In the not-too-distant past, a curator typically worked in a museum or gallery space. The Oxford dictionary defines the term as follows: “A keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection….” But since the 1990s, the role of the curator has dislodged itself from the confines of the museum and is used in diverse contexts, including that of music. So, someone who is given charge of conceptualizing and selecting acts for a music festival, or of selecting tracks to be included in a CD compilation, could be called a festival or music curator. It is also quite clear that whether called upon to curate objects of art or music, the curator’s role requires a degree of specialization.
Curating for music events, though, comes with its own set of unique challenges that require careful handling. The curator in a museum usually works with objets d’art that are organized, installed and exhibited in a chosen space in keeping with the curator’s vision and interpretation of a theme. In this case, the artworks already exist and the curator rearranges, or reorganizes, the existing body of work to bring in perspective. The curator of music performances, on the other hand, works with selected artistes and musicians performing live.
The curator’s vision, therefore, demands the involvement and active participation of the performers, without which the direction taken by the curator could well be blurred, or even obliterated. In spontaneously elaborated forms of music like jazz or Hindustani classical music, the contribution of the performers in first accepting the curator’s vision, and then performing in accordance with it, becomes even more significant. A precarious balance has to be maintained, with the performer retaining spontaneity while conforming to the parameters set by the curator.
In 2009, Aneesh Pradhan and I curated a concert of repertoire that was documented as having been performed by members of the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali at a jalsa in Mumbai in 1871. We invited several leading vocalists, including Uday Bhawalkar, Shounak Abhisheki, Anuradha Kuber, Manjusha Kulkarni-Patil, Bireshwar Gautam and Prachi Dublay, to perform for a recreated adaptation of the 1871 jalsa. Each of them was required to make some departures from established convention. For one, they were asked to present cameo versions of the reconstructed compositions in short-duration formats of about 10 minutes each. They were also required to be seated on stage, together with their respective accompanying musicians, listening to each other’s renditions. Their acceptance of the theme, repertoire and presentation format was without doubt responsible for bringing the theme to life.
In a more recent experience of curating a performance, titled Living Traditions, I invited sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee, sarangi player Murad Ali and vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty to interpret repertoire that was either recorded on the 78 RPM format by master exponents of Hindustani classical music like Bundu Khan, Enayat Khan and Azam Bai of Kolhapur, or from other archival recordings.
But this was not the only demand I made on the artistes. I also asked them to wear costumes recreated by fashion guru Rohit Bal, who referenced archival photographs of Hindustani musicians from the early 20th century. At no point did I want exact replicas of either the archival music or costumes. Both were to be reinterpreted, retaining a respectful link with the past, yet celebrating the contemporary. On stage, the task of adhering to the curator’s vision was in their hands, and there is nothing I could have done had they chosen to deviate. For the curator of music performances, therefore, the hand- off to the featured artistes is also the point where the performers take command of the ship and the curator, if present, becomes a spectator. Each performance, therefore, has its moments of adventure and risk, with the ship either setting sail, or sinking.