Divine voices from my past

Those days we had cassettes and not playlists on iPods. Heck, there were no compact discs either. Yet, I listened to a lot more music then,  than I do today.

There was Suneeta Rao with her Pari hoon main and Ab ke baras, Alisha Chinai with Made in India  and Adnan Sami with his Lift karadey . And then there was Colonial Cousins and all of their tracks! I was listening to other artists too but these four were probably the most played artists in our faithful Sony double deck player.  I am talking about the mid 90’s.  It probably was around the same time I was transitioning from Western pop to Indian music.  I was not yet listening to classical music then but had become more tolerant to my amma’s choice of hard core classical Indian music.

Last month when I heard that the Colonial Cousins were performing at the Kala Utsavam here in Singapore, I did not have to think twice if I wanted to go.  How many rainy afternoons in Mumbai  have I listened to Hariharan and Leslie sing Indian rain. Those were probably the earliest days that I was making the bhakthi connection to music.  I will not be exaggerating if I tell you that I began to appreciate Carnatic music with Krishna Nee baeganey baaro and Sa ni dha pa from their first album. Of course the likes of OS Arun, Bombay Jayashree and Aruna Sairam have made sure that I stay inspired.

So there we were, at the first level of the magnificent Esplanade concert hall with brilliant acoustics. The hall wasn’t packed to full capacity. Most of the audience seemed to be in their mid or late forties, a group I could easily identify with. The stage was not jazzed up like it was for the Adnan Sami concert that I had an opportunity to go to last year- no psychedelic lights  but a constant blue hue to match the mood of the evening.

The Colonial Cousins, on the dot of the appointed hour just walked to the stage from the wings in their kurta-pajamas and regular sandals. They sang memorable tracks from their earlier albums and a few from the new album that they launched this year ( Colonial Cousins once more). No one from the audience was restless with song requests. We waited for them to decide what they wanted to sing and immersed ourselves in the magical evening.

From what I observed, I decided that I like Leslie Lewis a tad more than I like Hariharan ( and I love his voice!). Leslie was bashful, gentlemanly and seemed to wield a great sense of humour that flashed like a sword in the dark. Hariharan was exuberant and extroverted.  Leslie let Hariharan be center of attention ( obviously he had an edge over Leslie with his voice skills) but Leslie’s guitar skills were nothing short of amazing.  There were some non Colonial Cousins requests for Hariharan and he politely hummed some of his other tracks that have made him popular. All the while, Leslie had this charming, indulgent smile and “yeah- bro- show -them –what- you- got” attitude.

Here is a track I managed to record entirely from the evening. Don’t you just love these guys!



Listening to Life

It was concert time in Singapore and this time around we were at the Kalaa Utsavam and at Bombay Jayashri’s concert. My mother is a big fan and having grown up listening to her records, I enjoy her music as well.

The concert was at the beautiful Esplanade concert hall, with state of the art acoustics and reverberation chambers.  It was my first time there and a great memory to treasure.  What was unpleasant was the fact that even though people knew that the concert was scheduled to begin at 7.30 in the evening, we saw people trickling in past the given time. I wonder if we will ever have the discipline to be in time at such gatherings, as a mark of respect to the performer. Music pervades all boundaries and is such a unifying factor. The audience were a mix of Indians from the South and the other parts, people from the West and East. People like Bombay Jayashri have made Indian music so popular around the World.

Bombay Jayashree was dressed in a simple yet elegant sari and her trademark bindi. From where I sat- The foyer- I couldn’t see much of her expressions but I imagine them peaceful and serene like in the many videos of her that I have watched. She spoke in flawless English, with the learned perspective of a person who has travelled the world, experienced various influences in life and music in particular. She spoke of the oneness of music, of the similar emotions that music evokes in each one of us, of how each of us is a rasika like she is and the rest of the musicians on stage were. Her description of each piece of music she sang that evening was simple and made it feel like we were all musicians in our own ways.

When she spoke, her voice was soothing and calming, much like her music.  Despite being renowned in her field and the glory she has earned in her journey as a musician, she seemed so humble.  She was able to get down to the level of the audience, many of whom were not as informed of ragas and other nuances of music like she was. It made me wonder what makes a person that way. People are known to take pride in their achievements. They love to be told that they are good when they are still learning and have no claim to fame.  A true achiever, like Bombay Jayashri, just does what she does best, and is unaffected by fame and laurels.  Being in the mere presence of such people can be humbling. It was for me.

