Indian music, the un-Indian way

From Gaelic lore to lines from Lalan Fakir, Simon Thacker’s Svara Kanti stirred up a maelstrom of music, drawing from both Western and Indian Classical music with generous helpings of folk

Updated - August 19, 2019 10:51 am IST

Published - November 09, 2014 06:49 pm IST

Taking traditions to the next level Justyna Jablonska. Photo: K.Ananthan

Taking traditions to the next level Justyna Jablonska. Photo: K.Ananthan

Funnily, it worked. A guitarist from Scotland, a cellist from Poland, a Baul singer, a Punjabi folk artiste and a tabla maestro from our country…they made music that was sometimes strange but always interesting. One hesitates calling the performance a fusion concert as Simon Thacker, the creator of the group detests that term. He explained why at the inaugural concert of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest.

“It is diversity, not fusion. Each of us brings our own classical tradition of music and we stay true to that and, at the same time, develop new traditions.” He uses the word ‘coalesce’ to describe the music.

Cellist Justyna Jablonska was pure magic. The sonorous and sometimes soulful strains of sound coming from an instrument had one swaying to it. “We rarely get an opportunity to listen to this instrument here and it was grand,” said music critic Ramadevi. She also commented on the difficulty of marrying Indian and Western Classical music traditions. Another audience member, Parthasarathy, agreed but was full of admiration for Simon Thacker whose Western Classical upbringing must be so different from Indian music sensibilities. “For him to have studied our music, understood it and then reinterpreted it, is amazing,” he said.

It was like a lec-dem as Simon took time off to explain each piece before launching into it — the scales, the tonal quality of the instruments, the re-interpretations. He pointed out how certain compositions had abstract Indian influences that were then recast in ‘un-Indian ways’. The duet with the cello and the guitar was all about that. In one of his solo guitar performance, the sounds were more Middle Eastern while another solo saw Simon using digital delay to create textures.

Japjit Kaur lent the vocals with her lilting Bhojpuri and Punjabi folk songs. For those who understood the lyrics, they were about the beloved and unrequited love. The music was familiar yet unfamiliar as the sonorous notes of the cello accompanied her, instead of the Punjabi dholak or the dafli.

Swaranjali, a guitar and tabla duet, followed. Sarvar Sabri’s flying fingers kept pace with the lightening movement of Simon’s fingers; it was like watching a sitarist. They then followed that up with a foot-tapping sawal-jawab.

For many, the performance by Raju Das Baul was the icing on the cake. Simon and Raju met on Facebook and came up with this performance, that had its world premiere in Coimbatore. Raju, in a flowing gown, a turban and with bells on his feet lovingly played the Khamak. Din to gelo, sandhya holo, paar koro aamare (the day is done, it is evening, take me across)…he sang. It was goosebumps all the way as Raju threw open his voice. One was transported to the paddy fields of Bengal and its blue skies.

There is something to be said about ancient folk traditions, they are simple and straight from the heart and one can’t help but respond in the same way. Raju Das sang another gem written by Lalan Fakir. The song exhorted one to drown in oneself. That was the only way to find the treasure. The one who merely floated through life would never find the gem…The Khamak that Raju played was phenomenal. Such a simple instrument and so much depth. And he brought drama and flourish into his performance by spontaneously breaking into a dance.

As Jayashree Vivek from the audience later observed, “There is something so primeval about this music. The Western music we heard was also brilliant. But that is something we appreciate, enjoy and acknowledge cerebrally. My response to Raju Das Baul was straight from the gut!”

A melancholy Gaelic composition came next. Simon explained it was the love song of a poor girl who falls in love with a rich man and is betrayed by him. It was a lore from the Highlands, and closing one’s eyes one could imagine the wild beauty of the meadows and the loch beside which the heart-broken girl sang her heart out. Of course, it was all instrumental with the cello and the guitar playing plaintively. When asked why he did not sing the song, Simon rolled his eyes and replied, “I’d rather poke my own eyes out with a hanger than sing!” But it was beautiful and moving and conveyed the pain without using words.

The finale was a shining coming together of all the musicians to perform ‘Aruna’, which means the lustre of the rising sun.

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