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Concert Life in Calcutta

Background Reportage by Yogendra
(March 2012)

In February 2012, Yogendra had the opportunity to experience classical concert life in the Bengali music metropolis Calcutta.

1. Mehfil - The House Concert
2. Bhawanipur Sangeet Sammilani
3. Sangeet Research Academy
4. KMDA Garfa Music Festival
5. Fusion at the Roxy

1. Mehfil - The House Concert

For centuries, classical raga music was played primarily at the Indian princely courts in an illustrious circle of invited guests. The subtle fascination of this music can perhaps best unfold in such intimate settings. Later on, wealthy bourgeois landowners, businessmen and academics took over as hosts for this kind of musical gathering in a private setting, known as mehfil. The magic of the mehfil has been captured beautifully by the great director Satyajit Ray in his classic film "The Music Room" (Jalsaghar), published in 1958. However, since Indian independence, the tradition of the mehfil has been displaced more and more by public concerts. But today it is still kept alive in a slightly altered form by a small number of enthusiasts.

Instead of a palace, or at least a mansion, the site of one of these modern mehfils was a simple three-room apartment near Tollygunge, a lively area in the southern part of Calcutta. Instead of a maharaja or zamindar, the dedicated organiser and host was dhrupad student and filmmaker Carsten Wicke (his wonderful documentary Music Masala is available from India Instruments). And instead of a bag of gold coins, the performers' was nothing but a hot meal. Music was obviously not used as a prestigious status symbol here. The idea was not to imitate the pomp of the old mehfil but to cultivate its spirit and to share the passion for a select, highly refined art form.

Those who found their way to the small apartment this evening knew what they were up to and had deliberately chosen the gathering over several other high profile concerts scheduled in Calcutta that night. The 30 or so guests were about one-third Indian music lovers, European and North American music students and performers who delivered not just their own contributions but also listened to each other. And around midnight the great tabla master Anindo Chatterjee showed up as a special guest of honour. He lives in the immediate neighborhood and had been the teacher of host Carsten Wicke at the beginning of his musical career, when he started with learning tabla. The aforementioned hot meal was one of the many rewards for all who had come and stayed at least until midnight .

Set on was an all-night programmme, beginning in the evening and lasting until the wee hours. In this format several artists perform the ragas appropriate for the specific hour one after the other, so that even seldom heard ragas for the end of the night or early morning can be enjoyed. As is customary on such occasions, the guests do not necessarily attend everything from the beginning to the end, but come and go as they please. This creates a relaxed form, which positively emphasizes the intimate nature of the event.

The programme featured young, largely unknown artists from Calcutta, Europe and the United States - it would go beyond the scope of this article to mention them all. Bids were male and female dhrupad singing, rudra veena, sitar, bansuri, sarod and kathak dance - a varied, ambitious and very unusual programme. The artistic level of the performances was also very mixed - it ranged from unpolished young talent to internationally seasoned master. Some local artists may have been involved in the hope of being able to make contacts for future paid performances, while the appeal for the western musicians probably consisted mainly in proving themselves to an Indian expert audience. But whatever the expectations - at the core of it all was definetely the enthusiasm for the music and the joy of sharing it with like-minded people.

And there was plenty of opportunity to do so for all artists noticeably gave their best and the physical proximity on the spread-out blankets and cushions on the floor of the music room transfered the concentration, dedication and enthusiasm of the performances directly to everybody present. Lively exchange and discussions with chai and snacks took place during the breaks in the kitchen or on the balcony - and went on until long after sunrise and the conclusion of the music. General consensus: A unique and precious experience that is far too rare in this form today.

2. Bhawanipur Sangeet Sammilani

The southern city of Calcutta, between the old centre and the shopping area Rash Behari Avenue (home of sarod maker Hemen and until a few years ago also of sitar maker Hiren Roy), is a densely populated, vibrant and raging Indian metropolitan district. In a side street you can find a nondescript old building in the usual local condition - dirty sidewalk in front, mouldy walls, narrow entrance and small stairway full of unspeakable odors. But once you make your way through the uninviting exterior to the first floor, you reach one of the oldest and most respected private music circles of Calcutta - the Bhawanipur Sangeet Sammilani, in English: the music assembly of the district Bhawanipur.

In the late 19th and early 20 century the emerging educated middle class in major Indian cities discovered raga music as a national cultural heritage. In many places private music societies were established to foster this treasure. The classical music monopoly of the nobility and the rich with their traditional Mehfils crumbled and was replaced by increasing civil commitment. The foundation of the Bhawanipur Sangeet Sammilani in 1900 was a result of this movement. During its more than 100 years of history the Sammilani has seen quite a few brilliant soirees: Bade Ghulam Ali Khan has performed there, as well as Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan. And today's greats like Rashid Khan, Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar and Veena Sahashrabudhhe are regular guests as well.

