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Cello, ek bar phir se
Kadri Gopalnath first heard the saxophone when he was 15. The Mysore Palace Band was hosting a Western music show and the youngster couldn't get the sound of the saxophone out of his head. "I had learnt to play the nadaswaram from my father but it simply didn't grip me like this, " says the virtuoso saxophonist. "I just had to have a sax, had to play it in the Carnatic style.
Don't ask me why. " It wasn't easy becoming the first solo sax Carnatic artiste. "' Parampara, parampara!! ' the purists kept screaming. But I didn't bother, I had the support of great musicians like Shiv Kumar Sharma and many of the connoisseurs, " says Gopalnath. Records of the late 18th centurycourt of the culturally curious Maratha king of Thanjavur, Sarabhoji II, show the existence of a collection of four clarinets and a Western band with violin, clarinet, tambourine, bass drum, harp and piano. Within the next three centuries, three of these instruments - the clarinet, violin and piano - reached the Carnatic concert stage. Most of these instruments came as diplomatic gifts, joined royal bands and ended up mesmerising local musicians.
Not just these, the mandolin, guitar, harmonium and cello, all became kutcheri (concert) instruments. The violin and the harmonium particularly are so integral to our classical music that it is hard to think of them as imports.
Of course, there were problems bringing Western instruments into the classical fold. And these difficulties determined how long it took for them to be assimilated into the local music system. First, the technical hitch - it is hard to extract the core features of Indian classical music, the gamakas (oscillations) and the meends (glides) from Western instruments. The mohan veena, the saxophone, the clarinet, the cello - all had to be restructured to create finer note combinations.
"Without the meend and the gamaka it is impossible to conceive of our classical music. In instruments like the guitar or the piano, once the note is struck the sound dies. To ensure the finer aspects of our music I had to really work on the mohan veena, " says Vishwamohan Bhatt, who fashioned the mohan veena out of the Hawaian slide guitar so well that it seamlessly melds the sounds of the sitar, the sarangi, the santoor and the veena.
The violin with its malleable sound had it easy and was vigorously pushed by the Thanjavur Trinity, especially Muthuswamy Dikshitar.
The clarinet, however, was stuck with the image of a part of the devadasi music ensemble in the south till an artiste like AKC Natarajan gave it an image overhaul. It took decades of hard work for Natarajan to finally get a slot on a prestigious music sabha of Chennai.
"There is always a search for nayapan (newness) in any music, " says Bhatt. "It is a challenge to pick up a nonconventional instrument and turn it into something out of which you can wring out the familiar. "
Among the last instruments to break the rather flexible bastion were the cello and the piano. Dutch-born cello player Saaskia Rao-De Haas had an experience similar to Gopalnath's, albeit continents apart. A senior cellist, she heard a concert of Hindustani music in Amsterdam and decided that this would be her mêtier. Under the mentorship of masters such as flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, she has now become a sought-after classical Hindustani cello player, often playing in tandem with her sitarist husband Shubhendra Rao.
The cello, like the violin, arrived in India as a diplomatic gift from European monarchs. It found its way into popular bands;it was in fact a part of the famous Maihar Band set up by the legendary Baba Alaudin Khan. (Interestingly, the cello in Maihar was played like it was in Europe in days of, yore which shows how playing styles had become frozen in time in India. ) Like the sarangi, it is remarkably close to the voice. "Just as the sarangi is used in tearful moments in Hindi films, the cello is used in a tearful moment in Western films!" Saaskia points out. "Music has that kind of universal emotional appeal. "
The piano was one instrument that defied Indianisation. Young Utsav Lal who plays the piano has refused to remodel his instrument. "Many of the techniques I use while playing Hindustani classical on piano are influenced and created, based on my listening to renditions by traditional instruments like santoor, sarod and sitar and often mimic their sound, " says Lal, who is currently polishing his music under dhrupad singer Wasifuddin Dagar.
Lal says he is taking Indian classical music to the piano and not the other way round. Whichever way the confluence works, it leaves the music richer.
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