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Review

A proud day for
Indian music

Chitravina Ravikiran's collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic is adjudged the best among 2000 Millennium Festival events in the UK

Ravikiran is ecstatic. And with good reason. His collaborative concert with the BBC Philharmonic has been selected as the best among nearly 2,000 Millennium Festival events.

The Millennium Festival Commission organised a series of collaborative events to take some of the world's biggest cultural talent to the UK. Kala Sangam, a Bradford-based South Asian arts group, mooted the idea of getting Ravikiran over for a collaborative concert.

Ravikiran made three trips to the UK. Once his group and the Philharmonic had oriented themselves to each other's styles, they chose their pieces carefully. The concerts were more successful than the artistes had expected. A critic, admittedly "embarrassed" by most fusion excercises, described how excited he was by this experiment.

And now the honour of being ranked the best among 2,000 events. "I am elated. I think it's like winning an Olympic gold medal for India, for Karnatak music and India-international fusion!" Ravikiran told The Music Magazine.

Ravikiran has been collaborating with artistes abroad, although much of this work hasn't come to India. Waterlily Records, the label that recorded the Grammy-winning album featuring Ry Cooder and Vishwamohan Bhatt, called him over to the US to play with the blues singer Taj Mahal.

"My aim is to create greater awareness about Karnatak music and some of its unique concepts among people of other cultures. I want to achieve this without compromising on the core principles of our music. We must make the world appreciate our music for what it is," says Ravikiran.

That he has tried to do in his compositions for the Millennium Festival. He arrived at "melharmony", a concept that dictates that a composition based on a raga be backed up by chords and harmonies drawn only from notes permitted in the raga. Composers usually exercise freedom when they create harmony, blending in notes not strictly permitted by raga grammar.

Ravikiran wants to create more compositions on these lines so that raga-based harmonies will emerge eventually.

"Melharmony is a blend of eastern melody and western harmony. I have also endeavoured to present traditional Indian concepts like alapana, korvais, sangatis and gamakas to the BBC musicians and their audiences," he explains.

We asked him some questions about this milestone collaboration, comparable to the Ravi-Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin East Meets West experiments:

How did you come to know that the BBC had chosen you to compose for Global Echoes? What was your reaction?

Actually, I was approached by Dr Geetha Upadhyaya of Kalasangam, Bradford, in December 1999, to collaborate and compose original music with the BBC Philharmonic artistes for the Millennium Festival in UK. I accepted readily, as this was a great opportunity to do some serious work and possibly try out some revolutionary concepts.

Whose idea was 'Global Echoes': yours or BBC's?

It was Kalasangam's brainchild. They conceived and executed this very admirably.

When we hear the name of BBC Philharmonic, we expect a huge orchestra, but the project involves a small number of musicians.

This was only the Philharmonic and not the Fullharmonic! Seriously, Kalasangam wanted to try out the collaboration with a novel approach and for this, a chamber-kind of orchestra was probably considered ideal by their think tank, rather than the full one for this year. Also, this was the first instance of BBC Philharmonic artistes working with an Indian classical musician and composer and they were a bit cautious initially.

How did you prepare for the project? Where were the rehearsals held and how long did they take?

I made three trips for rehearsals and concerts between March and October 2000. We used to rehearse in the BBC studios in Manchester and also record the sessions so that we could continue by ourselves later.

Did you write down any notations before you went to meet the musicians?

I did not. I went with an open mind and had a few discussions with the artistes and then created music. I'd make them play out a few times before 'freezing' an idea or modifying it.

One of the musicians, Julian, was reported as saying that your camp didn't play any "microtones" or "in the cracks". One would think no other music in the world gives as much importance to microtones as ours.

I will ask Julian! I don't quite know if he meant it the way it sounds. It is a widely acknowledged and appreciated fact all over the world that Indian music deals and revels in microtones.

How is your idea of melharmony different from what film music composers in India routinely achieve by making an Indian-style melody and backing it up with a Western-style orchestra of violins, oboe and guitars?

Essentially, I set out to try and reduce the compromise that melody or harmony suffers when such fusion is attempted. The rules of harmony may not frown on a 'foreign' note creeping into a melodic scale but it jars on an ear attuned to melody. Now, most collaborations between melody and harmony are not equal partnerships as a deep attempt is not often made to maintain the integrity of the raga.

I had a few dialogues with my BBC counterparts about this aspect and they were most keen to co-operate with me to create harmony around melody. To this end, I had to explain the scalar structure of Indian music clearly. The melharmony in this collaboration is a small beginning in that direction. Ultimately, I hope to compose and collaborate with musicians around the globe to take harmony to the point where we have fairly defined harmonic rules for each raga.

How difficult or easy was the interaction between the two camps?

Very very easy. The musicians from both teams were extremely open-minded and enthusiastic. Mutual respect, understanding and appreciation prevailed. Also, working with essentially intelligent and seasoned professionals helped. The BBC artistes notated everything in their styles while I did likewise of their jazz or classical compositions, using the vastly different Karnatak notation system. Then, I memorised my sections of the compositions.

Did you get the Western violinists to play Karnatak gamakas?

I introduced gamakas gradually to them. I taught them the plain notes versions of the tunes first in my piece as well as Tyagaraja's Shobhillu saptaswara. Once they were comfortable with it, they were keen to play it my way! Then, gamakas became easier. In Shobhillu, I also endeavoured to get the artistes to accent on the lyrics of the song. Besides, I also introduced typical Karnatak mathematical finishes -- korvais -- to them, which they played at the end of the kalpanaswara-like improvisations in the main piece, K K Suite.

What next? Any chance the rest of the world can hear this recording?

Right now, the BBC site is streaming excerpts. People can just type my name in the search option. A few companies are also interested in bringing out commercial recordings of this.

Any plans for an India visit for the Global Echoes orchestra?

A few people are exploring this possibility right now. The BBC artistes are very enthusiastic about an Indian visit too.

Tell us about the critical and audience response.

The concerts were in London, Bradford, Newcastle and before an invited audience concert in the BBC studios in Manchester. The public and the pundits alike received the concerts and the concept very warmly. Some critics declared that melharmony was a revolution in World Music. They were also captivated by the chitravina's amazing capabilities to reproduce the vocal nuances as also bring out sophisticated instrumental beauties including Western 'gamakas'!

Credit should go to everyone who worked very hard for this -- my Indian co-artistes Sukhwinder Singh (Tabla) and Subhash Chandran (ghatam and konnakkol), who did an outstanding job. Same for the BBC Philharmonic artistes and Kalasangam.

S R Ramakrishna

Quick links

Melharmonic!: Read a review of the concert on the BBC site

Songs of the nine nights: Read The Music Magazine's review of a Ravikiran album


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