The other vidwans who accompanied her with their instruments were all fabulous. There was such co-ordination and understanding among them.  I wondered how many hours of practice would have gone into perfecting the final presentation. It was flawless from the beginning to the end.

Bombay Jayashri seamlessly sang various genres of music. Hindustani to Carnatic to Ghazals. Even though there were plenty of tunes from Indian movies that the musicians played on the violin and flute, she sang only one to demonstrate how movie songs are also based on ragas from Classical music.  She understood that a common man’s appreciation of classical music is only possible if she could relate it to movies. After the tunes played, she paused to ask if we sang the tune in our minds. That she said was the true power of music. Among her renditions were a poetry from Bharathiar and Mian Tan Sen’s composition other than compositions by Saint Thyagaraja and her own Gurus.  She switched from Tamil to Hindi, Telugu to Kannada, without missing a beat and took us along the journey as a united group of rasikas. The concert was two hours long but seemed shorter.

I will reflect on the evening for many days. I missed my daughter, who is away at camp, at various points during the evening. I specially wanted to point out to how a piano can be a delightful accompaniment to carnatic music. She dreams of being a musician and I think there were a lot of lessons to take away for young people like her, who want to do so much in short time!

Someday soon, I hope to be blessed with another opportunity to enjoy music of that calibre.

Here is a video I found on YouTube which gives you glimpses of the evening.

Samarpana – I surrender!

Singapore celebrated the Asian festival of classical dance ( called Samarpana – which translates to surrender in English) recently and I happened to attend one of the performances. The two artists who performed that evening, were both stalwarts in their respective fields of expertise and the evening was a treat to anyone who loved dance and classical music.

When I first heard of the event through a friend, I was excited and began planning an evening with the family.

I decided that it would be a wonderful treat for my mother, who is visiting us, who is fond of classical music and especially of songs sung by TM Krishna, who was one of the performers of that evening. She attends the December kutcheri’s in Bangalore when she can and never misses TM Krishna’s if he is on the list of performers. She even follows him on twitter and sends him occasional tweets when she is overwhelmed with his renditions.

Then I included my husband in the plan when he confirmed that he was not travelling around the dates of the festival. Given his travel schedules that requires him to be an “out of town” husband many days in a year that was the only doubt I had to clarify. Also, the both of us had decided to improve the quality of our lives, by attending meaningful concerts when we got opportunities. For a long time, we have depended on eating out and watching meaningless movies as the only source of entertainment. Ever since we have moved to Singapore, we have had unbelievable opportunities to add the entire repertoire of theatre, musicals and concerts to our entertainment portfolio.

The last person that I wondered about in the list of ‘who- else-would –like-to -go-to-the-event’ was my 13 year old daughter. Here again, I was justified in assuming that she made it to the ‘should- go’ list, since she has been training in classical music for 6 years now and this would be a great opportunity for her to experience and possibly soak up some lessons about ‘on stage performance etiquette‘. In retrospect, I should have known better. She was upset that I hadn’t asked for her vote and the fact that she had no choice to opt out.

While I was trying to do something meaningful and enriching for all of us, I was acutely aware of how the evening turned out to be a mixed bag of emotions for the family.

First, my husband came back late from work (the event was on a Friday evening) and insisted on driving us there when I suggested that we hired a cab instead as I feared that we would miss the start of the performance, finding a parking slot at the venue. Then, I decided to wear a sari for the evening, in keeping with the theme of the event, which would be attended by people who valued tradition, who appreciated good music and dance. The foresight paid off. Every woman there was dressed in her traditional best, as though someone was going to individually size them up for their worth to be in the same hall as the performers. But I am digressing. It takes far lesser time to slip into a pair of jeans and a tee shirt than turn out in a sari, which added to the delay. (My mom was ready in a jiffy and was all set to go before any of us were.)

Then,  I had to oversee that my daughter wore something elegant as well. Friday being a week day, she had woken early for school. So an event on a Friday evening was not conducive to her sleep deprived mood, and definitely not for a classical concert which she was not keen to attend anyway. (This, when she is sure that music is her career choice). So you can imagine the time we lost.