In the concert hall of the Sammilani, the glorious history is mainly reflected on the walls with their height of about four meters - they are covered up to the ceiling with paintings of famous music masters and give the room a unique venerable flair. Apart from that the hall makes a rather simple impression: the area, covered with carpeting, is barely larger than a very spacious living room. There are no chairs, just a few benches placed along the walls. The audience sits cross-legged on the floor. A few low platforms covered with white sheets are used as a makeshift stage. However, the amplification system is surprisingly sophisticated - every instrument gets its own microphone, including the tanpura, mixer and speakers are state of the art, and large monitor speakers for the artists are placed in front of? the small stage. This setup might seem a little bit exaggerated considering the small size of the room - even without amplification it wouldn't be any problem to hear the music properly. But the unique beauty of unamplified natural sound still seems to be largely unknown in India. A certain powerful volume seems to be a general requirement just about anywhere.

Scheduled for this evening is sitarist Partha Chatterjee, preceded by a non-resident Indian singer from Canada as opening act. Let's spare any details regarding the singing NRI lady - her intonation was so painful that I had to practice active non-listening and leave the hall after her first item. It remains a mystery to me how she had gotten the invitation to perform at the Sammilani. Fortunately sitarist Partha Chatterjee turned out to be a real treat to the ears with raga Bihag. The striking clarity of its interpretation of raga, the musicality of his vocal phrasing, his perfect proportions of the various formal elements and the organic flow of his creativity were pure delight. His alap, jor and slow gat are probably among the best that Indian classical music has to offer today. Only his fast gats and tanas often sound strained and over-ambitious. But at that stage of the performance, brilliant tabla accompanist Ashok Mukherjee compensated with supreme ease and playfulness.

While the musical performance was great, attendance was really quite poor. Only 25 to 30 visitors found their way to this programme, about half of them students and relatives of the artists and the other half Sammilani activists in retirement. True, Partha Chatterjee is none of today's popular raga-superstars who fill the halls simply because of the glamour of their ubiquitious media presence. But even a fair audience of music lovers is obviously hard to gain in Calcutta today in view of the great variety of cultural programmes and the rapidly increasing commercialization and compression of all aspects of everyday life. Perhaps the basic idea of ??civil commitment in cultural associations is no longer compatible with contemporary life - the venerable patina of the Sammilani certainly seems more dusty and old-fashioned than fresh and cool. The Sammilani as a cultural institution faces the danger of becoming a kind of museum - it could well do with active young members, bringing in fresh blood and new ideas in order to connect with our times and stay alive and kicking.

3. Sangeet Research Academy

The transport hub Tollygunge in South Calcutta is the raging inferno one is used to in Indian cities. Yet in the midst of its cacophony, behind high walls, like an island of harmony, lies a magnificent colonial mansion with a spacious park-like garden - the Sangeet Research Academy (SRA). Its elysian fields are not normally accessible to the public. Only a dozen famous music gurus, their assistants and hand-picked students, as well as some tabla accompanists and salaried personnel regularly pass through security at the gate. No hectic gear inside shall distract from the central purpose of the SRA: training classical Indian music soloists in the old teacher-student tradition. The concept has already been successful to some extent, with SRA graduates Ajoy Chakrabarty and Rashid Khan being among the top stars of Indian music today.

On Wednesdays though, the doors of this temple of music open for everyone for concerts with SRA's scholars and tutors. It's a good opportunity for connoisseurs to hear the upcoming next generation - and for the youngsters a chance to prove themselves in front of a critical expert audience. The Wednesday Concerts take place in a medium-sized hall in the ground floor, just behind the entrance hall. At the top end is a small panel that serves as a stage, the floor is covered with carpet coverage, and on the walls large scale portraits of former SRA teachers and of renowned virtuosos of the 20th century watch the scene. The endless honking of Tollygunge is muffled by the closed windows, and is easily drowned out by the powerful but still moderately cranked PA system at the start of the performance.

The opening act this Wednesday is London-based Soumik Datta on the sarod, a 1984-born student of SRA guru Buddhadev Dasgupta. In his native England Soumik is a rather successful young musician, who has already worked with renowned artists like Beyoncé, Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh and dancer Akram Khan. However, he can not really convince as an Indian classical performer in the raga stronghold of Calcutta - the audience sends Soumik off the stage with a merely polite applause after a too nervous and disjointed performance. Considerably more impact than his play would have made his hairstyle - a mohawk haircut was probably never seen before on a sarod player's head in Calcutta...

The audience, a good crowd of about 60 people, is a healthy mix of young and old, students, teachers and employees of the SRA and external music lovers, pell-mell on the floor or sitting on the few chairs along the walls. Most are somewhat solemnly dressed in freshly ironed kurtas or saris and men and women are separated cleanly from each other by a center aisle. A spirit from a bygone time seems to be still alive in this most venerable institution.

