The Week, August 2012
A raga has distinctive features with prominent notes, combinations of notes and timings of the day and season. However, there is no logical explanation as to why a raga is seasonal really or for that matter why certain ragas with the same combination of notes become a morning raga or an evening raga. Seasonal ragas have always been an integral subject in the world of Indian classical music. Spring, Monsoon and many other factors associated with nature have very strong representation in the world of ragas. Personally, I have had some very memorable concerts where I have played the ‘Rainy Season Ragas’ Mian Ki Malhar, Megh Malhar. I recently I composed my first Malhar Raga, Sawan Malhar. My Guru and father Haafiz Ali Khan Saheb did not believe in a long interpretation of a Raga. He was known for his purity of Ragas and also for his aesthetic sense, preciseness, colour and beauty in his music. He did not believe in too much elaboration and extended improvisation. For him, Raga was a living entity and if tortured by any musician, the Raga too could curse! For my guru an appealing interpretation of a raga of fifteen minutes was a complete raga for no book or shashtra mentions how Indian classical music should be presented being an oral tradition.

In the sixties and seventies, there was a phase in which classical musicians took great pride in playing Ragas for two to three hours nonstop. Frankly, after maybe an hour, it was all repetition. However, due to artists wanting to prove a point, a section of listeners drifted away to easy listening. The length or style of presentation of Indian Classical Music was always a personal choice. I believe that by playing the essence of a raga for a shorter period, you are not diluting it. I believe in being traditional and not conventional. In the early eighties, I had recorded an album of short pieces (based on Ragas) in one album. At that time, I was of course criticized for not going into too much ponderous detailing. I am happy to see that today this has become a trend.

There is a very old story about a young musician who sang for the first time on the stage. Seeing two thousand people in the audience the young musician was overtly inspired and lost track of time. After two hours the musician opened his eyes and was disappointed to see only two people sitting. The musician thanked those two people and said ‘you two are the most knowledgeable people; non-musical people have left the auditorium’. Out of the two, one said ‘I am sorry I am waiting to windup the stage and the PA system’. The musician thanked the remaining one person sitting in the hall who replied ‘I am waiting for my turn to perform’. The musician was totally shocked and disappointed. The message of this story shows the importance of sense of proportion and brevity in any profession.

Professional entertainers back in time were called ‘Bhaand’ in rather crude light. Rajas, Maharajas and Nawaabs had an official Bhaand as their court entertainers along with many other court interests. The closet western counter part to the Bhaand was perhaps the ‘Court Jester’ who entertained the Emperor with music, juggling, clowning, and by telling of riddles. The Shehnai prophet Bismillah Khan carried that era of entertainers with him and always had one or two comic performers in his group of musicians. Some musicians were known to create and compose hilarious jokes. No matter whether the musician was successful or struggling, they enjoyed and shared their good or bad with humour and also stood by each other. People of India think of classical musicians to be always very serious. But I have met the best mimics and actors in Indian classical musicians. They have a great sense of humour and phenomenal stalk of jokes!

According to folklore it is believed that Lord Ganesha use to play the Pakhawaj. A low, mellow tone is one of the leading characteristics of Pakhawaj. It is the standard percussion instrument in dhrupad style of singing and also for Rudra Been players. Historically, ancient drums were of one piece like Dhol, Dholak, Naal, Mridangam and Pakhawaj. The sound of the Pakhawaj is very rich and sonorous. While learning the traditional age old Pakhawaj style techniques, a student would be introduced to a number of different strokes which produce a variety of distinct sounds. Legend has it that during a concert, the Pakhawaj player, broke the instrument broke in two pieces because of the intensity with which he had to perform. Yet, he would continue to play with the broken pieces, and to his own surprise it worked and this is how the new instrument called Tabla was born.

In our family my forefathers played with the Pakhawaj. Along with many vocalists and instrumentalists, Gwalior was known its Pakhawaj Players. I have heard many concerts of my guru and father with great Pakhawaj players like the legendary Parvat Singh and Madhav Singh. There was a long lineage of Pakhawaj players like Kudeo Singh of Datia in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Zauravar Singh, Parvat Singh, Madhav Singh and Gopal Singh. There is a story about Kudeo Singh, who was a great devotee of Goddess Kali when the Maharaja of Datia challenged his artistry by asking him, to tame a wild elephant. Though Gopal Singh of Gwalior was a Pakhawaj player, he was a regular Guitar broadcaster on All India Radio. He very inspired by the Sarod of Haafiz Ali Khan Saheb which made him add more strings to his Guitar to match the Sarod. A trend that has now become popular among many Guitar players!

I also enjoy playing to the accompaniment of the Pakhawaj occasionally because of its very masculine and robust sound. I have played with Gopal Das, Arjun Sejwal, Bal Krishan, Pagaldas of Ayodhyay and Purshottam Das of Nathdwara and his disciple Fateh Singh Gangani.

Mridangam is a South Indian version of the pakhawaj. It bears a strong seeming resemblance to Pakhawaj but there are major differences in composition and technique. I had the honor of playing with some of the great Mridangam players of South India like Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Palghat Raghu, Vellore Ramabhadran, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Yella Venkateswara Rao, etc. I also had the honour of meeting and hearing one of the greatest Mridangam icons, Palghat Mani Iyer, when I played at the Rishi Valley School (Andhra Pradesh) at the invitation of the great Jiddu Krishnamurti. Palghat Mani Iyer played many duets with the trinity of our Tabla kings Kishan Maharaj, Alla Rakha and Samta Prasad. Both Pakhawaj and Mridangam have very distinctive sound and character, fortunately we still have outstanding players of both instruments in India and abroad. I think young Pakhawaj or Mridangam players should be encouraged. There are so many talented young musicians in every field. I really feel proud to see the talent and commitment of our young musicians.

Historically there was no custom or system of rehearsing before a concert. In those days, organizers use to decide which tabla player or Pakhawaj player will accompany the singer or the instrumentalist. Musicians could only meet before the concert in the dressing room and discuss what Taal (rhythm time cycle) the main artist will perform. Both the musicians use to be tense and worried about the end result since in many occassions, they were performing together for the first time! Some musicians never discussed this till the time of the concert only to give a good or bad surprise to each other.

Practice is very important to a good musical performae. At the time when electricity was not in every house (just like our recent power cut!) of India, great musicians practiced all night with very large candle lights. One candle lasted several long hours. Interestingly, some musicians were known as artists who have practiced to the duration of five burning candles, or six burning candles. It was a way of expressing pride and industry talk about the intensity of an artists practice sessions of long durations!