Even though we did not have to wait long at the car park, the seats at the University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore, were shockingly uncomfortable, pain in the wrong place kind. Two hours in a forward slanting, zero leg room space row (despite them being premium seats) did not contribute to the overall joie de vivre.

Nevertheless, the evening went well. We reached in time; the event began on time and went beyond the scheduled hour and a half. The performance was brilliant and the music mesmerizing. Soon we had forgotten the rush to reach, ignored the discomfort of the seats and got involved in the evening. My daughter (on whom I dared to keep tabs on) seemed happy with the compromise too, at least for the first 90 minutes of the evening after which she desperately tried to catch my eye!

We beat all odds and managed to spend quality time as a family that evening. The chances I took paid off. I will plan more events like this for the family….even though for now I say ‘samarpan’ !

Music, his refuge

guitarHe is 70. Too old to be driving door to door for music lessons, if you ask me. At 70, if I am still around, I would be busy doing things that please me. Maybe he was doing just that too. For someone who has taught music all his life, what else could be more exciting but that?

He loves to talk. It is a different story that I found it difficult to follow what he said in the beginning. His English is highly accented, despite the fact that he worked in England for twenty years. That would have changed the way he spoke the language, wouldn’t you think? Hard to imagine how differently he spoke before his 20 year stint.

He is lonely. Every time I cancelled my class, he would offer to accommodate me on another day of the week. I suspected that he was lonely, that his children were all older, married and having their own families. Maybe his wife was an old grouch and he wanted respite from her.

He is a learner. He asked me if I was computer savvy, if I knew how to use the internet, if I could teach him how to use his new iPad. His son gifted him an iPad 2 from one of his trips from Australia. After class, we sit down with his new iPad for half an hour, opening and closing apps and learning how to use them.

He wants to make new friends. I saw that he had three friends on Facebook from the time he owned the iPad. His son, daughter in law and wife. He showed keen interest on learning how to make new friends on Facebook. I suggested that he connect with friends of his friends first and then build his network. He looked hurt and refused to consider that option. He wanted new friends. Unknown to his family.

On the second session that I spent with him teaching him to use his iPad , he showed me an app he could use to call people for free. To demonstrate how it works, we called his wife. Her number was stored on the app along with that of his son’s. He was taken aback I chose her to call first. He spoke briefly in his native tongue and closed the call. I smiled. I had done a good deed for the day.

On the third session of learning how to use his iPad, he wanted to fill out an online form for a service provider. The text from the service provider said that if he updated his personal information he would stand a chance to win an iPad2. Who was I to ridicule his enthusiasm for a second iPad? I played along. I helped him fill out the form. When we came to the part that asked his marital status he said divorced.

That explained everything.

…. his enthusiasm for new friends on Facebook.

…. why he looked shaken after I connected the call to his wife using the app.

…. why he was lonely

…. why he loved to talk

…. why he drove door to door teaching music at 70.

His awesomeness, AR Rahman

To share the space albeit with two thousand odd others, with ARR for a little over 2 hours, listening to some of his creations, the energy, the humility, is a once a lifetime chance. I had mine last evening at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. The evening was a mixed bag of music for people from all walks of life and I am sure no one went home disappointed. There were dancers, musicians, vocalists apart from ARR who shone on stage. That is the beauty of the man. Never once did he overpower or grab attention even though the spot light was focused on him all the time. The versatility and dexterity with which he handled different musical instruments left you wondering if there is anything that he cannot do.

His message that classical music was the mother of all music was a hard knock of reality to all the children of the newer generations who aspire to be great musicians by taking the short cut. His jamming session with six other vocalists that began with a basic Hindustani raag and led to the biggest hits in Indian cinema today, demonstrated his belief and drove home the point to hordes of youngsters, who look up to him as mentor.

The man is a living example of a global Indian. His band of musicians were a motley of people from different continents of the world, his dancers were a healthy mix of people both fair skinned and dark and it proved he did not have any gender bias as well, based on the ratio of men vs women performing on stage with him.

His signature voice not only sets your foot tapping but your heart, your soul and entire being threatens to break free from the useless bounds of physical form and reach out to him. I came back from the show with music in my soul and relived the evening in detail in my mind. What remains fresh in my memory from last evening is how ARR signed off the show.

Ella pughazhum iraivanukey – roughly translated from Tamil. it says,

“All the adulation is God’s grace.”