Colours of sound

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In Tune: Bombay Jayashri and Shubha Mudgal
In Tune: Bombay Jayashri and Shubha Mudgal


The North-South jugalbandis within India are between two sister systems. But the East-West interface is mainly characterised by the clash of alien elements.

Talking about trends and traditions in the context of music, (July 11), we had noted the interesting fact that certain new trends can co-exist permanently with a long tradition as parallel phenomena — because they’re neither forceful enough to influence the basic character or direction of the tradition by being assimilated into the system, nor so trivial as to wither away soon and just disappear.

We had also noted that a striking illustration of this aspect is provided by the joint ventures called ‘jugalbandis’ between versatile Carnatic and Hindustani musicians representing the respective classical music systems of the Southern and Northern cultural traditions of India.

The same thing is more or less true of the experiments Indian musicians have been making for several decades now — in association with like-minded foreign musicians — to mix the sounds and colours of Indian classical music and Western orchestral music or jazz, whether they call it ‘fusion,’ ‘neo-fusion’ or something else.

So far as the Indian side is concerned, here’s another trend which is likely to exist permanently as a parallel and experimental phenomenon, not having any impact whatsoever on the Carnatic and Hindustani music traditions.

Impact on West

I said “...more or less true...,” because this trend has somewhat different implications for Western music. When such experiments manifest themselves in the shape of original written-down compositions for western orchestras, and attain a very high standard of excellence in the process, they can certainly be counted as unusually colourful additions to the ever-growing corpus of Western orchestral works, thereby enhancing the tradition.

Some splendid music of this kind has been composed by the sitar and violin maestros Ravi Shankar and L. Subramaniam, and has been performed successfully by important Western orchestras led by eminent conductors (including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Zubin Mehta), with the composers themselves performing as soloists. And as regards jazz, the accumulated effect of such cross-fertilisation of musical ideas in the long run may well have a genetic influence on the tradition itself — because in jazz the scope for variation, innovation and improvisation is really endless, and an unlimited capacity to assimilate novel elements is inherent in the system.

Critical attention

The many subtle shades of this on-going trend call for a detailed discussion, which can perhaps be taken up some other time. Meanwhile, let us just briefly note some interesting points here. The North-South jugalbandis within India are between two sister systems of music which have an inherent and permanent bond, with many common elements in melodic and rhythmic terms. But the East-West interface between Indian and Western music is mainly characterised by the clash of alien elements.

Only very highly accomplished Carnatic and Hindustani musicians usually get together in such joint ventures now and then, which means that normally there’s a strong tendency to achieve excellence. By contrast, there seems to be a proliferation of cases where Indian musicians get together with foreigners in the so-called ‘fusion’ business, often leading to quite frivolous and worthless exercises. The reasons why this is so are obvious. While it is difficult to evade critical attention and review in India in the case of the encounters between Carnatic and Hindustani musicians, things are rather different in the other context.

Indian classical musicians even at average levels of competence are nowadays having more and more opportunities to visit Western countries on the invitation of the ever-growing Indian communities there, and they find it quite easy to line up some ordinary foreign musicians to join them in a free-for-all musical merry-go-round. And back home in India, of course, their CV and image get boosted by cryptic references to their ‘experience in fusion.’ Who is to review and critically evaluate their activities abroad?

Music and cricket

We need only to reflect a little to realise that there are such old traditions and new trends which exist side by side in the contexts of all performing arts and not just music; and that it’s equally true of many of our other traditional concerns also, and not merely the arts. A more or less similar phenomenon in sports which we Indians can think of instantly is the extremely popular one-day international cricket, which has co-existed with Test cricket for more than a quarter-century now (quite peacefully, after a quickly resolved initial confrontation between Kerry Packer and the cricket establishment around 1980).

Once again I say “...more or less...,” because obviously there are some important points of difference in the similarity. Unlike the cross-over contexts in music, the 50-overs ODI ceased to be experimental long ago, though it hasn’t ruined the Test tradition and has remained a parallel trend. Also, while only a few of our classical musicians indulge in cross-over music, most leading cricketers figure in one-day cricket as well as Test matches.

Of course, the most intriguing question today is how the Twenty-20 game is going to affect the whole scenario! Talking about cricket and music in the same breath inevitably brings back fresh memories of Hamsadhwani’s late founder-secreatry RRC, whose brief and colourful remarks on the concert platform often contained interesting references to cricket. And, of course, it also makes us think of the famous Englishman Neville Cardus, who wrote colourfully both on cricket and music in the Manchester Guardian, even mixing them up sometimes!



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