Sunday, October 28, 2007

Piloo aka "A Friday Evening in New York City"

Piloo is but a magically haunting raag. It has the feel of casting a longing look around for something that you know you have lost and that can never come back - yet you go on yearning for the lost times in the vain hope that you will catch a scent or two. As Ustadji makes the odd initial contacts with the strings, I travel back in time centuries ago, in the minds of an aged and forlorn Krishna who has come back to Gokul looking for his ladylove but cannot find her. Gokul has become a ghostly forsaken town; all that remains are the ruins of its past self and no one lives there anymore but the lord wouldn't accept it. As he goes to and fro between the couple's favourite old haunts, his eyes roam over dilapidated buildings, deserted cow-huts and broken "jhulas" lest he might catch a glance of some material remnants of "the times of love".

Or I become a middle-aged nawab walking in the middle of the day through the dense "music-alleyways" of old Lucknow thick with the smell of stale garlands, in search of a prostitute that I fell in love with before the lures of the throne took over everything. All that is in sight are a few stray street-dogs and the odd beggar or two; and all that can be heard are a few notes let loose through the crevices of the windows where the ladies are practicing for the oncoming night. Piloo might well be a night raag but I have a feeling that if you listened to it sitting all by yourself in a mid-summer Indian afternoon with nothing but the scorched landscape around, you might like it equally well.

And all this happens in the auditorium of a small school right in the middle of the Friday night frenzy of the "hippy"iest part of New York City, moistened by a daylong drizzle. People speak of the power of music being able to break barriers all the time but here I witness it all around me. I am part of a small audience gathered at a concert organized by Virsa Pakistan, a cultural foundation dedicated to promote the art and culture of Pakistan in the US. Right beside us is an Italian couple - the guy sporting a rudraksh garland and the lady primly dressed like you would expect any "proper" Manhattaner to. In front of us are a Pakistani couple and their friend and to their right is an obvious American. But he is no "hippy on a high"; rather, from his erudite nods and properly placed "wah"'s, even with my seasoned ignorance I can tell that he has more than merely a superficial interest in Hindustani Classical Music - he seems to be a trained musician. The center of our attention are the duo, the two pairs of hands to be more precise, who without doubt, are two of the most accomplished living practitioners of music.

I have left home for more than eight years now and as the hope of an imminent end to the journey that began on a September evening in 1999 recedes farther and farther, I find myself grabbing every occasion to replenish the once brimming glass of colours and sounds of India, now partially faded away, with a few drops from here and there. Living in even the most cosmopolitan city of the world, it is quite a treat to be attending a concert of Shahid Parvez. When one adds Anindo Chatterjee to that, it surely adds a few more notches to the levels of expectation and boy, do they adequately make it up !

Earlier, after what seemed to be a long tuning process, Ustadji took a deep breath, a musical breath, before he started the alaap in Rageshwari. It was right at that very moment, sitting there seeing him bringing all of his focus to almost a mathematical point that I realised the immense barrier that an artiste faces before he takes the first stroke of a composition - it almost seems unsurmountable. In Hindustani Classical Music, a raga only provides a framework, a few descriptors for an ambience - the rest is all left to the artist for improvisation. It occurred to me that the situation has close parallels to the kinetic theory of gases. A raga only defines the mean property of an ensemble of molecules, well .... compositions in case of music. However, the individual path taken by a molecule is random and can fall within a spectrum of possibilities. Same is the case with every individual composition that comes out from a true artiste - each is different in its own merit.

I have not heard Rageshwari too many times before but was spellbound nevertheless. Shahidji's control over the pace of his fingers moving almost imperceptibly fast over his strings is all too well known. But what continues to amaze me is his ability to bend the string, the "meend" as it is called, and sustain variations therefrom in almost any way he chooses to. Anindo Chatterjee and he looked and sounded like old pals on stage - naturally comfortable with each other but aptly respectful and duly lowering the tone of the instrument when the other took the leading role in the composition. The concert had started with an introductory piece by Shagird Parvez and Anubrato Chatterjee. Their rendition of Yaman was more than I had anticipated - Anubrato is indeed quite astounding and Shagird though has some ways to go, has all the promise of a talented and skillful young artist. The host, Ishrat Ansari is a wonderfully amicable person and is a gracious host. In spite of being the owner of a very successful venture, Caffe Vivaldi, it is quite gratifying that he and his family find time to organize these delicious nuggets of musical events for us.

However the pinnacle of the evening was the Piloo in the second half. It was close to 11 in the night when Ustadji started and right before he did, someone boldly announced to her friend next to her - " no matter what, I am leaving this place at 12" ! It is quite an irony that Ustadji finished right around midnight but I wonder if the lady could have stuck to her word had he continued to elaborate the composition a little more. As I have mentioned in the beginning, Piloo is a poignant but immensely sweet raga, probably best described by these words from "Ode to a Skylark" -

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

I have always admired Shahidji's fast playing and immense precision but listening to the Piloo that evening, I'd dare say that he has transcended through the final layers of maturity as an artist where speed does not dazzle alone, something else does ! The Piloo that he played had remnants of Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar's legendary live performance and of course part of it was borrowed from Vilayat Khan's composition dediacted to Inayat Khan. However, in true reflection of the whole being greater than the parts, Shahidji's Piloo that evening was a masterpiece in its own right.

One of my friends once mentioned to me about the two different musical philosophies of the two main gharanas of Sitar in Hindustani Classical Music. "Baba" Alauddin Khan's words of advice were "jontro dhorbe ondhe r josthi r moton" - hold thy instrument as a beggar holds his stick dear to him. Ustad Inayaat Khan had very different words altogether, "jontro dhorbe joddha r osthi r moton" - hold it like a warrior lays his hands firm on his sword. While listening to musicians from these two gharanas, many a times I have found myself pondering over these two philosophies which have probably been "mythicized" to some extent anyway ! However I always ended up with the realisation that in the end, these two philosophies are not so different at all. That is exactly what music, in its purest and unadulterated form can make happen - when the warrior becomes the beggar and the beggar becomes the warrior. Sitting amongst a group of friends who I met for the first time that evening that was what Shahid Parvez and Anindo Chatterjee did to me - the divides between New York and Kolkata, India and Pakistan, here and there, then and now, reality and imagination all became blurred - what kept coming though were the poignant notes from the sitar riding on the waves of strokes from the tabla.

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