Soul-stirring sarangi from a master of the instrument
At the Chowdiah Memorial Hall last Saturday, two single strains of light from above intersected on stage; at their meeting sat Murad Ali Khan and his accompanists. With little ceremony and only a murmured “ijazat,” to the audience, the sarangi wizard launched into raga Bihag, a raga well-suited to the late evening.
As we saw through Murad Ali’s opening alaap, Bihag is pure sweetness; its heavy emphasis on the gandhar, particularly, seems to sound an uplifting note of hope. As we ascend the raga, its story unfolds across the notes ga ma pa ni, with the added decoration – what the Hindustani music commentator Rajan Parrikar calls a “soupcon”, a slightest seasoning – of the teevra (sharpened) madhyam. In a moment, in rippled the tabla and sarangi support, to launch the first composition.
Through this vilambit composition – the sarangi version of the oft-sung “Kavana Dhanga Tora” – Murad’s alaaps introduced each note to us as if they were human characters in a novel: here, spend time with the pancham; did you see the rishabh? When it came time to establish the high sa, Murad Ali teased us, withholding, hovering at the nishad, defying our expectations. When the sa did come, it came quietly, inevitably.
The Bihag section of the concert would have worked as something of a lullaby if Murad Ali weren’t such a master of the form: its pleasing phrases, which we were treated to in ample measure, just about lulled us into a peaceful sleep-like state; then, we would be jerked awake with the painful brilliance of a phrase or meend.
A joyous chorus; the tabla rose to a crescendo; and it was time for us to clap.
The next raga was Surdasi Malhar. With its sweep from low to high sa, its goosebump-inducing komal nishad, Surdasi Malhar is another selection splendidly suited to the time of year and day. In a medium-paced composition, Murad Ali’s conversations with raga across octaves revealed the dazzling, complex possibilities of Surdasi Malhar. And in the taans – intricate enough that we could pick each note apart – it was his own wizardry on display.
A thumri was to close the performance – with its languorous charm, its thoughtful adagio air of resignation. But a persistent call for an encore saw the performance end with a rousing Bhairavi, after which we left, reluctantly.
The minimalism of Bhoomija’s organisation comes as relief from the garish backdrops and long-winded speeches we have encountered too often during evenings of music. The artists sat before three long strips of pale white, on a low stage; there was no need for us to gaze artificially up.
Through the concert, Murad Ali was simultaneously performer and deeply involved observer of the raga, both a picture of concentration and wonder; at particularly evocative moments, a spontaneous, quiet “wah” would emerge from his lips.