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If one were to send, say, Ian McEwan and Hanif Kureishi to a writer's retreat for a month and suggest that they co-write a short story, it is more likely that they will either a) go out and party instead;b) pen some disturbing commingled fantasies;or c) murder each other.
Art as collaboration can be a dodgy prospect, because it is such an extreme form of personal expression. For two great artistes to create something special together takes an enormous level of surrender and patience and sensitivity. It's like marriage. It can only really work successfully if the ego is sublimated for the higher ideal of harmony. And given that artistes are known to have the biggest egos, the result is more often confusion than fusion.
Yet, jugalbandis have become the most fashionable thing in the world of Indian classical music. You hear of the Singh Bandhu, the Dagar Bandhu, the Wadali brothers, and, of course, the endless stream of fusion concerts where East meets West, North meets South and so forth. It is in the instrumental area that duets have really taken off, because the form lends itself to far more collaborative experimentation. Coming up, in early December, for example, tabla maestro Zakir Husain will perform with mridangam guru Karaikudi Mani in what will no doubt be a houseful show in Mumbai.
"Not a season passes, nowadays, without the announcement of a 'first time ever' jugalbandi concert between one big-name musician and another, " says musicologist Deepak Raja. "Most of these turn out also to be the 'last time ever' events involving the pair. The conclusion is obvious: Audiences are seduced by the promise, and cheated by the product. This does not appear to discourage either big-name musicians or their concert organisers. They seem surprisingly eager to risk their credibility repeatedly for the rewards of a one-night stand. "
The jugalbandi in north-Indian classical music is a relatively new concept - which became popular after two great maestros Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan famously performed together and forever changed the way Indian classical music would be rendered. Vilayat Khan's duet performances with Bismillah Khan were equally memorable, with both artistes bringing out the best in each other and creating a never-before heard sound. Until then, it was unheard of for two great solo musicians to perform together. For, as Raja says, "A duet, as a presentation format, is fundamentally inconsistent with the meditative-contemplative character of Hindustani music. Being a predominantly improvised form, it can assume only one musician. Any accompaniment, whether drone, melodic or rhythmic, must function under his/her control... Because of this, a soloist with a skeletal ensemble is the norm;a pair of collaborating performers is a rarity;and a successful and durable duo is a phenomenon. "
And yet, a number of wonderful, even orthodox, performers have been engaging with this new collaborative format, spurred on by impresarios who are constantly seeking ways to add novelty to the stage. Suddenly, a highly esoteric art form, reserved for discerning listeners, became a far more universally appealing and marketable commodity, the delight of the impresario looking to solicit both corporate sponsors and expanding audiences.
Regrettably, many duets tend to be a farce, an exercise in gimmickry where two great artistes are thrown together and expected to produce something beautiful. But what really ends up happening is a show of competitive arms, almost like a cacophonous television debate where the participants are out-shouting each other and no one is really listening. What, then, really makes the duet work in the Indian classical music space?
Sitar maestro Shujaat Khan says, "A duet succeeds only when the two musicians don't have to carry a massive burden of baggage on their backs, can play together without nutsand-bolts planning, and with gay abandon. " He has played successful jugalbandis with the khemancheh player, Kayhan Kalhor, and, most seamlessly, with sarod player Tejendra Majumdar, about whom he says, "We have never had to do any detailed planning for our duets. The only thing we discuss and plan is the format of the performance, and the bandishes. If anything like a method has emerged in our duets, it is intuitive. And, because it is intuitive, it will keep changing, " says Shujaat.
According to Suvarnalata Rao, Indian music programming head at the National Center for the Performing Arts, when two artistes want to play together, there must be absolute understanding between them. They should complement each other, rather than compete or attempt to show their oneupmanship. There should also be some stylistic coherence. "It's like one person paints a stroke, the other paints another, but since the final concept is a common one, the image that emerges will be coherent. A lot of this works on trust and respect for the other human being. "
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