One is curious that evening to hear the main artist Waseem Ahmed Khan, a vocalist of the Agra Gharana. Waseem, born in 1974, comes from an old musical family tradition, was a former scholar and has recently been employed as a musician tutor at SRA. His main job is teaching promising vocal talents who are still too young or too immature for a proper scholarship. Waseem's interpretation of the difficult evening raga Puriya initially impresses with clear, majestic lines. His voice, a little rough, with a very masculine timbre, fascinates as well. But as the performance progresses, it becomes more and more static, schematic, harsh, lacking the imagination, the elegance and suppleness that characterizes today's great Indian singers. It is certainly no coincidence that the slightly archaic pure Agra style has been vanishing from major concert platforms in recent years. Many listeners probably feel the same, because after having waited politely until the end of Waseem's Puriya, they spare themselves more pieces and encores by leaving quietly.

I have heard enough for that day as well. Although there were no great artistic highlights, the evening has shown a very lively side of today's Indian classical music scene. Traditions are maintained very carefully and are always respected - but they fail to elate and inspire when they loose their spirit and are turned into a mere museum. And an open-minded, critical and adventurous new generation gets ready to carry Indian classical music into the 21st century.

4. KMDA Garfa Music Festival

In the Indian state of West Bengal the 2011 change of power, after 34 years of Communist government, is also noticeable in the cultural life of the state's capital Calcutta. After his inauguration, new Sports Minister Madan Mitra initiated various free music events in culturally underserved neighborhoods. One of them was organised by the Kolkata Municipal Development Authority (KMDA) in the mostly residential neighborhood Garfa in a park without official address. In order to find the way there, I have made an appointment with sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee, one of the soloists of the festival. After our meeting was rescheduled several times according to the current traffic situation, I finally land next to Purbayan in the back seat of his car. In front of me as a passenger sits Simon Broughton, editor of the British world music magazine Songlines, an acquaintance of Purbayan, presently in Calcutta because of an international festival with Sufi music and some research on traditional music in rural Bengal.

The Garfa Festival emerges as a major local event, with whole streets decorated lavishly and full of blaring loudspeakers. As VIPs, we are ushered through the cordons onto the festival site and drive right to the backstage area - set in the living room of one the organizers in the house right behind the huge marquee. Tabla accompanist Anubrata Chatterjee, son of tabla master Anindo Chatterjee, is already waiting inside. I last met him as a chubby teenager on a visit to Anindo's house back in the 1990s, and need some time to recognize him in his stunning stylish appearance with a highly polished bald head, earring, goatee and shimmering light blue kurta

After small talk, tea and coffee, the musicians are needed for the soundcheck and Simon and me are guided to our seats through long corridors lined with red carpets. As foreign entourage of the artists we land on one of the comfortable sofas in the exclusive celebrity zone right in front of the meter-high stage (and the equally high speaker towers). In contrast to us, the common Indian music lover must be content with one of about 4000 simple plastic chairs further at the rear. While these chairs are slowly filling, we two palefaces remain all alone in the celebrity zone - until one of the organizers discovers us and and grabs the opportunity of connecting to the alleged VIPs. During the obligatory business card exchange, we learn about the afternoon's programme (Tagore songs), his main job (railroad official) and his own musical talents (bathroom singer). Meanwhile, the soundcheck takes place on the stage behind closed curtains: apparently an attempt of making Purbayan's sitar sound as distorted as an electric guitar and bringing the volume up to a level that moves music perception from the numbed ears down to the intestines.

After endless opening rituals with ever new speeches, lighted oil lamps, chanted mantras and presented flower garlands, the curtain finally opens and the show begins. The sound people have done an impressive job: After a few minutes I realize that I can only enjoy the music without pain with my fingers pressed firmly onto my ears. Artistically however, Purbayan's playing is a real treat. He performs the challenging raga Puriya uncompromising in all its austere beauty in a compact alap and jor. And in the gat, he excels together with Anubrata with rhythmic finesse and spectacular runs. Purbayan is really an exceptional artist, blessed with highest gifts, whose charisma, musicality and absolute technical mastery will certainly remain a major factor of the Indian classical music scene in the coming decades. After the main raga in classical purity, Purbayan closes with a pleasing Kirwani, including some lines of a popular Bengali song. A joyous murmur instantly goes through the tent - with this small gesture Purbayan has also won the hearts of all those without knowledge of the intricacies of the raga tradition. An encore, however, is not required, because the great vocalist Rashid Khan, next on the agenda, is already waiting backstage for his appearance.

