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Culture

Jamming, a la Ganga-Jamuna

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With his huge, horsy mane of dreadlocks, amulets and wristbands, bass guitarist Manas Chowdhury doesn't look like the typical North-Easterner. But the 36-year-old ace musician left Assam for Mumbai barely seven years ago. "I came here for a concert and never left, " he says.

Nor does he want to leave now, particularly in these past days of communal fear and loathing. Instead, he was busy jamming with fellow musicians - four Muslims and one Hindu - to nurture amity and harmony through a Sufi music fusion concert on Independence Day.

Chowdhury says he is uncomfortable highlighting his brother musicians' religion. But he is also deeply troubled by the recent exodus of North-Easterners from the South: "Music is our only religion, " he insists. "Music has brought us together and it's helping us bridge divides created by bigots and other small-minded folks pursuing a kill-joy, anti-people agenda. "

Mamme Khan and his group of Manganiyar musicians from Rajasthan heartily agree. "I too could feel his strong and sympathetic musical vibes, " says the turbaned folk singer from Jaisalmer who uses the colourful image of intermingled rivers - Ganga-Jamuna - to describe India's composite culture. Khan explains that although he is a Sunni Muslim by birth, he is proud to be a Hindu in terms of his lifestyle.

Ever the self-taught musical itinerant, Chowdhury says he was deeply moved by the rootedness and traditional grounding of the Manganiyar vocalists and instrumentalists. "They absolutely know where they're coming from and that was so refreshing to someone who's constantly being exposed to crassly commercial synthetic plastic music, " says the guitarist.

The Manganiyars' music seamlessly blends Islamic and Hindu elements to create a unique brand of full-throated singing with intricate riffs and rhythms on folk instruments such as the khartal, khamaicha, dholak, algoja and Sindhi sarangi.

"Our music has always balanced continuity with change, to welcome all sorts of diversities in its fold, " says Darrah Khan who plays the khamaicha. "For example, the ancient Hindu festival of Basant Panchami is also joyfully celebrated by many Muslims in India. We sing the glories of gods and goddesses of the land and also use immortal poetry of Sufi Masters such as Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif and Hazarat Khusrau. "

Some Manganiyar masters are renowned for songs of the Natha Siddhas like Guru Gorakhnath. The great yogi is believed to have pioneered the creation of a new faith that cut across old boundaries of caste, creed and religion through intoxicating music and his Nirguni bhajans.

Says noted Bollywood guitarist Jayanti Gosher who also played in the fusion experiment: "Ultimately it's all about creativity and artistic freedom of expression;whether you pluck goatgut strings or factory-made metal ones, the basic seven notes are all the same, " says the guitarist who has accompanied legends like Asha Bhosale and Jagjit Singh and given music to several hit movies.

"To celebrate 65 years of Independence, we wanted to musically re-animate the oft-repeated idea of India's 'unity in diversity', " says Mahesh Babu of Banyan Tree, the organisation he set up in 1996 to promote and to preserve performing arts. With his musician wife Nandini Mahesh, Babu hit upon the Expressions of Freedom fusion presentation this year. "Of course you can't randomly put artistes together and expect a jamming session to become a piece of brilliant music, " he clarifies. "Conversely, we have also put artists in totally new creative situations and combinations and got absolutely mind-boggling results, " says Nandini. "This was probably because the artistes were out of their comfort zone and the unfamiliarity of the canvas urged them to put forth that which probably even they hadn't seen or felt sitting within. "

To pull this off, Banyan Tree got young exponents of folk and classical music to reinterpret their artistic tradition. There was also a rousing violin-veena jugalbandi by the talented Ganesh-Kumaresh and Jayanthi Kumaresh.

"For today's musician playing in the 24x7 age of the virtual and wired world, there is no such thing as North, South, East and West except perhaps in the compass, " Jayanthi Kumaresh quips. (She was wowing audiences at 3. 30 am in Hyderabad on Independence Day and in the evening flew down to Mumbai to regale a full house with her pyrotechnics on the veena). "Music in all its myriad forms whether from the East or West;from the North or South, has become so central to our sensibilities today that I would like to include it as the essential sixth element, after air, water, fire, earth and ether. "

However, the Bangalore-based veena player also emphasises that "as in all our performances, the basic core of the tradition, the crux and beauty of the form is never compromised. The forms that come together only embellish each other and add to the richness of the creative expression and resultant experience for the audiences".

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