Fusing form and technique

The perfect blend: For Shashank Subramanyam, the idea of any collaborative project is to be flexible and deviate a little from the purist approach. — File photo

The perfect blend: For Shashank Subramanyam, the idea of any collaborative project is to be flexible and deviate a little from the purist approach. — File photo   | Photo Credit: SHASHI ASHIWAL

From the 1960s onwards, Indian classical musicians have collaborated with western artistes to create a unique musical blend. But how do musicians get together, decide that their combinations can work, and then execute their joint creation perfectly?

As a case study, I interviewed flautist Shashank Subramanyam, who recently performed at G5A, Mahalaxmi, with the Lelo Nika Trio, comprising Serbian, Romanian and Swedish musicians. Their India tour was organised by Park Hotels.

Before talking about this group, some history. An early known example of East-West dialogue took place between sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The group Shakti, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin, violinist L Shankar, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and ghatam exponent Vikku Vinakayram took fusion to new heights in the mid-1970s.

There were many famous combinations. Violinists L Subramaniam and Stephane Grappelli. L Shankar with McLaughlin and saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Mohan veena maestro Vishwa Mohan Bhatt with guitarist Ry Cooder. Flautist Ronu Majumdar with guitarist Larry Coryell. Mandolin wizard U Srinivas with Canadian producer Michael Brook. Examples abound.

Most Indian musicians stuck to the traditional form while playing pure classical music. But in collaborations, they experimented to adjust with the styles of their partners.

Shashank is no exception. A Chennai child prodigy who started playing at age six and has been dazzling audiences with the Carnatic bamboo flute for three decades, he is considered to be a master of his instrument. What Srinivivas did with the mandolin, Shashank is doing with his flute.

In this group, Shashank is accompanied by Lelo Nika on the accordion, Thommy Andersson on double bass and George Mihalache on cimbalom, an instrument played with hammers, which is popular in central and Eastern Europe. On the India tour, tabla genius Ojas Adhiya joined in. Indian melodies and rhythms fused with Scandinavian, East European and traditional jazz textures.

How did the association take place? Mihalache and Shashank were teaching at the Rytmisk conservatorium, Copenhagen, in 1997, while Andersson performed with the flautist as part of the jazz band New Jungle Orchestra. Shashank met Lelo at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in 2014.

Their backgrounds may have been vastly different, but their musical mindsets matched. Shashank points out, “All have been working together since 2014. Everyone is well-versed in improvisation. They were familiar with Indian classical music, and we were ready to learn about each other’s styles.”

Shashank says Europe offers a huge variety of instruments and musicians. He adds, “Each one gets something different hitherto unknown to this world. Not many have heard the cimbalom in India, or the combination of accordion and flute.”

Each musician brings his own compositions and they combine their skills while writing the tunes. The group has done over 50 shows in Europe and India. They are yet to record an album, but plan to make one soon.

Like most Indian classical musicians who have collaborated with western artistes, Shashank follows a different style while approaching both the traditional and experimental forms. He says, “The interpretations of western musical phraseology is vastly different from Carnatic or Hindustani music. The divide has to be bridged by offering some knowledge of our music, and at the same time understanding and learning their system. The idea of any collaborative project is to be flexible and deviate a little from the purist approach to one of amalgamation of technique.”

That’s a rule all Indian fusion specialists have followed. The difference, of course, lies in the combination of instruments.

Narendra Kusnur is a freelance music writer

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 3:43:37 AM |

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