I prefer to chill out for the rest of the evening with Purbayan, Anubrata and Simon to reflect on the performance. The atmosphere is relaxed and laid-back and the delicious food in an elegant Chinese restaurant contributes nicely. The musicians had problems with the sound, too, but they are used to such situations and know how to deal with them. A performance for a few thousand people is a normal routine for them - at least when it is not at one of the really important music festivals, where artists, critics and connoisseurs meet and the quality of a performance can set the course of a career. For me it is a proof of the vitality of classical Indian music that not only large festivals such as Dover Lane draw four- or five-digit crowds, but also neighborhood events like the KMDA Garfa. Apparently, the raga tradition flourishes not only in the small esoteric circles of a few insiders, but also reaches a wider public of the growing educated middle class. And it can even be used to demonstrate the cultural claims of a new political era.

5. Fusion at the Roxy

After a private all-night house concert and concerts at the music lovers circle Bhawanipur Sangeet Sammilani, the prestigious Sangeet Research Academy and the huge KMDA Garfa Festival I've seen a lot of the classical Indian music scene in Calcutta. Time for a different experience. The opportunity is given to me by an invitation by star sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee. He wants to release his new album Hemisphere, a fusion CD, I'm told, with a live performance in the trendy Roxy Bar.

The Roxy is located in Park Street in the city centre, on the ground floor of the noble Park Hotel. A stylish place that advertises with a choice of 56 different wines from around the world and the slogan "Irresistibly sexy - invitingly Roxy" and could probably as well be found similarly in any other big city anywhere on the planet. I arrive on time, but the two floors of the Roxy with their seating capacity of well over 100 guests are still pretty empty with just one to two dozen lonely people. The program will start later, I'm told, because certain VIPs are still missing. Only now do I realize that I'm not at a concert, but at a CD release event staged for the media, with only invited guests having access. Well, one can pass the waiting time by sipping free drinks and munching snacks, by having small talk with stars and starlets of the Bengali celebrity scene, with the attending musicians and their students from Japan or, just for fun, by giving an interview to the attending yellow press. After one or two hours of sitting idle, the small illustrious assembled crowd finally moves in front of the stage, drinks in hand. Tabla virtuoso Tanmoy Bose, wirepuller in the Calcutta music scene, solemnly cuts a red ribbon and holds a Hemisphere CD into the cameras, and after he and a few others have praised the album and emphasized how great it is to be here today, the music finally starts.

The band for the evening consists of Anubrata Chatterjee, Anindo Chatterjee's son, on tabla and percussion, an unnamed featured keyboarder, a similarly anonymous bass guitar player, "Marc from America" on drums and of course Purbayan Chatterjee with his electric sitar and vocal. True to style, the musicians appear not in traditional kurtas, but in cool casual jeans and shirts. The volume is high, but still below pain level - something that needs to be appreciated in Calcutta. The music, although with a modern pop sound and lots of electronics, is still handmade in good old traditional fashion. However, despite some noticeable enthusiasm of the musicians with extensive solos, beguiling sitar licks and spontaneous involvement of celebrity guest Tanmoy Bose, the audience doesn't really get warm or enthusiastic. Too arbitrary is the mix of styles on Hemisphere, which stretches from African, Celtic, Indian and jazzy elements to an instrumental cover version of Sting's "Fragile". Artistically, the result is simply too lean. Significantly, the CD has only seven songs with a total playing time of just 30 minutes. And it's all too clear that the evening at the Roxy is not about musical experience, but about marketing a product of the entertainment industry.

What a pity. In recent years, with his classical ensemble Shastriya Syndicate and his fusion album String Struck, Purbayan had realised widely clebrated, artistically ambitious projects which were commercially very successful, too. And his openness and creative curiosity have him constantly looking for new musical possibilities. But success and fame probably increase the pressure from the music industry and the public considerably. Purbayan's latest contract to produce about half a dozen more concept albums for the Indian media company Times Music (including one with famous Western classical music hits on sitar) doesn't seem to be holding very good promises.

More and more renowned young classical musicians are now trying to balance between an identity as a traditional performer of classical ragas on the one hand and commercial productions with Bollywood, pop, rock and fusion on the other. The possibilty of reaching beyond the raga niche to a wider audience, while also making some real money, seems very tempting. Such crossing of frontiers is not altogether new, of course. Ravi Shankar owes his world fame largely to his experiments with film and orchestral music, and to his collaborations with non-Indian musicians. And artists such as Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma have benefited from their work with the Indian film industry in every respect. But nowadays it could seem as if the combination of global acceleration and commercialization with the infinite technical possibilities of digital music production make it rather more difficult for the young Indian musicians to develop a healthy creativity and come up with something really meaningful. If music is nothing but a part of a globalised entertainment industry, the artistic quality and the soul of the artist may get lost all too easily. Or is the liaison with show business and the flirtation with wealthy corporate sponsors simply a necessity nowadays, in order to get funding for the raga tradition and thus keep it alive? The future will tell.