Raja of rhythm

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CONFLUENCE OF INFLUENCES Bickram Ghosh: `Rhythmscape is as much an entertainment form as it is a stepping-stone for audiences into its more traditional ingredients'
CONFLUENCE OF INFLUENCES Bickram Ghosh: `Rhythmscape is as much an entertainment form as it is a stepping-stone for audiences into its more traditional ingredients'

Bickram Ghosh may have taken the fusion trail to the west, but the tabla maestro reiterates his firm belief in a strong classical grounding

"I am both a classical as well as a new-age musician," says tabla maestro Bickram Ghosh who has come to be one of the top Indian artistic ambassadors and the face of Indian music on the global scene. Akin to his mentors Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakhir Hussain, who were, and still are, both purveyors of Indian music to the world for many decades, Bickram is also one to have gone well beyond a pioneering `beaten path'. His fusion experiments both in India and abroad have been intriguing world audiences for many years now while showcasing newer dimensions in Indian music with each album release and with each performance.Through his percussion fusion ensemble Rhythmscape, Bickram believes that presenting Indian music in a more contemporary and `pop' light works two ways. "It shows the adaptability of Indian music to gel with various other forms and also draws youngsters to Indian music without intimidating them with its complexities." At the same time Bickram never lets up a chance to please classical aficionados. "I am always on the lookout for people who appreciate the nuances of gharanas." Having famously followed Ustad Zakhir Hussain's advice to "share bread to imbibe different rhythmic traditions" Bickram's association with many international jazz and world music artists has helped him derive a unique sensibility towards his music. "I straddle various musical cultures but approach them from an Indian perspective."Bickram's eclectic music tastes were sown at the age of two when his father, the great tabla maestro Pandit Shankar Ghosh first bought him a drumbeck (a small middle-eastern hand drum). With the exposure to sixties American music culture on the one hand (he lived in California until he was seven before moving to Kolkata), and playing instruments like the Japanese hand-drum, the African djembe and the congas on the other, the young and musically restless Bickram always soaked in a wide range of culturally diverse rhythms and melodies. "My father was very open-minded and I was exposed to various percussion instruments through him." But all the while his primary musical efforts were directed into learning the tabla from his father, who tutored him in the Farukhabad gharana for over 15 years. Soon he toured with Pandit Ravi Shankar in India and abroad for over ten years as his tabla accompanist. He also played on Ravi Shankar's 2002 Grammy winning album Full Circle. "It was a dream playing with Shankarji and an amazing learning experience," he says. "I was also exposed to different artists and genres all around the world." It was Pandit Ravi Shankar who introduced Bickram to Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and George Harrison with whom he later went on to collaborate. Bickram, who worked on Harrison's final studio album Brainwashed (2002), still has a soft corner for the Beatle. "We always hung around in his garden talking about different kinds of music," he recounts. "George was an amazingly normal guy and a philosopher at heart. It was an absolute shock to hear about his death." With all his experience it was time he elevated his already burgeoning solo career to another level. And since then there has been no stopping the maestro. With over 50 recordings as soloist, composer and collaborator including his solo projects Talking Tabla and A Tabla Odyssey, and having performed at almost all top concert venues in the world including Carnegie hall, NY, the Royal Albert hall, London and the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC, Bickram is widely recognised today for his scintillating mélange of repertoires - Hindustani, Carnatic, African, Latin and even beyond. One of his most memorable jams was when Rhythmscape performed at the Barcelona musical Olympics, held only every five years. "We shared the stage with Phil Collins, Norah Jones and other big names but were the only ones asked to perform again the following afternoon," he fondly recounts. "I wouldn't have been able to venture into such experiments if I hadn't got a strong classical background," he says. And indeed Bickram suggests that aspiring youngsters do the same thing. He claims that the new generation often ends up confused as a result of straddling more than one gharana at a time. "Different gharanas have contradictory techniques. It is important to grow up and be proficient in one style under a single guru before you venture out. We need more maestros today."So what does Bickram have in store for fans in the near future? "I am currently scoring music for Mira Nair's `Little Zizou'," he says. He is also in the process of opening an international drumming institute in Kolkata, which would specialise in teaching not just Indian, but also global percussion and expects to be ready by 2009. All this of course is apart from touring and recording with Rhythmscape.

Craving for more

Bickram Ghosh's mega-percussion ensemble Rhythmscape showcased an exquisite multi-layered rhythmic set at the Taj Residency recently. The promotional tour of their latest release Beyond Rhythmscape was also part of the Taj Business Celebrations Series launched last year.Bickram's constant emphasis on the importance of luring wider audience into Indian classical without compromising was evident right through. They invariably took on an infectious lilting groove even while, for the most part, adhering to the basic traditional entities. With Sanjoy Das on the guitar and Bickram on the tabla taking the lead, the ensemble opened the concert with "The dance of Shiva" in raag Jog set to Adi taal. "The Awakening", taken from their latest album opened with a balmy far-away guitar lulling the audience but quickly changed into a sprightly piece as the percussion accompanists took over with an assortment of sounds.Ambarish Das's vocals stood out in the romantic ballad "Saajana", performed in three raags: Nand, Pahadi and Maand. The piece also drew attention to the subtle variations in Indian percussion that could be just as impressive even if not as exciting as on the fast runs. "Zinc" was a jazz rendition that Bickram picked up from a jazz bar in New York. Performing it in Megh raag, the ensemble stuck to the classical realm for a while before venturing into lengthy improvisations. V. Suresh on the ghatam, Pulak Sarkar on the keyboards and the tabla were all a standout in this piece. Chiradeep Lahiri on the western drum kit, and Gopal Barman on the shreekhol particularly stood out in their exchanges with the tabla and ghatam towards the end. The ensemble closed with "Rhythmspeak", their rendition of Pandit Ravi Shankar's Banjara raag.At the end of the hour-long performance although one was left craving for more, there was a feeling that the ensemble's exchanges promised more than they delivered. Barring the tabla-guitar and tabla-ghatam duets, the members' individual virtuosity outshone their musical interaction, apparent only in a few pieces. Nevertheless, Bickram's interaction with the audience — be it through his famous mouth percussion and slap techniques, or the national anthem on the kanjira, or his delightful variations on the tabla that propelled the sound of Rhythmscape — was simply remarkable. He showed just why he is one of the top exponents of Indian music.BHARADWAJ M. V.




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