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Multi-layering raga music

Can you imagine Indian concert artistes like Aruna Sayeeram and Shubha Mudgal singing together and creating multiple layers? Can raga music be sung as in a choir? Why not, says Aneesh Pradhan, Mumbai's star tabla player

Can you imagine Indian concert artistes singing together and creating multiple layers? Can you imagine an Indian raga choir where musicians sing separate parts but sing together. Is a raga symphony possible?

Multiple layering is a Western idea, and is best seen in symphonies, where the instruments play separate parts, thriving on what is known as polyhony. The parts sometimes merge smoothly, sometimes clash and provide contrast. They create differences in texture, now sounding soft and whisper-like and the next moment rushing in an overwhelming tide of sound. Indian raga music does not allow multi-layered compositions because it is based on the principle of individual improvisation. A singer rendering the same raga on two occasions sings differently each time. When two raga musicians come on a stage, they perform a jugalbandi where one follows the other to improvise; they never perform a long set piece.

This characteristic of Indian music makes multiple layers difficult, but Aneesh Pradhan, Mumbai's popular tabla player, asked himself if such an experiment was possible.

Aneesh, hailing from a family of musicians, has learnt from Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, and has been performing since 1985. As an 'A' grade artiste on All India Radio, he has performed with very senior artistes. He is now writing a doctoral thesis on musical changes in Mumbai during the Raj days.

The concept of multi-layering raga music first took Aneesh to a studio, where he used modern computer editing to create a composition. He then thought it might be possible to take this idea into a concert hall, which is what he did in October.

In this interview, we asked Aneesh about the issues involved in adapting raga music to a Western musical idea.

Indian classical music has seen vadya vrindas, but an experiment with multiple voices is still very rare. How did you get the idea of a voice ensemble? Did the basic key create any problems?

Indian art music has indeed seen vadya vrinds in the past. Voices have also been used in ensembles presenting Indian repertoire. However, by and large, Indian instrumental and vocal ensembles have had sections of the ensembles playing or singing melodic passages in unison with very little multi-layering in terms of harmony, parallel melodies and such other arrangement. There have of course been orchestral works which have involved collaborations with Western orchestras and which have as a result looked at these aspects. But I felt that ensembles comprising of musicians who were practitioners of traditional Indian forms by and large missed out on these elements in the musical arrangement and composition. I was therefore curious about the musical possibilities that an Indian ensemble could throw up, if these areas were woven in.

I did a studio session a couple of years ago to try and work out things that I was hearing in my mind. The musicians performed on separate tracks keeping in mind certain parameters that I had determined. The musicians were Uday Bhawalkar (vocal), Ghulam Hasnain Khan (vocal), Pradeep Barot (sarod), Nityanand Haldipur (bansuri), Surendra Narvekar (santoor), Manik Munde (pakhawaj) and me (tabla). I then used computer software to do a post production composition. I was tempted to go further and test this format in a live situation. The immense possibilities of using the voice has always been a source of inspiration for me and I started thinking about the next step more as a voice project. The basic key could certainly have presented a major problem, but I tried to work out each of the parts keeping in mind the vocal range of each of the performers. I must add here that I also used bansuri in this ensemble, but more as another voice rather than an instrument.

How much of your piece was composed and how much improvised? You have brought together dhrupad, southern taanams and a Sufi composition. What prompted these choices?

Having done the earlier studio session, I was convinced that an ensemble could be musically more effective, if the pieces were composed and the parts were structured. My choice of bringing together the different elements was guided first by my intention to work with certain performers as I was aware of their musicianship, their styles and repertoire. Consequently, I requested three vocalists Uday Bhawalkar, Aruna Sairam and my wife Shubha Mudgal, flautist Nityanand Haldipur and percussionist Indru Atma to join me in this project. I played the tabla as well as composed the first two movements of the piece. The third movement was an extract of a verse from Sufi poetry, which Shubha had led me to and which the two of us jointly composed. The dhrupad and taanam elements that you mention came with the vocalists from those traditions, but these were not introduced into the piece as a representation of their traditions. They were seen as part of a larger picture, a complete mood that one was trying to create through the entire presentation. I therefore tried to arrange the three movements keeping in mind the overall mood that I was trying to communicate. The Sufi verse seemed to fit the mood perfectly, hence the choice.

Your musicians are well-established in the classical realm. How did you convince them about your idea? Did they have any reservations?

I was very fortunate to have got a positive response from each of the participants, the moment I spoke to them about the project. I think they wondered what I had in mind and how it would be transposed to a live situation in real terms, but I did not have any problems in convincing them.

Did each artiste sing separately or was there any harmonising involved? How do you handle harmony in something as individualistic and unpredictable as Indian classical singing?

I was interested in multi-layering the different textures and the content and so harmony and parallel melodies was certainly an area that I tried to explore. To do this, I had to compose the piece almost entirely leaving just a few bars for improvisation. In that sense, the improvisatory aspect of North Indian art music was almost negligible in this project. And for that reason, I would say that while Indian art music was a major influence and a starting point in the whole exercise, I would not like to categorise the end result one way or the other. I feel this is an ongoing project and the process for me needs to go on for much longer before the final outcome can be defined in clear terms.

What was the reaction of fellow artistes and music critics to your experiment?

The live performance was held by the Max Mueller Bhavan at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, at the inauguration of an exhibition of German contemporary paintings as part of the German Festival in India. The audience therefore consisted more of people connected with the visual arts. Unfortunately, there were no musicians in the audience, so I still do not know how they would react to this experiment. By and large, the audience response was favourable but a few connoisseurs of art music expressed a feeling that they would have liked to hear more passages from each of the performers individually. However, I consider this opinion as a sort of acceptance of what I was trying to achieve. I think we were successful to an extent, in executing the multi-layering that I had wished to in the first place.

How much did your sound engineer Tanay Gajjar contribute to the experiment?

The National Gallery of Modern Art is a very impressive structure that would inspire a performer who is open to interacting with the performance space. The performance was held in the uppermost floor of the building, right under the dome. Domes give rise to resonance, which can be both favourable and unfavourable to music making. Added to this, we were to perform for a gathering of around five hundred people. This and the fact that multi-layering was an integral part of the presentation, meant that we would need amplification. However, the amplification had to be only in the form of a reinforcement as the natural resonance would otherwise obstruct any increase in the amplification levels. The sound engineer Tanay Gajjar had in fact recorded the earlier studio session and was therefore familiar with the concept I had in mind. He checked out the performance space and worked out the equipment keeping in mind the natural resonance of the space, which we wished to harness.

Do you plan a fullfledged concert with such compositions? Any plans of releasing a tape?

I would love to see a full-length concert presentation of such pieces. However, the release of an album is a matter beyond artiste control. Most recording labels probably believe in publishing what they consider is "viable in the market" and perhaps therefore lay greater emphasis on the commercial feasibility of a project than on any artistic consideration. For me and several musicians like me, the artistic endeavour continues and will continue whether or not a commercial release of an album is even remotely possible.

Do you plan to include artistes from other musical cultures in future experiments, or would you like to keep it an exclusively Indian experiment? While I started the project with the idea of keeping it exclusively Indian, I would like to introduce non-Indian elements as well, provided that the music demands such an inclusion.

Do you start with rhythm when you compose the structure of your ensemble pieces, or do you start from melody?

There is no hard and fast rule to my efforts at composition. In fact, I seem to start with melody despite the fact that I am a tabla player.

S R Ramakrishna

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