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Rhythm real

DEEPA GANESH
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MUSIC Trilok Gurtu, often referred to as the fearless adventurer, on the need to approach music with an open mind

Musical explorerTrilok GurtuPhoto: Bhagya Prakash k.
Musical explorerTrilok GurtuPhoto: Bhagya Prakash k.

There is no music without ‘atmagyaan', says Trilok Gurtu categorically. The highly inventive artiste, who can play every percussion instrument under the sun, believes that real music emerges in oneness with god. “And that god can be anything,” says the musician, whose mother, Shobha Gurtu, was one of the finest thumri singers. As I recall the nuances of her renditions, he says, “Music was a spiritual act for her, she could express herself only through her music.”

He remembers the many interviews that his mother had to give and the manner in which she floundered and fumbled to speak about her music. “My brothers and I would cringe — the question would be something, and she would say totally inane things like, ‘I have three sons', ‘I love fish'.... and finally she would ask them, ‘Can I sing something for you?'”

Trilok Gurtu, who now lives in Europe, left home at the age of 12 to accompany the Bangaladeshi singer Runa Laila and playback singer Mahendra Kapoor. He also worked with R.D. Burman for a while.

“My family was full of musicians, so they understood my passion for it. I was banging on the table all the time, and my grandfather would give me a mango in appreciation. Formal training is essential, but life itself teaches you a lot,” insists the tabla artiste. “Nothing came on a platter. I have roughed it out — I have slept on the streets in Mumbai, Paris and Frankfurt. I have played on the streets, in sub-stations without a penny in my pocket. I could have come back home, but something gave me the courage to stay on and find my music. I never asked my family for money, expect once when I wanted to come home and didn't have the money to buy a train ticket.”

When Trilok went to Berkeley School of Music, he was denied admission. “The Americans thought I was a second-rate musician and bullied me.” It affected him deeply and Trilok made up his mind to carry on his research in music without the shelter of the University. He kept travelling and learnt the various forms — jazz, rock, pop — all by himself. Once, Trilok was playing drums in Paris, and after the performance, John Mclauhglin turned up on stage crying, “Revolution! Revolution!”

“It gave me a big boost. And since then we have become good friends. We travelled a lot together, were constantly challenging each other and we have perhaps performed together in over 200 concerts.” Trilok says John's playing of the guitar reminded him of the veena doyen Balachander and both John and he are great admirers of the renowned mridangam artiste Palghat Raghu. “We would sit in the last seat of the bus, listen and talk about Raghu. ” In fact, Trilok would visit Palghat Raghu often to discuss the intricacies of laya and was even a student of TAS Mani for a while.

“I have constantly been on the move, exploring new horizons and musical ideas. I have gone deep into the villages of Africa, lived with the pygmies and learnt their music. I even recorded an album with the hunters. But sadly, nobody values all this here. Only when the West does it, we think it's big.”

Trilok has conducted orchestras in Korea, Sri Lanka, Berlin and several other places. He was among the early adventurers who collaborated with foreign musicians and was even part of their bands. “But now everybody makes money; they travel business class. Nobody wants to learn, everyone wants to be on stage.”

“We have to first shed our egos. We are not doing anything new or extraordinary. Read the ancient texts, it's all been done by the muni s. I believe that to be with tradition, you have to keep on subtracting yourself. Only then can you get close to the truth...” For Trilok, Palghat Raghu and Palghat Mani Iyer were living embodiments of the arts they practised. “All these great masters continue to remain my sounding boards... I constantly live them through my work,” he says, as his fingers begin to work on the table before him.

DEEPA GANESH

All the great masters such as Palghat Mani Iyer and Palghat Raghu continue to remain my sounding boards... I constantly live them through my work

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