The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Treading on the edge between tradition and adventure

Performance is an exercise of power, a very anxious one. Curious because it is at first so furiously self-consultative…later so eager for publicity, love and historical dimension — Edward Said, Musical Elaborations.

A historical dimension was inscribed, at several levels, in Kishori Amonkar’s performance at Kala Mandir, Calcutta, last month. The artist, in her mid-seventies now, can be imagined as already a figure of history. Hers is a voice lingering from what the late Kumar Prasad Mukherji described as the “lost world” of Hindustani classical music. Amonkar’s singing is characterized by that forgotten sensibility, revelling not just in displays of virtuosity, but also invoking the ideal purity of the sur (note or melody), devoid of frills. As Amonkar declared in her prefatory comments, that was the musical ethos her gurus (one of them her mother, the great Moghubai Kurdikar) had instilled in her. Almost as an acknowledgement of this training in simplicity, she proceeded to sing khayals that evening in raga Yaman, usually considered to be ideal for beginners.

There seemed, at first, to be no remarkable significance in her choosing to sing Yaman. Classical musicians routinely perform a handful of ‘popular’ ragas — Yaman, Bihag, Malkauns, Bhairavi, Bhairon — established by tradition in the concert repertory. These familiar names and melodies reinforce, for the initiated, their enjoyment of the music being performed before them. Their ability to enjoy — and by extension, vicariously participate in — the creation of the music is important. A classical performance, with its sense of packaged virtuosity, might often appear impossibly, even formidably, beyond the skills of an ordinary music enthusiast. So, a well-known raga like Yaman, with its in-built structural facility and the unimpeded sense of freedom that it allows beginners for indulging in and experimenting with the notes, succeeds in reducing the apartness of the performer from the listeners.

Despite her training in the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, famed as a repository of rare ragas and highly complicated patterns of exposition, Amonkar has shown a penchant for familiar and structurally straightforward ragas in her concerts as well as recordings. From time to time, she has recorded difficult, even obscure jod-ragas (formed by the combination of two ragas), which are a particular favourite with the Jaipur singers. Mallikarjun Mansur, the other veteran from this gharana, sang these intricate compositions with enchanting ease and confidence at mehfils and in recordings. But Amonkar has generally stuck to better-known ragas, which are structurally simple and therefore allow a certain degree of imaginative license. The pentatonic raga, Bhoop or Bhoopali, is one of Amonkar’s most preferred choices, which she has publicly performed and recorded several times. Each of her two recordings of this raga that I know is now the stuff of legend, conferring on her the kind of eminence that Ustad Amir Khan’s long-playing record of Marwa had brought him.

Yet her distinctiveness is the result of other elements than just the choice of ragas. Amonkar has regularly defamiliarized popular ragas, preferring to distinguish her singing not just in terms of virtuosity, but also in the manner of her approach to, and delineation of, the familiar ragas. Her early recording of Bageshree, for instance, is a feat of strangeness added to beauty, sung perfectly in a richly emotive cadence, with the improvization driven by an inexorable creative energy. In the cosmology of Bageshree, the grammar has been preserved, but the syntax pushed towards melodic chaos.

On that December evening in Calcutta, with the khayals in Yaman, and one short drut composition in Yaman Kalyan, Amonkar indulged in provocative, yet playful experimentation. A reviewer, who recalled hearing her sing Yaman in this way before, noted disapprovingly that there were “dashes of Mand and Hansadhwani” in her interpretation of Yaman. In the course of that uniformly sour review, he observed that “by repeating her aberrations, Amonkar seemed to be stating that this was the way she thought the raga ought to be delineated”. She had also, according to the reviewer, sang the drut teentaal khayal Sakhi eri ali piya bina, “that used to be taught to all beginners”, “in a manner that made it hard to recognize”. For him, this suggested that “Amonkar had re-invented this classic composition”, making it replete with “inappropriate ornamentation” all along.

This criticism, though largely unimpeachable, appears to be a little out of proportion. Too involved in pointing out her lapses, the reviewer seemed to have taken for granted Amonkar’s vocal agility, the astonishing richness of her timbre sustained even in her seventies. Admittedly, the capacity to appreciate this kind of musical prowess is subjective, and the critic’s unwillingness to do so should not, perhaps, be considered a failing, especially in those who have listened to greater performers in better times. However, critical thinking and writing on contemporary Hindustani classical music should not be entirely guided by standards of purity that are considered to be the legacy of a “lost world”. Such a critical practice runs the risk of becoming puritanical. Moreover, this kind of parochial- ism disregards the history of the performance and the reception of Hindustani music, just as it fails to take into account the evolution of modes of subjectivity in artists and listeners, their inward contemplation and reflection on the music.

Historians and critics of Western music have been more attentive to the social and historical dimensions of the ‘concert’ as a specific event in time and space. Performance is a complex and layered phenomenon, each element of which has its own range and possibilities of interpretation. For instance, the ‘event’ of the legendary Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 is comprised of at least four elements — of a particular composition (Goldberg Variations), played by a particular artist (Gould), the conjunction of Gould playing Bach, and all of these happening in a particular historical moment (1955).

But a concert is more than the sum of such parts. It represents a series of continuities and discontinuities — the modification and reassessment of a process that is invested with changing significances along the course of its history. Artists forge their individual creative identities with respect to their perceptions of the evolution of their art — this is what Said means by “self-consultative” in my epigraph. Thus individual artists bring their own historical moment to the concert experience, their unique and original presence within an inherited tradition.

Such a ‘structural’ exploration of music is beyond the scope of most contemporary music reviews, which are, as Said lamented,no better than a “report of attendance at concerts”. Bringing stringent standards of Classicism — held to be enshrined in the musical ethics of a “lost world” — into the critical evaluation of contemporary Hindustani music is no good if a sense of historical transformation (social, political and interpersonal) is left out of this evaluation. The ‘classical style’ resists being turned into an inflexible, prescriptive category. And within this necessarily protean style, there is scope for departures, arrivals, dissolutions and beginnings.

Amonkar’s eclectic stringing together of notes — her oddly shaped musical “dome in air” — was evidence of her innate genius in recreating not just classic compositions, but also the ‘classical style’ itself. She had given in to her capricious creativity (the word khayal is, after all, etymologically related to whimsy): bold, unhesitatingly challenging, even provocative, and yet mesmerizing in the wholeness of its final structure. The shades of other ragas in her singing appeared almost as little bursts of recognition, in the way certain words in literary classics, say in Shakespeare’s tragedies, allude to words from other classics before them, to Seneca or Ovid, for instance.

The allusive potential of Amonkar’s Yaman seemed not only to refer to other closely related ragas, but also extended to include singers from the past, whose eccentricities were appraised more fully, their originality revelled in and recognized in another time. A 78-rpm record of the mad genius from the Gwalior gharana, Ustad Rahmat Khan, made probably in the early years of the 20th century, captures a version of raga Yaman that is just a semblance of what is usually “correctly portrayed by all performers”, but far exceeds many of them in its capacity to delight and thrill.

A concert provides the ideal setting for this kind of creative dissidence, which Kishori Amonkar’s rendition of Yaman, with its iconoclastic brilliance, demonstrated last month. Treading on the edge between tradition and adventure, she had turned her concert into an occasion for a series of arguments, not only with her listeners, but also with concepts of classicism and ideas of canonized knowledge.

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