In music, purity of the musical form is often mistakenly seen as sealing off outside influences. But musical ideas manage to diffuse.
For example, did you know that Balaswamy Dikshitar, brother of the great composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar, introduced the Violin to Carnatic Music? He was so intrigued by the sound of Violin in the British Band in Chennai that he decided to learn Violin and played in the British Band. Feeling its appropriateness for Carnatic Music, he started experimenting with using Violin in Carnatic Music. Today, you cannot think of a Carnatic Kutcheri (concert) without a Violin.
Did you know that John McLaughlin, the jazz guitarist and founder of Mahavishnu Orchestra, learned Veena under the great scholar Dr. S Ramanathan, and is highly influenced by Indian music, and its percussion system? Or how today’s Sarod, a very popular instrument for Hindustani music, evolved from the Afghan Rabab? And so did its less known but equally beautiful cousin, the Sursringar.
“There is a certain Universality to Music, adorned by local and regional influences.”
My own case is no different. As a school kid in Madurai, I was drawn to the sound of Sarod having never even seen it. Later, during my Sarod learning days in Mumbai, I was drawn to the sound and music of Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar’s Rudra Veena. It’s often said that early influences shape our thoughts and the life journey we take. So it has been with me. My early exposure to the beautiful sacred chants and traditional compositions at dawn in Madurai temples, has undoubtedly influenced my music, and so has listening to All India Radio which featured Madurai Mani Iyer, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, M S Subbulakshmi, Hirabai Barodekar, Mysore Doraiswamy Iyengar, Amjad Ali Khan and so many others. Being exposed to listening to music from all over India, my thoughts were further honed and shaped by my interactions with my Gurus, as I started learning music more seriously.
But having so many influences was also a source of confusion. I often struggled with understanding my own self, my music, and their inter-relationship.
Who am I and what am I performing? Am I a Hindustani musician with a Carnatic background, or a Dhrupad musician with a Hindustani background, or an Indian musician with a complex background, or all of the above, or none of the above? Where is my individuality? I have often been told by my Guru that my music should be a reflection of my personality and character, and that leads to the question of who am I? These have been uncomfortable questions, raised by myself to myself, in an attempt to better understand myself and my music.
In my quest to understand music itself better, I went back further in time, to study the evolution of music in India. I took the time to study and to try and understand some of the scriptures of Indian music. I also listened to music from all over the world - from the African Kora to the jazz of Thelonious Monk! I started seeing patterns. There are similarities, and yet differences.
I have heard traces of Sarang in Kora music, scales of Darbari in Middle Eastern music. What is called Bhoop in North Indian music goes by the name Mohanam in South Indian music. Dhrupad musicians pronounce their solfas as “Te, Ta, Ra, Na” in their Alap exploration of the Raga, and South Indian musicians use “Ta, Da, Ri, Na”. North Indian musicians, especially instrumentalists, and particularly, Dhrupad vocalists present their improvisations according to a structure called Alap, Jod, Jhala and Composition, and the analogous format is called Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi in the South Indian terminology.
I have come to believe that local lifestyle, languages, cultural values, folk music, rites and rituals, and history are but a few of the important regional influences that could shape the variations and presentation of music - but underlying all that there is a certain Universality to Music. This has helped me to develop a belief in the underlying oneness of the Indian music system.
So how did it all come together for me?
In the early years of my musical training, it was all about understanding the basic concepts of music, learning the style and techniques, imitating the teacher as shaped by ones’ capability, and attempting to put it all together as a performer. It was about learning the framework of Indian music, without being confused by diverse musical influences.
Eventually, it was time “to think outside the box” or even to “get rid of the box”!
This assumes of course that one knows what the box is! Often thinking outside the box is misconstrued as unregulated thinking. That’s anarchy! And a misconception. In order to think out of the box, first, you must understand the box and everything in it. You must understand its boundaries and be able to push it. As an artist, you must aspire to the highest level of creative thinking, where you can express yourself without being concerned about the box!
My framework is the system of Indian Classical music, its Ragas, Talas and grammar, and my rigorous training under the Dhrupad style. My instrument of choice is the Chandraveena, which is a culmination of my understanding of the contemplative music I wish to make. While maintaining the beauty and sonic character of Saraswati Veena, my attempt has been to endow Chandraveena and the music with its own identity - a reflection of my identity. As I attempt to explore the limits of Indian Classical music, my interpretation and expression has been influenced by my early exposures, initial training in Saraswati Veena and Sarod, deep understanding of Dhrupad, and ultimately, the belief in the underlying oneness of the system of Indian music.
My music is an attempt to bring together the beauty of temple chants, the principles of Dhrupad, the subtle Gamakams (tremolos) of the South Indian style, the Alap Jod Jhala of the North, the Ragam Tanam Pallavi of the South, the glides of Sarod which drew me as a kid, and the rhythmic possibilities that exist in the South Indian percussion system. I am privileged to be able to draw from it all, and I hope to be sincere in my effort to bring them all together in a seamless way. As my understanding of music goes deeper, I aspire to present my music in my own individualistic style which represents my life, thoughts, experiences and musical values.
Maarga Sangeet is a musical journey to seek and express one’s identity through the medium of music. As I undertake this journey, my music continues to evolve. As I walk, I see new landscapes. I see a horizon, but no end. And the journey continues.