings and broke into a chant. When the percussion group got rapturous, melody waltzed in. The contours of ‘Gangashtakam’ were brilliant, the combinations and transformations ever so full of surprise.

The crescendo came in first, and rightly so for ‘Himalayan Heights’. The percussion ensemble with the dazzling Karthick on ghatam, Guru Prasanna on khanjira, Anantha R. Krishnan on mridanga and Udayraj Karpur on tabla turned the experience into high art. The ecstasy of physical splendour turned into a subliminal journey when the composition set to Bhinna Lalith — Haricharana in Carnatic idiom — was taken over by the superlative imagination of the sitars, flute and harmonium. From the plaintive texture of Bhinna Lalith it turned into staccato phrases of Haricharana, the violin and veena situated at different melodic registers. The spots of silence elevated the composition.

The tribute to folk music was rich in conception. The shrinking-expanding evolving musical passages in Sindhu Bhairavi for ‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari’ was quite remarkable for the way it reiterated the canon, enriching each movement.

It was hard to believe that such an unforgettable experience had been put together by 16 musicians of high calibre. They all moved collectively to achieve one grand musical imagination. In the process, they had shed their own selves only to be enriched by a fellow musicians’ art. It was a delight to watch them so passionately involved in each other’s music.

The thundering applause and standing ovation from the audience was a mark of their indebtedness.